When are Video Games Art?

by candle_jack

In this essay, I hope to entertain, without full-on commitment, some ideas and their implications regarding the nature of art.

I want to answer the question of when a video game is art. This first requires asking what art is; or in this case, what a singular work of art is in an ontological sense. What do the Mona Lisa, Michelangelo’s David, Paint It Black by the Rolling Stones and Super Mario Bros. have in common with each other? What can we say art is if all of these are considered to be art? We must first establish the very basic elements of art.

Some have suggested that the term “art” is a floating signifier that can mean whatever you want.I disagree. We would certainly not call a tree art, although trees can be aesthetically pleasing, but we would certainly call a wooden sculpture art. Through this example, we can see that a vital ingredient is human intention. Some may challenge this by pointing out that animals famously have made art, and rightfully so. However, this would turn the conversation towards the issue if animals have intentions and what that means, which is not the focus of this essay, as worthwhile and challenging a question it is.

Some may also bring up the example of art randomly generated by AI. If computers can make art without human intervention, then something with neither intention nor humanity can make art. However, this objection is dispensed with by pointing out that nothing a computer does is truly random, and moreover that humans built it. Furthermore, there is a long tradition of generative music in the ambient music genre, as demonstrated by Brian Eno’s first album in the Music for Airports series, which was created by allowing tape loops of different lengths to run at the same time, creating a landscape of short musical landscapes overlapping with each other. It would be absurd to say that this is not art because it has elements of relative randomness or non-human action involved in its creation. This would be equivalent to saying all art created with some manner of tool such as a paintbrush involves non-human elements incapable of intention, and are therefore not art.

We would likely also argue that something produced completely by accident by humans is not art. A bucket of paint spilled on a canvas is clearly not the same thing as what Jackson Pollock was doing with his drip paintings.

With this in mind, I argue that art can be defined as something that is something created through human intention. This is likely exceptionally broad to most people. Nevertheless, much of what we might call purely utilitarian objects inevitably have some elements of aesthetic concern put into them. Why design furniture a certain way, paint houses a certain color, or design advertisements a certain way if not for aesthetic reasons? We must therefore conclude that they are art, or have elements of art.

Let us go further. Bodybuilders are thought of as athletes, but they also sculpt their bodies. A skateboarder gets points from Olympic judgest for style, as does a rhythmic gymnast. Here we can see that something can clearly be both a sport and an art. Their chosen medium simply happens to be the form and movement of the human body.

Artists as Experience-Provokers

We normally think of art as some sort of object, but this is mistake. For one, this is problematized by music and film, wherein the question arises of what, if anything, counts as the piece of music or film. They, after all, exist only virtually, unlike a painting or sculpture. One could salvage this viewpoint by claiming that the photons and sound waves themselves are the work, but this still does not seem to capture what either music or film is.

Music sounds different depending on the performer, one’s position in the audience, even the density of the air. So which is the true piece of music? It should be self-evident that asking such a question is absurd and not based on how art is actually experienced.

A possible objection to this is that these are all merely different versions of one thing, and that the actual work of music exists in the composer’s mind. I would counter this by arguing that every performance is an entirely separate, if related, work of art. In the first place, the ideal piece of music is impossible to experience. The concrete existence of a work of art is only indirectly related to artistic intention or ideal. Some artists recognize this and embrace it as serendipity: David Lynch famously included the demonic entity BOB in Twin Peaks because actor and set dresser Frank Silva accidentally appeared in a shot. Lynch had previously shot another scene with Silva crouched at the foot of Laura Palmer’s bed, not aware at the time if Silva would have any role at all in the final cut. Regardless if he was aware or not, mistakes in art are part of the work of art, even if human intention is involved in making the rest. A photographer does not declare a photograph not art if it includes just one element out of their control.

To finally dispose of the idea of the work of art as physical object, let us consider how useful a designation this is when this is not how art is even experienced. Take the numerous instances of art that takes advantage of optical or auditory illusion. These works of art could quite literally not exist except in the virtual; they come about through the interaction between observer and object. Moreover, illusion is integral to all visual art. Color is an illusion, and a colorblind person sees a different work of art than those with vision like the majority of people. As another example, consider that the illusion of movement is central to film. Audiences may technically be seeing a series of still frames at a rate of 24 frames per second, but they nevertheless experience them as a single moving image. We could even conceive of a machine that bypasses all human sense organs and simply directly stimulates the brain to create the experience of a work of art; one would simply jack their brain in see the memories of someone that saw Michelangelo’s David in person. Is the stream of data the work of art? Or the series of electrical impulses? The answer clearly becomes no when we realize that art always exists in the virtual. Art would not exist if no one perceived it.

Accepting this ontological definition of art as experience has an incredible number of implications. For one, artists become people not separated by fields such as filmmaker, sculptor or painter, but are united as experience-provokers. In addition, what counts as the medium or tool that the experience-provoker creates is greatly expanded. The canvas, paint and paintbrush are all tools, yes, but so is the entirety of the human visual apparatus. The composer Maryanne Amacher famously makes use of what are known as combination tones, psychoacoustic phenomena that, in the particular case of her piece Chorales, are caused by the interaction of the very loud, high and pure tones of different frequencies of sine waves and the geometric structure of the human ear. In other words, she created a work of art where the human body, and thus the audience, is part of the work of art.

Consider also that human emotion and expectations informed by a myriad of influences, from environment, to anatomy, to culture to primal psychology, are all manipulated by artists. The screeching violins of Psycho’s score petrify us because they sound somewhat like a crying baby. Major keys are happy and minors are sad to Western audiences purely because of cultural associations, although tritones seem to be more or less universally unpleasant to hear. Composers make tools of human culture; one might even credit the mothers that sang to us in our cribs as co-composers of every work of art within the culture they participate in.

And if we never step in the same river twice because ever new waters are always flowing upon us, then we are also different people every time we experience a work of art, and thus experience a new work of art every time we observe one, even if it is the same one.

Art and Interactivity

Therefore, if a work of art is not an object but a subjective experience provoked by an artist, interactivity is baked in, and there can be no objection to calling a video game art on the grounds that the artist is not the only one invovled in its creation or that there is no single true experience of a game. Furthermore, since we previously demonstrated that accidents and serendipity on the part of the artist, we can take this principle of co-creation and say that playstyles that break the game, such as through the use of glitches, is as valid a part of the work of art as what the creators of the game intended.

This is counter-intuitive to most, as we normally consider the artist to be the sole actor in the creation of a work of art, and the audience merely passive. But is observation not a form of interaction? One’s unique experiences are something that did not exist before just as a particular arrangement of canvas and color had heretofore never existed. For many other cultures, music is not something passively observed but actively participated in; dancing, clapping and chanting along are inseperable from the art of music. When a player picks up a video game, they are merely experiencing a work of art that embraces its nature, inherent to its existence as a work of art, as interactive and contintually created anew through the interaction.

One could view the level of interaction and freedom offered as being on a spectrum from a film to an entirely open-world and sandbox game. There are no stories in Minecraft except what the player creates or interprets though the environmental storytelling of the game designers, a level of radical freedom which takes it closer to being a medium for players to create art themselves, just as much as the sandbox elements of the game makes a sculptor and architect of every player. In games that offer much less radical freedom in favor of a more finely crafted experience, such as Telltale Games’ The Walking Dead, choices to change the story are limited but nevertheless there, or at least provide the illusion of choice. And finally we come to film, or even three-dimensional VR films that we are promised will soon be here, where the entire experience is crafted intentionally from start to finish. Interactivity is always present, but in the final example, it is simply less obvious.


To summarize, a work of art is:

1) Something created with human intention, that

2) creates or provokes new subjective experiences in the participant, including the artist.

More importantly, this means that art:

A) Involves both artist and audience as one group of participants, which may possibly even extend to all participants in a culture, which implies that

B) an artist, along with musical instruments, canvas or film celluloid, takes for their medium and tools past experiences, expectations, potential interpretations, emotions, cultural backgrounds, contexts and a list of theoretically endless things.

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