“The Grimoire of Games as Art (or Not)”



Monday just got better, NPCs!

Is the above picture art? What if it appeared in a video game? Would that make the game art or would that just be an artistic aspect within otherwise non-art? As promised in the original post, Asking Big Questions #002: “Are video games art?”, here is a collection of responses from the mages themselves. I’m grateful for every personality on this team of quality contributors. They are the lifeblood of The Well-Red Mage: differences in discussion. We believe in transparent conversation here, even when we disagree. And what disagreement we’ve had! Don’t forget, dear reader, that this talk of games as art originally occurred among us in the secret laboratories where we mages congregate. Now each mage gets the chance to spill their guts and explain their piece. The most important thing is listening.

These are the responses we’ve collected, in order of seniority. If you disagree with any of these mages, let us know in a decent and constructive manner but feel free to debate to your hearts’ content!



mystic_knight1  the Midnight Mystic Mage

So the discussion is about video games as an art form, not specific ones but the medium itself. I will shortly try to explain why I do believe this to be true. You can point to games that you might not see much artistic value in and say, why would you consider this game art? I am here to argue that no matter the example Video Games are a form of artistic expression. You could compare my reasoning with this to drawing or cartooning. There are beautiful cartoons and drawings that are shining examples of drawing as an art form, and there are plenty of examples that you could point to that would make that case harder to make. If you compare the Sistine Chapel to the animation on 12 oz. Mouse it is hard to even recognize the two as being created through the same basic means. That is because the two are at the complete opposite ends of the spectrum for what can be considered artistic in its highest form. However that does not change that the two both used the same very basic concept of drawing as an artistic expression to create their products, although there were very different processes and outcomes for what they were creating. My overarching point with my mostly nonsensical rambling is that it doesn’t matter if you have a game that is nothing but two paddles on a screen bouncing a ball around or you have the breathtaking beautiful scenes of today’s games you are using the artistic expression of video game design. I would like to make a note that I am aware that drawing and painting are both very different, but I believe the point I am trying to make is still pretty clear. If painting a picture of a football game can be considered art, then how could you not consider a complex 3D rendering of one with lighting and shadow effects that you can actually control to be art as well. It seems open and shut to me but with all the great minds who both contribute and read on TWRM I am sure there will be some great and compelling arguments to the contrary.



ff3-nes-sage2  the Evergreen Sage MAge

“Games are like a box of X’s”

I’m going to read you off a few statements. Take a moment to see how you react to them. Paintings are art. Books are art. Movies are art. Games are art. Most likely the first statement of these four is the one that seems the most redundant. The word art is commonly associated with the visual arts and hence the statement “paintings are art” seems almost meaningless. Of course it is art! But as we move into movies and books, it doesn’t seem obvious what even the point is. I mean, ‘X is art’ can apply to almost anything, if you take the word ‘art’ broadly enough.



And so the statement ‘games are art’ might need a little explaining. If writers aren’t using this statement to gain legitimacy in the wider world, what exactly is it supposed to mean? Some interpret this to say that games are “high art”, like what you don’t see in art galleries (because you don’t go to them). Others say games are equivalent to being impactful on par with other well-respected works, such as The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, or Romeo and Juliet. Perhaps we are looking at it the wrong way still! As many suggest, games as art isn’t the real issue, it is games as an art-form that we should focus on. According to some linguists/philosophers, all of these fancy ways of looking at games are actually metaphors. We are applying these metaphors to games using the various definitions of art, for some purpose or another. In fact, we are doing the same for art. We tend to assume that ‘art is X’, so when we say “games are art”, we are saying that games are X.

In their groundbreaking book, Metaphors We Live By, Lakoff and Johnson argue that “Our ordinary conceptual system, in terms of which we both think and act, is fundamentally metaphorical in nature.” Within that system, the concept ‘game’ is dependent on what metaphor you are using to interpret it. You might use the concept ‘art’ to help you interpret the concept ‘game’, much like Freud, many biologists, and almost every teen-aged boy uses the concept ‘sex’ to interpret well, umm, everything.


Games are “love”

Yet, language isn’t just something only individuals do (unless of course you’re me, talking to yourself while you write this response). We use concepts to be understood by others and will only be understood if other people agree with our use of those words. That’s how language works. For example, when I first to S. Korea in 2005, they didn’t understand anything I was saying about games being art. You might say that it’s because they didn’t speak English, and you would be right, but Mr./Ms. Smarty Pants, it might have actually been that I wasn’t speaking Korean! Digressions are language games. So little often is tautology used in such self-defacing ways.

Games are Korean X-boxes artistically conceptualizing sexy language digressions.



HandheldMage1  the Hopeful Handheld Mage

When the question of whether games are art or not was posed to me, I figured I should find out what art was before forming an opinion: “the expression or application of human creative skill and imagination, typically in a visual form such as painting or sculpture, producing works to be appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power.”

Looking at the above definition of art, I’d definitely say games are art. Let me explain myself… “the expression or application of human creative skill and imagination” – well, as far as I know, only humans make games. Seriously though, games are definitely an application of skill and imagination. Look at Super Mario Bros – the skill in making such a simple yet addictive game and the imagination to create such an accessible yet fantastical adventure was crucial to it’s success. We’ve all grown up with games and witnessed their development and maturity…we’ve seen first hand how programming skill has improved and matured. Games are constantly evolving and growing.

“…typically in a visual form such as painting or sculpture” – this is the big one. Games are compared to paintings and sculptures when being dismissed as works of art. This sentence demolishes that argument – games are certainly a visual medium and therefore, in my eyes, art. Whether it’s the big AAA titles looking to impress consumers with incredible, life like graphics or indie titles using assets designed to remind you of yesteryear, visual form is everything to games, regardless of system or programming.

“…producing works to be appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power.” – I’ve always seen games as art because of the feeling they leave me with. Like a painting can inspire or provoke thought, I believe games can too. I’ll never forget the feeling of dread during the ‘red line’ sections of Max Payne or the feelings of anger during Jenny’s murder in The Darkness. Even the upbeat feeling of games like Outrun and Fantasy Zone…the escapism offered by these examples of ‘blue skies gaming’ is something that can’t be experienced in most adult lives…

So, yes, put me down for video games = art. I’ll take my argument a step further too- I think games offer the most depth of all art forms. How many films can you watch and see a different ending every time? How many variations of a painting can you see? How many songs can you listen to and take away a different feeling every time? Games offer an experience you can lose yourself in. Whether it’s playing a new game with innovative
controls, looking for a certain game on a certain format for the best experience or playing a game that allows your decisions to affect the outcome, games are the art form of the future, an art form that it’s audience can mold and shape into anything it wants.



sincerescholarmage.png  the Sincere Scholar Mage

“Are Videogames Art? The Debate that shouldn’t be”

To discuss whether video games are art means we have to start with the word art itself, and its definition. Look it up online, go with your gut or listen to somebody who seems to know what it is that they are talking about and the results will still be the same; nobody agrees on what art really is. Is it anything used to express yourself creatively? Is it the pinnacle of that medium, reserved for masterpieces? Is it your children’s drawing you hang on the fridge?

The fact that after all the years of humans scribbling on the walls of caves, painting abstract photos of people screaming or simple portraits of kings and queens we still cannot come up with a solid definition art is distressing but easy to understand. Art is ambiguous, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. What gives one person the right to say that something is not art over somebody else? Knowledge? Talent? Fame? We often seek those who know the most or more about a medium as guides to keep us on track. But what happens when none of them can agree?

TIME magazine and CNN seem to have people who think that video games are art. VentureBeat and other magazines have some that don’t. Roger Ebert didn’t think they were, and neither did Kojima. Who is right in this debate then? Well, at the present point in time, nobody is. They are all applying different definitions of art, what it can and cannot be, to their arguments.

Old high society has a way of playing keep away with new mediums of art, while newer communities tend to be far more inclusive and want to push the boundaries. The problem here is not new and has happened numerous times in the past. Famous artists are rejected for doing something the art society didn’t like or wasn’t ready for. Did it mean that there paintings were not art? It depends on who you asked. Just like now.

But whether video games are currently art is a moot point. Often times great art isn’t seen that way for years to come and we won’t really know if that’s the case for video games until most of us are too old to pick up a controller. Maybe a giant shift in attitude will occur and video games will suddenly be regarded as high art but history tends to think that won’t happen.

So call them art if you want to. Hold them in high esteem like you would the Mona Lisa or The Fifth Seal (by Greco). But for right now, with strong opposition from both inside and outside the games industry, this isn’t an argument you will win or should be having. Ten years from now? Twenty? Thirty? Sure. Maybe video games will be held up as art by then. But right now they just aren’t there. They just aren’t art. Maybe they aren’t ready to be.



Kx18GL1dNEW the Dapper Zaffre Mage

“Can Games Be Considered ‘Art’?”

I commonly hear art defined as an ‘expression of creativity through a medium’. A loose definition, but, required as such. After all, those forms we already consider ‘art’ have increasingly less in common from each other with every passing year- a good thing. Art evolves over time. If I wanted to narrow down the definition, though, I’d have to say it is an expression that provokes responses in the audience- maybe even leading to further expressions of creativity. Oftentimes, we equate ‘good art’ with ‘something popular that people try to follow after’, don’t we? Great music inspires many to share their own tunes imitating the genre online- very much the same way classical music inspired composers decades ago. Popular movies inspire future filmmakers to take up the camera, sometimes following in the footsteps of their predecessors but always adding their own touch. Poignant visual arts can produce a mass reaction in several ways, from social commentary to political, especially when done correctly. So in this way, can video games be ever be ‘art’?

Well, certainly. Video games and the communities that surround them pretty much follow the steps and trends of other art forms, leading their own ambiguous charge towards the uncertain ‘progress’ of their medium. Space shooters that led the arcade era took cues from science fiction. Action films spurred on the run-and-gun top-downs that followed after, and fantasy came alive in RPGs and rougelikes. As they matured, along with the technology that housed them, they even began to create their own genres without deriving from a grander work; a long tradition of ‘follow the leader’ seen in other art forms, starting with an original work eventually spawning what we see as ‘clones’, until they become a genre all in itself.

There’s no shortage of avenues video games have created for ‘art’ and its expression nowadays, especially for the post-Internet generations, where people can freely and easily display their creativity to the public in a click or two. Perhaps not much to start with- a song here, an inked sketch there, maybe even just a conceptual idea of a message or question they want to pose to a viewer. There are quite a number of artists in the industry who started this way, only to go on towards bigger projects and titles- ‘unified’ expressions of creativity that take many hands just to result in one finished product. And I think that’s the final step for something to truly qualify as an art form; not just the periodic creation of something that is enjoyable, but the possibility of an even grander creation that is the result of cooperation towards that vision, one that might have started just as a desire to emulate something that came before it. The same way that film and music call for multiple talents, do video games require a team just as varied- visual artists to bring out the settings, musical composers to provide a score that sets the tone, storywriters to tell a narrative that weaves it all together. A staff roll that, often overlooked, tells of dozens (to, perhaps, even a hundred) individual efforts to create the story that captured us all those hours leading up to it. A paycheck to some, sure, but a passion to others. And that’s certainly what makes an artist.



FF3-NES-WhiteMage1.png  the Purple Prose Mage

Are video games art? That we’re even having this conversation means there’s no definitive answer, which means that it comes down to “because I say so!”. A lot of the arguments for video games being art will often interpret the definition of art as being something which can accommodate video games, but before arguing why something can be classified within a specific category, you also have to define what the thing is first.

The video game is still a very recent medium compared to literature or film, which have existed long enough to develop into something that people understand. We still don’t really know what video games are capable of being, because the boundaries are still being pushed. We’re the pioneers, we’re just starting it. Therefore, any artistic merit that video games will ever come to have will only ever be given by students of the subject in years to come, in the same way that the first wave of film critics, like Truffaut, understood film making principles enough to do things with it that hadn’t been done before. Creators often don’t understand their creations as much as their fans. The first art films were made by people who’d studied films that came before in order to understand the process, and then use that process to different ends. That’s how I expect video games will develop. We understand how video games work, but there doesn’t yet to appear to be anyone who’s developed a video game in a way that establishes and redefines the medium in the same way that happened with film.

Comparing video games specifically to film is, I understand, a biased perspective, but in arguing the artistic merits of a genre, there needs to be an example genre with-which to compare it, and film is the closest one.

I don’t know if the definition of a video game will ever be defined in my lifetime, and that’s okay. In maybe a hundred years time, video games will be studied as much, if not more than, film. And its students will understand the important ones, which form a pathway of evolution of techniques that eventually lead to whatever video games have become by that time. The dots can only be connected by looking backwards, and we’re still basically at the beginning of the trail. We need more samples, and that will take time. But we do at least have a reference for how our understanding will develop. We mustn’t get ahead of ourselves; this is how I think video games will come to be considered art, if they ever do. All we can do is stay focused on the video games of today. We have to lay the foundations. Because, compared to the video game players of the future, we don’t know anything at all.



FF3-eggshellnotail  the Exuberant Eggshell Mage

Are video games art? I have given a considerable amount of thought to this question. The shortest answer I can give is, “they can be.” However, given that this is TWRM, I don’t believe three short words will suffice as a thoughtful response. Cue expanding upon my lame answer:

I believe games, like movies, books, and tons of the other media we consume, fall into two categories. These two categories are “entertainment” and “art”. The two categories are not mutually exclusive. A game that exist in the “entertainment” category can also just as easily exist in the “art” category. But the truth is that some games place a greater emphasis on being entertainment than they do being art. The other truth is that that is okay because I never expected all games to be art anyways. It simply is not important to me that all games attempt to be art. That sounds kinda…not fun (I am imagining a world without senseless multiplayer carnage, and while some people may be okay with that I like that the option is there). What is important to me is that we recognize a game’s potential to be both entertainment and art just as we recognize a movie’s potential to be both.

Having answered the question of whether or not video games can be art with a resounding “maybe”, we arrive at the inevitable: What makes video games capable of being art? The answer is everything about them. Quite literally. Most games contain a narrative, a soundtrack, and certainly visuals. All these forms of media have the capability to be art. If I am consuming a narrative and have deemed it art why would my opinion of it change simply because it is now being recited to me as I navigate the very story world it exist within? Games are unique in their possibilities as works of art in the sense that before their existence we have never been able to truly create the kind of art they can be. A game can contain all these other forms of art, combine them, and expand upon them in an interactive manner that was never capable before.

For me, the question of whether or not games are art is not the question we ought to be asking anymore. They simply already do enough to be considered art. My question is what does this new art form do to build upon what we already know in art? How do the interactive narratives of video games fit into the overall discussion of narrative as an artistic medium? Are shifts in aesthetic preferences in games comparable to shifts in preferences in painting styles?

Games are capable of so much. And not every game has to explore the limits of the medium or be an emotionally charged work from a creator making a statement. But as long as some of them are, those games are art.



InfernalMage  the Infernal Accountant Mage

Before we can even talk about whether or not video games are art, I think we need an adequate explanation regarding why it would be important if they are. I find people’s reasoning often boils down to a desire for the hobby to be considered more legitimate among the mainstream, rather than there being any real benefit to the medium being considered an art form. In my mind, that sort of thinking is short-sighted. Reaching for legitimacy is a noble goal and it’s important to fight the negative stigma that has surrounded video games and the people who play them since the hobby started to gain traction decades ago. However, I don’t believe that there’s been enough discussion to make a decision regarding what criteria is used to consider a game “art,” and the definition often boils down to whatever the definer’s preferences happen to be.

I also think it’s difficult to have a good faith discussion regarding whether or not games are art in the modern climate. Many people involved in the hobby have a significant personal investment in games being art. Gamers want to combat the aforementioned persistent stigma that playing video games is a waste of time and that those who play them regularly are degenerates. Games writers want to legitimize the work they do, taking it from “commentary on toys” to “art critique.” Game developers have plenty to gain from being able to call a game art – what better way is there to excuse a game with poor gameplay, an unfocused and incomplete narrative, questionable graphics or any number of other flaws than by saying that they were an intentional artistic decision? With all of this in mind, the question ends up being fairly loaded; even questioning whether or not games can be art is bound to rub someone the wrong way, and the “safe” option right now is that they’re art…because people have a lot riding on it and they’ll be upset if you don’t say they are.

If we were to talk about this right this second based solely on my personal beliefs, though, I would say that while games can be art, most aren’t. If games are art, most are on par with the scribblings of a Kindergartener; for instance, we often talk about story as a criteria for the artistic value of a video game, but even the most in-depth and mature video game stories are, generously, on par with your average young adult novel. This isn’t a condemnation of the medium, it’s an admission that it’s still in its relative infancy. There’s a lot of growing to do and a long way to go.



1Ve3maF  the Iron Mage

Think of casual moviegoers versus film connoisseurs – the work operates as both an industrial product and a vehicle for emotion and expression. I’m of the opinion that anything can be art, from the most obtuse symbolism-laden narrative to a subtle noise, so long as meaning can be drawn from it. Rather than putting forth some formal essay to insist on my case, I’m going to provide a couple of personal examples from art games. (Spoiler-heavy!!)

In Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons, you appropriately take the role of two brothers who embark on an urgent errand to find medicine for their dying father. One of the beauties of this game is in its minimalistic control scheme: one brother is controlled simply by his corresponding analog stick, while the other controls with the opposite stick. Throughout their quest, their relationship strengthens, and all of their hardships are persevered through their cooperation, puzzles designed to demand a synergy between the two siblings. This brotherly bond makes the final stretch of the game all the more heartbreaking, as one of the siblings passes away, and a devastating void is left, both emotionally and mechanically, as now, half of the controller goes unused. Reaching a body of torrential water that the remaining brother is unable to cross on his own, the player channels the strength of his lost sibling by pushing forth both control sticks, allowing him to overcome the final obstacle. It’s a work of art that would not have operated as effectively within any other medium.

Shadow of the Colossus is one game I failed to understand until its denouement. I was frustrated by its simplicity, mistaking its minimalism for sheer emptiness, lack of content, when in fact there were subtle things happening that I wasn’t paying attention to. The main player, a boy, visits a forbidden stretch of land thronging with ruins, carrying a deceased girl. He converses with the voice of an unseen deity and slaughters massive creatures, all in a vain effort to retrieve this girl from death. Scarce information is given to the player – backstory is up to the player to concoct for themselves. Had I been perking up my ears to the whole experience and not been distracted by my frustration, I’d have realized that the “monsters” I was killing were innocent, and that I was helping a demonic force awaken from banishment. I’d have noticed that, with every creature slain, I was metamorphosing into something devilish, something clearly evil. When the last blow was stricken, I had at last awoken the slumbering demon, and that was when I realized that all of my suppositions were wrong: I had resurrected my loved one, but at the cost of becoming a demon myself. An outro unfolds with a horned baby cradled in the arms of the newly-awoken girl, roaming the lands I had once explored. I’m left with a sense of both despair for the protagonist, but also curiosity for the future of the budding land.


*Keep the comments fair, polite, and decent even if you disagree. Special thanks to the Evergreen Sage Mage for helping in collecting these responses!

15 replies »

  1. Nice takes here. As the Hopeful Handheld Mage said:

    “When the question of whether games are art or not was posed to me, I figured I should find out what art was before forming an opinion: “the expression or application of human creative skill and imagination, typically in a visual form such as painting or sculpture, producing works to be appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power.”

    If you start from that point, then of course games can be art.

    The Iron Mage pointed out Shadow of the Colossus – the despair of realizing what your character is doing.

    It’s one thing to see the decline of a character in a book or a movie; it’s another to experience that yourself. Games can do that so well.

    Other games that pack an emotional punch – The Last of Us. Braid. Most Legend of Zelda games – but particularly Link’s Awakening, or Majora’s Mask, or leaving your past behind in Ocarina of Time.

    I’d add to the definition – does the piece of art have messaging power, political power – does it have something to say?

    You can define countless games as art in this way.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’ve seen that most arguments in favor of games as art depend on a broad definition of what art constitutes. That broad definition is something I wholeheartedly believe in, mainly because of historical art and today’s limited definition and wacky forms of art not being all-encompassing in my opinion. Anyway, thanks for commenting!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Fantastic thoughts! At the end of the day, the fact that we have these conversations is encouraging, even if to the everyday gamer the “conclusion” is ultimately a non-issue. I agree with something Red Metal said in a comment on my post, too: the “games as art” conversation doesn’t have to do with other people seeing games as legitimate, but games/gamers/the industry taking the medium seriously and recognizing all of its merits.

    Thanks for this post! It was nice to see some different views on the topic!

    Liked by 4 people

    • That’s why I love Red Metal so much 😀

      Another person I respect, who helped put this on, said that the most important thing here was asking the question and listening to each other, not necessarily being right. I really think those thoughts are valuable, raising the conversation to a level of the civil exchange of ideas. Thanks for participating!

      Liked by 1 person

      • I noticed that both on Twitter and on this site, several responses were incredulous – “why are we still talking about this?” This is a pretty barefaced attempt to shut down discussion of the issue, one that seems to be motivated by fear – the idea that if we keep talking about it, then maybe somehow games will stop being art, because of course they are so shut up and get back in line or you’ll regret it. That’s not how this or any topic should be approached if there’s going to be any attempt at building a cohesive and inclusive community around this medium.

        If you ask me, that exact kind of response is the most dangerous factor affecting gaming discourse at the moment: that fear of discussion and of having one’s ideas challenged. It’s not surprising that we saw it here because it’s been such a common tactic when it comes to discussion of video games; try saying the wrong thing about a “sacred cow” game, like Shadow of the Colossus, and you can see nearly the exact same thing play out in nearly the exact same way. I get the feeling that this isn’t the last time TWRM is going to provoke such a reaction!

        Liked by 2 people

        • It’s also not the first! We’ve covered a few things that lead to some controversy in the past and I think the most important thing is what comes after. Does one chose to alienate another for the conversation not having been received in the most polite or palatable way? I think at that point I have to demonstrate an example of polite disagreement by pursuing open communication even when the other person doesn’t seem to want it. Thankfully, whenever you prod someone for their opinion, they will usually expound upon what they’ve curtly said. I’m still sometimes surprised by people who run immediately to shutting down a conversation but it’s easy enough to open it back up by getting someone to talk about everyone’s favorite subject: oneself. I think that’s how you build individual relationships, return readers, and person by person a community?


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