2013-01-30

Videogames as Artistic Expression

On Videogames, Art, and Culture: Part One

Summary: This paper consists of three parts. The first part is about how videogame design is an art form, the second shows that art and culture go hand in hand, and the last section explores the idea that a videogame could be a cultural work of art, as can be works from other art forms.

The debate about whether videogames are art has been around for a while. An online search will show you that the debate is out there. You can find plenty of articles that argue for either side.

Many of these articles attempt to define art and then explain whether or not videogames fit into their definition. I have my own opinions on this subject, but as interesting as the debate is, I won't get into it here. The fact that each person's definition of art is different shows that it's a highly subjective question with no magic answer.

In the academic studies of the field of game design, however, the question is no longer in debate. Today's top videogame theorists and designers are developing innovative ideas that not only cover art and entertainment, but also explore activism, culture, persuasion, education, journalism and sociology, amongst other fields.

Ian Bogost explains that videogames, just like other media, can serve different functions.(1) On one hand they can be completely utilitarian, like drills (educational exercises) or learning tools, and on the other hand, they can be used as a form of artistic expression, which is precisely the goal of the designers of art games, a movement that boomed in the late 2000s.

Not surprisingly, another phenomenon became very popular during this time: independent games. Wikipedia defines them well:

Independent video games (commonly referred to as indie games) are video games created by individuals or small teams generally without video game publisher financial support.

An independent developer isn't necessarily constrained by the commercial aspect of videogame design. He can therefore explore ideas and concepts that a big game company wouldn't risk.

Mary Flanagan defines activist games in her book Critical Play. Even if she isn't talking about art in this passage, her definition holds a key quality when discussing videogames as a form of expression:

"Activist games can be characterized by their emphasis on social issues, education, and, occasionally, intervention. ... [G]ames that engage in a social issues ... to benefit an intended outcome beyond a game's entertainment or experimental value alone."(2)

It's important to understand that the game experience can be more important than the "fun" of the game. The same concept applies to games that serve as artistic expression, except that these games more often explore personal themes.(3)

Game design is not only an art, but its own category of art. The game mechanics, or the interactivity, make videogames fundamentally different from other art forms. Noah Wardrip-Fruin, associate professor at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and advisor for the Expressive Intelligence Studio, explained this well during a conference:

"[M]uch like we could argue that film's unique way of producing meaning is cutting sequences of film together, that game's unique way of producing meaning is on its foundation of operational logics. That doesn't mean that music doesn't contribute to the meaning of a film, it just means it's not that particular part that sets film apart."(4)

While most videogames are only classified into the world of entertainment, more and more designers are exploring the other possibilities that videogames can fulfill, including artistic expression.

Videogames can give you an experience that transforms you, makes you think, presents you new concepts, conveys emotions, and shapes your perspective on the world in a fundamentally different way than other medias. Art or not, the power of forms of expression is really important.



Notes and References


Special thanks: Jesse Waterman, Justin Robichaud, Shannon Robichaud. and everyone with whom I've talked about videogames, art, or culture.

1. BOGOST, Ian. How to Do Things with Videogames. Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press, 2011. Print.

2. FLANAGAN, Mary. Critical Play: Radical Game Design. Massachusetts: The MIT Press. 2009. Print.

3. Examples: Jason Rohrer: http://hcsoftware.sourceforge.net/jason-rohrer/ (See the descriptions of the games Gravitation andPassage) 

Dys4iahttp://www.auntiepixelante.com/?p=1515
Papo y Yohttp://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yTvYkrCsVGY

4. Conference : Inventing the Future of Games. University of California, Santa Cruz, April 15, 2011. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FdNujCfj51M

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