What is Art? Why are Games Art?

(editor’s note: Another old writing on this topic, relatively close to my current opinion, but a lot of the wording here is hopelessly confused)

One definition of art that is used a lot is that it is the conveyance of information in non-literal terms (I’d add to this that it must be arranged, not natural, because if it is natural then it is your interpretation of natural information, not conveyance of information). The quality of this information is determined by its depth, not necessarily content. Games are a form of art, however we get them confused with other forms of art. Games convey information about themselves, not all in literal terms, all games do. With art we tend to get lost in thinking that the message behind art is a literal thing that is being told to you. It isn’t. A more accurate summation would be that art conveys information, not just a message. A picture conveys visual information. The message is its content. A common practice among painters is to focus on the details of important areas, like the portrait in life drawing and to not add a lot of detail to areas that are unimportant, such as the feet, or the background (in life drawing, curtains are frequently used to intentionally create a background with less detail to add).

This definition is convenient because rules out a lot of things, such as assembly instructions, factual textbooks, strategy guides, and Microsoft Word, unless their design is in some way conveying a sense of aesthetic. It is also inclusive of a lot of things that people might not necessarily consider art, such as advertising, product design, games, and other “artful” things. I like this definition because it gives words to help explain a lot of things I have personally regarded as art for a long time while also accurately separating that which I consider creative work, but not necessarily art. Worth noting is that I personally have a very broad definition of information, broader than most people use the word for, so bear with me a little.

We frequently call advertising a form of art, but we wouldn’t call nutritional information art, or an instruction booklet. This is primarily because advertising is built on not conveying information in literal terms, and the latter are. as advertising evolved, it became more and more artlike, opposed to its early incarnations, which were closer to informing the customer of the product’s features similar to an instruction pamphlet. Modern commercials frequently have no details on the product, and just tons of branding, like logos, actors, feelings, stories, music, and more. Contrast a Coca Cola commercial to a Pepsi commercial, then to an older style infomercial.

What we need to understand about art is that information is not strictly verbal. Games are the art of interaction, puzzles are the art of cognition, paintings are the art of visual data. The “Message” of games is the way they are played. The type of interaction they seek to create. This is why the genres of games are divided the way they are. Genre distinctions exist to tell us the category of message. Whether the message is good or not depends on its depth. The thing however is that we mistake merely having a message for being quality artwork.

It could be argued that the depth of a piece of artwork is in how many layers there are between the surface and its ultimate message and how difficult it is to fully comprehend the piece. I do not entirely agree with this, but it brings up interesting parallels to the nature of depth in games. Imagine that the true message of a game is the best way to play it. Imagine that the true message is the expression of all the mechanics in synchronization. The true message of Street Fighter is conveyed in bouts by the best players of all time. The message of the game isn’t exactly its components nearly as much as how the player interacts with them. It isn’t art based on the quality of the code, but on the quality of the thinking that the player is expected to generate.

This is why objectives are necessary in games, because unless we set objectives, we are not compelled to think. This is why painters appreciate paintings more than anyone else, because they deconstruct it and reassemble it. They want to know what went into this painting. In games, we deconstruct them because we want to win, and the game is structured to force us to deconstruct them in order to do that. When a game has a lot of layers to it, it makes deconstruction more difficult. A game without an objective is a story without a focus. It’s not even a story, it’s just an account of disconnected events. It’s closer to a security camera feed than a film. Games without objectives cease to be games. Incidentally, they lose the message, because without an objective, there is no longer a type of thinking being conveyed, no longer that masterful way of playing. No longer a mode of play being conveyed at all. It is interactive, but without focus, there is no longer motivation to deal with it, unless you construct objectives from it (obvious example to give is Minecraft). It’s not a game, it is a toy. I am not going to go into the art of toys, I do not understand the art of toys except for their potential to be games.

The things we typically associate with difficulty in a game, like lethality and time windows, are not necessarily the true difficulty of the game, they are there to make us deconstruct and reassemble the game, that is the actual challenge. This is why it is very very easy to make a hard game, but very very hard to make a truly challenging one. The flash game titled The World’s Hardest Game is dull because every one of us has already beaten it, same for many other indie games billing themselves as hard, like Super Meat Boy. These aren’t games about understanding or interacting, they’re games about going through the motions until you happen to succeed. Just because you fail a lot on the way to your objective does not mean that you are playing a challenging game, only a hard one.

I believe games are art because they convey non-literal information in the form of their method of play. The method of play is itself an aesthetic that is distinct from its graphical representation. The design of the game conveys itself in non-literal terms. This means that it doesn’t outright describe itself to you, you must understand it implicitly through its means of conveyance. The information conveyed by the game is its strategies, the pace of the gameplay, the model of the actions you perform, the type of thinking required to solve it, the “feeling” of the actions involved, the spaces you traverse and their internal model contrasted with their visual appearance.

I think that by mentioning games like Okami, Journey, Flow, and Flower, people are fall into a trap along the lines of thinking music, painting, movies, etc are art, but games are not. What game would you recommend to a person who only thought paintings were art? A game that looks like a painting! No, that’s only reinforcing the idea that paintings are art. If this game is very artistic because it looks like a painting then you are implicitly admitting that games are not art, only things which stick to the categories we’ve accepted as art culturally are.

An example a friend gave to me was, “Is a hospital art because paintings are hung up in it?” No, a hospital exists for a literal purpose, not to convey non-literal information. Hospitals without paintings are not art, and hospitals with paintings are not necessarily art either. Redesigning the entire hospital to look like a house from Dr. Seuss or something doesn’t mean all hospitals are now art because that one has an artful design. In the case of such a hospital, the hospital itself would not be art nearly so much as the building that houses the hospital is. A hospital is not art until its methods of being a hospital itself are artful. Attaching objects that we accept as art to non-art objects does not make them art by proximity. Okami, as a game, is art because of the nature of its interactivity, not merely because it has a Sumi-e filter on everything. Dwarf Fortress is art despite being composed entirely of ASCII characters, the barest form of visual representation possible. Nearly all games are a form of art because nearly all games convey some form of nonliteral information. To call them art by association is to limit what games are and can be.

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