Chess or the Mona Lisa – Games as Art

April 3rd, 2010

[This is the first–and most likely last–time that I’ve weighed in on the games as art debate. As with the R 18+ classification issue, the conversation is largely uneventful and uninteresting, so please enjoy my attempt at a no-nonsense approach to this trivial argument.]

The games as art debate hinges on what we believe games should aspire to be: the Mona Lisa or Chess?

The point of contention is that, fundamentally, video games are chess, but with rich enough contexts to border the medium against others which classify as art. The problem is therefore one of definition. Do we grade art on the construction of rule systems or on the contextual and thematic elements?

The answer is obvious; we grade art on the contextual.

Art has always been graded on themes and emotion, which is why chess, even as a perfect piece of game design, doesn’t count as art. In this regard, Super Mario Bros, Doom II or Resident Evil 4 also cannot be considered as art. If chess can’t do it and, lest we forget, chess has been around for hundreds of years, then Super Mario Bros. has no chance either.

So then, under the traditional evaluation of art, any game which triggers an emotion or displays a sense of beauty is art, even if the “game” part (that is, rule system) itself is completely rubbish. The rules don’t really mean as much, so long as there is an expression of creative talent.

I know what you’re thinking “what a load of bullocks!”. Don’t blame me, blame the definition.

A Change in Definition

I believe that video games will spur a change in the definition of art. The “art” side of video games (the contextual; the side which will first be regarded as displaying “creativity” and emotion) will only continue to refine itself and so long as this art is tied to rules, which it will always be, a re-evaluation must occur. Games will become so artistic in the traditional sense, that someone will have to decide what to do about all those rules attached to the supposed art.

Right here is where I think games will be accepted as art. That is, the rule systems attached to the “art” part will be accepted as an important part of the art itself. I imagine that the acceptance of engineering into the art fold will slowly see the definition come to accept beautifully designed rule systems, such as our old friend Chess, as works of art too.

False Idols

As a rationalist interested in the pragmatic side of games (as opposed to the majority of “games criticism” which is mainly fluff), I think that there are huge problems with our current perception of games as art.

It’s all class-based semantics. Art, as with the word culture, has been misused as a denotation of high culture. Those of higher class observe art, while those of lower class play games. Even though Chess’ influence is far stronger and wide reaching than the Mona Lisa’s, Chess is still a game for commoners and is therefore not art. Video games, first typecasted for children and now a part of the low cultural ghetto (hello comics!), are destined to be marginalised because of this stupid word “art”. That is, unless we push for a change in meaning and a breakdown of traditional power structures.

Unfortunately, I don’t think this will ever happen, or at least it could happen, at a snails pace, as games such as Bioshock, Flower and Okami are waved around as the banner titles of video game art. These titles are given a high stature because they intend to construct experience which elicit an emotional response in the traditional sense. And there’s nothing wrong with that, particularly under this new-found interpretation of art which I’ve suggested, where contextually and mechanically beautiful media can co-exist. But it is equally important, if not more so, that we promote Super Mario Bros, Super Metroid, Doom II and Resident Evil 4 as works of art also. If we are to truly shift the perception of this medium we need to attack old perceptions tied to class, with new ideas based on design.

In concluding, I believe that we ought to focus on games as an emerging form of art and not games as conforming to the traditional sense of art. In which case we must crown our idols carefully and promote design as integral to our cause.

  • I was jabbering about this same thing a couple weeks ago

  • JT

    That’s about the best no-nonsense approach to this trivial argument I’ve ever read. I agree, the definition of art will change, as it has hundreds of times already. Maybe a (barely) more relevant question might be when will problem solving, mechanics, and strategy become art?

    But please, god, don’t answer that. It’ll happen when it happens. 🙂

    Great stuff. Cheers Daniel.