Yesterday, I explored two general interpretations of the term “art” that seem to characterize the two sides of the debate over whether or not games qualify under that heading. The interpretation characteristic of those who say “nay” implies that we recognize true art by its capacity to transform us. Because that interpretation focuses on the success of such transcendent intent, I dubbed it teleological. The other interpretation, generally more characteristic of the “yea” camp, implies that art is just a particular kind of activity, recognizable by its concern with aesthetic content. That I termed modal.

I want to reiterate that both uses seem to me perfectly legitimate, depending on the context. The only catch is that, in order to know which, if either, is appropriate to this particular context, we have to start by asking what’s staked on the question.

At the outset I want to try to disentangle some of the contingent stakes from those that are innate to art and gaming. In the comments to the Emily Short article that started me down this path, user Tablesaw wrote:

I think it’s important to remember that the definition of art has significant political consequences, especially in the United States, regarding how a given possible-art-thing and its creators might be treated.

For example, a given work’s standing as art can determine whether or not it’s eligible for an NEA grant. Legal protections for games and recognized arts sometimes differ. Depending on where you live, recognized artists are often accorded a respect not granted to the designers of games.

No doubt many of the people engaged in the debate decide which side of the line to stand on based on concerns of that sort. And while the political and social value of calling a given thing “art” may seem to have more immediate consequences, it doesn’t seem to me that they should be allowed to override what you might call the philosophical concerns.

The reason is simple. Politics change. Laws change. Social status changes. Sometimes, these things change more quickly than philosophical attitudes. Once we’ve got the philosophical angle sorted out, it’s always possible to work on the political, legal and social challenges. Once a philosophy is entrenched, it often remains so even after the institutions that plagued us in the first place are long gone.

So I think it best to start closer to the more enduring issues. The contingent concerns will take on more or less significance as times change, but so long as there are games, two questions will persist: How do we make them? And how do we play them?

By the way, it should go without saying that, since games are made to be played, and we can only play games that have somehow been made, those two questions intertwine. Indeed, playing and refining early prototypes is one of the ways in which games evolve into something like their final form. It’s not entirely clear that there’s any definite end to that process. After all, professional sports associations, like the NBA and the NHL, introduce rule changes even to games that otherwise seem fixed and canonical. Those tweaks add up; change enough rules, and you’ll have created a new game. But, conceptually, there’s a practicable division between making and playing, and at the very least we can say that a person playing a game isn’t necessarily also making one at that precise instant, and vice versa.

Because it is (in some ways) the easier of the two to tackle, let’s start with the question of game-making. In the discussion at Emily Short’s blog, Gareth Rees argued

that a pernicious aspect of the whole “are games art?” debate is that some developers take it seriously, and try to make games that aspire to be novels or films, instead of trying to make better games.

That many game-makers have been trying to emulate the aesthetic effects of film, with no regard for anything like a principle of specificity, is, I think, generally acknowledged. I tend to think of it as the Final Fantasy effect, since it’s possible to essentially trace that franchise’s evolution from a fairly traditional CRPG to The Spirits Within. Still, I’m surprised more people weren’t taken aback by the suggestion that there might be something wrong with games that aspire to be novels, since Rees’ audience of the time was made up primarily of people involved with the interactive fiction community.

Which isn’t to say that certain genres of game shouldn’t pick up a trick or two from arts that are, for lack of a better word, their cognates. Even if there is, at present, an imbalance, with some muddled game designers supposing that the only way make great games is to imitate great works of art, it’s probable that time and the free market will eventually sort that out. If games are a form of art, then it’s at least conceivable that designers will one day learn to work exclusively with a palette of game-specific artistic effects.

The larger point, rather, is that how a game designer conceives of their end product bears heavily on how they design it. A designer out to craft a work of art will tend, on the whole, to make decisions he supposes to be artistic, while a designer out to make a game may end up making a different array of choices.

I specify “may” because I don’t want to prejudge the issue, but in fact we often do talk as though those represent different points of concern. That’s clearest when we discover that game design and artistic design can be at cross-purposes in the same game. Most games have played at least one video game wherein certain artistic choices made the game virtually unplayable, but which were aesthetically compelling nonetheless. I once bought a marble chess set in Mexico that had pieces carved with Aztec themes. Aesthetically, it’s pleasing enough, but the design simply isn’t functional, so when I play, I typically use a more traditionally European set. In either case, the game is played the same.

Or rather, in principle, both sets play the same. In practice, one set is virtually unplayable, since it can be difficult to distinguish between pieces. “That’s simply bad design,” some will say. And that’s true, but it’s bad artistic design. The fact that the art is distinguishable, not just in principle but in practice, from how the game is played is part of the point. Which isn’t to declare the case closed. As was quickly pointed out to me when I made another version of this argument over at Emily Short’s blog,

Aesthetics can determine gameplay.

In the case of my Aztec-themed chess set, the aesthetic essentially breaks the game play. In a tabletop role playing game, the aesthetic has more or less the opposite effect, motivating many of the behaviors that drive gaming sessions. And, in part because those results vary so widely, the fact that a given aesthetic can condition game play complicates the question, rather than resolves it.

The question of what’s going on when a person plays a game is a tricky one, with a growing body of inquiry behind it. I don’t intend to sort it out here, except to say that games are a way of formalizing play. That’s a facet not only of the rules by which most games either explicitly (as in refereed sports) or implicitly (as in video games, where the rules are programmed in) function, but also of non-rule like elements. Even naming is a means of formalizing play. For example, Bill Watterson’s invention of Calvinball may come as close as possible to the ideal of an essentially rule-less game (with, however, a paradoxical and tongue-in-cheek rulebook), but the very fact of naming distinguishes it from other types of ball-based sport. It’s that formalization of Calvinball as a game unto itself that prevents a conscientious player from considering the same sorts of play valid in baseball or Yahtzee.

Given that premise, one question that lurks below the surface when we suppose games to be a form of art will be, “How might that change our expectations concerning the formalization of play?” Below the surface, because most gamers won’t actually formulate the question in those terms. But they may well approach the act of playing a game as though they had.

In some cases, that’s what game designers seem to want. Emily Short mentioned The McDonald’s Game, which invites the player in under the pretense of playing a Farmville-esque resource management game. At a certain point, though, the player is expected to contemplate, preferably from the perspective of social and moral concern, the consequences of the activities represented in the game.

She’s right: The McDonald’s Game makes for a compelling example of how a game can be designed so as to achieve an artistic effect, similar to that made by a documentary like Food Inc. But in that regard, it may be exceptional. I certainly don’t believe that we should expect to find the same effect operative in games in general. If it were, might we not eventually find ourselves wondering about the meaning of roulette, or hopscotch, or tic-tac-toe? And if we do, will we be missing something more essential to each of those? That a game can bear the sort of meanings that we express as moral or cultural propositions doesn’t mean that they do so as a matter of course.

That by no means exhausts the range of concerns that arise when you look at the issue from the perspective of its effects on game-making and game-playing, but it should, at the very least, suggest some of the avenues those questions lead us down. And it’s foundation enough for suggesting an interpretation of art better suited to the stakes involved in asking what it means to call games art. You could, I suppose, think of that interpretation as functionalist, but that might be taken to imply that games have some sort of objective or inherent purpose, toward which they should be built.

It might be more apt to think of my interpretation as opportunistic. Art affords us certain opportunities. You can construe those opportunities in any number of ways: opportunities for growth, opportunities for transcendence, opportunities for mere amusement. Games also afford us opportunities, and those opportunities may or may not inhabit the same range afforded by the arts. That’s not a question I intend to answer today. But in either case, to the extent that we want to continue to have those opportunities afforded to us, we’ll need to be able to identify them when we see them, and know how to generate them for others.

Getting closer to the gist of all this, if it turns out that art offers opportunities that games don’t, and/or vice-versa, then it will be in our best interest to distinguish between those opportunities. If we don’t, we might lose some of those opportunities in the muddle. That’s particularly true if we subsume one category into the other.

That’s why it’s important to ask what games are if they’re art. It is, in other words, a way of asking if the opportunities provided by art are the only opportunities we’re afforded when we make and play games. And I think that’s worth forsaking whatever it was people hoped to gain by insisting that the artistic status of games be staked on either the teleological or moral interpretations.

In my next post (likely the last of this series) I’ll try to provide a provisional answer to that question. No promises, but it might end up being a more nuanced answer than you expect.

is the founder and editor-in-chief of Culture Ramp.
— Please submit all corrections, responses and rebuttals as letters to the editor.