Games Are a Different Kind of Art

I have a hypothesis that Art (capital A) creates an opportunity for critical reflection.  You can’t force people to do this; not all Art does this for all people; however, it seems to be fundamentally related to Art as a privileged cultural space that it invokes this context more frequently than, say, owner’s manuals or advertising.  Again, you can critically reflect on anything, but Art tends to push people in that direction moreso than other works.  I can’t prove this; it’s just a story I’m telling.

To explore this, I did a small social experiment.  I asked my friends to rank the top 7 things that all Art can legitimately be argued to be about.  In order to skew the results, I offered up my own list, based on what Justin Webb used to like to call TUHT’s (“Timeless Universal Human Truths”):

  1. Artistry
  2. Death
  3. Consciousness
  4. Divinity
  5. Experience
  6. Perspective
  7. Sex

As Richard Dansky astutely pointed out, this is a mug’s game.  These are all variants on transcendental experiences that can be mapped into one another.  For example, anything that has a sexual reference to it can be argued to be about mortality, if not through the French pun on “the little death”, then through the biological imperative of reproduction; death (mortality) can always be used to invoke consciousness because the distinction between awareness and its absence is the difference between life and death.  I’m not going to spell them all out, but for anyone who’s dug into art criticism, it should be fairly clear that this is a long and complex list.  I set an arbitrary limit at 7 to force people to commit to a set rather than expanding endlessly.

In fact, there were a lot of terms that I had to leave out that map into major strains of critical theory around art: “historicity” (Benjamin on art in the age of mechanical reproduction), “status” (Foucault on the discursive distribution of value), “capital” (Marx, obviously, but also Adorno and various others), “subjectivity” (Althusser), “humanity” (Spivak), and I didn’t even touch on the politics of gender, hiding that and other heavy freight under “sex”.

What I got back were some interesting variants, like this from Sean Heffron:

  1. Expression
  2. Compulsion
  3. Experience
  4. Worldview
  5. Perception
  6. Subjectivity
  7. Tangibility

This from Jeff Brown also foregrounded expression, not surprising given that he’s an artist among his many other pursuits:

  1. Expression
  2. Perception
  3. Perspective
  4. Emotion
  5. Creation
  6. Talent
  7. Craft

Sheila Bishop, another artist, also called into the context aspects of performance, particularly relevant, I infer, since she works a lot with theater and other forms of performance:

  1. Artistry
  2. Risk
  3. Response/Reaction
  4. Experience
  5. Exchanges – economic, emotional, ideas, sex, state of being
  6. A Call to Attention – others or self
  7. Perspective

There’s no “right” answer here.  Each list says something about the particular list-maker, at least to me, but all of them are valid lenses, and again, all of them pretty much map back to TUHT’s.  There was a high degree of overlap around terms like “emotion”, “perception”, and “perspective” as well as “expression”, which I touched on above.

So, here’s the other shoe.  When you look at Games, specifically, as an art-form, do these same lenses apply?  Does the experience of playing games push you into a critical reflection on artistry, perception, emotion, expression, and perspective?  Or mortality, sex, historicity, status, and consciousness?  What would a list of universal topics for critical game discussions look like, and to what extent would it overlap with these other frameworks?

Off the top of my head, I would put together a very different list for games:

  1. Agency
  2. Progression
  3. Pattern Recognition
  4. Success/Failure
  5. Mastery
  6. Power
  7. Completion

Games are a very diverse space, ranging from abstract structures like Tetris and Bejeweled to fully-formed worlds like Grand Theft Auto and The Elder Scrolls.  I am fully confident, though, that I could have a legitimate, informed discussion of just about any game based on any of those seven topics.  I’m not sure that I could do the same with “expression”, “perception”, “mortality”, “talent”, “consciousness” or, to be quite blunt, most of the other terms that came up in the discussion of Art.

The ontological argument about whether games are art is not interesting.  Like logical positivism, it’s all about definitions.  From my perspective, it’s clear that games are a medium within which Art happens, in the same way that language is a medium in which Art happens, and so are movement, sculpture, architecture, pictures, etc.  What’s also exceedingly clear to me is that games as they exist today and Art as a particularly defined, privileged cultural space overlap, but only around the fringes.

I’m not saying that we need to make more games that are Art.  Nor am I saying that we need to bring the traditional contexts of Art into games.  The inescapable drive to diversify (cf. the second law of thermodynamics) will push us beyond one-to-one correlations whether we want to go there or not.  What we do need to do, though, if we want to carve out a space for games in the hallowed echelons of Art is to develop more sophisticated ways of encapsulating why this medium is different in such fundamental ways.

We have proven, beyond any doubt, that games are compelling.  The cultural war that is still being fought has everything to do with why games are a different kind of Art.