Are Games Art? Does it Matter?
A recent Geek & Sundry article posed the question of: Are Role-Playing Games Art?
...to a bunch of white guys. Let's pause here to appreciate the fact that Geek & Sundry, a company launched by Felicia Day, couldn't find a single woman or even not-white dude to pose this question to... not one. That makes me very, very sad...
...but then let's go on to talk about the article itself. I'll start out by saying I think this is an over-asked very generic question. I've asked the question, myself, and I've been asked it numerous times on podcasts and in interviews. It's a good question to throw out there for discussion because it's got a lot of vaguery to it, so you get very different answers. That's great for discussion... I don't think it plays well when you're just publishing a piece where you get canned responses from a bunch of dudes.
Art is something many people get emotional about because the whole goal of art is to provoke an emotional response. Any emotional response. That feeling of joy you get when your brain registers something as beautiful is just as valid an emotional response as the feeling you get when you find something revolting. So, when you ask someone, "Is this art?" what you're really asking is: "Does this thing provoke an emotional response in me?"
Don't believe me? The dictionary definition for what art is might help out some:
the expression or application of human creative skill and imagination, typically in a visual form such as painting or sculpture, producing works to be appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power.
Unfortunately, most of the answers to this question come in the form of, "I'm going to completely ignore the dictionary definition of 'art' and redefine it as a fuzzy concept open to interpretation." Which just makes it sound like a quasi-intellectual discussion had in a coffee shop just to make the people there feel like they're oh-so hipster or bohemian or academic, or <insert group here>.
That isn't to say all the answers sucked, though. It's worth a read, especially because it's not terribly long. I really only found something interesting in two of the answers, which just made me irritated with the question because it's too broad. First, what Monte had to say:
You talk to any artist, like a painter or an illustrator, and you think they’re just creating a beautiful image, but if you talk to them, you [hear] about precision and detail and sometimes math that goes into composition. And I think game design is very much the same way. You have to understand the mechanics, the probability, the game balance, and projection of possibilities and all these things you need to know.
I like how he reframes how people talk about how artists do their work. If you're not an artist, it's a 'black box' kind of experience. Idea goes in and art comes out. We've been fed a lot of bullshit about right brain and left brain thinking over the course of our lives, and I think the idea that artists don't apply any sort of science or precision to their work comes from this myth that creativity always comes from chaos.
I also like how Monte goes on to say there's a science to it, but there's also something immeasurable, and that to me is the emotional power and beauty we're looking for in that definition of what 'art' really is...
But at the same time there is an immeasurable feel to it all. You also need to think about the fun of it, which is not at all a frivolous thing to think about when you’re talking about games, you think about what’s going to be actually enjoyable at the table, and what’s going to keep people coming back and playing the game. The mysteries [of game design]… can’t just be written in a book. You can’t base it all on some mathematical formula. It becomes a very artistic expression of not just pure fantasy and escapism, but also an understanding of how to create an experience that’s enjoyable, and I think there’s a lot of art in that.
Monte speaks directly to the definition of "art" I listed above. In this case, the author is attempting to create an emotionally powerful response, or even a series of emotionally powerful responses. Enjoying a game can come in many forms, just like enjoying a piece of artwork. In this case, the artist creating the work is striving for an emotional response to that work, which puts it firmly in the category of 'fits the definition of art'.
Of all the answers, I think I liked Monte's the best because he spoke the plainest. Games are art and science all jumbled up together, and one learns from the other all the time. That happens to be one of my favorite aspects about game development, actually. If you're doing it right, you're constantly getting the chocolate in the peanut butter and vice versa.
Monte's answer also plays on what I think is actually the interesting question hiding behind the softball question. The harder question.
Can a game be classified as 'art' without being played?
Is the art in the game that's then played (which is a combination of the people present and the game book), or is the art in the presentation of the concepts themselves (just the game book), or maybe a little of both (the game book is one form of art, the group playing the game is another)?
Zak hit on the whole 'player' thing with his answer...
You could say that throwing a party is art, but it tells you less about throwing a party than just “What is a party,” and I think [games are] very much the same. You can have the best beer or crappy beer, but that may not actually matter. You can have the best music or you can have crappy music, but that may not actually matter. The people you invite super important, and then sometimes you invite the best people and the party just doesn’t go off. But I think that kind of alchemy where half of it is preloaded and half of it cannot is probably the best way to think about it as an analogy.
What I get from what Zak said is that defining a game as art or not art doesn't actually tell you anything about the game or gaming. The end product, the party in this case, is informed by the game, but the game is only part or the whole. Alone it isn't worth much at all. The chocolate and the peanut butter mixed together are what make the snack.
Or can they be more than one thing? The case can certainly be made for certain books being artwork all by themselves. Zak's A Red and Pleasant Land is one of those books I can enjoy without the necessity of a gaming group and campaign to make the snack worthwhile. It's the chocolate. I can enjoy the chocolate by itself, or I can have some peanut butter with it later and have a whole other snack.
I think we if we're going to keep asking this question, we need to give it a bit more nuance to give the question some teeth. Not 'Are Games Art?', but, "Is the game session, the end result of all the art that goes into making a game, art in and of itself?" A kind of art like theater that happens, and then is gone... nothing more than a story to tell someone else. And then... "Are some games better at creating game sessions that count as art (primarily exist for their beauty or emotional power) than others, or is it just the quality of the people at the table?" And of course... "What game books do you own that are art without ever having to be played? Do you find yourself drawn to play those games more than games that require the peanut butter?'