Computer Games As Art

On several occasions I've seen a computer game review that stated that the arrival of this or that game has finally shown that computer games
can be works of art. To me it's clear that computer games are art, but what is unclear is in which ways they are art and in which ways they
are not.

Nobody argues that computer games have art, in the sense of visual art. Even simple games like Pac-Man have graphics that must be designed. Particularly in the early years of computer games, the constraints of the computer systems were enormous. Creating a cute or attractive game with so few pixels and so little processing was an enormous challenge.

But certainly there's more to it than that. Computer games are not
merely a platform for traditional visual art. Computer games
are, like film, multi-media experiences. Many of the criteria one
would use for film are applicable to computer games

In terms of visual art, they include character design, set design,
costume, animation, color, lighting, composition, etc.

In terms of sound, there are sound effects, voices that are acted, and
music. The game "Gears of War" for Xbox 360 is soundtracked like an
action movie.

In terms of narrative, computer games have stories that can be
interesting or sucky. In general, the stories do not mesh well with
the gameplay. That is, the story is often exposed in "cut scenes"
between the action, and you can usually ignore them completely and
still play the game just fine. But at a finer-grain level the gameplay
itself forms a story.

But these are aspects of computer games that are shared with film; we
can evaluate them on similar criteria. What makes computer games

Well, you can play a videogame. It is the nature of gameplay
that sets computer games apart from movies. Games are
interactive. Gameplay can be evaluated in these ways:

  • Fun. Simply put, is the game fun to play? This is
    independent, for the most part, of the graphics. To take some
    extreme examples, Solitare and tetris (and puzzle games in general)
    are loads of fun, and the graphics are trivial. Fun can be thought
    of in two related ways: Do you feel happy when playing, and do you
    want to play it more?

  • Innovation. Computer games get more respect when they
    pioneer a new kind of gameplay. Innovation can come through new
    computer interfaces (e.g. "Dance Dance Revolution," "Centipede,"
    and games that use the Nintendo Wii controller,) or through new
    on-screen gameplay paradigms (e.g. "Dune," "Katamari Damacy,"
    "Dungeon Keeper," "Castle Wolfenstein.")

It's important to distinguish these. Great games are not always
The original "Warcraft," and "Total Annihilation" were
really well-done RTS (Real-Time Strategy) games, but they were not
the first. Likewise, the original first-person shooter was "Castle
Wolfenstein," but later games such as "Doom" and "Half Life" became the
superb examples of the genre.

I do some consulting for video game design, and I often feel the
tension between being original and being good. Being good cannot be
planned in advance, for the most part. If you're doing a known genre,
such as RTS, first-person shooter, or platformer, what makes the game
fun or not depends on subtle tweaking of the interface, game elements,
difficulty, etc. It's not something you can perfect until you're
actually playtesting the game. Unfortunately, with ship date deadlines
and the difficulty of planning programming projects, these crucial
tweaks are often not done, and the game is shipped as soon as it's
playable and free of obvious bugs. This is why the second version of
computer games are often so much better than the first. They are not
that different from the first, in some cases, but they have gotten it
just right the second time around.

So how can we look at gameplay as art? It depends on your view of
art. Since I'm writing the essay, we'll use mine: the compellingness
theory of art. The goal of a work of art is to be compelling. To be
compelling means to make the audience of the work want to
experience the art, usually through intellectual stimulation,
emotional response, or sensory pleasure.

Gameplay is one aspect of a computer game. According to compellingness
theory, the goal of a gameplay design is to compell the audience (in
this case, the player) to play the game. The innovation in the
gameplay makes the game more interesting, which is compelling, and the
fun makes the player want to play more, which is by definition

Gameplay is designed, like other art forms, and has the goal of
compelling the audience, like other art forms. It's partially
engineering and craft, but so are many art forms. Gameplay design should,
therefore, be viewed as art.

But isn't there gameplay design in non-computer games, like chess and
trivial pursuit? Yes, I think that game designers, whether they work
with board games, card games, or computer games, should be thought of
as artists and the products of their creativity as works of art with
game-design-specific criteria for their evaluation. We can look at
visual art in terms of symbolism, composition, color choices,
etc. What are the ways we can look at gameplay experiences? As far as
I know, this is still unexplored territory.


Dustin said…

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