The Game Design of Art

“Anything can be art. Even a can of Campbell’s soup.”

So admitted Roger Ebert, world-famous movie reviewer and notorious videogame detractor, back in July of 2007. However, continued Ebert, videogames will never be “high art.”

Ebert has held fast to his “games cannot be art” position for two and a half years, braving an e-firestorm of responses from passionate game fans. The gaming community has folded this fight into itself – we haven’t just argued with Ebert, we’ve also debated endlessly with each other.

Many of Ebert’s opponents have unwittingly invoked a fragment of Ebert’s argument in defense of games: Anything can be art, therefore games are art. End of discussion.

Of course, these game proponents don’t state their position so baldly; instead, they point to cultural products that have no utilitarian value for survival. If humans make it, but you can’t eat it, keep warm with it or sit on it, then it’s art. I’ve even heard this argument expanded to lasso sports into the art corral.

This “utilitarian test” is a nice thought experiment, but it ends up derailing the debate about games. We need to be honest with ourselves: deep down inside, buried beneath our indignations, we all understand where Ebert is coming from, right? Not even a little bit?


Let’s face it: Games, in general, suck. Most are repetitive and shallow. Most eat up precious moments of our lives without giving us anything more than idle entertainment in return. The really good games, the ones that we would only be half-embarrassed to show Roger Ebert as art samples, are few and far between – maybe one game per console generation, if that. This is hardly what we would recognize as an “art-full” medium. Yes, games pass the zero-utility test, but that’s not enough to stand them up proudly next to a Kandinsky painting.

Ebert is right, at least so far. Instead of dismissing his position, however, we should tackle it head-on with the explicit goal of proving him wrong. We must present him with a game so artful that it makes him eat his hat. That is our main task as game designers over the next decade – I hereby decree it

But if we cling to the notion that “anything is art” or throw our hands in the air when attempting a definition, how can we ever begin our quest to make this game? Since we only need to convince Ebert, we’ll let him provide a definition of “high art.” He may not have been as explicit or concise as we might like, but he left us a few crumbs to nibble on. For example, art might help us “make ourselves more cultured, civilized and empathetic.” Additionally, art might cause us to become more “complex, thoughtful, insightful, witty, empathetic, intelligent, philosophical (and so on).

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Those lofty laundry lists won’t feel like direct hits for everyone, but they make a fine starting point. How many existing games do something even remotely like this? Not many. Our goal is clear, the field is wide open and we can get to work.


Now we’re ready for the central question: How can we make a game that hits some of those lofty targets? How do we deliver artistic expression through our games?

Since we’ve already taken this battle to Ebert’s doorstep, we can use film as our starting point. Film is certainly capable of high art, and the “films cannot be art argument” is 60-years dead. Games have been frequently compared with films in contemporary discussions, especially in the “games as art” debate. Ebert is infamous for his negative comparisons, but even the positive comparisons have seen games as asymptotically approaching films. Someday, we’re supposed to hope, games will become indistinguishable from – and perhaps even replace – films as the chosen expressive medium of modern culture.

But if we pursue artistic expression by making our games more film-like and less game-like, we simply reinforce the notion that films are more art-capable than games. Instead, we should compare games and films to identify their fundamental differences, then steer games away from films as hard as we can. We need to stop aping films and start tapping into the unique expressive powers of our medium.

The film toolbox is pretty full, essentially making it a superset of almost all the mediums that came before it. A filmmaker can use camera angles, camera motion, cuts, lighting, color, sound, music, scripting, acting, set design, costume design, animation and so on to communicate his vision. The very best films, particularly “high art” films, employ all their chosen tools in a way that resonates with what they are trying to express.

A game developer’s toolbox contains a complete set of the filmmaker’s tools; ignoring technical limitations, the medium can be seen as a superset of film. In other words, a game can do anything that a film can do. But games have one additional feature that sets them apart from any other medium: gameplay.

I shouldn’t use a vague term like “gameplay” without reigning it in a bit. By gameplay, I mean the collection of game mechanics in a given game, and by game mechanics, I mean the rules that govern the interaction of the various game components. That’s a pretty dry definition, but I find it to be more useful than a looser one like “‘gameplay’ is whatever the player does.”

Now brace yourself as I restate an ancient piece of game design wisdom and pretend that it’s novel: Gameplay is the most important part of a game.

Yes, we’ve been reciting this mantra for decades. Designers, reviewers and players all believe it. However, we generally worship gameplay for a rather uninspiring reason: It’s the “fun” part of the game, the part that hooks you. Here’s a more interesting reason that gameplay is important: because it sets games apart from other mediums and makes them unique. If you’re not there for the gameplay, why are you playing a game instead of watching a film or reading a book?


Unfortunately, gameplay rarely resonates with what a game is actually trying to express. It’s not that gameplay is an afterthought in the design process. In fact, the exact opposite is usually true: Gameplay is the forethought, and everything else, including the developers’ artistic vision, is slapped on top of it. Consider the standard list of game genres (FPS, stealth, platformer, RPG, RTS, adventure), and notice how it’s really a list of game mechanics. This differs substantially from the way film is categorized, where genres are based on content and intended emotional effect.

Many modern, mainstream games deliver aesthetic experiences that might pass muster for Ebert, but because they’re an afterthought to the gameplay, they’re shoehorned in through cut scenes and linear storylines. The result is that the gameplay, the very heart of the game, is out of sync with the game’s overall artistic expression.

BioShock presents a perfect example of this kind of dissonance. Through its non-gameplay elements (set design, audio diaries and linear story), the game successfully explores the shortcomings of an extreme Randian philosophy. The gameplay, on the other hand, involves upgrade-heavy first-person shooting.

If we’re making a game that deals with individual freedom versus the good of society, as BioShock does, why not devise game mechanics that explore these issues directly? Why permit the artist’s vision to manifest itself in the storyline and environment design but not in the gameplay? The answer, looking at BioShock‘s development history, is that the designers set out to make an FPS long before they figured out what they wanted to say with it. Thus, BioShock became yet another victim of the misguided “gameplay first” design philosophy.

To make games that are works of art, we should be taking the exact opposite approach. We should figure out what we want to express with our games and then devise game mechanics that best communicates that message. The heart of our games, the gameplay, should be our primary vehicle for expression.

Once we use gameplay to communicate more, we’ll rely on tools borrowed from other media, such as cut scenes, less and less. We may someday look back on this era and chuckle – the old days of game design, back when we were still using cut scenes and linear storylines – just as we chuckle now over old movies that relied on title cards to communicate something as simple as “Later that afternoon …”

How far away are we from expressing a meaningful, Ebert-worthy artistic vision directly through gameplay? There are a handful of game designers – and I mean a literal handful – that have started to do this already. The list is so short that I will present it here in its entirety.

Rod Humble used game mechanics to express the fragility and impermanence of relationships in The Marriage and the complexity of the creative process in Stars over Half Moon Bay. Jonathan Blow has used time-manipulation mechanics as a metaphor about mistakes, loss, pursuit, realization and resignation in Braid. Danny Ledonne has tweaked standard RPG mechanics to load his game’s turning point with complex meaning in Super Columbine Massacre RPG!.To say nothing of my own design efforts, these four games are the only works I know of that use their gameplay directly to make us more cultured, civilized, empathetic, complex, thoughtful, insightful, witty, intelligent, philosophical … and so on.

That brings us back to the Ebert challenge. Will any of the games on my list make him eat his hat? Sadly, no. My list calls out valiant attempts, not necessarily resounding successes. We’re still learning how to express through gameplay, and we’re not quite there yet.

For me, as a game designer and an experienced player, Braid stands among our culture’s highest artistic achievements, but I still couldn’t show it to Ebert without wincing. He would probably fumble with the controls, stumble through the simplest puzzles and abandon the game in frustration long before he put in the seven or more hours necessary to unveil the Braid‘s deeper artistic payload.


Here, it’s tempting to call “foul.” As a non-gamer with no game literacy, Ebert would trip over the basics – so how could he possibly judge a game’s artistic merit? However, Ebert’s gaming handicap is one of the factors that makes this challenge worthwhile. After all, what are “the basics” that might hinder him? Difficult controls? Mind-bending puzzles? A time investment measured in hours rather than minutes? What other medium places such high hurdles in the way of simple start-to-finish consumption?

Yes, we’ve already produced games that strike the high-art chord with game-savvy folks, but that’s not enough. In order to make games that everyone might appreciate as high art, we first need to figure out how to make games that are playable – start-to-finish – by everyone.

Only with such a game in hand would I approach Ebert without fear of embarrassment and watch over his shoulder as he played. I would listen quietly for that single word issued almost inaudibly under his breath: “Wow.” And then I would know that we won.

Jason Rohrer is an independent game artist, programmer, and critic. He lives with his spouse and two children in the rural town of Potsdam, New York, where they pursue a simple, frugal lifestyle.

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