The Aesthetics of Video Games

The Smithsonian American Art Museum recently held an exhibition entitled “The Art of Video Games” – an exhibition exploring the “forty-year evolution of video games as an artistic medium”[1]. In no way is the thought of regarding video games as art a new one, but this is certainly the first time it has been awarded such publicity. For decades the gaming community, both developers and players, have accepted video games as a form of art, but the concept has been largely ignored by aestheticians and society as a whole – by these, video games have been regarded simply as entertainment, a way to spend time.

At first glance, this view on games seems rather reasonable, no? After all, they are the mass-produced fodder of basement-dwellers, aren’t they? Not so. Take a closer look and think – even on the simplest, most inarguable level, video games are at least a container for art – in them we see all forms of traditional art – visual artworks, aural works, and narrative pieces, for example. These we all regard on their own as art forms, but when combined into the medium of video games, we seem to disregard that.

Cube, a New Zealand-developed game for the PSP, is simplistic – the player tilts and rotates the point of view as a stick figure walks from one side of a map to another. But the game utilises traditional forms of art – specifically, visual, and can be read as an exploration of form and line. The maps are made up of cubes composed purely of line, and as the changing perspective aligns blocks in a purely visual element, they become physically aligned, and the figure is able to walk across them. The soundtrack to Cube contains music by New Zealand band Pitch Black – music that is ambient and electronic, adding to rather than detracting from the experience. While this game may not be considered a work of art, perhaps, it is certainly a container for, at the very least, an exploration into form and line.

But it goes further than games being simply a container for traditional forms of art. The aesthetics of video games is becoming more and more a common topic for debate and discussion amongst aesthetic philosophers. The arguments range from the simplistic, hosted on blogs and published by gamers proud of their medium, to the complicated and literary PhD theses penned by professors at various universities. The gamers argue in terms of the combination of graphics, sound, and storyline, whereas the philosophers argue in terms of advanced aesthetic and philosophical theories. Both ends of the scale present valid and interesting points while aiming at different readerships.

Dylan Woodbury, of the former group, begins by defining the “main criteria (sic) of an art form – it must interact with a person’s deep self, including both senses and emotions, in a way specific to that medium”[2]. He goes on to argue that while most games do not achieve this criterion, a few do, referencing the arcade classic, Missile Command, in which the player is defending cities from nuclear attack. At first glance, I personally would not have considered Missile Command a game worthy of art status, but upon deeper inspection, I agree with Woodbury’s point. The game is simplistic, but poses a moral dilemma that most players seem to be unaware of – the player is given three bases and must defend six cities. The player is left to decide how to play – do they value one base, needed to protect the cities, over a city and the lives contained therein? Do they try to save everyone – a much harder challenge – or choose to protect a one or a few cities? He claims Missile Command “has a lot to say about the destruction of war and inevitability of death, all though play, not graphics, sound, or story”. In this way, the game transcends the traditional art forms contained within and has a message created by the gameplay itself – which links to the personal definition of art that I hold – a piece of art is something that is either created with the intent to have some meaning or message or has the ability to be imbued with meaning and has the potential to elicit a response from the viewer, be it emotional, mental, spiritual, or visceral.

Most of the philosophical end of the argument is not based on whether or not the games have meaning or whether they elicit responses from players, but on the technicalities and aesthetic theories regarding traditional art – specifically, regarding passivity versus interaction and authorial intent.

Traditionally, viewers of artworks have been passive and have no control over the piece, maintaining authorial control. Roger Ebert, film critic, in 2005 stated that “video games by nature require player choices, which is the opposite of the strategy of serious film and literature, which requires authorial control”[3]. However, in the post-modernist, post-structuralist world we live in, authorial control is no longer as much of an issue – the viewer’s interpretation and derived meaning is equally important, if not more important than the meaning intended by the author, if such a meaning even exists.

If we are to examine video games as a form of art, we cannot simply adapt an existing aesthetic. When asked if video games would ever have their Moby Dick or Citizen Kane, Henry Jenkins, a prominent game theorist at MIT, responded “My first response is to ask whether the analogy is the right one. If the question is, ‘Will video games become a serious art form in its own right?’ I think the answer is inevitably yes. Whether the analogy is to literature or to dance or to cinema or to theater or any number of other media, it’s hard to know what the right approximation is. In a way, to ask the question that way is like asking ‘Will cinema become theater?’”[4]. As such, the answer is to develop an aesthetic that relates to and pays attention to the intrinsic qualities of the medium. One of these qualities is interactivity. Games are not created for the spectatorial element, they are created to be played. Therefore, there is no way we can approach the topic of video games as art with an aesthetic that focuses primarily on spectatorship and passivity – it must make interactivity central to the theory.

Interactivity is, by definition, essential to video games – it is a very part of the medium itself. A player interacts physically with the game via some form of controller, be it a keyboard and mouse, joystick, multi-buttoned controller, or even a camera or remote requiring the player to simulate the way they want their character to move, and the game responds in some way – most commonly, the player’s avatar or character moving. In a similar way, the game interacts with the player – a character in-game gets injured, and the controller vibrates, in some cases simulating a heartbeat. The interaction is beyond the physical, though. It is not an uncommon sight to see gamers playing a game involving driving or racing emulating the movement of their vehicle by rotating or tilting their controller – an action prevalent even before developers included technology to enable this as a legitimate form of control. Whilst playing horror-based games, players may lean in toward the screen in intense focus, and jump back in legitimate fright when something pops out at them. This back-and-forth between player and game – or viewer and art – is simply an interesting observation until one links it to John Dewey’s philosophical theories. Dewey, a naturalist, philosophised that there is no breach between self and world – “The world we have experienced becomes an integral part of the self that acts and is acted upon in further experience. In their physical occurrence, things and events pass and are gone. But something of their meaning and value is retained as an integral part of the self. Through habits formed in intercourse with the world, we also in-habit the world. It becomes a home and the home is always part of our every experience”[5]. Philip Deen explains this relevance better than I ever could: “Novels allow access to the inner lives of characters in a way that other media do not. Music and dance evince a specific bodily response”[6]. Deen goes on to reference John Lanchester and his opinion that video games surpass other forms of media: “The interiority of the novel isn’t there, but the sense of having passed into an imagined world is”[7].

According to Dewey, experience is both precarious and stable. Deen states that “Absent either, growth is not possible. Rather, growth occurs only in dynamic equilibrium as old habits are found inadequate to novel situations and new ones must be developed. Interaction is marked by periods of disharmony and re-harmonization where we fall out of habitual relation with the world and have to develop new ways of fruitfully transacting with it”[8]. The interactivity in games exhibits this rhythm of experience being precarious and stable, and it is in this way that the interactivity allows for authorial intent. The author of a game will write a major plotline, the story itself, and in doing so, they constrict the player to a specific series of events, but it is a series of events that is interactive – quests or missions may be optional, there may be multiple plotlines or side-plots that a player can choose between. Ultimately, a game is, as Deen puts it, a “structured interaction”.

This directly refutes Ebert’s claim that video games may not be considered art due to a lack of authorial control. It is evident that while the player’s interaction may influence the game, the author still has the control and intent, be it in perhaps a less traditional form.

Dewey’s theory of the lack between self and world is also relevant to the consideration of video games as art in relation to aesthetic distance – the concept of the gap between the viewer’s conscious reality and the fictional reality contained within a piece of art. It is arguable that, due to the back-and-forth of interaction between game and player and the responses elicited by the game and, indeed, the player, that video games have the highest potential for a close aesthetic distance. Aesthetic distance is integral to the aesthetic of video games not only because of this potential, but because it, in return, assists in interactivity. The more a player is engrossed in a game – ie, the closer aesthetic distance a game has – the more likely the player is to respond to events within the game. If a game as achieved a close aesthetic distance, a player is more likely to, for example, jump in response to events on screen, or feel an emotional attachment to a character.

However, currently, many games fall flat when it comes to achieving aesthetic distance due to a concept called “ludonarrative dissonance”. The term, coined by Clint Hocking in reference to the game Bioshock[9], refers to conflicting concepts, or dissonance, between gameplay and the narrative within a game. This dissonance violates the aesthetic distance, pulling the player out of the reality of the game. Since Hocking’s article coining the term, many other bloggers have written similar articles, pointing out the ludonarrative dissonance in other games such as the Mass Effect series and Max Payne.

The ludonarrative dissonance in BioShock is due to two differing choices offered in the game – one in the ludic element, and one in the narrative element. The ludic choice is one that is common in single-player games due to the majority of the other characters in play being in conflict with the main character – ‘do what is best for me without consideration for others’. This choice aligns with the values of Randian rational self-interest, an underlying value of the game itself. The game’s narrative offers another choice – to help Atlas and progress further in the game. Unfortunately, this does not align with the self-interest clause – helping someone else is not a part of Randian rational self-interest. More importantly, the narrative does not offer a choice – the player is constrained by the narrative of the game to help Atlas, and thus, the narrative is at odds with the gameplay. This is a major and complex example of ludonarrative dissonance, and perhaps is one that the average gamer would not notice. There are other, more obvious examples, however – more often encountered in games with free-roam elements, where the narrative is not necessarily strictly linear. Commonly referenced are games such as Grand Theft Auto 4 – the main character does not kill or hurt anyone he does not have to in the game’s cutscenes, but within play, the moral compass defined by the designers spins wildly as the player, if they so wish, kills and commits crime wantonly.

According to Hocking, and undoubtedly other, non-philosopher gamers, ludonarrative dissonance is the last barrier between games and art status. Hocking claims that while Bioshock is not the video game medium’s Citizen Kane, it shows us “how close we are to achieving that milestone. BioShock reaches for it, and slips. But we leave our deepest footprints when we pick ourselves up from a fall. It seems to me that it will take us several years to learn from BioShock’s mistakes and create a new generation of games that do manage to successful (sic) marry their ludic and narrative themes into a consistent and fully realized whole”[10].

It is clear that interaction is integral to the aesthetic of video games, and there is no way that can change; it is their nature. But passivity and authorial control is no longer an issue – and not only in terms of post-modernism – while games are interactive, an author is still able to have their control; in fact, it is just as integral as the interactivity itself. As Jonathan Wilson, yet another blogger, points out, a game that has infinite capacity for interaction and freedom, in the current gaming world, would be an impossibility – “how would you frame or sell a game without any story framing, with no showing of who the bad guys and good guys are? Being able to create a story that does not contradict itself when placed into the hands of someone who could play the same section as everyone else yet experience something different?”[11]
Video games without interactivity is an impossibility – and, ironically, without interactivity and the resulting aesthetic distance, video games would probably not have come this far in terms of artistic status. As Aaron Smuts, philosopher, puts it, “video games are possibly the first concreative, mechanically reproduced form of art: they are mass artworks shaped by audience input”[12].


[2] Woodbury, Dylan. (2011) “Defining the Art of Video Games”, http://www.gamasutra.com/blogs/DylanWoodbury/20110308/89112/Defining_the_Art_of_Video_Games.php

[3] Ebert, Roger. (2005) “Answer Man” Chicago Sun Times. November 27, 2005. http://rogerebert.suntimes.com/apps/pbcs.dll/section?category=ANSWERMAN&date=20051127 Retrieved February 9, 2010.

Ebert, Roger. (2007) “Games as Art: Ebert vs. Barker” Chicago Sun Times Online. July 21, 2007. http://rogerebert.suntimes.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20070721/COMMENTARY/70721001 Retrieved February 9, 2010.

[4] Vitka, William. (2006) “Will Video Games Ever Have Their ‘Moby Dick’ or ‘Citizen Kane’?” CBS News Online, March 23, 2006.

[5] Dewey, John. (1934) Art as Experience from The Collected Works of John Dewey. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University.

[6] Deen, Philip. (2011) Interactivity, Inhabitation, and Pragmatist Aesthetics. Game Studies, http://gamestudies.org/1102/articles/deen

[7] Lanchester, John. (2009) “Is it Art?” London Review of Books. 31.1 (January 1, 2009): 18-20.

[8] Deen, Philip. (2011) Interactivity, Inhabitation, and Pragmatist Aesthetics. Game Studies, http://gamestudies.org/1102/articles/deen

[9] Hocking, Clint. (2007) “Ludonarrative Dissonance in Bioshock”. ClickNothing, http://clicknothing.typepad.com/click_nothing/2007/10/ludonarrative-d.html

[10] Hocking, Clint. (2007) “Ludonarrative Dissonance in Bioshock”. ClickNothing, http://clicknothing.typepad.com/click_nothing/2007/10/ludonarrative-d.html

[11] Wilson, Jonathan. (2012) “Why the Ludonarrative Dissonance is Video Games Biggest Challenge”. The Play Vault, http://theplayvault.com/wp/2012/04/30/why-the-ludonarrative-of-dissonance-is-video-games-biggest-challenge/

[12] Smuts, Aaron. (2005) “Video Games and the Philosophy of Art”. Aesthetics Online, http://aesthetics-online.org/articles/index.php?articles_id=26

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