Philosophy of Game Design – Part Three

Before we look more closely at the philosophy of art (or “aesthetics”) and games, let’s just briefly consider some of the answers for that notorious question: “Are games art?”

YES, says Tim Schafer, because games can express thoughts and feelings just like art can. Shadow of the Colossus made me and my dad cry! Afterward, we sat in a dark room in profound silence for an hour.


WHO CARES? implies Matthew Burns. Instead we should go do something that’s actually important, like playing videogames.

NO, says Roger Ebert, because art is about an artist; if the player determines the outcome, that flexibility betrays the artist’s intent. Tragedy is satisfying to witness, but players will rarely choose to plunge themselves into it – they want the “good ending.”

NO, says Tale of Tales, because art is dead and games are alive – comatose maybe, but still alive. Blame the coma on games that favor established settings and scenarios over innovation and creativity.

While there are clearly some differences of opinion on whether games are art, we still fundamentally regard them as merely “differences of opinion.” Relativistic notions of individual rights and personal freedom have flooded our contemporary sense of aesthetics. Anything can be art, almost anything can be liked by anyone, and everyone has their own personal tastes in things and their experience of art.

Well, that’s kind of the position that Ebert eventually retreated to in July 2010 – that games still weren’t art for him, but maybe they’re art for someone else. So what makes a good game? The existence of any fans who will argue that it’s good.

But artistic appreciation was much more rigid in Plato’s time. He argued specifically for certain values like “beauty” and “harmony” as important aspects of art, but with some stipulations.

For instance, picture a circle in your head. It’s probably a perfect circle. Now try to draw one freehand, or with a stencil, or using the “Circle” tool in Photoshop. Any physical manifestation of that circle, no matter how hard you try, is always going to be slightly off from that perfect circle – by just a few pixels, molecules or atoms. Similarly, any attempted physical manifestations of ideal beauty (i.e. the “art” a human produces) will always be just slightly off from that ideal, existing only as mere imitations of the perfect mental image.

Many philosophers weren’t satisfied with this idea of beauty founded on rigid principles of harmony and such. They coined a “sublime” separate from beauty. This “sublime” was more about witnessing overwhelming profoundness, admitting that it’s beyond your puny human ability to comprehend it; as if you’re looking down at Earth from orbit, or watching a nuclear bomb explode. It isn’t necessarily indicative of anything, good or bad, tasteful or disgusting, etc. (Some philosophers also tried to distinguish between different kinds of this “awe,” between weak awe and strong awe, and so forth.)

That account of the “sublime” is what supports Schafer’s answer, which is one of the most common “Yes” responses invoked by gamers. What makes a good game? At least one in-game moment that stirs up awe or profound emotion of some kind.

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Some might argue that there is no longer any single value like “beauty” or “truth” or “sublime” to unify art today. Which isn’t bad; in trying to conform to any single value like that, perhaps the artist is actually stifling their own expression.


That’s a justification for Tale of Tales’ “No” response, and personally I’m a little sympathetic to that argument. What makes a good game? Not blindly following formal conventions and forcing players to do what they’ve done before.

Then there’s a whole tradition of aesthetics arguing that art isn’t necessarily beautiful or sublime or dead – that art can be practical and useful as a tool.

You might dismiss such “art” as surprisingly decent state-sponsored propaganda, poorly designed and thinly veiled advertisements, or the common groan-inducing movie tie-in game with short scenes from the film as unlockable “extras.”

But no, those are corrupt commercial applications of art and bad examples of art as a tool, argues Marxist aesthetics. Most art has been co-opted by the powerful to keep the powerless in a state of constant distraction – this art, along with culture, political institutions and religion (“opiate of the masses”) forms the “superstructure” that keeps the powerless in a state of “false consciousness.”

That gross oversimplification is more or less how Marxism feels about art – in fact, it would probably point menacingly at videogames as a startlingly dangerous type of mind control, distracting us with a fictional war against the Zerg instead of our real-life ongoing class struggle against the rich.

To fight such empty entertainment, Marxism would argue for a new revolutionary type of game that highlights economic inequities in society, the growing power of the rich and the weakness of the poor. Existing long before Marxism but now heavily influenced by it, this artistic tradition is known as “social realism:” a good game fights for social justice in the world by representing it and critiquing it.

Many game developers operate in this tradition. Molleindustria seeks to “free videogames from the ‘dictatorship of entertainment,’ using them instead to describe pressing social needs” with well-designed satirical flash games like the McDonalds Game and Oilgarchy. The “Newsgames” project aims to coin a new genre that merges journalism with mechanics. Games for Change advocates new ways to bring awareness to human rights issues, poverty and global conflicts. I would also argue that the Metal Gear Solid series, BioShock series, Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas and Deus Ex operate in a kind of a social realist context and attack the values they see as oppression. The list goes on.

But not all Marxists agreed that social realism best advanced social justice; some felt it was too vulgar, too obvious or too comfortable.


One famous Marxist artist, Bertolt Brecht, argued that experimenting with the form itself – whether in theater, painting or perhaps videogames – would be intrinsically political because it would force the viewer or player to be more critical. Breaking the fourth wall and directly addressing the player, for example, might force him or her to reflect on their real-life actions.

A good game fights for social justice through formal experimentation that encourages players to reflect on themselves.

Another incredibly influential neo-Marxist theorist, Theodor Adorno, claimed that art should not be political at all. He argued that artworks (like videogames) were forms of expression, symbols of our personal freedom to will things into existence. By using art (or games) as a tool, for commercial exploitation or social good or otherwise, you sacrifice your freedom to some outside purpose – and sacrificing any artistic freedom is the ultimate betrayal of art and fosters that Marxist “false consciousness” within the artist.

By this account, a good game doesn’t advance social justice. A good game remains as apolitical as possible. Games should not be used as tools; art is art and games are games.

Now we’re back where we started, muttering horribly pointless things like “art is art” and you’re probably rolling your eyes.

Again, talking about art like this might feel useless because there are no definitive judgments to be made about art. Everyone has their own opinion and taste in art and we generally respect that as a matter of personal preference in this postmodern age.

Maybe everyone had it wrong. Games aren’t art – but not because some of some theoretical idea of authorship or the “sublime” or Marxist aesthetics. Games aren’t art because so few people are making them compared to the huge amount consuming them.

Games aren’t art because learning how to code is still too daunting, while comparatively anyone can pick up a paintbrush or a camera and start making work. The most user-friendly solutions like Unreal, Unity and GameMaker still require substantial programming knowledge. Even if you do manage to make something that works, good luck getting distribution on any console!

So maybe games aren’t art because you aren’t making them. Maybe a good game is a game that you made. Maybe we need more and better paintbrushes – more intuitive ones that my grandmother can use.

In this sense, games won’t be art until there are millions of videogames, designed by everyone, flooding the marketplace like in 1983 with the crash of the game industry. Except in this glorious future we won’t call it “flooding the marketplace” because we won’t commodify games like that anymore and your children will laugh at you for doing so. No, we won’t call it “the crash.”

Instead, we’ll call it “the renaissance.”

Robert Yang is currently an MFA student studying “Design and Technology” at Parsons, The New School for Design. Before, he studied English and taught game design at UC Berkeley. If he’s famous for anything, it’s probably for his artsy-fartsy Half-Life 2 mod series “Radiator” that’s still (slowly) being worked on.

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