A game as art vs art as a game

I’ve created art since I was five years old. I studied seriously with a professional painter for ten years after that. However, I still hesitate to make the statement “I’m an artist.” For one, it’s a loaded term that implies a lot of grandiosity and arrogance. Mostly though, I don’t want to be identified as an artist alone, because I also happen to be a major techie nerd.

I started taking Computer Science classes my sophomore year and have been hooked ever since. But since then I’ve spent many semesters taking both computer science and art classes, anxiously switching back and forth trying to figure out what I wanted to do with my life, let alone what to major in.

For so long it seemed like there was no choice but to make a choice. Art and Science, I was taught from day one, were on opposite ends of a philosophical, academic, and professional spectrum. You were either one or the other kind of thinker and personality: creative or analytical, emotional or rational, passionate or cool headed. In figuring out what to do with my future, I thought the first thing I needed to do was choose between the technology or creative arts industry.

But then I discovered video games. It was pretty revelatory for me to find this whole growing field of work that was entrenched in both worlds that held possibilities of careers spent engaging with both creative and technological pursuits.

So with a new certainty (as much as you can have as a college senior) in the type of work I wanted to do post-graduation, I took on my computer science and art classes with new perspective and purpose. I tried to look at both fields through the lens of gaming and their impact on each other.

Despite being a terrible “noob” in the gamer world, I jumped in with vigor and tried to learn as much as I could from both a consumer and creator’s perspective. The first thing I started doing was comparing it to media I was much more familiar with like  literature, cinema and obviously visual arts, and I was a little dismayed at how little the video game world cared about or took the time to even think about games as art.

For the most part, the industry has been dominated by huge action, fantasy or sci-fi spectacles of violence and conquest. In most games, something or usually someone must be “killed” for you to beat the level and eventually the game. Whether its the stone walls of castles, the glint of the weapons or the gory spray of blood as you defeat yet another creature of some kind, each new game has tried (at least visually) to deceiving the player more successfully in the reality of the virtual worlds.The name of the game as far as art in video games has been making things as real as possible.

From an artistic perspective, I see it as a shame that such a potentially rich and complex way to produce art has been so visually and creatively un-evolved. So, playing Braid was very much a breath of fresh air. On a superficial level, the first thing you notice is the painterly quality of the aesthetic. There is no intention of hiding the fact that these rocks and that sky were painted with a brush, (a digital one perhaps but a tool of creation nonethless). There is much less  of an effort spent on concealing the process of creation. Which is the the first step towards a complex and challenging engagement of the viewer, the foundational endeavor in high art.

When you start to shake up the viewer’s sense of stable reality and you stop holding their hand, you can begin to engage them on even more conceptually and intellectually challenges. But the qualifications of Braid as art don’t stop there. The elegant prose, as well as the intentionally existential questions posed by the very structure of the puzzles and gameplay all push the boundaries needed to be considered an “art game.”

Released in 2008, it was one of the first to be used as proof that games could be art. Roger Ebert, an acclaimed film critic famously declared, “Video games can never be art” in 2010. The debate has had impassioned proponents on both sides since. Other games like Journey, Limbo and Gone Home have furthered the cause. As a hopeful game artist I am pleased that the case for games being considered as art seems to get stronger.

However, until now the question has been about whether games as art is possible. I can’t help but wonder if art as games is possible?

The current turmoil and revolution has so far taken place strictly in the confines of the gaming world and among the gaming community, but I wonder when the conflict will migrate into art territory and what it will look like.

There has already been a great deal of controversy over curators exhibiting existing games and game art in museums. The Museum of Modern Art has already collected 14 out of a 40 sized wish list of a video game exhibit. But most of this is a curation and categorization of games as art after the fact of creation. While there are up to hundreds of well trained and creatively sophisticated artists working on a single game, there has been very little game creation made the purpose of being solely art from the get go.

Games like Braid, begin to teasingly bend and play with the conventions . Nonetheless, I am excited the inevitable hullaboo raised when artists begin to completely take apart and throw away the expectations of what a video game should look and feel like. Its not a matter of if but when, and I will be eagerly in the front row seats to see how the drama plays out.

 —Diana Zhu

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