The Essence of Videogames

– A medium´s right for existence –

Since quite a few years now, many gamers have developed a certain need to express how videogames are art. Some do it because of honest feelings, others try to turn average quality games into something better by hyping them up with that term. But what exactly makes a game art? Directly leading from this question is the puzzle: What is a videogame?

Progessing media

If you ask a lot of nowadays gamers about what games are “art”, you´ll quickly get a grip on how it´s mostly based on the visuals of a game. Be it not-often-used effects or great texture- or polygonal design. Then there´s also that part of the gaming community that tries to explain to you how a great story makes a game “art”. And shortly after the release of Kojima´s latest game, also many people will tell you that cutscenes with gorgeous direction make a game “art”. Now let´s take a look at what we´ve gathered, what gamers think that makes a game art. We have the visuals. We have story. And we have cutscenes.
A look back in history reveals us media prior to videogames and what their essence is of. First there were pictures. Oh, thou Mona Lisa, showing us your mysterious smile. The whole essence of a picture is its visual perception. That it what is has to rely on, as it does not have any other possibility to draw people in. Following pictures, there are books. Besides their importance to save information, they can also tell you fantastic stories. Putting books into their entertainment factor, the story is what makes a book “art”. A book does not have any possibility besides presenting a well written, creative, exciting story to draw in an audience. At last, there are movies. Movies are a combination of pictures and books, bringing things to life. Important to take notice here: It brings things to life, but in a passive way. You´re still watching, just like you did watch a picture or a book (watching is then called reading, my friends). That leads to the real matter being discussed in this text.

Videogames are the latest form of entertainment media. Pictures, Books, Movies, now Videogames.

A medium´s rights

The problem is, and maybe you realized that already, that when people declare certain videogames being “art”, they do it while using attributes of other media. Makes you wonder if the medium of videogames is such a shallow medium that it cannot feature its own kind of art. But if there´s nothing that separates game art from art of other media, does that mean videogames don´t have their own essence of existence? They do!

The one thing that makes videogames videogames is their interactivity. It´s the interaction with the game itself. If it wasn´t for interactivity, games would be movies. But thanks god they are interactive, otherwise i wouldn´t be interested in them. Now when you talk about art, it means that something is a really fine piece of “its kind”. When a picture is awsome, it´s art. When a book inspires you, it is art. When a movie touches you or makes you rewatch it many times, it is art. All that being highly subjective. That´s one important thing to always remember: Art Is Subjective
You can never state for a fact as to what piece of a certain medium is art. Personally, i don´t care about classic literature like Goethe or Schiller. It´s not art to me, as i think those author´s books are bad. Yet i know that millions of people keep praising them as art. But i dont attack them as i know: What is art is defined by my very self. Though it certainly is defined what makes a picture a picture, a book a book, a movie a movie, and a videogame a videogame.

Edging out an essence

A videogame is defined by its interaction. Coming from the above, the more interaction a game gives to you, the player, the better, or rather, the more “worthy” of a game it is. Having experienced really dumb people´s reaction to that phrase, i´ll clarify: A game with less interactivity can be a great product. You can have the best fun of your life with it. BUT it still won´t be a game worth much to its medium from a more objective point of view than your personal liking. We have that definition of a videogame. And we know what makes a piece of a certain medium a piece of art. That can only lead to one conclusion:

A videogame is art, when it features the highest level of interactivity at the most clever use of that interactivity.

It´s okay when people like a game´s look or its story. But whenever they say that that particular game is art because of attributes like these, they´re actually praising other media. Of course videogames are a mixture of all the former media, but praising it as a “game of art” because of these former elements is wrong. A videogame itself should be praised as a piece of art, when it features a level of interactivity that makes it turn into art. Videogames are their very own medium, so give those games that actually try to use the strengths of the medium your praise. Clever use of interactivity is anything but easy to figure out and, at a high level, it becomes a matter of art. The art of videogames.

6 Responses to The Essence of Videogames

  1. Grey says:

    It’s true that interactivity is the key component of this medium, but enjoying a story, as long as it is told interactively is not praising another medium.
    If we’re comparing it to film, books, ‘pictures’ – narrative media, then it needs to contain a narrative or emotion to be communicated.

    The worst example of boosting up mediocrity as art (relative to other artworks) is something like a Nintendo game being praised for its artistic design.

    Unfortunately, that relegates it to the realm of buildings and structures. Now, even under these circumstances, a game like Mario is a common road, not a Sydney Opera House – tailored for the best response and functional user experience.

    Is this realm less artistic than narrative art? Society seems to think so, granting more merit to the latter.

    Another component is the visual – they are, after all, *video* games. Simply having pretty art design like Okami doesn’t make a game art. Failure to use the visual elements of the interactive medium ensures the game will never reach artistic heights.

    Remember that we praise film for elements beyond the purely visual. It has taken earlier aspects of art and improved them, as videogames will.

  2. mfauli says:

    It’s true that interactivity is the key component of this medium, but enjoying a story, as long as it is told interactively is not praising another medium.

    When a story is interactive, it´s interactivity, simple as that. Interactivity isn´t defined, it just comes down to “how much of a game is interactive?”. Mass Effect would be a great example. It´s story-heavy, but every narrative is interactiv.
    And i have to disagree with your Nintendo-critic, i think Nintendo´s one the best examples of when videogames become art.

    Though it seems i have to repeat:
    You can have fun with all the movie-esque games and what not. But those games aren´t art in the sense of what a videogame is about. Also, yes, it´s called “video”game, but that´s just its name. No need to play on semantics.

  3. adamagogobaby says:

    I suppose this post classifies true artistic value to be in the specific individualities of a given medium. For example, artistic splendor of a sculpture isn’t due to it being fun to play with, but rather what it looks like. The truth is, why shouldn’t a medium branch out to encompass much wider experiences. Why shouldn’t a sculpture be interactive for example? The lines between artistic mediums are very blurred.

    What I’m trying to say is this. Why must video games have the “highest level of interactivity at the most clever use of that interactivity” to be art, if visually they look stunning or beautiful (in the sense of artistic direction as opposed to mere polygon counts and such).

    Thanks for a great article though! We need more people to get behind video games and prove to the world that they’re more than just inane toys.


    • mfauli says:

      Why must video games have the “highest level of interactivity at the most clever use of that interactivity” to be art, if visually they look stunning or beautiful (in the sense of artistic direction as opposed to mere polygon counts and such).

      Because, imo, every medium has something that makes it special. That defines it. A video game with beautiful visuals is art…just not as a video game. That´s what i tried to say in my article. People can call certain games “piece of art”, no problem. But then dont say game XYZ is art because of it is a great game per se…say that it is a game that became art thanks to its visuals.
      You know, maybe im so demanding on that matter because those games that really achieve, or a close to, to be art in the sense of a video game, get too few hype/attention. Sure, a lot of gamers like Mario Galaxy. But have you ever seen someone call it a piece of art? I have not.

  4. […] is art“. How sick I am of this statement. I wrote an article on video game art for FlyingFisch a long, long time ago, where I finely crafted a definition of what video game art actually is. I […]

  5. […] put games one step ahead of movies was their interactivity. You can read about that in detail here, but the order of evolution in entertainment-terms goes as follows: picture -> movie -> video […]

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