Posted by: captainfalcon | April 29, 2010

RE: An Apologetic of Sorts

Four things about Chris’s magnum opus. (Only the fourth is substantive.)

1. “Axis and Allies, which contain exquisitely carved pieces and strikingly designed gameboards.” How exquisite! How striking (though I swear I’ve seen it somewhere before…)!

2. Are you sure videogames are a clade? It seems to me fishy to speak of them as deriving from a common ancestor. I am sure one – or a small set – came before all the others. Just like there was, no doubt, a first board game. But, surely, the class of board games is not a clade. (Of course, some non-biological classes probably are clades The variants of Mormonism, for example. It’s just that video games are different.) I would settle for the thinner, less elegant, “family resemblance class,” which Wittgenstein describes as a “a complicated network of similarities overlapping and criss-crossing: sometimes overall similarities.”

3. This is a good point: “the more important factor motivating proponents of “games as art” is an internal one: they truly enjoy thematically rich narratives in other mediums and see the potential for their growth in this still nascent one.”

4. I’m confused. What, by your lights, makes a video game artistic? You disagree with Penny Arcade’s claim that “the visual splendor of the images on the screen makes a game artistic,” approvingly citing Anthony Burch’s “I would no more point to Okami‘s beautiful watercolor graphics to exemplify gaming’s artfulness than I would present the cover art for Abbey Road to show how uniquely artistic music can be.” (Though his tone makes it sound like he’s urging a truistic profundity, this is utterly off-base. The cover art for Abbey Road’s cover isn’t part of the music; Okami’s graphics are part of the game.)

The lesson you take from Burch’s analogy is that the beauty of elements that “are superfluous to…what makes a video game a video game” – that are “fundamentally non-essential” – cannot contribute to a game’s artistry.

I think you are right that elements “fundamentally non-essential” to something cannot contribute to its being art. Your examples are apt (far more so than Burch’s): the beauty of a chess set, or an edition of Axis and Allies, does not make the game chess (or the game Axis and Allies) art.

This is so because a tawdry chess set, or a crude edition of Axis and Allies, both still count as chess or Axis and Allies – the board game is independent of the particular board. It is less clear what elements of video games are non-essential. The physics (a video game’s analog of board game rules) and objectives are obviously essential. But so, too, are the graphics and music (both of which can have a direct bearing on how the game is played: by distracting, obscuring, etc.), and, as you point, the game narrative. (Would Bioshock be the same game if it didn’t have the same back story? Is some dark, moody alter-Super Mario Galaxy an instance of Super Mario Galaxy? Doubtful.)

In short, unlike with a board game, it isn’t obvious to me that a video game is independent of its particular “board.”

Of course, you may not disagree with me. (You suggest, for example, that Super Mario Galaxy is an artistic game.) But that’s why I’m confused as opposed to certain you’re wrong. Because you also seem to endorse the stringent – Burchian – view of what’s essential to a video game that would rule out some of the factors you mention contributing to SMG’s counting as art.



  1. 1. I had in mind the more recent iterations, which do have fairly intricate (and historically accurate) pieces and good-looking maps. Plus, you also selectively quote out the “chess and…” part at the beginning: there are many an ornate chess set.

    2. You are correct. I probably misuse clade here, as video games certainly do not trace back to one common ancestor (they can be a polyphyletic clade, if that wins me back some jargon cred). It is actually doubly embarrassing because I think in that sentence, I was making this exact point: that they are often more dissimilar to each other than they are to items outside the category.

    3. It is not an exactly original thought, but I couldn’t remember/find the article that makes this point, so I left it stand uncited. I think 1-3 can certainly justify the (as of yet unaired) accusation that I am a sloppy writer.

    4. The main point here was to argue for the insufficiency of appealling to the art files contained on the disc (or relatedly how nice the game looks) as the justification of the artistic merits of games, at least in the sense the term is most commonly used. I think Burch’s analogy is a bit weak and throws the larger argument off slightly. I think a better analogy would be to say: the visual appeal of the set design in Batman Returns or the special effects in Star Wars is not what we refer to when we think of “films as art.”

    Films are deemed artistic based on the confluence and interplay of a variety of different elements: the narrative aspects (plot, characters, dialogue, setting); the visual/auditory elements (score, color pallette, sound/special effects); and the film-specific elements (cuts, framing, camera angles/movement). It is patently ridiculous to argue that The Phantom Menace be considered artistic solely because of all the artists who worked on a single pod-racer (or how pleasing the final product is to the eye). Indeed, one can imagine a perfectly salvagable film that does not lean very heavily at all on its splendor of its visual components (12 Angry Men comes to mind). Many of the other elements are similarly non-essential (Wall-e virtually no dialogue, Rope does away with noticable cuts). But this is not to say that these elements are non-essential in all films. If the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park were replaced by paper cut-outs, the effect of the movie would be greatly diminished.

    This same be said of video games, elements are essential for some but not for others. Metroid Prime makes do with no dialogue or characters, but what would Portal be without GlaDos and her monologues? As you note, Bioshock and SMG lean heavily on their artwork/level design and would be greatly diminished without them, but these elements are not necessarily required to make any great game. The more specific point here is that, just as with film, it simply does not suffice to say Bioshock is obviously art because of how many artists designed a particular hallway or because of how nice a still of it looks. The visual splendor of game often factors into the final assessment, but it and of itself is not why games are art.

    This is the argument that Burch makes with respect to Okami (not to be picking on Okami, I like Okami). It is not that Okami’s unique art style should be ignored or could be replaced with realistic graphics without any detrimental effects. The argument is instead what matters is how these design choices (here ink-drawing styled cel shading) intersect with the rest of the game to create the final product. Sure, you could say that many a still image from Okami could be framed and admired and perhaps that, by itself could be art, but it becomes its own thing then and does not have bearing on the game itself.

    So, in summation, you are correct. Games cannot be separated from their board as easily as a chess set can. But pointing to how nice the board looks is still neither necessary or sufficient to act as a commentary on the artistry of the game as a whole.

  2. So your thesis is that many elements can contribute to a video game’s counting as art? Sounds right to me.

  3. Nope, it is even weaker than that because it is not really even a positive claim. All I was arguing for in the quoted section was that being nice to look at doesn’t make games art.

    I do make some positive claims later in the post though.

  4. […] Games and Art, again There’s been ongoing discussion on this blog (1)(2)(3)(4)(5) and elsewhere (6)(7)(8) about the “are videogames art” question. I think I just tagged […]

  5. […] viscerality of games which few other media can replicate.  I have tried to put my finger on in, with minimal luck, but it is certainly tied into the idea of resonance that Tom Bissel discusses and the Super Mario […]

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