The following is my fleshed-out response to Video Game, Video Gimmick or Video Art? By Christopher Quach. I actually wrote this out completely then summarized it for the in-article comment, but I like it enough to share in whole with the community. And to make up for my meandering mashup of a first (and previous) article:
I too had been grappling with the idea of video games as art. I’ve been gaming since the days of DOS and NES and only recently had my eyes opened wide first by Portal and then by Braid.
The furthest I got with any formal training was a nice university Art History class and an intro to Digital Arts class years ago, and more recently a History of Narrative Film.
Most of the material was a survey of each class of media, but there was enough discussion and plenty to glean from the texts to get a feel for appreciating art. Yet, I felt largely in the fuzzy gray when it came to video games as art.
And then I realized a more fundamental issue–my limited grokking of Art in general–when I started to really dig into Understanding Comics by Scott McCloud and A Theory of Fun for Game Design by Raph Koster, as well biting into the really varied insights excerpted by The New Media Reader.
Please read at least McCloud and Koster’s books if you haven’t already, they’re inexpensive, relatively short reads in casual voices but with a lot to express, much like the better content on BitMob like your article here (take flattery as you will).
They cover not just comics and games (especially video games) and their values as artistic media, but they explore the bigger context of how art media in general manage to express what they express, how art works as art.
If you have read those books, then I believe your article does them a disservice by not mentioning them; I’m not a forensic writing analysis dude so I can’t tell from your article if you’ve encountered those texts.
The New Media Reader, while being a more does-it-all university text, goes all over the place to place New Media (like video games, computer art, interactive art, etc.) by presenting representative source articles in the history of New Media (articles from the 1950s to late 1990s) as well as explanations of the context of the articles, and there are articles there that echo the question of “Are video games art?”
This one’s a bit pricier, but it’s a treasure trove crash course in the conversation about interactive/digital/computer-affected media.
It’s interesting that you brought up the idea of “learning” and a game not being fun if a player cannot learn from it; this is Koster’s central idea from 2005; he boils down his discussion of any game as a puzzle, and fun as the experience of learning.
I’m currently working with a phrase that helps me interface with his thesis better: I consider any worthwhile game as a puzzle that can only be solved by learning the actions of the game.
All games are “action puzzlers”, it’s just that not all games are puzzling to all people, and even for games that no longer puzzle they are still enjoyable to review and replay.
Koster seems to rely on the idea of what’s called a formal system to limit his definition to games with explicit rules to avoid leaking the definition into “regular” daily living and obstacle-dealing, and while my redefinition doesn’t explicitly say so, I’ll do the same.
I don’t want to imply any moral distinction when I say “worthwhile game”, to adopt some of your ideas, it is simply a distinction I make between games that can be learned from and games that don’t have much to figure out, and this is subjective: what one person can learn from a game and how much is different from another player.
Still, as you have identified, games that don’t necessarily teach or teach much, such as your experience with your football manager game and your partner’s Sims time, as well as mmorpg grinds suggest that these experiences aren’t exactly worthwhile as I’ve defined it, but they are valid as diversions, to say the least, and at best they maintain existing skills, and for many these are enough to make for a pleasant game session.
Admittedly I haven’t said anything about what video games say as art, and I still don’t really have much a clue, and I don’t want to mangle McCloud or Koster’s message on the topic.
However, I suggest that all games express ideas about the hows and whys of interaction: whether that’s a lesson as “meaningful” in opposing or cooperating with other people and “real world” entities, or as virtual as pushing shapes and matching them to each other or as “meaningless” as playing with the pseudo-randomness of a rube goldberg machine based on made-up physics.
A bigger question for me is: “Do games ever express anything about interaction that is actually useful?” I believe most of everyone who reads and writes on BitMob will say yes.
Thanks for your article!