Are Games Art?

OK, I know I’m really late to this party, but I haven’t been able to blog lately because every time I go to write an article about making it in the games industry, this debate pops into my mind. GDCAbout 150 days or so ago, there was controversy stirred up by Roger Ebert, the well known film critic for the Chicago Sun Times, in which he skewered games, saying not only are they not art, but that playing them reduces time for people to enjoy “real” art. Of course, he got a lot of hate mail from game players, there were a lot of blog posts written about the subject, and even magazine articles chimed in. I saw a lot of writers defending games, but few game makers defending games. So, I’m going to take my shot at reviving the thread.

This kind of sucks. I make games, and don’t pretend to be a writer, so I don’t have the communicative tools to say what I am thinking. Writers don’t make games or movies or music, but they can pretend to be critics of the people that are pouring their guts out to make their art, and get the attention of an entire nation. So, in my own little non-writer fashion writing in an obscure blog about making games, I’m going to fight back the only way I know how. Here goes…

@Ebert. You suck. I always did like Siskel better anyway. Besides, now that we have Rotten Tomatoes, we don’t need guys like you anymore. I would much rather have “Joe Average’s” good, better, best review than your pompous, inflated crap of an opinion.

There. I wrote it and got it off my chest. Even if it isn’t journalistic art, I feel a lot better:) A little more seriously, my real answer is this:

Of course games are art.

Here are a couple of quick definitions from the Google search Art Definition (bold added by me for emphasis):

  • the products of human creativity; works of art collectively; “an art exhibition”; “a fine collection of art”
  • the creation of beautiful or significant things; “art does not need to be innovative to be good”; “I was never any good at art”; “he said that architecture is the art of wasting space beautifully”
  • a superior skill that you can learn by study and practice and observation; “the art of conversation”; “it’s quite an art”
  • artwork: photographs or other visual representations in a printed publication; “the publisher was responsible for all the artwork in the book”
  • Art, in its broadest meaning, is the expression of creativity or imagination, or both.
  • I can tell you this for sure. The games I work on are definitely an expression of my creativity and imagination.

    I bleed to make my games. I live and breath my ideas, concepts, and designs. I strive to make alliances with other like minded people to help me bring these visions and ideas to life. Sometimes these ideas are carried around and researched for decades before they finally make it to a player’s screen. I think about what a player will feel like when playing the game, I think about situations that I want the player to be put in. Most of all, I worry about whether or not my game is fun. Sometimes I don’t know if a game will be fun until well into development. That all sounds a lot more like art than science or process to me.

    Are Shigeru Miyamoto and Will Wright not artists? On the same note, how about Damon Slye, Kevin Ryan? What about the Fuzzee Fever guy, or the Large Animal guys? I say they are.

    I have made music in the past. My son makes music now. Nobody denies music’s art stature. I know when I went to Aaron’s concert last night and saw the passion, creativity, and effort he puts into his music it assures me that music is an art form and he is an artist. I can tell you that as a student of both, games are every bit as much an art form as music. I know it feels much the same to conceive, design, and create a game as it does to write a song.

    Most of the arguments about games not being art revolved around characters, storyline, or the actual game art (bitmaps, polygons, etc.) which is totally a diversionary argument. Games are not about story lines, or character development, or how good the graphics are. At the end of the day they are about fun. Making games is the art of making interactive fun. What else can it be?

    -Jeff Tunnell, Game MakerMake It Big In GamesGarageGames

    Art by Alex Swanson

    • Twist

      Somebody needs to make a video of a game to show to Mr. Ebert since he has no interest in interactive entertainment. Take a game with a decent story like perhaps one of the Final Fantasy games (which also have music that rivals any film ever produced) and cut out most of the game-play. Cut out all the random battles and the wandering around the towns and only leave in stuff that is important to the story or important to understanding how the character got where they are in the game world. Cut the boss battles so that they are faster paced and very flashy. Give him that video and then beside his probable complaint about it being too long see if he can still claim that games can’t be art. For someone with a movie length attention span and a passive attitude toward entertainment (those who can’t do either teach or critique) I can understand how interactive entertainment can seem very unartistic. But games have powerful potential as a story telling medium which I believe is more the grounds Ebert is basing his opinion on than the visual aspect of games.

      Even with all of its flaws Final Fantasy 7 was able to produce powerful emotional reactions. The death of Aeris/Aerith (depending on version) was at least as powerful as the death of ET, and Aeris didn’t get to come back to life but if she has that would have been even more powerful than it was with ET. You have much more time invested in the characters of a good game than those of even the best movies.

      If developers would focus on making things truly more epic and dramatic instead of just of more epic proportions (bigger, faster, more) then it would be much easier to point to examples of games that really push the limits of storytelling and entertainment. A thousand enemies on-screen at once doesn’t make a game more epic and neither does all the hype in the world. IMHO games, not movies, have the potential to rival novels as the worlds most powerful storytelling medium. The kind of details that are put into books are the kind of details that need to be put into games. Just imagine how long the Lord Of The Rings movies would have to be to include all the details from the books. It just isn’t feasible. But we are at the point where it is feasible for that much detail to make it into a game. Of course the problem with doing so is that it still needs to be a game and not a multimedia novel. But that is one of the limitations of the art form. With film you are limited to what can be project on a screen and through speakers, with paintings you are limited to what paint can be applied to and what colors the human eye can see, and with games you are limited to being interactive (and hopefully enjoyable if you actually want people to play it). But it isn’t the limitations that define an art form it is what is done within those limitations.

      Well I didn’t mean for this to get so long winded but it did. Sorry.

    • Preston


    • Triplefox

      Well, discussing it in that way is also diversionary – it’s trying to transform the issue into one of “are games fun or not?” The question people have isn’t really whether they can be fun, but if people can learn or be able to reflect from them, either through emotions(like a “your first x” experience) or in some practically applicable way, like a game that can motivate the learning of history or science through play. This is what the majority of people look for in art, regardless of whether it’s “literary” (which is an arbitrary thing) or not – in music, for example, there’s fun, happy-go-lucky music, and then there’s angry music, and sad music, and scary music. Listeners get different messages from these various expressions of the musical artform, and at different times they will prefer one kind of message to another.

      So while sometimes people will look to games for fun, what about the others? How do we add those elements to games? We’ve made stabs at it, some successful, some not, but developers largely seem to have regressed in their approaches as a result of market volatility and publisher pressure. Fun is the easiest thing to do, and the rest gets lip service amidst the scramble to meet the ship date. Over time, “game” and “fun” become one in the developer’s mind, inseperate elements, and other experiences get dropped as being cosmetic and tangental.

      The debate, in my eyes, has come down to a matter of game content versus game functionality. Modern-day, team-based, mega-commercial titles(as opposed to the whims and one-offs that can result from individuals and indies) are incredibly focused on the content, on making it and sitching it together with the game design into a cohesive experience. That approach has served the industry well for many years, but it comes at the expense of always being a “second Hollywood,” of perpetually living in the shadow of other mediums that are freed by their non-interactive nature to tell the best message they possibly can. All of that, and it’s also an absolutely brutal process to try to encompass so many things in one seamless package that in one stroke can be broken and dismissed as elaborate fakery by the audience. When today’s games make people cry, it’s generally because of their non-interactive elements. On the whole, I think they do a much better job of making the developers cry.

      The other approach is to constantly and consistently focus on the interactivity and computing power available as a means to generate art. This is what most indies are doing, and what most of the star designers do as well. The debate will be over once everyone recognizes this fact – that videogames have to build on their least predictable, least budget-driven elements to advance; it won’t happen by relying on the sweat of multi-hundred-man teams in some attempt to battle the player for authorial control through quantity of data.

    • Duncan


    • Jeffool

      As much as I usually dig Ebert’s reviews (he lambasted Jaws 4, and enjoyed Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey,) I really never understood his argument. He claims that games lack an authoritative control that allow them to have message of some type. Apparently he doesn’t understand that every action/reaction in a game is explicitly made by a programmers input.

      And of course there’s the horrible “I can’t define art, but I know it when I see it” attitude that he may well have. The problem with that is exactly what you’ve debunked here; you can easily define art. (I’ve always been a fan of the ‘expression of creativity’ definition.)

      Two quick notes: Google has a rather nifty define command, so you can just type “define: art” (sans parenthesis.) And is a great review site.

    • Nauris

      Yeh, the whole discussion whether games are art seems to be weird. It`s almost as if it hasnt been around for ages, it cant possibly be art. I guess its simply because people have trouble accepting any new medium at all.
      Movies were percieved once as poor man`s entertainment, worth only its novelty value. Same about new genres in already established mediums. For a long time consensus was that novels were not worthy to be called “art”.

      Another problem is that vague idea that for something to be art it has to tell the story. Looking at it from such perspective, “Civilization” can never be art, games just dont work that way.

    • warpy

      then all of those people who make art for games… are actually getting millions of dollars for free. what a lovely industry :P

    • Chris

      There is no way music is art! I once heard a woman singing “Three Blind Mice” in a mall and it was no way artistic. On top of that it’s corrupting our children with thoughts of torturing rodents, so children should not be allowed to listen to music.

    • Bryce

      No, games are not art.
      Then again, neither is most film, books or whatever.

      What you and a great many others are doing is confusing art with the cultural artefacts of entertainment. Games may be art one day if they may develop an artistic coda, something to say or some perceptions of ourselves that exist above and beyond the literal, but they are not art at the moment.

      Well, for the most part anyway.

    • Kriss

      I think it’s worth mentioning R. Buckminster Fullers world game concept, when people talk about games being nothing but worthless wastes of time.

    • neuraljazz

      “Are Games Art?” “Are Comic Books Literature?” – Just knock it off for crying out loud. You are spinning and wasting clockcycles on topics like these.

      Let’s just cut to Heinlein & Sturgeon “Never try to teach a pig to sing because it wastes your time and annoys the pig. ” Not that I’m calling Roger Ebert a pig… OK, I am calling him a pig, but he and people like him are never going to sing the notes you want.

      And regarding Sturgeon: “95% of everything is sh*t”. Of the games published, few of them are non-fecal matter. So a discussion of “art” is moot because people who care about capital-A Art don’t play them.

    • Bryce

      Art is defined by an “in-crowd”‘s say-so.

    • MolluskGoneBad

      Why would games want to be art? Leaving aside the pedantry of appealing to dictionary definitions in a field like aesthetics with a long and irritating history of philosophical discourse, as far as I can tell the “art” appelation is an artifact of a class system we don’t necessarily want to maintain. The lack of any kind of consensus on whether games are art is also a pretty good indication that the field is still dynamic, radical and growing as opposed to the museum-piece dying offshoots of denigrated popular media that usually get canonized.

      Why cheapen the importance of games by appealing to a nebulous-but-loaded term like capital-A Art for validation? Games are games, they don’t need external validation. They can be beautiful, meaningful, trivia, expressive or deep on their own. All pulling “art” into the equation does is lock the discourse to a vast set of outdated and contradictory preconceptions, arguments and ideological frameworks. Games are vital NOW, and we’re developing our own frameworks and vocabularies for talking about them.

    • Psychochild

      Actually, quite a few of us developers do tackle it in our blogs.

      Free speech and video games on my own blog, talking about how video games are a “threatening” medium because they can influence people. Most other forms of “art” have been seen as threatening as well.

      Catty ‘Games As Art’ Comments – Only 5 Months Late! by Damion Schubert, talking about a panel of developers he participated with that talked about Ebert’s quote.

      Two Great Pieces of Games As Art is another article by Damion Schubert talking about two games that really show first steps toward having artistic merit.

      Games as Art is an old article by Raph Koster about this topic as well.

      That should be enough links for now. :) Some of us think about this topic, and some have been thinking about it for a while. I think those of us that are involved in other disciplines besides games (I like to fancy myself a bit of a writer), understand the similarities between different artistic media. It’s obvious to us that games are art when we look at it in close comparison to other “artistic” media.

      The problem we have is threefold. First, it’s there are many definitions of art. If you talk about the result of a creative process, then almost every game falls under this definition. If we talk about things that have “artistic merit”, well, then many games don’t qualify. Sadly, few of them really do have artistic merit. On the other hand, there are few works in any medium that can be said to have artistic merit. Most works are intended to be consumed for simple entertainment, to be enjoyed in the moment then forgotten. Romance novels, summer explosion-laden blockbuster movies, pop music, etc., are all fluff, to be honest, just like most games are. However, one could argue that people aren’t really working to make games that have artistic merit.

      Next, the medium is still perceived as young. Without the history, we don’t have understanding. Games are too new, for the most part, and have sensibilities that don’t fit within other media. The interactive part confuses people, and makes the work hard to judge by traditional means. We don’t have a century or more of work to support us like other media do. We have about 30 or so years, which makes us rank newbies in the field. I’m sure in another 50 years this question will be answered, and in 150 years it’ll be humorous to think that anyone ever question the artistic merit of games. Consider people today automatically assume that the written word can be art, yet the novel was derided as an idle pastime for quite a while. Keep in mind that sometimes this argument, that games are a young medium, is used as a excuse to avoid responsibility. Games are coming into their own, and it’s time we started taking our responsibilities seriously.

      So, the last problem is that game developers simply don’t take the issue seriously. Jeff is right in his article above that most game developers don’t write about this issue, because they don’t think about it. We’re already to the point where we try to crank out creativity on schedule, and it drains a lot of the artistic aspects out of the process. Some developers consider games to be focused time-wasters. Of course, they bristle when someone like Ebert derides our profession, but they don’t really contradict Ebert with their actions. On the other hand, some of us do think in these terms, and some of us are taking things very seriously.

      As with most things, it’ll take a while before society accepts the inevitable. We’ll still be here, still making games and still making our posts to convince individuals. Our time will come, but it won’t happen overnight.

    • bleh

      First things first: there is no single clear definition of art. No amount of talk about literalism or codas will change that. If there was a single clear definition, we wouldn’t be having this discussion. That said, I’ve NEVER seen a definition of art that read “that which the intellectual elite ordains as legitimate artistic expression.” Art is subjective. BEAUTY IS IN THE EYE OF THE BEHOLDER.


      The only reason games aren’t generally accepted as art is because people like Ebert have yet to bother listening closely enough to what they might be saying. Most games don’t have anything to say, I’ll grant you that. But some do, and those games never seem to get any play by the people who would classify the whole medium as nothing more than cultural trash.

      No one has taken the time to sit down with Half-Life 2 and share in writing their ideas about how the Combine might be a metaphor for something (gasp!), that there might be some overarching message conveyed by Grim Fandango’s story, or some moral lesson lurking in the shadows of Dungeon Keeper. Will Wright has said aloud (not in so many words) that the Sims is basically an interactive signpost reading: “Do you value your life? Then do not squander your time, for that is the stuff of life!” But what does he know? Play Thief 2 and tell me seriously that there are no deeper implications behind the conflict between Victoria and the Mechanists. Play the second Deus Ex game (where the characters quote DeScartes while arguing over the fundamental problems of civilization) and tell me with a straight face that it is merely about “the future war on terror” just like it says on the box.

      In any case, no matter how many unspoken, ethereal requirements they might meet, games will never be accepted as “capital-A Art” until everyone with enough clout to keep games out of the cool-kids club has died of old age or is too tired to argue about it anymore. Art, like science, progresses one funeral at a time.

      Personally, I’m pretty inclusive. I think of “art” as being short for “artifact”, something the Oxford English Dictionary defines as “an object made by a human being.”

    • Heidi

      || Quote: “No, games are not art.”|| Bryce… you’re a moron!! I saw what you wrote and being an artist myself (one of your “non-art-of-the-moment” type) was very offended at what you had to say.

      If you understood what it took to create a game, the creativity and passion that went into making a game maybe you would understand just what an art form it is. Art is the product of a person’s passion to make something great. Music, Books, Games, Food – they are all an artistic form of someone’s passion, someone’s way of making the world see their way of perfection for that particular piece. If MoMA can put out large canvas’ of blank nothing-ness and call it art then someone that spent ten years designing and thinking about a game can certainly call it art!

      And, excuse me – MulloskGoneBad: “Why cheapen the importance of games by appealing to a nebulous-but-loaded term like capital-A Art for validation?”

      Do you even make games? Do you know what goes into making a game? Or do you just link some big words together to make yourself feel better about the fact that you have NO artistic ability and you’re just jealous that no one calls the work that you do art? We’re not trying to “cheapen the imporance of games” we’re only trying to give the producers and driving creative forces behind these games get the artistic credit that they are due.

      So what you guys are all saying is that the director that created say, The Phantom of the Opera, spending all that time orchestrating isn’t worthy of being called an artist? You do realize that creating a game is very much the same a composing a piece of music (considered an artform by many many) or writing a Broadway musical (another very accepted form of art). While painting one picture may have taken Van Gough a month, creating a game can take years and years of orchestrating the perfect team of people to recreate the artistic vision that lies in the head of a talented game developer.

    • moo

      I’ve always thought of games as art. They’re made by people and if they are interesting and well-made, they have the same effects on me as a good book or a good movie.

      I can’t be the only person who cried for half an hour at the end of ICO. That game is definitely Art, and the people who made it were master craftsmen. The designer ruthlessly expunged from the game any element that didn’t support the core emotional experience. The result was something fantastic, almost profound.

      More recently, I saw the movie “United 93″ in the theatre. That tore me up emotionally as much as any book or movie I’ve ever read or seen. To me, “United 93″ was a message of solidarity and hope. In a way, it was an apology to the victims of Sept. 11th that the powers-that-be were not able to react effectively to help them. I cried at the end of United 93, because it was beautiful (and terrible). The medium is the message. Eventually, we’ll have video games with the emotional power that United 93 has. Then, even doubters like Mr. Ebert will be forced to admit that games are art, and can sometimes be Art.

    • Bartoneus

      Many of you have excellent arguments, specifically PsychoChild’s is surprisingly well written and thought out. Bryce’s arguments are unexplained and poorly concieved, yet straight out calling people a moron does not help the situation. The entire discussion stems from Roger Ebert who is a person that Bryce no doubt agrees with, and the differing views have only served to increase conversation and thinking about the topic so you should listen to what others have to say and not lash out instantly or they will -never- listen to you.

      I had previously thought that this issue had been flogged to death far too many times, but the volume of responses here seems to suggest that there are many more issues with the discussion that have yet to be worked out. Keep it up!

      Oh, and no single person can ever define ‘art’ at any give time to the satisfaction of everyone.

    • Carter

      Games aren’t art. If you call games art you don’t have confidence in games. You need to turn them from something disrespectable into something respectable by disguising them as something they aren’t that happens to be respectable.

      Have confidence in games. They are games. They are the equal of art, not a subcomponent of it.

    • Phil Carlisle

      It kind of becomes a bit moot when you consider the value of the discussion.

      I frankly dont care if someone calls it art. I know it is, I’m sure many of us who do it regard it as that, hell I’d rather as “is this a science” :)

      It’s probably better to say “does this inspire us to feel something”. Often in games we would say probably not. But that doesnt rule out the medium of games being artistic. Much as I hate some of the “trash made into art” peices, I also dislike some of the more cookie cutter games, but the medium itself is the discussion, not individual works.

      Overall, the medium is frankly more capable of artistic expression than has been explored fully yet.

      And having said all that, I went to see the film “good night and good luck” by George Clooney and the subtleness of the underlying story was so well done that many missed it. I came out thinking “games have been owned here”. Basically games are a blunt instrument by and large. We probably lack finesse in many ways, because often most of us dont understand our craft and truth be told, we dont need to understand it, because it is so primal.

      Much in the same way we can appreciate the aesthetics of a painting painted by an elephant in thailand, even thought we know that it was not an expression of artistic thinking, but a jolly activity for the animal. I guess I feel like we are still undertaking the jolly activity still.

      I’ll stop before I make even less sense :)

    • Nothinglikeit

      I would like to add that games combine several established genres of art into one package. During pre production we have to draw out our ideas in 2d or sculpt models using classic techniques such as perspective that have been used for centuries.

      During the actual development of the game we use photoshop and 3d packages like maya (These programs mimic the operations of their real world counterpart by the way) to create the final models that go into the game. The output of the artists is nothing short of amazing in everything from AAA titles to small indie games. They not only have to make something compelling, it also has to fit into the given file format and adhere to any other restrictions.

      The programming of the engine is nothing short of an art form as well. Thousands of assets are being pushed through and engine and it’s up the programming team to make them all work at the correct time.

      There are several other artists coming from more established genres such as film and recording to games. The fact that directors are getting involved with thier Liscensed IP games now proves that other art forms see the value of games.

      However, I’m not really worried about what games are. I enjoy creating games and the process that comes with it. The fact that I could (potentialy)make a large sum of money from my Intellectual Property only sweetens the deal.

      I would go so far to argue that games are the most collab

    • Robert Nanders

      I’ve hated with a passion the snobbery of artists since college. They seriously suffer from a cultural elitism ethic where major prestige is created by being anti-utility, anti-popular, and anti-esthetic. Maybe they do have great esthetic senses as artists, but so many of them are bitter that they have to sell to survive, or they go begging to Uncle Sam. A good dose of humbling is really needed now and again to keep this sort on the straight and level.

    • Anton Bursch

      Great article about what it takes to make it as a game developer. I took the learn and try and learn and try for years route and finally made it into a small professional indie company and am loving every moment of my full time game development career. I am not rich, but I am making a living. Someday, in time, when I am ready, I will maybe start my own company to make games I want to make myself. But that isn’t even my dream. My dream was to get to make games and have that as my career. And I hoped to get to do it with a great team. It’s a long term goal to make my own games someday, but I’m not in a hurry for that. I am just enjoying the hell out of where I am today. Like you said… it’s an adventure. and I love every minute of it. :)

    • Anton Bursch

      I think that the real question about whether or not games are art is not if they achieve an artistic standard but rather whether or not they are not simply play.

      Are games just something to play? or are they artistic creations to be experienced. Is there a difference between play and art? Is swimming art? Is running art? Is tag art? Is Tetris art?

      The big question isn’t whether or not games are a work of art for the author but whether they are an artistic experience for the player.

      Is playing a game art? Is listening to music art? Is looking at a painting art? Does the experience of the audience define if something is art?

      Ebert says that the author controls the experience of the audience. and that games expect an audience to be in control. so then, the game is not art.

      But what Ebert is missing is right in front of his face.

      Games are art in which the audience is a part of the authorship. Games are a shared experience of art. Shared between author and audience.

      Leave it to movie critics to overlook this. Movies are the one single form of dynamic art in which an audience and author are not sharing the experience together.

      This is just my thoughts about this. Not well written. But this is what I think.

    • RinkuHero

      I think that unless someone provides a working definition of art, they can’t say what is and isn’t art — you have to do one before you do the other. By my working definition of art (as a concrete informational object which embodies some universal principle so as to enable a better understanding of that principle) most games are art. The exception of course is puzzle games :D


      Just to say the question is so stupid! It’s like saying painting is not art! When will people stop asking if video games are art? 1+1=2 so Video Games + Art = 1… ok ok it’s a position not a argument… just my position.
      NB: art = beautiful to the eyes (like Okami), to the ears (sound track), etc. If VG are not are painting is not art, nor music.

    • Franny

      i personally agree i love drawing and createing little fantasy video games i my head. i plan a career in video games so when someone says that videogames are not art or artistic, it kind of cruel to anyone who expresses themselves by making video games.

      my definition of art is= a creative or subliminal way of expressing yourself in any shape or form.

      if dancing is considered art then video games count too!

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