Art Games: The Super-Duper Guide 1

Hello there, dear reader. Welcome to the super-duper guide to art games. You’ve made a good choice in bringing your eyes to these pages, we promise. Settle down, pull up your favourite comfy chair and make sure that your eyes are at a respectable distance from the computer screen. Ready? Let’s go. We’ll start with an itty bitty analysis of the following deep and meaningful sentence to kick off a deep and meaningful article:


Now consider the following responses:

  1. “Bwuh-uh?”
  2. “They exist.”
  3. “Games are not art.”
  4. “Oh no, not this **** again.”
We couldn't find a tattoo with the right options on it, nor could we convince Nandrew to get one.

We couldn't find a tattoo with the right options on it, nor could we convince Nandrew to get one.

We couldn’t find a tattoo with the right options on it, nor could we convince Nandrew to get one.

Jot down the number which most closely reflects your view on the matter. It can be scribbled on a scrap of paper, inked onto a handy whiteboard or even stencilled in your leg as a tattoo if you have the equipment and expertise. Just find a way to remember it.

Now, on to the discussion proper. The question of whether or not games can truly rise to the level of “art” has been asked for a long time already. There’s probably fossilised evidence of this knocking around somewhere. Recently however, the query has become fuelled by the raging fires of a thousand mighty developers and gazillions of curious gamers, to the extent that it’s becoming a pertinent question in all modern game development circles.

Unfortunately, few sources provide an objective and informative view of the situation and not everybody is given all sides of the story. In this article, we’re going to look at the various points of view on the matter, and what experts have to say about each.

If you answered (1):

Your views are kinda shared by: Quite a few people.

Okay, okay; so option (1) isn’t strictly a viewpoint (unless you really want to consider ‘bewilderment’ as a legitimate expert stance). This is more of an excuse to let us brief the newbies on what’s going on before moving to the juicy stuff. Feel free to skip this section if you know what’s potting. Or feel free to read it anyway if you’re sufficiently enamoured by this beautiful writing.

Now, we’re not talking about “art games” in the same way that we discuss “game art”. The two concepts are very different. Game art most commonly refers to the visual art that you get on your screen when you fire up your favourite title. Those are images – sprites and skins – and are a different matter entirely.

What we’re looking at is the medium as a whole. Games are a medium in the same way that books, films, newspapers, pictures or even flyers advertising a 50% off sale at Hot Topic could be considered media. Most media have their functional components (such as news reports on the telly), their entertainment avenues (Saturday morning cartoons) and even their relentless advertising streams (hideously long infomercials). They also usually come equipped with an art component. In print, this is typically manifested in deep and thought-provoking literature. Film has its indie cinema and the occasional mainstream film that rises above the level of flashy action-fests, such as Transformers and Dragonball-Z.

For this reason, many gamers believe that games as a medium can be considered art as well. While most titles aren’t developed with any particular art goals in mind (Counter-Strike, after all, isn’t exactly deep and meaningful), there has been a trend among some developers of going out of their way to push the boundaries of gaming, and deliver something that’s different and thought provoking.

A lot of art games come from the indie arena, and today’s offerings of “art games” can be considered, at the very least, to be quite interesting.

If you answered (2):

Your views are kinda shared by: Jason Rohrer; Jonathan Blow; and Clive Barker.

Jason Rohrer

Jason Rohrer's Between

If you want to know more about art games, you should first take a look at Jason Rohrer’s work. He’s one of those fancy-schmancy, beret-wearing creatives responsible for games such as Passage, and recent IGF finalist Between. His games aren’t fun in the traditional sense – they aim for abstraction and deeper messages that can be acquired in a short gaming session. This is summed up in a comment on the game’s download page: “If you don’t get the point at first, please keep playing.” How quaint!

Ideally, his games are supposed to leave players with a sense of awe and some sort of warm fuzzy feeling in their tummies that usually accompanies exposure to any inspiring art piece. Passage, for example, is about life, death and the inexorable progress (and choices) that one makes throughout one’s existence. A very thorough Wired review describes it as “a simple, five-minute game [that] takes players through some heady psychological terrain.”

Rohrer is an artist in the “accepted” sense as well. He works as a writer, musician and journalist – his inspiration for delving into art games came from reading literature that pointed to the possibility.

Jonathan Blow and his masterful creation, Braid, also demonstrate how games attempt to be art. On one level, players are challenged to think about the puzzles and how to solve them. On another level entirely is the plot, and the meaning thereof. Braid’s story is abstract and full of less-than-obvious meaning, with a plethora of interpretations made about the occurrences within the game. Like any good artist, Blow mostly remains a stern and tight-lipped little bugger when people try asking him for a definitive meaning.

Clive Barker. The portrait of horror. And art. Sweet.

Clive Barker. The portrait of horror. And art. Sweet.

Then there’s Clive Barker. That’s Clive “oops-I-made-you-crap-your-pants” Barker – the guy who is possibly most famous for work in horror fiction, (and most famous amongst gamers for his work on titles such as Undying and Jericho), and who happens to be a fully-accredited “artsy type”.

Barker has frequently evangelised games as an art form, and his voice has carried a fair amount of clout in the non-gaming arena. In a speech at the Hollywood and Games Summit, he said: “We should be stretching the imaginations of our players and ourselves. Let’s invent a world where the player gets to go through every emotional journey available. That is art. Offering that to people is art.”


His most important discussion on the matter was probably his ideological arm-wrestle with film critic Roger Ebert. The topic: how the interactivity of games affects their art status. Now we’re going to get to a really interesting matter.

If you answered (3):

Your views are kinda shared by: Roger Ebert; and Hideo Kojima.

There are two major difficulties when trying to make art games: firstly, one has to question whether or not they strictly have to be “fun”; Secondly – and more pertinently – one has to consider whether or not the interactivity of these games hinders their value as an art form.



Film critic Roger Ebert acquired a certain notoriety within the game development community a few years ago with his claim that “games could never be considered art” on the same level that film and literature were attributed the label.

His most oft-quoted comment on the matter goes as follows: “Anything can be art. Even a can of Campbell’s soup . . . [but] games could not be high art, as I understand it.”

Outraged gamers everywhere started flooding him with messages, trying to persuade him otherwise, but he stood by his words on the grounds that art is understood to be controlled by the author, whereas the level of interactivity inherent in most games forbids a suitably controlled environment – suddenly, the artistic message is controlled and subsequently diluted by the player.

Since this controversial statement, however, Ebert has generally fallen silent on the gaming issue and approaching him for questions on the matter seems all but impossible. Yet his point still plagues developers and sparks numerous discussions on its own. Even Rohrer admits that the old chap has an interesting argument.

You never know what a player is going to do, so how can you craft a meaningful experience with any degree of certainty? About 50% of the people who played Passage never realized that they could walk DOWN and just pressed RIGHT the entire time, missing about 75% of the game and about 90% of the point . . . and there’s no way I can prevent that.”

Even Hideo Kojima, the great hiding-in-boxes, red-bandana-wearing mind behind freakin’ Metal Gear Solid, has made controversial statements in the “games as art” debate. He related the entire debate to cars, of all things – though he got his point across clearly enough: “art” could most closely relate to concept cars and similar elite ideals, whereas “games” were more similar to mass-produced models which needed to work for everyone. For Kojima, the core idea of games needing to pander to their audience was the restriction when it came to classifying them as art – a point which is essentially very similar to Ebert’s, and very difficult to empirically refute.

When you mass-produce boxes of art, they're not art anymore... wait, that's not right.

When you mass-produce boxes of art, they're not art anymore... wait, that's not right.

Admittedly, this argument sounds like it applies mostly to mainstream games – after all, indie devs don’t necessarily have to appeal to anyone, right? Maybe. But if art games aren’t sufficiently fun, and nobody likes them, are they still holding to the meaning of what it is to be a game? Is it possible that the moment a game becomes art, it stops being a game?

Take for example this super-duper intense discussion on a Global Game Jam entry known as “4 minutes and 33 seconds of uniqueness” – an art game which has… well, have a look for yourself, you lazy bugger. This game provides a convincing case for art, but not everybody agrees that it maintains its ties to gamedom in the first place. Unfortunately, Petri Purho, (he also created Crayon Physics) couldn’t be reached for comment on his offering, but there’s an interesting interview with him in which he indicates his belief in the fact that the project satisfies the “game” criteria.

If you answered (4):

Your views are kinda shared by: Jim Preston.

The final view covered here can be elegantly reiterated thusly: “Does it even matter?” After all, the debate has been raging for a while but seems less likely to come to a close than the conflict in the Middle East. To be certain, a lot of industry bigwigs seem to be getting tired of the whole issue themselves.

However, they generally state that as tired of the debate as they may be, they still regard it as important. In this regard, EA’s Jim Preston stands out as the voice of contention with this fascinatingGamasutra essay that explains in a nutshell how everybody is clearly being really, really silly about a really, really silly issue.

Well, those are our words, not his. He puts it far more tactfully: “Most gamers think of their plight this way: there’s this really great club downtown called the Arty Party and all the cool people are in it.” Not only is this a self-inflicted plight, but he goes on to explain that the definition of art has become so broad – and so mixed up with a menagerie of different views based on culture, ethnicity and personal taste – that the art question becomes basically meaningless and that we really shouldn’t overly bother ourselves about the whole issue.

In fact, he sums up Ebert’s point of view with the following: “Ignore him.”

That’s not to say that Preston doesn’t care about art – he presents a point of view that has given the matter its due consideration. His conclusion, however, is that we’re all beating a dead horse.

In the end…

Art games are a huge subject, and while this piece has done its best to incorporate as much juicy info as possible with the people and articles highlighted above, it would be naïve to suggest that this is a truly comprehensive view of the debate. Rather, it’s serving as one of those oh-so-snobby overviews of a very deep discussion. Every game is different, and often brings something new to the debate.

Suffice to say, there’s a lot of interesting points raised on both sides of the matter, and quite a few more mentioned by people who prefer to evangelise points of view that don’t fit into either X or Y. Whatever your opinion may be, it seems undeniable that the debate is going to rage on for a long time to come.

In the words of Jason Rohrer: “[Art] is a discussion worth having. So let’s keep having it. It’s not just semantics – it’s about putting something into words that we all understand but cannot quite explain. What is love? Is there a God? What is art? We desperately need to keep these discussion fires burning – it’s part of what makes us human.”

That, and it makes for loads of entertaining arguments.

About Nandrew

Rodain Joubert is a South African game developer based in Cape Town, currently working for QCF Design. He likes his job. He likes being opinionated on the Internet. He likes fighting evil with his heat ray vision. And he also likes cats. [Articles]

One thought on “Art Games: The Super-Duper Guide

  • Eireni

    Uh, so I know this is a fairly old article now and your opinions may have since changed, but I thought I’d share a thought?
    (My perspective is that of a UK-based academic art student foraying into the world of game dev)

    Firstly, this argument strikes me as incredibly similar to the eternal question “what is the difference between art and design”, which is a topic that crops up a lot for those of us who went into uni because we were good at “art” but chose courses of the likes of “graphic design and illustration” instead of “Fine Art”. The general concensus tends to be that art is about expressing oneself while design is about making a plan, and that Fine Art is personal and abstract thought while Graphic Design/Illustration is more commercial and intended to solve other people’s problems.

    Secondly, especially since GamerGate, the whole question of game design as art delves into academia’s role in the world of gaming. For one, I am aware that many people wholeheartedly reject academia, especially because of an elitism that tends to be tiringly pervasive. On the other, academia has a huge role in terms of a) archiving and b) the element of critique that can drive the progression of any one piece of media.
    By rejecting games as art (amongst other things), people are sending a message of “don’t take us seriously!!!” to academia, which means that we lose a formal way of archiving (which is important both historically and as a way of tracking development), because academia provides the funding for proper archiving. That is not to say that it cannot be done on an open-source level, everything can be done, technically, on an open-source level and the history of game development is a tribute to that; however, it would also be much easier, faster, and more secure with academic backing.
    On the other hand, there’s the critical role of critique that follows any sort of art form. For example, the film industry took absolutely forever to get recognised by academia particularly seriously, but the levels of critique were key in its development. How do we truly know that we are progressing, besides technically speaking, unless we know that the key critiques that weighed heavily on past games no longer apply as heavily on future games? Tomes of academic review should be seen as crucial in this respect.

    Which is why, besides my obvious bias as an artist, I reckon the discussion around whether games are art is in fact critical.

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