The Art of Games

Being a bit of a writer (as you might have noticed), and my girlfriend being a photographer, I exist, one could say, on the fringes of the Art World. I am also (as you might have noticed) a bit of a gamer, so it may come as little surprise to you when I say I am interested in exploring the places where these two worlds collide.

The inspiration for this particular piece comes from an article in the latest Official PlayStation 2 Magazine, wherein their staff writer, Mike Sterry, and their production editor, Sophie Mason, take opposing viewpoints on the question, “Can games be considered art?” – with Mike answering “YES!” and Sophie answering “NO!” I may decide to throw in a few quotes from this article, but if you want to read the whole debate, I’m afraid you’ll have to buy the magazine (issue #95, which went on sale yesterday in the UK, for £5.99). Anyway, enough promo-ing the mag, let’s get stuck into the issue…

While on the way to work this morning, my girlfriend (the aforementioned photographer) called to say “Good morning!” and I threw the above question at her (“Can games be considered art?”) – to which she responded with a resounding…

“Yes, of course! Just think of Primal!”

Primal being a highly enjoyable game we played together a few years back; one of the first PS2 games we played, in fact, and one which, we would both agree, is definitely one of the more artistic PS2 games, and which is a landmark game in terms of depth of narrative and characterisation, innovation of gameplay and overall visual appeal. Sadly a sequel has not, thus far, been made (and with the advent of PS3, it seems unlikely a PS2 sequel will be made), and it has been somewhat underrated in the overall scheme of things. But enough promo-ing of (the wonderful, exciting, super-sexy) Primal… What of its artistic qualities? What, in fact, of the artistic-ness of videogames in general?

Primal looks amazing (as you can see, if you Google it and take a glimpse at some of the screenshots which exist on websites referring to such). The story and characters are deeper, more engaging, than you might expect from a “mere” videogame – involving, as they do, an increasingly complex and subtly humorous relationship between Jen, a young (and obviously, beautiful) human/demon, and Scree, her gargoyle “assistant.” Further details pertaining to such can be found on the aforementioned websites. The question, though, is what, if anything, raises a game such as Primal above the realm of fun interactive experience to work of art…?

The problem with attempting to answer such a question is one which has no doubt troubled art critics ever since the term “art critic” was coined… to whit… answering the question…

What is art?

Now there’s a biggie!

To quote OPS2’s Mr Sterry…

“Artists of yore such as Hogarth, Caravaggio and Goya lived in simpler times when symbolism and being nice to look at were art’s chief accomplishments.”

Indeed so… But what if we go back even further? We call prehistoric cave art “art.” But what is its purpose? To tell a story? To serve as a practical demonstration of how to kill a bear/moose/saber toothed tiger*? Does this mean a “How to” manual or the instructions from a set of flat-pack shelves can be considered a work of art? Well there are Da Vinci’s diagrams of helicopters and the like… But how does this fit in with the Caravaggio-esque perception of art? Or even that of 2008?

I mentioned earlier that I exist “on the fringes of the Art World” – by which I mean to say that I have attended a few gallery openings, I have perused a few exhibitions (wandering slowly around the “space,” making meaningful murmurings and stroking my stubbly chin ponderously) and I have “mingled,” on occasion, with “arty types.” As such, although some light-years short of being an “expert,” I think it would be fair to say that I “have a general inkling” of “what goes on.” And by “what goes on,” I think I have some general idea of what is considered art, what is not considered art, what is considered good art and what is considered bad art… by which I mean to say, I would have an idea of the aforementioned, if those more “in the know” than myself had much of an idea themselves!

What I take away from “my experiences in the Art World” (apart from a tendency to over-indulge in “ironic” quotation marks) is a general feeling that it is all very confusing, subjective and no one really knows. Defining art is like attempting to describe the shape of a cloud… or the colour of a thought. Mike Sterry from OPS2 (because we were, if you remember, talking about games) seems to have a pretty good grasp of the sorts of things which are said about what art is and what art isn’t. I will therefore present for you, herewith, a list of quotes from said gaming journalist, in which he describes the qualities of games which he would, in his own words, “feel comfortable defining as art,” as well as his views on art in general…

“…they [artistic games] show an awareness of other fields of established art…”
“…they [artistic games] create an emotional reaction with the player; empathy with fictional characters…”
“…symbolism and being nice to look at were [in the ‘simpler times’ of Hogarth, Caravaggio and Goya] art’s chief accomplishments…”
“…Craft and meaning combine to make art in Shadow of the Colossus…”
“…[works of art are] produced with the intention of communing something sublime between artist and recipient…”
“…[artistic games are] breathtaking, beautiful and moving…”
“…there are games – Ico, Shadow of the Colossus, even Metal Gear Solid 3 – that could be hung in an art gallery…”
“…Just because there aren’t any agreed terms – yet – for discussing games as art doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do it…”
“…the fact that not all games are ‘works of art’ doesn’t mean we mustn’t call games an ‘art form’…”

And by summation, Mr Sterry says that some games (‘artistic’ games)…

“…are truly beautiful…”
“…elicit emotion…”
“…are finely crafted…”

Generally I think I agree with him. But what is he getting at?


…is aware of itself as being art.
…creates an emotional/empathetic response.
…is nice to look at – breathtaking, beautiful.
…combines craft and meaning.
…is an act of “sublime” communication between artist and recipient.
…can be hung in an art gallery.

And not all examples of an “art form” can be said to be “works of art.”

In literal terms, I’m not sure I agree with the latter statement. If it looks like art and it smells like art… etc. On the other hand, if you take what seems to be its implication that not all art is good art, then that’s a whole other bag o’baubles!

In terms of the other implied definitions, listed above, I would say that, although they can all be used to define/describe particular individual “works of art,” they can also be taken out of the artistic arena and used to define other objects, concepts, products of creation and existence. A computer, for example, is “aware” that it is a computer and often refers to other computers. A baby’s smile or a favourite chair can elicit an emotional response. Being a friend of someone who is going through a difficult divorce, when you have also experienced such, can invoke empathy. A sunset is “nice to look at,” breathtaking, beautiful. One can have a sublime, uplifting, inspiring conversation with the Dalai Llama. Regarding craft and meaning… what is the meaning of “meaning”? And let’s face it, practically speaking, anything can be hung (or placed or installed) in an art gallery… and that’s aside from the fact that not all “art” can exist or is even meant to exist in an art gallery! Does that mean it’s not art…??

Vague, subjective, contextual, interpretive…

If someone says something is art, then it is art.


I say videogames are art!


* please forgive any lack of historical accuracy here, with respect of the co-existence of particular species with “humans,” but I hope you will appreciate that historical accuracy is not, as they say, the point.


4 comments on “The Art of Games

  1. Alex says:

    Art is anything which evokes an emotion, be it visual or aural. It’s something which creates a connection with you. Games can be art as they can connect with you, through visuals or music or gameplay itself.

    Take ICO and Shadow of the Colossus, for example. You connect with the characters and the world around them. It’s not just the colour palette or the orchestrated music though. It’s the feelings the games make you go through. Just like music, cinema or traditional art – paintings, sculptures etc., – games can be a form of expression. They can be art.

  2. pepsoid says:

    Thanks for the comment, Alex. 🙂

    I tend to agree with you, especially with respect of the games you speak of. However, as I have a “rule” (partly based on the tightness of purse strings and suchlike) that I won’t purchase a game until it comes under a particular “Pre-Owned” price, I have only as yet played demos of Ico & Shadow! Methinks people recognise their quality & hang onto them…

  3. Sophie from OPS2 says:

    Sniff sniff I didn’t get quoted ;p

    Ah well. I’m glad you found the debate interesting anyway! And I forgive you for disagreeing with me, alhough if you had to experience as many dross games as we get coming through the office on a monthly basis, though, I’m pretty sure you’d find it hard to see them as ‘works of art’ too…..

  4. pepsoid says:

    Nice to see you on my blog, Soph! 🙂

    Sorry for not including any of your words… if it’s any consolation, it wasn’t a conscious decision not to!

    Re “works of art”… I think me & Mr Sterry mean slightly different things! I can well believe the amount of dross you get coming through your office, and I utterly sympathise with your pain at having to play such games to the bitter end. However, in my perception, saying something is “art” (a “work of” or otherwise) does not necessarily mean it is of any discernible “quality.” A stick man could be said to be art, but you wouldn’t pay a couple of grand to have it hanging on your wall! Well some would, but that’s a whole other punnet o’prawns…

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