I don’t think games are art. I don’t think games can be art. This isn’t because I think one is “good” and one is “bad,” that one is “high” and one is “low,” or one is “elite” and the other is “popular,” etc. I really don’t care about those binaries. What I do care about is how games and art operate as social objects. I’m interested in how people engage with them, how people incorporate them in their life. And the ways in which this happens for games and for art are very different—and I don’t think it’s useful or interesting to lump them together under more general rubrics like culture or play. Understanding the distinctions between them is also important because it produces a vocabulary for discussing the special instances when a game has the properties of a work of art, or an artwork has properties of play.
Games have rules. Games are rules—the rules are what gives them form. Gameplay is what happens within the rules’ structure. A game can be repeated limitlessly, and each iteration of play is unique.
There are rules in art too, after a fashion, but they are rules in a broader sense: the rules of how perception is organized, the rules of how relationships are formed and recognized, rules that are more like the ones in grammar than the ones in a game. What makes art special as a social object is that art points to a set of rules and also to how they might be broken, to what lies beyond the domain of those rules. Art is special because it reveals many possibilities of meaning, which it does by simultaneously revealing rules and revealing how things could be otherwise, whether those rules pertain to the relationship between church and state (i.e., Pussy Riot) or to the relationship of lines to a plane (i.e., Agnes Martin).
Works of fiction that follow a set of rules are classified as genre fiction—mysteries, romance novels, thrillers. Paintings that follow a set of rules hang in hotels. Working with the genres and mediums of art while adhering to formal rules produces entertainment and/or decoration. Again, this is not a dis—it’s a distinction! People need entertainment and decoration as much as (or more than) they need art. I just want recognize the differences of those needs.
I suspect that a lot of the guys who insist that games are art (for the purpose of defending them against charges of sexism or making them seem Important or whatever) are the kind of people who think that The Matrix or The Lord of the Rings are art, when in fact those are entertainment. They’re good entertainment, because they push against the conventions of their genre (The Matrix) or invent the genre (The Lord of the Rings, though this is an invention that depends on the rules of folklore’s archetypes), but these pushes remind the audience that the rules are there and their presence gives comfort and satisfaction.
Perhaps the main distinction between a game and a work of art is in the uniqueness (or variability) of form, and how that limits (or enables) audience engagement. A game is unique in each of its iterations, whereas the artwork is unique in its creation. If not physically unique—if it is a poem or a novel or a video or a photograph that can be reproduced—it has a limited form that generates the experience of the audience’s encounter with it. A game’s rules generate the form of an iteration, and that form is unique.
When John Cage introduced elements of chance to music and ceded some of the composer’s decisions to performers, he injected properties of the game into the composition and performance of music—he made something that had certain rules that would be unique with each iteration (to a greater extent than that to which any musical score is unique each time it is played). But by retaining the framework of the audience, the composer, and performer Cage remained within the realm of art. His artistic gesture was to indicate the rules of the artist’s control over the artwork while also indicating how it could be otherwise.
Jason Rohrer is a game designer whose games include Chain World, a modification to Minecraft that can only be played by one person at a time, and which upon completion must be passed along to another player who is willing to accept the rules, and A Game for Someone, a board game constructed from titanium and buried in a desert in Nevada that (Rohrer hopes) will only be found and played hundreds or thousands of years in the future. These games are about limiting how, when, and by whom the game can be played—Rohrer is making games but he’s imposing limitations on them that are close to the limitations inherent to the work of art. A game can played by anyone who knows the rules, and by concealing the game and the rules Rohrer indicates this truth while also indicating how it could be otherwise. As a result, these works of Rohrer circulate primarily as stories or legends among people who haven’t actually played them—and this reminds me of the performance pieces Tino Sehgal, which aren’t documented and are passed to performers verbally, without written instructions.
I admit that I don’t know a lot about the world of indie game design but from the outside it seems like more and more designers are trying to expand the idea of what a game can be in the way Cage tried to expand the idea of what art can be. Games and art fit in certain social context (i.e., the home and the museum, respectively, to name two) and so the areas that are ripe for crossover between them—the places where art can be the most like games—are performance and net art, where artist/game designers can work with the modes of bodily contact or network contact that have been used in both games and art. It will be interesting to see how these new works negotiate between the satisfaction with order that comes with gameplay and the fascination with the mysteries of meaning inherent to the experience of art.