Can games be art, and should we care either way? Every culture respects some activities and objects as 'art', and grants to these a certain esteem that is entirely apart from their practical uses. Art, as Oscar Wilde suggested, is quite useless, but nonetheless great art, good art, and even interesting art attracts a lot of attention, a lot of praise and criticism, and a lot of money. The question of whether games can be art is usually treated in one of two ways – often by presuming either they must be art (Santiago) or they can't be art (Ebert). In my book Imaginary Games I take another path: the question of whether games can be art is misguided, because all art is a kind of game. To understand why this is so, there's no better place to start than looking at the relationship between games and stories.
Every game tells a story. It may not be a good story - Pac-man's eternal quest to eat all the pac-dots and avoid the ghosts except when hopped up on power pills is hardly a candidate for adaptation to a book or film, but it is still a story. Even Tetris is amenable to interpretation as a narrative of some kind, as Corvus Elrod and others have argued. There is, however, a powerful impression among many dedicated gamers that the story in a game is secondary to its function as a game system, and it's easy to find examples that support this concept – no Chess player is concerned about the narrative that could be derived from the Knight defeating a Castle, for instance. Nonetheless, every survey that asks about stories and games comes back with overwhelming support for them - my own work showed 93%of gamers wanted explicit stories with their games. There is a tension here between the widespread desire for games-with-stories, and the impression of games as something beyond – or more than – 'just' a story.
What confuses this issue is that many games, particularly big budget games, include story materials (principally animated cut scenes) that are entirely separate from the game itself, while being embedded inside it. These cut scenes can often be watched on their own as a an animated film, with only a slight disjunction created by the excising of the game itself. This leads to an impression that games don't need stories (Samyn) or that there are no good game stories (Kelly). There is an important issue to be recognised in this respect, namely that games are an inefficient medium for storytelling – if you wanted to tell a particular story, it would be more work, and hence more expense, to tell it as a game, and you would generally be better off writing a book or making a film instead. It is this inefficiency that gives rise to the animated film intercut with gameplay, since the film is a much more efficient narrative vehicle, so games that want a rich narrative often end up borrowing other mediums to get there.
There are, as Jesper Juul has asserted, two sides to games – their fiction and their rules – so every game (set of rules) has an associated story or set of stories (fiction). But the situation is more complicated than Juul suggests (and I certainly don't support Juul's suggestion that the rules are 'real' and the fiction is not) since if we look at other media, particular those which are accepted freely as art, we find that there are also fiction and rules. Consider paintings. It's not hard to see the fiction in paintings, since when we look at a typical painting in a gallery, we immediately perceive its story. Constable's Hay Wain shows a horse-drawn farm cart fording a river by a watermill, Seurat's A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jette depicts a number of well-to-do ladies and gentlemen, sat on the edge of an island, enjoying a pleasant day, and Van Gogh's Starry Night depicts a rural town beneath a blanket of stars.
Yet paintings also have rules to them – in the case of the Hay Wain it is a tacit rule of appreciating this and many other paintings that the paint on the canvas is a depiction of something, such that when we look at the Hay Wain we see a cart at the river, not a set of coloured paint splotches. This rule is even more important in the case of something like Starry Night since this does not even resemble a real star-strewn night sky at all, but is rather more like the impression of such a sky. Nonetheless, when we look at this painting we see a town beneath a night sky, not elaborate coloured swirls (although we can of course see it this way, if we choose). The philosopher of art, Kendall Walton, whose theory of representation Imaginary Games adapts to videogames and the like, has a way of describing the 'rule' that leads us to see paintings as depiction: the painting prescribes we imagine that it represents something.
All representative art (which is most of, although not quite all, the things we consider art) involves this prescription to imagine. When we watch an action movie we are prescribed to imagine that we are watching a car chase, and we do not usually allow ourselves to remember that we are actually watching stunt drivers or, as often as not, computer generated imagery. When a character dies in a TV show, we are prescribed to imagine that someone is dead – even though we know the actress in question is still very much alive. Representative art always has associated with it a fiction that we are supposed to imagine – this is the basic rule of representative art. Walton points out that this rule is continuous with children's game of make-believe, which also use this rule in various specific guises ("let's pretend we're doctors!") and in this sense all representative art is a kind of game, specifically a more sophisticated form of a child's make-believe game.
Since representative artworks prescribe we imagine something that is fictional (like the fictional cart in the Hay Wain) all such works of art have a story – although that story may be quite 'thin' (as it is with the Hay Wain) compared to the density of the narrative we get from a film or a book. But this scarcely matters because we don't appreciate different media the same way. We don't judge the story of a painting the same way we'd judge the story of a book. Indeed, in the case of the painting what interests us in terms of its fiction is often how it gets us to imagine things rather than what it gets us to imagine – Starry Night, for instance, is interesting precisely because it doesn't look at all like what we are clearly prescribed to imagine it represents.
There is a parallel with the stories of games: anyone interested in games as a medium must recognise that game stories need to be judged differently from the stories of other artworks. When someone like Tadhg Kelly says "there are no good game stories", I wonder if this is because he has not played many interesting games, or if he is trying to judge games by the critical standards of (say) film. Games make lousy films, just as paintings make lousy books, but this does not mean there are no good game stories. You need to judge game stories by the criteria that make sense for the medium - and this requires a very different perspective on the fiction connected to games.
What is interesting about the fiction of games is generally the relationship between the rules (which are richer and more interesting than the rules of other artworks) and the story of the game. I have suggested that a great game story is one in which the rules support the narrative, and similarly that a great game, artistically speaking, is when the rules and the fiction are closely aligned. This is not quite the same condition: Pac-man achieves the latter but not the former, for instance. I might call this a fiction aesthetic for games, since it makes an aesthetic judgement about games or game-stories based on the nature of the fiction that is entailed.
On the fiction aesthetic, those game franchises like Modern Warfare or Final Fantasy that tell much of their story in pre-scripted cut-scenes or equivalent sequences are not really candidates for good game stories (even though their story might be a perfectly good viewed in isolation), whereas something like Magnusson's The Killer has a tight relationship between the rules and the fiction – I consider this a good game story, even though if you adapted it to a short story ("I walked right" repeated over and over again) it simply wouldn't work. (Magnusson tellingly doesn't consider this a game, calling it a 'notgame' – but since I'm saying a painting is a game, then The Killer is certainly also a game). Similar arguments can be applied to other games – I would single out Silent Hill 2 and Majora's Mask as good game stories, for instance – indeed, the tree sequence from the end of the latter game (pictured above) is practically worthy of arthouse director Ingmar Bergman, yet it is interactive throughout.
This way of looking at games and other artworks as producing fiction from rules (which are, as it happens, also a kind of fiction) is vital to the question of games-as-art because when we look at books and films as artworks we judge their artistic merits to a great degree on the quality of the story they produce, and the techniques they use to evoke that story, and thinking in this way makes games look like a poor candidate for the esteem afforded to art. Yet if we look at paintings or sculpture we can see that the quality of the story is rather less important for these artworks – even though every representative painting and sculpture does have a story. When we judge games as artworks, we need a fresh perspective to understanding the accompanying fiction, one that is suitable to the medium we are considering. In the case of videogames, this means assessing the relationship between the rules and the fiction, and recognising that what makes a great game story is nothing like what makes a great film or book story.
Next week: The Emotions of Play