Drowning in semantic, philosophical, and even legal issues, the question—are games art or mere entertainment—is a needlessly polarizing one.
Semantically, it is a tangled web of meanings, which adds to the drama surrounding the topic.
Philosophically, the question has been a point of contention for a while, as proponents on both sides assert themselves as authorities on the matter. Roger Ebert’s controversial article on why video games could never be art stirred up the discussion. Though he later renounced it, numerous hot takes from developers, players, and critics alike sprung forth and continue to this day. So here I am, stoking the flames as well.
Legally, at least in the US, video games are considered an art form.
Art form. 💡
Not art itself, but a medium used to create art. That’s… sensible terminology. So here I will explore why that is, and why I’m firmly in the “games are art” camp. Consider this your only warning for the ramblings and meandering thoughts ahead.
Note that I am interested in the medium of video games as a whole. Not whether a particular game succeeds at being art, as that is a whole other discussion.
The semantical conundrum
What is art, anyway?
Art is a word used to define (or propose a theory of) a very abstract, elusive concept. A concept that is contextual, deeply subjective, and with blurry etymology. To further confuse, art is also a word used to denote creative activities, skills, and methods (or craft). Which relate to creating products (also called art) that represent the concept in question😖. It also does not help that colloquially we use art as a term of flattery—aimed at products of impeccable craftsmanship.
For example, an artist employs the art of painting to produce (a work of) art. (Then a critic debates whether that particular painting is art, fine art, kitsch, poppycock, or something else altogether.)
The understanding of the concept of art fluctuates according to any individual worldview. To oversimplify a bit: a moralist may see it as a sublime expression of moral values. A materialist looks to it for its monetary value and craftsmanship. For a hedonist, it’s all about beauty and the pleasure derived from it. While a stoic may not care, either way, deeming it a process of revering the natural order.
Then there are Video Games. The two words used to comprise a wide range of related-but-distinct digital products. They often get referred to as games, conflating them with yet another abstract concept (or a few). However, the concept of games which is of interest here is far clearer and less divisive than art.
A game is an activity engaged in for diversion or amusement, for fun and play. For entertainment—in a nutshell
However, the term Video Game is a misnomer.
The video aspect may be the most sensorially prominent but is not the most important. Nor is it the most descriptive of the medium. The virtual and experiential qualities of video games are far more notable. So are the complexities of logic and design required to craft them.
And the game aspect has long been veering away from strict explorations of pleasure and fun. The widespread understanding, which sees video games as all about amusement—does not fit neatly. The play in video games is much broader than fun. It is also theatrical, exploratory, or sports-like. At the least.
In practice, video games are all about interaction. Both the player and the game act, influence, and react to each other. That can be fun, competitive, and amusing. Or it can serve storytelling, introspection, beauty, catharsis, and more.
Many video games eschew fun for emotional or intellectual engagement. Some abandon fun to serve as ideological simulators. There, play takes on its theatrical meaning. Players become like actors (or puppeteers) on a virtual stage, embodying different characters and personalities. Exploring narratives, emotional states and life philosophies.
Some games are little more than virtual galleries. Which, like fine art, worship at the temple of aestheticism. While others are simulations of real-world experiences, like driving an airplane. Fun, for sure. But with more focus on exploring an (otherwise unattainable) experience; and representing a deep learning potential.
Others yet are elevated from their game status into cybersports. Albeit not physical and still fun-oriented, these sports are tasking activities. They come with a need for deep skill development in terms of reflexes and strategy. As well as mental fortitude. The stress factor of these games runs high, due to a lack of physical release of tension. (From all the accumulated cortisol and adrenaline).
Yet, Video Game is the term we are stuck with. That is is unlikely to change, and that’s fine. Language evolves, old words and phrases take on new meanings all the time. It is our understanding which needs to keep up with the evolving sentiment.
Philosophical differences between Entertainment and Art
Entertainment diverts us from ourselves. It seeks to captivate our attention, engage us in delight, and let us escape reality. For a while.
Entertainment imprints and stimulates emotions. And while it often deals with feelings of fun and joy, it embraces the whole emotional spectrum. It lulls the rational mind, blanketing our thoughts in cozy (dis)comfort. Its ultimate purpose is gratification. Like candy, it is a spike of short-lasting pleasure centered on our desire to feel.
Art, the way I understand it, does the opposite. It explores reality, communicates meaning, and expresses emotion. How we react to it may be far removed from (but not exclusive of) gratification.
Art holds up a mirror to an aspect of reality (subjective or objective) and invites us to interact with that representation. The goal is to expand notions and entice insight—for both the creator and the audience. Art provokes thought and animates the mind. In essence, its purpose is truth. Not in the absolute sense. Rather, truth as it pertains to the creator’s view of reality and experience of life.
The blurry divide of unity
Despite distinctions, the divide between entertainment and art isn’t a clear line. It’s more of a wobbly smudge.
Entertainment can be artistic, and art can be entertaining. Most of the expressive media we consume (film, books, music, etc.) combine the two. At their core, both entertainment and art come out of a creator’s desire to connect. With who or what? It depends.
With entertainment, the connection is often emotion-driven. We entertain to relax and to form empathic & familiar bonds with others. Pleasure compounds. Happiness is contagious. Making others feel good makes us feel good. Feeling good together strengthens relationships. And yes, reveling in sadness, fear, and other negative emotions (in a controlled manner) makes us feel good too.
Art, however, often resides on the intellectual or spiritual side of unity. It comes out of yearnings to connect with meaning. A desire to understand. Whether the artist attempts to propagate their perception of understanding (subjective truth); or if they explore, hoping to learn and discover.
But, say a painter has worked on commission and created a portrait of a customer. The customer is happy and entertained by their received investment. Has the painter used their craftmanship to monetize entertainment? Or have they created a work of art? Perhaps both? I don’t know. But the intent and energy poured by the creator matters, as does the perception of the wider audience.
What if the painter deliberately took time to get to know the customer? Maybe they noticed a subtle hint of sadness in the client’s disposition. Exploring it, they learned of old, nearly forgotten emotional wounds. The painter works their observation into the painting, reworking it meticulously until they manage to capture the essence. Is it now art? What if the audience can’t perceive the subtlety?
I’m partial to this quote by French painter Paul Cézanne:
“If I were called upon to define briefly the word Art, I should call it the reproduction of what the senses perceive in nature, seen through the veil of the soul.”
And, of course, both entertainment and art can be ego-driven. They have always been used as tools for attention-seeking, propaganda, or acts of connecting with an audience’s wallet.
Design, craft, and the language of art
To produce either good entertainment or good art, the creator utilizes design (conceptualization) and craft (execution). Together they are both an act and an ability of the creator to produce something of value. Qualitative, aesthetic, spiritual, emotional, monetary… The better designed a creation is—the better it communicates its purpose. While the quality of its craftsmanship will make or break a connection to the audience.
How well the meaning of a work of art translates to an audience is relative to the art language used. And how well utilized it was.
Art language depends on the medium: symbolism, form, plot, tempo, characters, composition, rhythm, design, color, space, sensation… If the audience doesn’t speak the language, they will have trouble engaging with the art piece. (f you never got exposed to the intricacies of classical music, it may all sound boring and snobbish.) But if the artist made their creation too abstruse, it may prove impenetrable even to those well versed in its language.
Bland entertainment is not enjoyable, and poorly executed art won’t be accepted as art. Sometimes a creation will miss its mark, unwittingly becoming appreciated for the “wrong reasons”. Like The Room, an art attempt that failed so bizarrely it turned into excellent entertainment.
So, about video games…?
A video game, much like a book, painting, or a movie, is a medium of expression. A mere content container. The intent and purpose of the content are up to the creator. The goal may be to create art, entertain, teach, or just showcase intricate design skills. The craftsmanship will decide how it connects to and how it fits in with the audience’s sensibilities.
You may contend that the video game container is incapable of housing art. The necessity for play and player interaction might make the medium seem like a toy. And for that, it shouldn’t be taken seriously?
But that interactivity, which surpasses passive observation of other art forms, is what makes video games profound. The simulation and the (currently crude attempts) of two-way communication are the exact things that might make them the pinnacle of art. Or so I hope.
We could all use more approachable art. Art, which is expressed in understandable language to communicate its intent. Video games—within their vast possibility spaces—can expand on topics and teach players. Not just teach them the rules of a game, but imprint broader knowledge. On a roughly individualized pace of learning. Thus deepening understanding and improving the connection the artist intended.
Video games are amalgamations of all the expressive mediums that came before them and more. A video game could be a viewing of a painting, a gallery of paintings, or a drama set inside a gallery of paintings. Where divergent plot points and entertaining action make deeper explorations of truth more palatable to the average person.
The potential for expression and communication in games surpasses preceding art forms. While the advancements in computing and AI promise an imaginative future ahead… If we survive the looming cataclysms of our own doing… But I digress.
I won’t contend that most video games that attempt to be art—fail. Though I might have to fight you (your whole family, and the cat) if you dare to dismiss Disco Elysium, The Witness, or Life is Strange 😜.
The medium is still new and being explored. Entertainment as a whole is more readily available—its creation process is better understood. But the tides are shifting. The digital artists struggling to walk today will leap and bound tomorrow. And ultimately, these semantics don’t matter at all. The creations do, and their value to us.