November 18, 2008

The Old Games and Art Question

by Nick Montfort · , 9:38 pm

I wanted to call everyone’s attention to an article by Chris Crawford about whether games are art, published this summer in Notes On Game Dev. The article offers many interesting observations, and I suggest that those interested in the question read it. My purpose in mentioning it, however, is not to repeat it, rephrase it, or respond to it, but to pose a different and related question.

Is game development an artistic practice? That is, is the making of a game like the making of an artistic work – visual, plastic, literary, performative, or otherwise? This is a different question. I am not one of those who believe that only those who identify themselves as artists can create art. It seems obvious to me that Joseph Weizenbaum’s Eliza, whether or not the rebel scientist envisioned himself as an artist, is worthy of consideration as a work of literary art. But it also seems reasonable to note that there are such things as artistic practices, distinct from other practices of craft and design and reasonable to discuss apart from those other practices.

Does it make sense to bring game creators together with artists to discuss their practices? If so, is that true of all game creators or only some?

Well, that’s my question.

13 Responses to “The Old Games and Art Question”

  1. Nick Montfort Says:

    An anonymous respondent just mentioned to me that game creators do have one thing in common with artists – they are assholes.

    Perhaps this isn’t the connection between games and art that we were hoping for, but …

  2. Gregory Weir Says:

    I think that games as we know them today are artistic works, and that even designers who don’t consider themselves artists are working from an intuitively artistic perspective. I think all game creators can benefit from thinking of their works from the perspective of an artist. How does this or that element affect the player? What does this design choice mean for the final product? Artists who work in other mediums have examined these sorts of questions, and have processes and theories that can be applied to make games better, for various definitions of “better.”

    As for my opinion on the “can games be art” debate, I posted about it about a month ago.

  3. Mark J. Nelson Says:

    I guess as with most things, I’d say it depends: what kinds of games, and what kinds of art? Whether a large portion of the commercial game industry’s output counts as “art” depends, in my opinion, on whether you consider the equivalents in other “content industries” art. Are Thomas Kinkade oil paintings visual art? Is the latest Bond film cinematic art? And that all mostly depends on what you want to use the word “art” for.

  4. Chris Lowthorpe Says:

    In response to the question “Is game development an artistic practice?”, the answer is a resounding yes. Speaking from a purely visual perspective, from early concept work to animation on to modeling and texturing, artistic practice is at play in the development of games. It utilizes traditional art-based concepts and skills such as perspective, color theory, and spatial awareness, and most importantly artistic expression and creativity.

    Does this by definition make games art? Possibly. Jenkins proposes them as ‘a new, lively art’, primarily as a tool for defense against prejudice, as Crawford alludes to. As previous comments mentioned, it probably depends on the game and your definition of art; if you think ‘London Calling’ by The Clash is art, then why not GTA IV? Like all art, games are of variable quality and their status as ‘art’ is negotiable, what is not is that they are the result of artistic endeavor.

    My personal opinion, formed through teaching within games in an arts university, is to suggest that games are more relevant and creative, and yes even artistic, than the constant recycling of poor Rothko imitations and continually tedious conceptual nonsense churned out by many ‘fine art’ students. And that, perhaps by default, their very place within an arts institution is already assuring their acceptance as a popular art form.

  5. susan Says:

    I agree with all–except for the anonymous commenter who still, I suppose, has a point…

    Scientists are artists; engineers are artists; game designers are artists; any who create a workable model from an idea without necessarily having the goal of aesthetics in mind but rather a concept that unravels itself into a story, are artists.

    The caveman who invented the wheel was looking for something that would make transport easier. The wheel is a perfect, pleasing circle. Maybe a meeting of the minds would add that awareness to the game creator’s toolbelt.

  6. J. Robinson Wheeler Says:

    Well, insofar as I consider myself a practicing artist in several of the artistic work categories you list, and being a game designer as well, I can say that I approach game design the same way, and try to bring the same mix of artistic intent and craftsmanship I do to the other artistic endeavors. So it’s always been the same to me.

  7. J Bushnell Says:

    Does anyone reading GTA have a good argument for “no?” I’m struggling to imagine what that argument would look like.

  8. Nick Montfort Says:

    Jeremy, without offering an actual argument, I can offer a sketch of one – actually, two sketches:

    1. Artistic practice is distinct from other practices, such as design practice, engineering practice, the practice of developing entertainment, etc.
    2. Game development is much more like one of these other practices than it is like artistic practice.
    3. Game development might be called artistic practice, but is not best understood as artistic practice because there is a better fit elsewhere.
    1. Artistic practice is distinct from other practices because there are one or more essential principles behind it or one or more essential aspects of its approach.
    2. Game development does not have at least one of these principles or aspects.
    3. Game development is missing something at the core of artistic practice and therefore can’t be well-understood as artistic practice.
    1. Brendan Scully Says:

      Skilled game design does not just create art, it creates a potentially infinite number of new artists.

    2. Cindy Poremba Says:

      Well, we can try to answer “no” by altering the value judgment implicit in the question: are games art (elitist, insular, and irrelevant)? Hell no! ;-) If we’re just using the word art as a shortcut to asking if games can be significant, well, that seems an inane question to ask people who find them worthy enough to spend time discussing and creating.

    3. Readings Round-Up – mutually occluded Says:

      […] Monfort of Grand Text Auto asks, “Is game development an artistic practice? That is, is the making of a game like the making […]

    4. Mark J. Nelson Says:

      Nick’s comment reminded me that among other reasons this sort of debate is un-settle-able is that much older debates about other fields haven’t been settled. For example, a person who considers architecture “not art”, because it’s rather a combination of design and engineering, is probably less amenable to considering videogames art than someone who accepts (at least some) architecture as an artistic practice.

      Of course in my opinion that’s largely because the status of something as art vs. non-art isn’t inherently interesting, without some reason you would want to determine the status in the first place.

    5. David Thomas Says:

      I don’t know if this is helpful, but there has never really been a disconnect in (at least Western) architecture around art. Arguments, sure. But architecture has always been concerned with the truth and the beautiful. So, it’s been fairly easy for anyone who wants to talk about architecture as an art form to walk across this philosophical land bridge from buildings to aesthetics.

      When you want to separate out art from the architectural equation, the easiest route is usually to divide architecture from construction–one is the aesthetic practice, the other the practical art.

      How might this relate to games? Well, it seems to me that the issue has always been that we don’t talk about games in very interesting aesthetic terms most of the time. Fun factors and eye-popping graphics don’t really connect very well to rhetorics of art concerned with, as I mentioned, truth and beauty. But to Nick’s original point, I do think that games and computer software are concerned with with deeply human and philosophical concerns. The history of the medium was built by people that worked from fundamental concerns and the representation of these ideas, whether they considered themselves artists or not.

      Maybe what games needs is the architecture/construction disjunction so we can separate the ideas from the material practice? I sense a little of this in our endless fascination with “game designers” over all those other folks who mere “program.”

      — David

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