There’s a lot of talk these days about whether games can be art, but I don’t think it’s because people are embracing their inner Homo Ludens. The only real reason this is happening now is that computer technology has evolved to the point where videogames can look and sound just like art. So where there’s smoke, the thinking goes, there must be fire.
From a distance, videogames feel like films we can interact with, like paintings we can explore. They seem to offer opportunities for meeting characters similar to those in books and for traveling through architectures unlimited by physical constraints.
Yet in terms of cultural relevance, social importance and aesthetic impact, videogames still play second fiddle to cinema, literature or music, because underneath their superficial artistic appearance, videogames are bland, unforgiving, meaningless, cold-blooded, rigid systems. These systems offer a context for goal-oriented, rules-based experiences that already have a place in society: next to other games. Since nothing new is happening here, society is not affected.
Videogames clearly have potential; they just have not accepted their role as an art form yet. Gameplay is king in most videogames. To play them is to compete in a sort of digital sport. Graphics and sound have been added as polish and pretty packaging. Videogames are simply not created as works of art.
Art Is About Something. Games Are Not.
Instead, videogames are manufactured as commodities produced to fulfill a certain need. Unlike other commercial media, what videogames are about is rarely significant. Their entire reason for existing is to provide fun to their customers.
This was probably acceptable in the early videogames era, when the harsh limitations of technology offered virtually no opportunity for games to be anything else, but now that videogames have developed a varied palette of expressive tools, things are different. The fact that the technology is capable of simulating living landscapes and convincingly representing human forms comes with a set of responsibilities, and generates understandable expectations.
When a medium can represent a soldier and it can recreate a theater of war, it needs to have something to say about this subject matter.
The response of the games industry to this dilemma so far has been retreat. We minimize the importance of the story and draw attention to our cool mechanics and the fun our players are having. At the expense, of course, of cultural significance and expanding the audience.
Instead of embracing the artistic potential of the medium, we have retreated into the comfortable zone of gaming.
The Myth of the Infancy of the Medium
Videogames are not an immature medium that will one day grow up. No, the reason videogames are immature is that the games industry actively prevents them from growing and refuses them the space to evolve into a medium.
Videogame creators don’t do this out of commercial considerations -a mask they are often quick to hide behind. Objectively, there is far more opportunity in the large market of non-gamers than there is in the crammed and fiercely competitive niche of gamers.
The games industry does not allow videogames to evolve into a mature medium out of creative opportunism. Not being recognized as an art form gives game creators a certain amount of freedom that they would not have if they were to take up their responsibility as authors. Today, game developers don’t need to be concerned with the message that their game is sending to its audience. They can simply continue playing with technology and hide behind the fact that their only purpose is fun entertainment.
This kind of freedom, however, can only thrive within a niche of like-minded individuals. When confronted with anything outside of this dedicated sphere, unpleasant collisions occur.
The Desirability of Videogames as an Art Form
I don’t want an artistic medium to emerge out of videogames simply because it’s possible, or because of the obligation generated by the capacity for representation. I don’t want it because I wish the games industry commercial success, or even because the public seems to expect it.
I want an art form based on videogame technology because I believe it can allow for the greatest works of art our cultures have ever produced, and it would be a crime not to do everything within our might to explore this opportunity!
Through all of art history, there’s been a strong tendency towards representation. Throughout the ages, artists seem to have tried to fool their audience into believing they were seeing something that wasn’t really there. Even when art was more spiritual, there was a desire for the experience of another reality.
Technology has increasingly offered more tools towards the creation of this spectacle. Oil-based paints gave birth to almost tangible representations of food and fabric and skin. Printed books allowed us to dream away into fantasy worlds without the need for anyone else. Cinema combined visual representation and narrative flow with the representation of movement. Videogames are the next step in this evolution. The simulated reality in the representation becomes procedural, and thus unpredictable, more closely imitating real life. And this procedurality makes it possible to add the most sought-after component of all: the spectator himself as an active element in the work of art.
How Art Is Made
It’s not sufficient to make a fun game and then have some academics haul out Duchamp and Fluxus so we can call it art. First of all, that’s not how this works. Art is made on purpose, even when the artist includes chance in his method. And secondly, we’re not talking about so-called high art here anyway. The fine art on display in museums of contemporary art has long lost the social and cultural relevance that we are after.
We’re not looking for a spot in the museum; we’re looking for a place in the heart of the public at large. And for that we will need to work as artists.
Currently, videogames are created to be fun experiences, or sometimes out of technical curiosity. Art, however, is created from an entirely different motivation: to explore certain themes or to convey messages that cannot be said in any other way.
To become an artistic production process, the creation of videogames needs to be reversed. Instead of starting from a well-defined format (such as a rules-based game) and skinning the system with some story to justify the mechanics, the design process needs to start from an idea, an emotion, a concept. Then all interactions, graphics and sounds are created to support the expression of this idea.
If such a production process ultimately leads to the creation of an FPS or an RPG, fine; then you’ll have made an artistic rules-based game. But it’s a lot more likely that an artistic process will lead you far away from the beaten path. There is so much unused potential in the medium of videogames that it is almost impossible to not make something entirely new, when you work in an artistic way.
To Hell With Efficiency!
Through developing videogames myself, I learned that their production borders on the impossible. Despite what advertisements tell us, computer technology is in fact incredibly primitive. It takes an enormous amount of effort to produce the spectacle we know from blockbuster videogames. This effort requires heaps of time and money and above all an extremely tight production plan.
The admirable tightness of videogame production planning may very well be the core reason why games haven’t evolved into an art form yet. There simply is no place for art in such a tight schedule.
The efficiency necessary to produce a game requires that everyone involved knows what is being made. The only way to ensure this is by using design templates that everyone is aware of. Conventions are easy to communicate, but explaining an original idea is very hard, especially if the idea is very personal on top of that.
By definition, the essence of a work of art can only be communicated through the work itself. Otherwise, there is no point to making the work in the first place. This essence cannot be communicated to fellow team members, per definition. In a small studio like our own, we solved this problem by only hiring people who already create the kind of art that fits with ours. Larger teams obviously don’t have this luxury. The only way to create art with a large team is for everyone to trust the author to follow his vision and to give him full authority over the production, because the author is the only one who has the real knowledge of what is actually being made.
The games industry will need to shed its fear of giving a single person such an important role in the production process.
Art creation is not a team sport. Everybody needs to work in function of the expression of the ideas of the author.
Videogames will not receive cultural recognition or enjoy wide public appeal until they embrace their destiny as an art form. This entails letting go of an outdated loyalty to the format of rules-based games and rebuilding the production process around a central author (or small creative team). This is a difficult and potentially expensive conversion, but if it doesn’t happen, videogames will remain a niche form of entertainment and our cultures will be stuck with cinema and television for another century.
Michael Samyn is one half of Tale of Tales, creators of The Path, Fatale, The Graveyard, The Endless Forest and Vanitas.