Thursday, March 19, 2009



Boy, has it almost been two years since I last posed to myself the question of whether or not video games are art?

Yes. Yes it has been.

Last time, I said no. Since then, I've given it some more thought, let some more ideas bounce around in my head, and arrived at a different conclusion:

Eh, maybe.

Let's begin by taking a look at how people apply the term "art" to other types of games.


I have never, not once in my life, heard anyone try to argue that the game of basketball is a work of art. The idea doesn't even seem logical.

But it's not ridiculous to suggest that there might be an art to playing the game of basketball, is it? There is, after all, skill and beauty in a game of basketball played well. If there wasn't, we probably wouldn't see people paying to watch professional basketball players play.

A well-played video game can hold much the same appeal. Speed runs have become popular in recent years -- the spectacle of watching skilled players perform quickly and flawlessly at games like Super Mario Brothers. Then, of course, there are the more physical games like Dance Dance Revolution, where a player's actions as he or she plays the game could be considered a sort of artistic performance.

Now, maybe I'm giving video games too much credit. After all, art is a form of personal expression, and jumping through a level or tapping to a pre-determined beat may not seem to offer any opportunity for personal expression.

And if you did argue that such performances were artistic, would that make Super Mario Brothers and Dance Dance Revolution works of art?

Well, no.

Board Games

I'm quite fond of the game of Monopoly. So much so that I own two Monopoly sets.

One is the standard, mass-produced Monopoly set that you could find at any toy store or department store for fifteen bucks. It's got a cardboard box, plastic houses and hotels, the little red and yellow cards with the flat black cartoon drawings on one side, colorful money in a plastic tray -- you've played the game, I'm sure.

I also own the Monopoly Heirloom Edition, a sweet limited-run set that I happened to snatch up when it was on clearance at Toys R Us. It comes in a wooden box with a metal latch, with wooden, cloth-lined drawers for all of the game pieces. The cards have color art on them, the game tokens are gold-colored, the houses and hotels are wooden, the paper money is all white with fancier patterns drawn on it -- the whole thing is just designed to look ridiculously pretentious and cool.

There's another Monopoly set I've seen -- but not purchased -- where all of the pieces and cards were re-imagined by some sort of artisty fellow or another, I forget his name, but everything was very elegant and stylized.

All three sets play the same game, but they don't command the same price. Why? Well, people look at the fancier sets, and they say, oh, look how much care has gone into designing the game board and all the playing pieces and the box and everything. To the right person, a fancier Monopoly set could be considered a work of art. Does that make the game of Monopoly a work of art?

Well, no. They're all the same game, aren't they? It'd be like saying that horses are a work of art because I made a particularly nice drawing of a horse.

Video games contain lots of things that we would traditionally call art -- visuals, music, storylines -- but those amount to the playing pieces that you use to play the game. You don't get a new game if you change the visuals, music, and storyline.

Do you?

How Do You Define a Game Anyway?

What is the video game? Is it the giant pile of graphics, music, and story that the designer has prepared for you to experience? Is it the things you do to manipulate what happens? A combination of the two? Either element -- what the game gives you and what you do with it -- could be considered artistic. Does that mean the game is artistic as a whole?

Eh, maybe.

That's as far as I got. And the nice thing about not being a serious writer is that I can leave it at that until I get a better idea.


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