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The Case Against ‘Art-Games’

There are a number of debates in the world of game design and development that remain unsettled. Is there an intrinsic difference between video games and more traditional games? What is the relationship between games and narrative? How do we distinguish between games and other rule-base activities? Finally, how do games create meaning? Each of these questions has intelligent and thoughtful people who spend a great deal of time and energy arguing over the answer. One of the arguments, over the role of narrative in games, took place on such a scale among scholars that it could be partially credited with giving rise to the field of academic game studies. Another, the question of meaningful games, has given birth to a whole genre in game design: ‘art-games’.

The simple conceit of art-games is to use game design to create meaning, to express things, in ways that only games can. Arguments made by the central brain trust of the movement in support of art-games, a trifecta of Rod Humble, Jonathan Blow, and Jason Rohrer, are that too many contemporary games, especially mainstream games, rely too much on their audio/visual assets to create meaning instead of properties that are more intrinsic. Meaning in a game, they say, should be created primarily by the mechanics of the game rather than cut-scenes or other decorations. Jonathan Blow said as much in a recent lecture at the Montreal International Game Summit.

Unfortunately, there are a couple of problems. These problems aren’t being addressed by the members of the movement (at least not publicly) and aren’t being raised in the discussions that surround their work. First, what if mechanics can’t create meaning or express anything on their own, and second, if that’s true, what implications does it have for art-games and games in general?

MEANING IS A MCGUFFIN

I’ve discussed before how it isn’t obvious at all that mechanics have meaning in and of themselves. Meaning isn’t something inherent in a thing, whether that thing is a word or an image or a game mechanic. The word ‘apple’ corresponds to the fruit that we’re all familiar with not because of something about the individual word, but because we (the English speaking world) have all agreed on what the word means. How many game mechanics though, have an agreed upon meaning? Furthermore, would any of the game mechanics that we’re all familiar with, such as ‘jump’, ‘reload’, ‘level up’, have any meaning at all without a visual element to cue to what they signify?

This lack of any sui generis expressive quality in game mechanics doesn’t mean that art-games fail to be expressive. The truth is that art-games lean on their representational layer to create meaning just as much as any other type of game. Take, for instance, The Marriage, which was created by Rod Humble and is perhaps the very first art-game.

The Marriage is a very simple game. It features two squares, one blue and one pink, bouncing around a field of color with a variety of circles, some green/gray and some black. If the green/gray circles collide with either of the squares, the squares will grow. The black circles will make the squares shrink. Both squares will fade over time. However, if the blue square collides with one of the green/gray circles its color will become brighter, while the pink square needs to collide with the blue square in order to thrive. Moving the mouse over either square will make them move towards each other, though it will also make the blue square shrink. The mouse will also make any of the circles disappear, but this causes the pink square shrink. If either square completely fades away or shrinks to the point where they can’t be seen, it’s game over. Keep both squares around long enough and they explode into a bunch of tiny blue and pink squares on a gray background.

There are a number of interpretations of The Marriage that are possible. One interpretation is that the game is about a day in the life of a marriage, with the blue square being the husband and pink square being the wife. The brightness of the squares indicates their happiness while the size indicates their fulfillment. Perhaps the circles represent forces outside the marriage, or maybe they’re standing in for discourse between the couple.

Whatever your final interpretation of The Marriage, whatever meaning you ultimately glean from it, it’s undeniable that it relies on its representational layer as much as it does its pure mechanics. After all, the color of the squares seems just as important as the fact that they grow and shrink. The very reality that the name of the game is The Marriage sets up and shapes any interpretation that a player might have. What would a game called Untitled No. 1 that featured shapes in various shades of gray express? Something different, obviously. At the very least the reasonable interpretations would have a much wider range. However, only the colors and the title would have changed, the mechanics of the game would have remained exactly the same.

A SUITABLE SUBJECT

It’s not that there’s anything wrong with a game’s mechanics and content playing off each other. Jason Rohrer’s Passage is a game that I’ve called “perfect” because of its crafting and the resonance between its gameplay and its thematic elements. While Rohrer’s work since Passage has indicated that perhaps the quality of his break-out game was something of an accident, that shouldn’t detract from its cleverness. That cleverness was precisely because of its ironic and sentimental use of classic gaming tropes, both mechanical and visual, with just a few original bits thrown in to complete the effect.

There’s a very simple defense then, for my critique: so what? Why should it matter that art-games use content just like any other game?

The problem is that if the expressive power of an art-game comes from its mix of gameplay and theme, then what exactly makes them art-games? Gears of War does a great job of keeping its mechanics and content humming along with each other. After all, GoW ‘s story and theme are about a group of badass space marines who like to shoot guns and stomp curbs and its mechanics do a great job invoking the appropriate feelings in its players. So then why isn’t Cliff Blezinski’s action masterpiece considered an art-game? Because it has cut-scenes? Maybe because it’s about making your enemies ‘eat s**t and die’?

Another defense against my criticism of art-games is that what makes art-games special is really their subject matter rather than the purity of their mechanics. Art-games choose to take as their material topics that might be a little unusual for other, more mainstream, games. Issues like marriage (The Marriage), immortality (Immortality), civic disobedience (Police Brutality), the inevitability of death (Passage), the creative process (Stars over Half Moon Bay), and the effect of time travel on interpersonal relationships (Braid). It’s easy to be sympathetic with this argument. You’d think that there were only so many games that could be made about space marines, army privates, fabled warriors, and the battle between good and evil. There’s more to life than violent conflict.

However, if the thing that defines art-games, and puts them in contrast with other games, is their subject matter, then what should we make of other games that have non-traditional themes, or games that have no theme at all? What about Peacemaker, a game that lets players explore different political scenarios between the many factions vying for control of modern day Israel, or the ‘news-games’ of Ian Bogost and Gonzalo Frasca? What about Tetris, a game that has no subject matter but has clearly touched the lives of millions? More to the point, what about more traditional games like Go, or Mancala, or Wrestling, or Football?

I have avoided using the word ‘art’ in order to talk about art-games simply on the terms by which the creators themselves have defined them, but it’s difficult to avoid the subject when it figures so prominently in the name of the genre. It seems preposterous though that Blow, Rohrer, and Humble are arguing that games were never ‘art’ until art-games. What that suggests is that games never had a chance to be ‘art’ until video games came along, and video games are only ‘art’ if they’re about something that isn’t what most other games are about, but also isn’t something quite so pedestrian as current events.

A GAME BY ANY OTHER NAME

So art-games aren’t defined by their purity, by their reliance on mechanics to create meaning rather than content, and it isn’t their subject matter than separates them from other games. Then what, exactly, qualifies something as an art-game?

The most straightforward answer is that there’s no such thing as art-games. Yes, there’s a group of people that make games and they choose to call them ‘art-games’, but that phrase has no meaning. Rather, it simply means “a game created by one of the members of this small group.” Really, art-games are just games, made by people who care enough to devote themselves to an art form that gets a lot of flak and that most people don’t understand. To that point the harshest criticism that might be leveled at art-games was written by our friend Iroquois Pliskin about the games of Jason Rohrer:

It’s not that Rohrer’s work isn’t fascinating and thought-provoking; it’s just that as an exercise, it stays far from the core pleasures of mastering rules. By the time you learn the rules there’s nothing left to do with them. (Games are about doing things with rules.)

The case that’s been presented here isn’t a case against the games that have been called art-games, but against the genre as it’s defined. It’s a case for art-games being treated as games, first and foremost. Of course, if art-games are just games, then they run the risk of being interesting art, but not very good games.

The prevailing wisdom may be that games have not achieved the vaunted status of ‘art’, but perhaps the problem isn’t with games. Perhaps the problem is with our own ability to recognize their artistic merits. Instead of drawing an artificial line between current efforts and the long history of games, which is much longer than the histories of anything we actually recognize as ‘art’, it might be more constructive to find and point out the beauty and inspiration in what has come before. The game development community could still learn a lot from Blow, Humble, Rohrer and their art-games, but if we really want to make art then the secret might be to learn a little more about games.

10 Comments

  1. Darius K. wrote:

    I’m not meaning to be antagonistic here, but did you actually listen to Jon’s MIGS lecture? I sat through the whole thing, and his central conceit is not that meaning should exist within the mechanics, but rather that the meaning of the mechanics and the meaning of the asset-based content should be harmonious. He cites Rohrer’s Gravitation as a prime example of this principle in action. As an example of this principle gone wrong, he cites Bioshock, which claims to be handing you an interesting ethical decision with the Little Sister harvesting, yet the game mechanics say loud and clear: “IT DOESN”T MATTER WHAT YOU CHOOSE.”

    I even noticed mainstream journalists complaining about this in Gears of War 2, actually. The idea being that in the first game, the whole idea of the plot is that you’re on the defensive — the game’s core mechanics being based on defense work nicely here. In the second game, the humans are on the offensive, yet we’re still playing a defensive game, and that dissonance is something of an issue.

    Tuesday, November 25, 2008 at 4:15 am | Permalink
  2. Frank wrote:

    >> …what if mechanics can’t create meaning or express anything on their own

    The reference to the way signifiers (like the word “apple”) work within established sign systems suggests you’re thinking about representation, as in – what if mechanics don’t *represent* anything on their own?

    But…

    1. Things can be expressive and meaningful in this representational way without being conventional signifiers, through resemblance. I can make a little apple-shaped object out of clay and point to it, and you’ll get the idea that I’m trying to convey something about apples without any prior agreed-upon system. Pure mechanics could be meaningful in this way by virtue of resembling the real-world systems to which they’re referring.

    2. More importantly, there are lots of ways for things to be meaningful without representing or referencing other things *at all*. This isn’t the linguistic use of the term meaning, it’s the more general sense of the word. When we say a creative work like a game is meaningful in this larger sense we are saying that that engaging with it adds something of value to our understanding of ourselves and the world. If you learn checkers from your Grandfather and you play it with him every Sunday and it’s the only connection you have with this stern, taciturn man and he never lets you win and it really makes you mad and then eventually you figure out how to win and then one day he dies and then later on you teach your own son how to play checkers then you might be suspcious of the claim that checkers isn’t meaningful because it doesn’t have any apples in it. And you can’t really claim that this type of meaning could be applied to any activity, like gardening or fixing cars, because unlike those activities this is the type of meaning that checkers *was designed to produce* – exactly this little pocket of human connection and struggle and accomplishment and thought and learning and memory.

    Granted, this isn’t what the art-gamers are interested in. Nonetheless, by overlooking this type of meaning you are importing their mistake into your critique.

    All of this is moot, though, because you don’t judge art movements by their theories, you judge them by their work. And a bunch of strong and interesting games have been made under this banner, Blow and Rohrer’s work very much included. So who cares whether or not it’s turtles all the way down?

    Tuesday, November 25, 2008 at 4:30 am | Permalink
  3. Charles Joseph wrote:

    Frank: Hmmm, yeah, I thought it was clear that I was using the word ‘meaning’ in the sense ‘representation’, in the sense of ‘expression’. The example of the word ‘apple’ was supposed to make this clear, rather than confuse things. My apologies.

    Really, we’re in agreement. I definitely believe that games can be ‘meaningful’ without having a specific ‘meaning’, otherwise why would anyone want to make games?

    And yes, all of these semantics are beside the point. What matters really is the work, which as I said is the reason to dismantle a silly term like ‘art-games’, because really they’re all just games.

    Darius: Haha, actually, you have every right to ask that! I did listen to Blow’s lecture, I’m a big fan of all his lectures. He’s a very smart guy. However, what I heard were two basic arguments in the MIGS talk. First, developers should do their best to minimize dissonance between a game’s story and its mechanics.

    However, it seemed clear to me that he was also arguing that the brunt of the expressive burden should be put on a game’s mechanics. This is why he went into such detail about how Gravitation works.

    What I’m saying is that I don’t think that mechanics have any expressive power. If you changed the assets of Gravitation then the game would have a different meaning, even though the mechanics remained the same.

    Also, I’d like to make clear that I’m in no way attacking the art-games themselves. As I said in the second to last paragraph, I only have a problem with the category.

    Tuesday, November 25, 2008 at 5:14 am | Permalink
  4. Bob wrote:

    I must say, I find the image fairly ironic– as a leading member of the Dada movement, Duchamp and the work he produced was primarily anti-art, at least in the elitist homogeny of critic-approved, museum-bound pieces of largely representational painting and sculpture. He scribbled graffiti on the Mona Lisa and put urinals and bicycle wheels in galleries to show how meaningless such definitions were, and how easily art can be commodified.

    The funny thing is, guys like Rohrer, Humble and Blow seem to aspire to the very bourgeois standards of art that the Dadaists were rebelling against. Yet I’m not entirely convinced it’s such a bad thing– however stilted, pretentious and self-conscious their end-products can be, they still aim higher than mere entertainment, and the more that designers follow their example to follow their own muses, at the very least we can expect to see more thoughtful and personal examples of expressive game-design in action, which can never be a bad thing.

    Holding creators to the higher standards of ivory-tower expectations can sometimes be detrimental to the evolution of old, stagnant art-forms– that’s why guys like Duchamp were so instrumental in waking up the art-community to what had been holding them back. Right now, however, I think that game designers can afford to start elevating the priorities and discourses surrounding their work, and hope that the world at large begin to notice the length of the shadows they cast.

    Tuesday, November 25, 2008 at 5:39 am | Permalink
  5. Grey wrote:

    Marriage is certainly one of the first abstract art-games.

    Meaning conveyed through mechanics is a very weak form of expression. A camera angle or movement isn’t what imbues a film with meaning or importance; it’s what’s shown on screen by the camera. Take a step back and judge the action rather than the mechanic. Braid’s protagonist isn’t jumping, he’s jumping onto a platform.

    Gears of War’s intention and gameplay do match up. It, like most games, fits into the exploitation mould carved out by the likes of Grindhouse.

    As for games being art: impossible. Video games are no different at their base to the games of ancient civilizations. Now, we have visuals, audio and mass production to aid in the creation of video games, but they’ve only become more complex and not more meaningful. We still have rules, boundaries, limitations and a need to include “fun” or “challenge” or “gameplay” to captivate the audience.

    This medium, however, the interactive medium, has the greatest untapped potential. Another plug for Ico and Shadow of the Colossus fits in well here.

    It’s interesting to see that these indie creators are a pretentious bunch. Not because of what they create, but because of the high regard they hold their games in. If we reduce “art-games” into a series of symbols and metaphors as these creators insist on, we will be no better than escapist film.

    Tuesday, November 25, 2008 at 9:47 pm | Permalink
  6. Charles Joseph wrote:

    Frank: So I’ve been thinking about your resemblance argument. At first I couldn’t quite put my finger on why I didn’t agree with it, but I think I can now.

    It’s true that a little clay apple resembles a real apple, and in that way has a meaning, it expresses an idea. It does this because to us it looks like an apple.

    However, I’m not sure that mechanics resemble anything except in the most abstract sense. The reason that mechanics ‘look’ like things is because they are paired with visual assets that we all recognize. I return to my example of The Marriage. If we removed all the visual indicators, I’m not sure that we would be able to recognize its mechanics as resembling the dynamics of an actual marriage.

    Clearly you could have a simpler system, say a stock market game, that resembled a more complex system, the actual stock market, but here I think we’re drifting away from the specific expression that the art-game crew is talking about. Hmm, I’ll have to think on this some more.

    Grey: I don’t really want to get into a discussion about the meaning of the word ‘art’, but I’m not sure that I entirely understood part of your comment.

    You say that it’s impossible for games to be art, but that the interactive medium has enormous potential (I’m assuming you mean artistic potential). Then as examples of that potential you point to two games? This seems contradictory to me.

    Wednesday, November 26, 2008 at 4:57 am | Permalink
  7. Grey wrote:

    They’re hardly games. They have similar mechanics, dissimilar stucture and certainly aren’t confined to the “rules” that are inherent to games.
    They’re made with a different intention, too. SotC wasn’t diluted by filler sidequests, enemies and the like. Everything in there was oriented towards realism and expression.
    The time trial mode, eh, I’d rather ignore it. Like an extra on a DVD.

    Surely you see a difference between that and GoW, where skeletons, Zeus and Ares must be bloodily defeated by button mashing through various (extremely fun) levels.

    One is for entertainment or physical challenge, the other is for mental or spiritual challenge; art.

    Wednesday, November 26, 2008 at 5:29 am | Permalink
  8. Charles Joseph wrote:

    Hmm, I’m afraid I have to disagree with you, Grey. Certainly the ‘feeling’ is very different between SotC and God of War and I can agree that that does count for a lot. However, I don’t see how this disqualifies SotC from being a game. Also, you would have to explain to me just how SotC isn’t “confined to the rules inherent to games.”

    But this is wandering off the topic of the post. If you’d like to email me though, I would be happy to continue the discussion!

    Wednesday, November 26, 2008 at 7:45 am | Permalink
  9. Likar Bruia wrote:

    @Grey:
    The camera has a VERY big influences on how an on-screen action is perceived. Otherwise all movies would be shot with still cameras(sometimes a good thing) or randomly placed cameras. This is fundamental to media aesthetics in general.

    Wednesday, December 3, 2008 at 3:50 am | Permalink
  10. Art may be inside of you. You can see it in a game… It’s probably what you, deep inside, recognize as art. Wonder if art creators are able to force your soul to recognize their creations as art ? I hope not, personnaly I think the “watcher”, or player in case of a game, must participate in the fact of authentify art. I guess that’s why to be art or not to be art is still a wide open debate.
    However, your post is really impressive, and mind opening.
    Many thanks.

    Wednesday, September 8, 2010 at 9:31 pm | Permalink

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