Hags of Lag – It’s Art

There has been a fairly long debate as to whether video-games can ever be considered art (or not). Much has been

A bunch of video games got inducted into the New York Museum of Modern Art and Brian Moriarty doesn’t think it’s a sensible idea to do so.

There are two problems here with “Video-Games”.

1. The unfortunate by-product of video-game culture being a niche mainly dominated by men has caused the average “gamer” to fit a stereotype of “Angry, Sexist, Racist”. This is in particular seen during competitive play where skill excuses wankery. The “best” gamers have sometimes turned out to be “incredibly toxic individuals”. We don’t have a frontman for games we can be proud of. There are a handful of paragons of virtue and they are rare voices. Often drowned out by people who are heard better by simple dint of shouting. When compared to the sportsman like behaviour of “real” sports, e-sports have been quite lacking in some cases. It’s getting better but on the casual side it’s still a “bastion of free speech without responsible speech”. This means the stereotype of gamer is synonymous with wanker. It’s hard to think of what we play as art if you consider it’s medium seems to be inhabited by people who think nothing of screaming racist epiphets, homophobic hate and sexist slurs into their mics.

By Skill excuses Wankery, I mean that gaming doesn’t reward good behaviour. A good sportsman is applauded by the fans.

In video-games? You get just as much attention by being a dick. You probably get “more” attention by being one. If you are winning it’s almost carte blanche to be as big a jerk as possible because “you are winning“. If the fans of the Dutch Masters called everyone strumpets, I am pretty sure we wouldn’t think their interests were good either.

2. He doesn’t get why it’s art and neither do most people because they don’t realise how it is art.

Playing a game is not art unless the game is a game of “artistic productivity” in the same way that viewing a painting is not considered art. The production of the game is what is considered art. Playing the game consists of viewing “Art”.

Art is either an activity or the product of an activity that expresses human creativity. It can exist for a variety of purposes from aesthetic value to expressing a viewpoint or even for no real reason at all. The value of art is arbitrary and in the perception of the audience. I don’t like Picasso. I don’t think a lot of his work can be considered artistic. But that’s the thing. His art has no meaning for me and looks like what I drew aged 3.

But someone else can consider it art. Art is after all subjective.

A survey of the past 2,500 years of art philosophy offers no support for the classification of games as art. If games are mentioned at all, they are dismissed as a pastime, harmless at best, and an evil destroyer of youth at worst. Schopenhauer appears to be alone among the major authors in offering games more than passing consideration. His assessment was not sympathetic.

Okay… Brian simply is ignorant of the variety of games. Or in fact one can apply the same logic to “movies”.

We can categorise games into two types. A game that tells a story and a game that provides a medium to do stuff. Now this isn’t a hard and fast rule and some of these games can overlap.

1. A game that tells a story is not considered art by Brian because he is looking at the wrong thing. A man looking at a painting isn’t really art unless we are being meta about it. The Mona Lisa is art, me looking at the Mona Lisa is not art UNLESS I make it art. (The idea makes sense in my head… just humour me… Think of a piece provocatively titled The Mona Lisa Voyeur…). The art is the actual  game itself. A good game has well thought out, well fleshed out characters and to design such a character is “art”. We accept a well fleshed out character to be literature or a movie character do we not? Yet somehow if the movie is interactive then we consider it to not be art? I fear that Brian has fallen down the deadliest pitfalls of ANY critic of any art form be it “Art” in the traditional sense (I.e Sculpture, Drawing, Music, Dance and Painting) or the newer forms of “art”. This kind of snobbery is the sort that would state that “Heavy Metal” or “Rock” cannot be considered art because it isn’t classical music and everyone knows that classical music is technically superior to such paltry music forms (don’t send me hate mail… I understand music theory and am being deeply sarcastic. Heavy metal has been associated with incredibly complex music and some of it’s proponents have had an amazing level of skill). And yes we are all occasionally guilty of that kind of snobbery.

Okay we need examples.

Let’s take First Person Shooters. They evolved from the likes of Doom and Wolfenstein 3D. They were initially simple… You ran through a series of rooms shooting up baddies… But then something changed. That was Unreal and Half-Life. You see Half-Life took the genre by the scruff of it’s neck and gave it something the game didn’t have before. Plot. Unreal however made the game aesthetically pleasing. We may scoff at the graphics of the original Unreal but at it’s time it was proper “eye candy”.

Forward to the modern day. So what could be artistic about a modern FPS? Well? Visual fidelity for starters has increased. I remember Doom 3D and I have seen the power of modern day processing.

Collect Ammo, Shoot Monsters

We have come a long way baby

There has been a concrete effort to make the game “look” the way it does and “play” the way it does. It is the delivery of an experience and the aesthete of Call of Duty exists. While we may deride it for formulaic game play and a love of “brown” it’s impossible to claim that it looks “bad” and that the people behind it did concrete amounts of work to produce an aesthete.

2. The game lets you be “creative”. To claim these games aren’t “art” is like claiming that painting isn’t art because the paints are made by someone else. The game forms the medium for you to express yourself.

It’s from Draw Something

It’s awesome… Deal with it.

These actually match the “classical” definition of “art” in that they are creations of aesthetic value. What Brian has a beef with is the medium, but to produce something of this quality is undeniably “Art”.

3. There is a notion that digital art is “easy” to do. That somehow the computer “does it all for you”. This is a very very bizarre notion possibly propagated by Design, Animation and Game Schools to rope in “easy” punters. It’s not. It’s a lot of hard and indeed (IMHO) tedious work. It is a lot of coding, it is a lot of head banging till you get it just right.

The computer may do a lot of very important and essential things for you but really? It’s just another medium like oil or watercolour that you have to master. This is still art though. The art helps set the scene and environment and the world which you live in. Would Skyrim be the same without it’s norse influences? Even the music of a game helps “set” the tone.

Hammer of the gods will drive our ships to new lands!

Hell let’s go back to League of Legends. It’s designers actually try and keep a core aesthete between champions to make them all fit into the game. In fact it has resulted in the “notion” that the game is cartoony and childish because of it’s aesthete (On the other hand? It’s cartoony aesthete has made it very popular since the characters have a certain “charm”.). They still pay extraordinary attention to the mechanics which in itself is “art”. There are some table top games that can be considered art too. I used to play Warhammer and Warhammer 40K. The miniatures themselves are art as are the user’s “paint jobs” on them. The books are filled with fluff art to evoke the grim dark techno-dystopian future of a theocratic totalitarian and brutal mankind where humanity has “lost” all meaning. Without the art the sheer brutality of such a world would not bleed into the less brutal world of “dice rolling” and “statistics” that make up the core mechanics. Without that background you are just rolling dice.

We consider “engineering and architecture” art after all. Why does the engineering of “game mechanic” where the law of balance (the idea that an entity in the game doesn’t become a “no brainer” or a “bad choice”) needs to be upheld and the aesthetic of a game to be visually appealing not count as art? I subject it’s because people like Brian simply don’t grasp the why, the how or even the meaning of such balance.

4. It’s interactive. Are we to suggest that interactive art like “Comedy” where the art of making someone laugh is “invalid”? Many of us consider medicine to be an “art” as much as it is a science because there is a concept of elegant treatment and methodology. Just because something is mundane and “useful” and “interactive” doesn’t make it stop being art.

From Netter’s Anatomy – The pic goes to the link if you want to get a copy. It’s “astonishing” since each one is hand drawn. It’s a fantastic coffee table book if anything.

I claim that this is just as valid as “Art” as anything else out there despite it being almost purely educational for me.

5. Games do have a message. For all the mindless silliness there are games with really subtle messages out there. And increasingly games are seen as a platform for such.

Spec-Ops the line basically plays with the kind of mentality that modern FPS (First Person Shooters) have gone down by turning the trope on it’s head. Deus Ex – Human Revolution took a pretty solid look at Transhumanism. The medium CAN do deep meaningful thought provoking experiences just as much as it can be about jingoistic machismo. If not more so since the game is immersive and so can produce an interesting experience IF and only IF people take a risk. Spec-Ops took an tangible risk. You can watch Apocalypse Now as a “War Movie too”. You can play Spec-Ops as a pure FPS clone with no redeeming values. But to do so is to ignore the Mona Lisa Smile. Spec-Ops makes you realise that the faceless mooks you are killing are not so “faceless” in real life. It makes you realise that your actions may not have good consequences even if the have good intentions. And that you may really be the “real” monster. Deus Ex shows you the bad side of transhumanism. Where the ability to break the boundaries of human physical limitation mean that the richest will always outperform the poorest because the richest can afford the best “enhancements”. That it’s a world where individual hard work and prowess mean less and less because technology has defeated “human evolution”. It’s a new world with new problems… But you won’t realise that unless you really really paid attention to the little stories behind the all the badass shoot outs in a cyberpunk future.

But that’s the thing. In order to appreciate an art form you have to realise what value it has. Otherwise Picasso is just bad drawing. Otherwise Heavy Metal is just screeching. Otherwise Shakespeare is just bawdy Elizabethan Plays. Otherwise movies are just mindless tat.

Games are Art. The only way to say that they aren’t is to be incredibly snobbish to any medium that you don’t appreciate. It’s a tragic problem when art is so removed from the public that the public perceive art as solely an entity to exist for the rich. This disconnect breeds stagnation for both groups of people.

If we didn’t regard games as an art there would be no room to express what your vision is. You wouldn’t see any styles or variations. Hell, this is just a blog but you still see some of my art around in the aesthete. Just have a look at these and tell me there isn’t an artistic view being put forwards?

Okami – Everything is designed to look like a japanese painting

Bioshock – The sheer brutality of an angry Big Daddy protecting the sinister Little Sister in the run down Libertarian paradise of Rapture contrasts with the tender way the Big Daddy and Little Sister interact giving you a feeling of dread when you fight any of them. You genuinely feel “bad” fighting these “bosses”. And it’s mainly because of the artwork and the way these interact in game.

Killer 7 – It’s just weird and cool

XIII – A very comic book aesthete runs throughout the game.

Asura’s Wrath – Just… A game borrowing from Hindu and Buddhist Theology… It’s… ridiculously awesome. You basically play as Shiva…


No more heroes – Silly but very cool

Devil May Cry – Arguably the start of the “Stylistic” shooter (Where you played to be “awesome”)

There are a lot more out there but you have to realise that this style can meet function can meet entertainment and that can still be art.


  1. feedmybrain says

    Did I catch a Led Zeppelin reference In there or was it my imagination?

    Totally agree with the post; even if the computer did all the work someone has to tell it what to do. How the characters and NPCs will look. I can stand and watch the northern lights in skyrim with awe. And that’s just the aestheticsaesthetics

  2. Sassafras says

    As someone who does digital art, it does annoy the hell out of me when people assume the computer does all the work. The computer just saves time and materials, not effort or skill.

    What always surprises me is how some people are so opposed to the idea of video games being art that they’ll make the most amazing mental gymnastics to redefine art in a way that excludes them. WHY do they care so much about excluding games from art? How does anyone gain from that, and what do they lose if people accept that games can be art?

  3. says

    Doesn’t the existence of bad, boring, drab games indicate that the great ones are art?

    I don’t want to fall into the trap of trying to define art in terms solely of its popularity* but we can observe that there are pieces of “great art” acknowledged by large numbers of people who flock to them. And there are pieces of “not so great art” that nobody spends very long on at all. By that token, aren’t World of Warcraft and Halo, Metal Gear Solid, Skyrim, etc., – significant pieces of art? More people see World of Warcraft every day (and enjoy it immensely) than see the Mona Lisa (and ask why it’s so small and dingy)…

    (* as a many-times decorated veteran of the “is this art?” wars, my definition of “art” is simply that it’s short for “artifact.”)

  4. HM says

    As Sassafras in @2 said, the computer doesn’t do it all. It’s a tool just as paint brushes and paints are. I’m so grateful to work with graphic artists, as their vision is soo much better than mine. I work as a programmer and can make something functional but not beautiful or aesthetically pleasing.

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