Games as Art [Game Theory]


What do the da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, Mozart’s 5th Symphony and Braid have in common?

Very little?

While catching up on my Reader list, I came across an article by respected film critic Roger Ebert from 2010, via Thade. In it Ebert dismisses the idea that video games can be considered Art, or that they ever will ever be recognized as art.

In the first entry of my series on video games as art, I would like to purely explore the debate from Roger’s position, which can be summarized as the follows:

1)      Video games have rules, objectives and an outcome (unlike Art)

2)      Authorial vision is central to art and is destroyed by player control in games

3)      No one can cite a game comparable to great poetry, novels and films

4)      Video games are primarily a business

5)      Why do gamers even care whether the medium is formally recognized as Art?


1)      Video games have rules, objectives and an outcome (unlike Art)

Perhap visualising the stereotypical teenage boy engrossed in a game of Space Invaders, Ebert focuses on usual tropes of video games: rules, point scoring and winning.

I will not deny that video games have rules – every game has a set of parameters which guide player interaction. But how different are these rules from the set of structures by which other art forms operate? When reading a novel, one starts at the beginning and reads each page linearly in turn, deriving meaning from the sentences and paragraphs formed. To do otherwise would be to reject the conventions of the medium.

Rules do not simply limit control – they are the tools by which an experience is produced.

Regarding ‘objectives’ and ‘outcomes’, there are of course numerous examples of games where the experience of playing is more important than a recordable end result, which Ebert acknowledges:

[A gaming advocate] might cite a immersive game without points or rules, but I would say then it ceases to be a game and becomes a representation of a story, a novel, a play, dance, a film. Those are things you cannot win; you can only experience them.

Consider Minecraft for a second, where players create worlds and structures out of blocks. There are no forced outcomes or scores and players free set their own objectives (“I want to build a replica of the Pyramids of Giza!”). Journey where players travel through the desert, uncovering a sweeping narrative, all the while assisting each other without verbal communication.

Video games ARE representations of stories. If we consider video game that provide a narrative as something else (a novel, play, dance, film) then we need to reclassify the media or consider video games as a meta-genre drawing on all art forms.

2)       Authorial vision is central to art and is destroyed by player control in games

Video games by their nature require player choices, which is the opposite of the strategy of serious film and literature, which requires authorial control.

Ebert suggests that works of art begin with the with an ‘auteur’, a person lacking in video games. Most likely drawing on his experiences as a film critic, he emphasizes his reference point of the ‘Director’ as the originator of the artwork, whose vision is realized through its creation and consumption.

I would like to draw attention to the writings of Roland Barthes, French literary theorist, who argued the importance of the independence of a text from its author. Indeed he suggested that “To give a text an Author” and assign a single, corresponding interpretation to it “is to impose a limit on that text”.

Barthes regarded the act of reading a novel as a form of creative interpretation with the ‘meaning’ of the work is a dialogue between the text and reader.

What Van Gogh truly wanted to say with his series of Sunflowers paintings is a matter for art historians, but his work remains in a range of galleries around the world today for viewers to visit, experience and evoke their own unique responses from.

Giving players control of a character in a game does not diminish the artistic value, it is to empower them to create meaning through their own experience. Skyrim players interact with a wide range of characters through the world on their own terms, in their own journey, an experience which evokes more emotion than many of the recent critically-acclaimed Hollywood films.

Bioware titles allow players to make decisions with lasting consequences for the game world, such as whether to save an enemy from peril or kill them to pay the consequences. ‘Authorial control’ is never lost – we are given the tools to produce our own meaningful experiences.

3)       No one can cite a game comparable to great poetry, novels and films

As the outspoken critic who famously gave The Godfather Part II 3 / 4 stars, it is surprising that Roger takes such a definitive angle about the ‘consensus’ regarding artistic merit in the genre.  Who is arbiter of what is ‘great’? Who decides what is ‘comparable’? As someone who has never played a  video game, Ebert relies on the ‘No True Scotsman’ fallacy to defend against future assertions that certain video games are ‘worthy’. Even if he was presented by a game that was universally acknowledged as comparable to the tragedies of Shakespeare, would the non-gamer Roger Ebert recognize it as a such?

4)       Video games are primarily a business

Like the film industry, video games are commercial ventures funded by investors who want to see a financial return. And just like the film industry, there are independent artists making their own ways and using the medium as a form of self-expression rather than seeking profit first and foremost.

However even just taking the major publishers, the desire to create popular entertainment does not automatically negate any artistic merit.

When Arthur Conan Doyle wrote the Hound of the Baskervilles, serialised in The Strand Magazine, he had a vision of his readership and how they would be entertained by these stories. Although he did not set out to ‘create art’, his collection of stories is regarded as a literary classic.

5)      Why do gamers even care whether the medium is formally recognized as ‘Art’?

Why are gamers so intensely concerned, anyway, that games be defined as art? […] Why aren’t gamers content to play their games and simply enjoy themselves? They have my blessing, not that they care.

I cannot speak on behalf of all gamers, however my reasons to pursue the formal recognition of video games as art is that I want to see the industry evolve and grow, drawing on the best talent in writers, musicians and artists from other fields. I want publishers and developers to wake up to the potential and produce titles to challenge their audiences with new ideas and difficult themes, exploring the gamut of human emotions. 


Ebert’s position on video games being unable to regarded as art hinges on the fact that he has never played a game and uses chess as his frame of reference. The industry is continuing to evolve, with increasing numbers of indie developers producing innovative experiences unachievable through other media.

If we collectively accept, like Ebert, that video games are frivolous timewasters, that’s all that we will ever get to see.

About bernardparsnip

Gamer, Blogger, Poet
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10 Responses to Games as Art [Game Theory]

  1. ctmurphy46 says:

    Absolutely, astonishingly, astoundingly well-written, and a great response all around. I don’t think I could ever be as too the point as you are here with the same level of even-handedness and well-reasoned argument.

    As such, my only response is to issue five. I am a gamer. I also value and love art, music, movies, books, poetry, etc. I have taken classes on art appreciation, on the philosophy of art, and I have been to my share of museums. I know just how shaky and grey the word ‘art’ can be.

    However, to me, I think there is definitely a feeling I get when I experience any sort of art. It is a recognition that more often than not I cannot place into words, nor does this recognition always respond to the exact same catalyst. Sometimes, I just recognize the complexity and intricacy of something, and recognize it as art. Sometimes, it is simply the beauty. And sometimes, it is the sheer creativity that hits me.

    There are games that have touched me in all of these ways, and that is enough for me to know they are art. Philosophy, science, theory be damned!

  2. ctmurphy46 says:

    Reblogged this on Game Delver and commented:
    This is an excellent post and an amazing rebuttal to anyone (ahem, Roger Ebert) who thinks gaming is NOT art.

  3. @Ctmurphy,

    Welcome to my corner of the internet and a big thanks for your feedback! I absolutely agree that art is a difficult term to grapple with – this is a theme that I am looking to delve (pun intended 🙂 into in more detail in future posts.
    I look forward to hearing your thoughts…

  4. thade says:

    I like the write-up, but fundamentally disagree with you. Your criticisms against Ebert are valid, but his sentiment is really what I’m into. The thing that makes games superior to television is that games are active entertainment, not passive entertainment. Art can be interactive, but when it’s art the goals are not yours; the goal’s are those of the artist: to make a point, to convey an emotion, or to demonstrate something.

    That’s not to say that games cannot do these things, to a degree. However, when a game comes along and takes control away from the player to make an artistic point, it’s failed both it’s purpose and the player; by making a strong stride from active to passive entertainment, the game denies (and even offends) itself and it’s audience.

    If you set out to make art and your medium is a video game…it’s art. If you set out to make a game and your medium is a video game, it’s a game. I really want these fields to remain distinct, because when they cross that barrier they’re taking me to a land I do not like. There is a reason I do not pay for nor watch cable television any longer.

  5. Anjin says:

    Are you sure that you just started blogging this month? I don’t think so… 🙂

    This is a great takedown of the games-as-art argument. I think that any craft can rise to the level of art. But most people on the counter argument are looking for Art. Games don’t need to be that, but I think they are a lot more important than a lot of people give them credit for.

  6. @thade

    Very interesting thoughts – I would be interested if you can develop this further.

    “when it’s art the goals are not yours; the goal’s are those of the artist: to make a point, to convey an emotion, or to demonstrate something”

    Does art always have these goals? Referring to my point in the blog entry, do the goals of the artist really matter, or is art in the eye of the beholder?

    I absolutely agree that good video games should not take control away from the player unnecessarily!

  7. @Anjin

    Many thanks for the words of encouragement! This is indeed my first blog, although I’ve been reading about video games for around 20 years or so. And I agree with your points.

  8. thade says:

    Apologies. Wall of text incoming.

    To be fair, any argument trying to explain “the point of art” is damned to failure; some would assert that the point of art is to not have a point (you know, to be contrary or purely jerky 🙂 ) while others thing the point is open to interpretation. As I said (or tried to) I don’t really agree with Ebert’s verbatim position…nor do I know enough to really contest it. (My background is not in art history.) What I agree with is his angle; i.e. that video games leaning closer to art are denying themselves their real strength.

    For Ebert’s part, he seemed to be saying that the goals of art and the goals of video games are poorly aligned with one another. Consider movies (which are – best case – art) and a lot of cinematic video games nowadays (which share a lot in common with movies…visual art, music, scene design, costuming, etc.). A movie tells a story. So does a video game. The fundamental difference here is that video games give you control – to varying degrees – on how that story plays out. Sometimes it’s in small ways (the cut-scenes are the same but the action varies wildly…see Uncharted, Diablo, etc.) other times in very big ways (see Bioware RPGs, Planescape: Torment, and the like) but the big ticket item here is Choice. The player has it. The player can choose the when, the how, and – in some cases – the where or even the why. That is not nearly the case in cinema. Really, any “choose-your-own-adventure” movie is just a limited form of video game.

    When you design a video game, you ought to be really playing to the strengths of all video games: things like choice and control can bring the player (who is not just a viewer) to a whole new level of immersion. One that a pure movie cannot really achieve. You can be immersed in a really good movie, but when you take elements from a movie and use them to make a video game, you get an even stronger immersion. Stressing out as Sarah Connor tries to escape that terrifying machine VS. actually *being* Sarah Connor in that encounter. If you’ve ever played Penumbra or the like, you’ll know exactly what I mean.

    Once you go the other direction, i.e. making a game more like a movie, you’re taking control away from the player and that’s fundamentally bad design. The tangent I went off on in my article there was on that point. Why would someone do that? Why take control away? The only reason I could think of was because they felt their artistic desires and goals were more important than the player goals. A huge mistake. Good art? Sure. Maybe. Subject to interpretation. A good game? No. The moment you go “art” it ceases being a “game” (for the player) at all. Going from viewer to player is fine. Going from player to viewer…not fine.

    • @thade

      Agreed! I hate losing control of my character and accept most cutscenes begrudgingly because I like the games that use them for other reasons.

      What I am wondering is:
      Is there anything inherent in video games that would stop us from having a beautifully-crafted story with memorable characters that evokes an emotional response from the gamer? Something along the lines of a Charles Dickens novel.

      To my mind, the interactive medium does not preclude this from happening.

      • thade says:

        That’s very possible and not something I’m contesting; the catch is that the player needs to be instrumental from start to finish, and you can’t “swap from game to art” at any point. 🙂

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