Monday, October 3, 2011

Games are art.

[Note from Shaun: The following is a guest post from Barnabas Soon. Barnabas and I went to school together and often used to discuss whether computer games could be considered art. Barnabas has always thought yes, he is also the first person to give into my "will you write a guest post for us" harassment. Thank you Barnabas. Enjoy.]

What is Art?

According to Google's definition, art is defined as:
"The expression or application of human creative skill and imagination, typically in a visual form such as painting or sculpture, producing works to be appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power."
Following this definition, for me, works of art, be they painting, sculpture, drawings, literature or film are a medium in which the creator is also trying to convey a message, reveal something interesting, create a visual impact or create an emotional impact.

Are video games art? 

A video game is also a medium in which the creator is trying to convey a message or create an emotional impact. If art is a creation that makes you think, imagine or feel, then just as film, literature and TV can be art, games can be art.

In the same way that film and comics have evolved, changed and eventually gained acceptance in mainstream society as art; video games are now following this same trajectory. They have evolved from merely being simplistic simulations to something much greater. They have evolved into an experience.

Unlike the passive mediums of books and film, games are an interactive medium. They are dramas that require audience participation. If you don’t make choices, the game will never continue, the story will never unfold. Your character will remain there passive, or worse, die. This interaction, and the mental, psychological and emotional commitment required by the player sets games apart from other mediums. It is also because games can reproduce the same feelings that other forms of art can elicit that numerous games can be considered ‘art’. The experience of a video game is multimedia. Sound, graphics, interface and interaction with the game world and feedback of your actions all come together to create the experience.

Like any other medium, there will be good games and bad games and others that are downright weird. Your enjoyment of video games will depend a great deal on your personality. Strategy games like Simcity which simulate running a city are video games which wouldn't probably be classified as 'art', but are still fun and interesting in their own right and can often teach us valuable lessons about life.


To illustrate my point, I'm going to cover 3 award winning action games. I have included video clips of walkthroughs of the game to give you a taste of the immersive atmosphere of a game. However, a video walkthrough is no substitute for actually playing the game because games are an interactive medium.

Prince Of Persia: Sands of Time

Prince of Persia: Sands of Time has you playing as the Prince of Persia, naturally. Your actions have accidentally unleashed the sands of time in a palace, turning everyone into sand monsters. To regain his honour, the prince, in typical heroic fashion, must now figure out how to stop the sands of time and return everyone back to normal.

Why is it art?

Prince of Persia has a very simple story but it is effective and well told. The Prince isn't a goody two shoes but a brash, young, noble, eager to prove himself. His companion, Farah, is a princess but was captured as a spoil of war by The Prince. As the player explores the palace, Farah is there to assist you.

Throughout the game, you are required to run, jump and fight through various environments, as you attempt to fix your mistake and defeat the evil Vizier. The focus is more on the running and jumping, punctuated with fluid combat. From the start, it is clear that running and jumping was extensively tested. You really feel like an agile, nimble, prince running along walls, leaping across platforms and scaling walls with ease.

The combination of interesting locales, with the fluid gameplay, music and masterful storytelling create an experience that merely watching could never create. You are the one controlling The Prince. You are the one who will fail if you miss the jump. You are The Prince. It is a challenging game at times and the combat can be frustrating but the joy of running around and leaping across chasms and platforms, amidst ancient surroundings was unmatched at the time.

The game teaches the player about the world slowly and carefully, introducing new gameplay elements such as as the ability to rewind time before presenting the player with new challenges or more complicated puzzles.

Half Life 2

Half Life 2 is a first person shooter. You play Gordon Freeman, a physicist originally from Black Mesa and returning hero from the orignal Half Life game. It is now many years after the events of Half Life 1 and the world has changed for the worst in most cases. Having been brought back to the world by the mysterious G-man you are now faced with the task of uniting with old friends from Black Mesa, joining up with the resistance and inevitably trying to free humanity from the clutches of the Combine.

Why is it art?

From the get go, Half Life 2 is a well-polished action game. The game strives to create an entertaining experience but still challenge the player. A system of constant challenge and reward subtly manipulates the player into learning the game mechanics, rather than just being told them, while the physics engine and design of the levels makes shooting and exploring interesting. Furthermore, as you move through City 17 and assist the resistance, solid art direction, funny character dialogue, well-designed set pieces and good gameplay create a well-paced and memorable game. Playing Half Life 2 is an experience.

Watch the beginning of the walkthrough to find out what I'm talking about.

The Path

Inspired by the story of little red riding hood, The Path is a horror game that has you play as young girls of various ages. Your goal is simple, take The Path and reach grandma's house with a basket of goodies, but the real goal is to stray from the path and encounter your Wolf.

Why is it art?

The Path is a game designed to be art. The Path challenges us to stray from the path. Once you stray from the path, you enter the woods. In there you will encouter each girl's personal Wolf whom she will fall prey to. In the end, winning the game means your character loses. After encountering the Wolf, your girl will wake up just outside of grandma's house, but instead of safety, grandma's house becomes a metaphor for the girl, her story and how she 'dies'. The dream-like nature of the entire game and creepy sound track only enhance the nature of the game. It is both 'just a game' and an allusion to reality, examining what it means to be a girl and the need to mature.

Watch the trailer:

Why aren't games conventionally considered as art?

Games are a very young medium and often critics of other mediums judge the new medium by their own standards, failing to recognise that new mediums require different standards. There are certain criteria that can be universal such as themes and emotional impact but you can never successfully convert all criteria.

Would you judge a book by it illustrations or a theatre play by its script alone? No. You would judge a book by it prose, plot and how well it is written. You would judge a play not only by the power of the script but also by its cast of actors, the direction and the atmosphere created by the sets.


Video games have matured over the last few decades. With each successive year, computers become more powerful and are able to better render a game creator's vision. At the same time, just like any other artists, game makers continue to innovate, thinking of new ways to delight us and change the way we consume and feel our entertainment. With each year, the game's industry continues to grow bigger now eclipsing even the movie industry. Games are here to stay and have already become a big part of our culture.

What games should you try playing?

A good article to read would be indiegames and the top experimental freeware section for 2010. Then check out metacritic's console and PC section for the latest games. This will give you some idea of good games to play or try. Another a great place to start are probably the finalists and award winners of the British Academy of Film and Television Arts' website and the Independent Games Festival.

About the Author

Barnabas is currently a marketing manager living in Auckland New Zealand and an avid gamer. He blogs on game design and usability at Fringe Gamer.


  1. I agree with the strong claim of games as art, or that gaming meets the baseline criteria of an aesthetic form. And I'm trying my best to harass contributions out from a few other guest posters who I know have great thoughts on the experience of gaming as a twenty first century art.

    So hopefully this will be the first post of an ongoing conversation about the many dimensions of gaming.

    It's striking, even sobering to realize that the gaming industry is several times the size of the movie industry. That's *crazy* -- gaming is Hollywood x3.

    One thought on the question of why games aren't considered art. Every new media goes through a period of evidence where it's tested against a criteria established by older forms, and seems to fail the prior test of aesthetic seriousness. This happens with photography in the nineteenth century, film in the the twentieth; even the novel had to prove itself as art when it emerged in the eighteenth century.

    But the aspect of gaming that strikes me as really challenging our aesthetic criteria is the kind of concentration it requires. The way that a spectator/player is paying attention when they're interacting or making decisions is just a different mode of attention than resting back in contemplation of a narrative film, or a painting, or a poem. And our philosophical definitions of an aesthetic experience have tended to involve contemplative absorption.

    So I wonder if you think that interacting with a game can ever be pensive or contemplative?

  2. Of the three videos you posted The Path seems the most inclined to the contemplative - there's something moody about the kind of quest - for self discovery? - that it's sending the player on.

  3. Just in case Barnabas doesn't see this I've sent him an email. In the meantime...

    Some games are definitely more art in the classical sense than other games... though there is always the interactive aspect lurking in the background. One game (and Barnabas will chastise me for being a gaming heathen and only knowing the most famous ones) that first started to push this direction was called Myst. Myst also actually spent a considerable period of time as the highest-selling game of all time.

    The reason it allowed you to be more pensive was that it was a puzzle game, so you actually *had* to sit and think about the game for long periods of time, just to work out what to do next - in the meantime you were able to be contemplative. There was no question of reflex or quick thinking, it was just OK that you eventually solved the puzzles (which were quite hard). However the atmosphere and story of the game were also really nice.

    If I were to have written Barnabas' post, Myst would have been perhaps the first game I would have discussed. (I guess Barnabas would say that this is why it was better that he wrote it!)

    On another note... oddly enough, one of my greatest computer game pleasures as a kid was just watching a friend play a game. You lost all the stress of having to dodge the bullets, get to the platform or kill the boss and as a result you could enjoy and see more intricate parts of the game. This was true even for the basic platform type games of my early youth. If you were watching someone who was really good it also became a pleasure just to admire their skills. (The computer game Star Craft is actually a professional sport in Korea because of the money paid by fans to watch the best players compete against each other - knowing the game and watching videos of these guys play on youtube is honestly very nearly comparable to watching Novak Djokovic play tennis this year.)

    Hmm, actually I'm glad you pointed out the contemplative nature of "old art". I had always thought the interactive nature of games was an unambiguous positive compared to other mediums. But yeah, constant engagement does limit the degree of contemplation that is possible. This doesn't make engagement a bad thing of course, just something that does have consequences. Well, yeah, I'm definitely curious to see how this conversation develops, so please do put pressure on your potential guest posters.

  4. With regards to that contemplation. There are many examples of contemplative games.

    See Ishido or the multi puzzle sequel Heaven and Earth especially the card game and the pendulum game in there. Both the card game and pendulum game are almost contemplative in respect.

    I think the game windosill might a good example of a game I recently played that might be considered contemplative. . Haven't played it but there's also been a game called Haiku Hero as well.

    Overall you will find the contemplative games to be the puzzlers (perhaps unsurprisingly).

    When it comes to other game genres, I think turn based strategy games and deliberately slow-paced adventure games or short experimental games do probably offer the a good contemplative stance if you are that sort of person.

    Something like this perhaps that all the reviewers were gushing over ?

    Anyway just my random thoughts. And Shaun really needs to play more modern games. Majesty 2 is a start.

    P.S Check this post out.

  5. By the way Shaun...

    Myst Online is now free

    If you don't play this...

  6. I'll do my best man. I still haven't even solved Riven and I also still refuse to look up a walkthrough! When I finally finish that game, my inner 13 year old that has never given up will be the happiest inner self that ever existed.

    I mean I have a PhD now, surely I can solve it myself! Aaaaargh!!

    Michelle, of all the games in Barnabas's indiegames link, perhaps one of the nicest, contemplative ones is "but that was yesterday". The gameplay doesn't seem artificially inserted in order to make it a "game" instead of an animation. And the specific actions you need to make your character take also play a significant part in telling the story and therefore in us and the character learning the lessons of the story. It is a nice story too, quite subtly moving. Actually there are quite a few of these mini flash-games that try to achieve this arty vibe and "but that was yesterday" is definitely one of my favourites.