There is an interesting debate that has popped up from time to time across the realms of game design about whether games should be considered art. My personal opinion as a designer is a resounding yes and no. I believe that games as a medium has the most profound capacity to move the human spirit but it can and does so in a way that is alien to what most people would consider art.
Most other types of art are subset of games and so each individual subset can be enjoyed for it’s own merit. However rarely are these art subsets produced in a way that most would consider to be Art with a capital A. You find more of that in the books of concept art, and similar collections, than you get to see in the actual game. Though one could definitely argue that if there was a subset that stood out, more often than not, as art it would be the soundtracks of games. They are produced, and experienced, in much the same way that one experiences them in a movie. Individual environments and characters my stand out as art, much as a landscape painting or a piece of pop art does. I don’t think anyone would argue against the artistic merits of the individual piece of a game as being art.
When those pieces are combined into an interactive whole, however, things come to a skidding halt. As soon as it becomes interactive and the player enters the picture as a cooperative author then everyone suddenly loses their minds and things get all muddled. It seems that something that is quietly included in so many peoples notion of art is “experiential ownership”. It’s not art unless I, the auteur, am the sole owner of the experience. My experience can move you but I own the heart of that experience. Games defy that and frustrate attempts to capture that. Games, as a medium, as an experience, can’t be owned until they are played/interacted with. I’m not just talking about video games, here. I mean the whole range of games.
One of my favorite designers, Brenda Brathwaite, has a wonderful lecture about her game design experiments which can be found here:
This presentation was one of the most validating things I have ever watched. It validated the reasons I teach game design, the reasons I make games, and what I’m always hoping for when I play a game. I am a very intimate person and when it comes right down to it games are, to me, a form of intimacy. Through games I can guide you, touch you, empower you, walk with you, dance with you, cry with you, fight with you, fight along side you, etc. and you may never know I was there. More importantly I can have you do these things with your self and encourage you to be more introspective than any other medium. I can give you that moment when you must walk through you own metaphorical cave.
Most games don’t do this unfortunately. Most games out there on the shelf exist as craft. Not that that’s bad, but it is limiting to us and to how we are perceived. The fact that we still carry the moniker “game” to everything that we do is also a detriment. I think we need another word to help out when we’re trying to do stuff outside of what is socially and commercially the norm.
Consider how people don’t often think of “cartoons” as art but might think of “animation” as art. Or the separation between “movie” and “film”.
I have a bunch of small, intimate games in my head that I think I’m ready to start developing, with an eye toward doing something both bigger and smaller than what is out there today. Hopefully someday, someone will play them and walk away a little bigger, or different, inside than they were when they came to the game.