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'Can Videogames Be Art?

A brief investigation into the artistic
merit of videogames as a medium

John Appleby


A dissertation submitted in partial fulfilment of

MA Games Design

Supervisor: Josh Taylor

DE 4115

December 2010

(word count 8822)

Table of Contents
1/ Introduction

3/ What is Art?

10/ A Brief History of Videogames and their Artistic Merits

10/ Early Signs of Artistic Development

14/ Golden Age of Platformers

Artistry Evolves

17/ 3D Generation

Techniques that have been developed which prompt artistic qualities

in modern games

26/ Approaching High Art

The games that do more than simulate immersion

30/ The Future of Videogame Art

Can Videogames Be Art?
John Appleby - MA Games Design

In 2005 Rogert Ebert, a well respected movie critic for the Chicago Sun-Times sparked world-

wide debate when he declared that videogames could never be considered art. He loosely

examined the definition of games as a medium and drew comparisons with other much more

highly respected forms of art such as classic painting, literature and music. In a review of his

writings, Jeremy Reimer1 suggested that “he is critical of the artistic value of the games

themselves” rather than their place among interactive art or their structure in comparison with

‘traditional’ games. Ebert responded to his criticisms earlier this year 2, posting an article which

reaffirmed his previous statements. Notably this post received in excess of 4500 comments. One

of his main arguments is that “No one in or out of the field has ever been able to cite a game

worthy of comparison with the great poets, filmmakers, novelists and poets”. In this paper, I will

attempt to examine the development of videogames as an art form. I will look at the elements

which are key to giving videogames an edge which pushes them beyond the boundary of ‘just

games’ and how designers and developers are putting techniques into practice in order to move

the medium forward as it matures and supporting technology advances.

1 Reimer, J. ‘Arts Technica’ - ‘Roger Ebert says games will never be as worthy as movies’
http://arstechnica.com/old/content/2005/11/5657.ars dated 30/11/05, viewed 9/12/10
2 Ebert, R. Chicago Sun-Times ‘Videogames can never be art’
dated 16/4/10, viewed 9/12/10

Can Videogames Be Art?
John Appleby - MA Games Design

What is Art?

The absolute foundation of any kind of work which attempts to successfully tackle a question as

controversial as this should first and foremost establish the definition of ‘Art’. Through research, it

seems to be the starting point for any and all who brave it. It is interesting to note however that

generally, their definitions seem to vary drastically on both sides of the fence. The definition of art

is in and of itself a gargantuan debate that has raged since humans first started to create and one

that is arguably moving further from any kind of recognised standard as the mediums that it

encompass grow vastly in number and human beings find new and exciting ways to express


In her presentation on the subject, Kellee Santiago3 proclaims that Wikipedia’s definition that “Art

is the product or process of deliberately arranging elements that appeals to the senses or

emotions” is one that she finds the most accurate. For a more reputable source, the Oxford online

Dictionary states that art is “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” 4 On a very base level then, it seems that art could

be seen to be anything man-made which evokes some kind of emotional reaction in it’s audience.

It has been suggested that most forms of art began as forms of communication. Recording

important information to be passed between people through the first cave paintings and written

words quickly evolved into something much less sterile. Varying individual perceptions led

naturally into storytelling and as our minds realised their awesome potential, we began to

3 Are Videgames Art? http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K9y6MYDSAww&feature=player_embedded

dates 23/3/09, viewed 9/12/10
4 Oxford Dictionaries, http://oxforddictionaries.com/definition/art Accessed 9/12/10

Can Videogames Be Art?
John Appleby - MA Games Design

elaborate, working to render such tales as our own while offering unique insights into events and

situations past, present and future. Art by this definition was born as soon as these expressions

stirred the thoughts and feelings of anybody outside of the creator’s own head.

Today there are countless forms of art. They range from the visual, including drawings, paintings,

photographs and sculptures to the auditory, such as music. Stories in the form of novels, plays

and poems and then hybrids of all of these forms together with the invention of cinema. It is this

diversity in make-up that causes all the confusion and difficulty when it comes to a universal

classification. Do you experience a movie in the same way you do a painting? Does a song make

the same impression as a sculpture? Modern art involves works which are even harder to define

still. A lot of it is conceptual, meaning that it can be created out of almost anything - the ‘artistic’

merit being what the piece ‘says’ to its audience.

Then comes culture. What many might view in one part of the world as artistic may be frowned

upon, ignored or laughed at in another. Even within cultures, there are all the denominations which

make up society. Class, race, religion etc. and no two people will have exactly the same values

and opinions, no matter their background. To put it simply, Art is subjective. Unlike Science or

Maths which have a logical, factual framework, Art doesn’t exist in the Universe until somebody

creates it (or points it out?) and it won’t be to everybody’s tastes. Because of this it becomes very

hard to determine what actually constitutes Art. If something moves you and you find meaning or

expression in it you would probably say it were artistic. In the same way, if something has no

effect on you whatsoever, it’s likely that you won’t value it in the same way. Much debate centred

around Ebert’s comments lay in the fact that the statements he was making could only be applied

to himself and his own views rather than medium as a whole. In response to his second article on

his website, one commenter writes “You should change your statement to "Video games can

never be art TO ME."”

Can Videogames Be Art?
John Appleby - MA Games Design

With all this in mind, I think the question itself must be addressed differently in order to reach a

more interesting and perhaps useful outcome.

There is no arguing that some people will always view games as art while some, who maybe

aren’t gripped by them in the same way may never do so without a lot of persuasion. As most of

the elements that make up a game already constitute art in some form or another, those on the

‘non-art’ side of the fence may argue that such imagery, music and narrative are created and

directed with purely commercial intentions, rendering their artistic integrity weak and

unsupported. The same here may be said for a TV advert or the branding/logo design of a

company or other commercial outlet. Some will suggest that the McDonald's ‘Golden Arches’ are

a piece of art. They were created by someone with the aim of representing a multi-national

corporation, therefore they should reflect something of it’s values and ideals. Perhaps the emblem

is a reflection of modern society - the needs and demands of the consumer? And hand-crafted

items with practical purpose may be considered in the same light. A chest of drawers for

example, have been designed by someone and while they were built to fulfil the slightly mundane

job of housing unworn clothes, it is rare to find such an item of furniture without some kind of

additional embellishment. Are the floral carvings on the arm-rests of a chair necessary to meet

the needs of the person who sits in it? Even a simple door-handle or a set of kitchen cutlery is

rarely crafted purely to suit its practical purpose. If so, the world would be a much duller place.

We customise the plain and elaborate upon it in order to brighten up our lives and these aesthetic

improvements will often hold strong connotations with their place of creation, reflecting time and

culture. While such designs don’t usually hold any deeper meaning, nor are they trying to ‘say

anything’, they may still incite a feeling in their user/audience. Be it connotations with something

else of similar design, nostalgia or a simple arousal of the senses gained by viewing or hearing

something pleasurable. If this is the case, then the various artistic contributions that make up a

Can Videogames Be Art?
John Appleby - MA Games Design

video game cannot be denied either. The sheer quantity of tailoring and effort that goes into the

2D artwork, 3D models, story, dialogue, sounds and music alone provides vast quantities of this

kind of ‘aesthetic pleasure’.

Low art vs. high art

The argument then, becomes not “can video games be considered art?” but more specifically

“can video games be good art?”. As explored, the spectrum of art forms today is huge and as

such, the term must be broken down in order to separate all the variations and the different

degrees of quality. Even those who will argue relentlessly that their shoes might be works of art

will most definitely not attempt to prove that they are of the same value as Michaelangelo’s Sistine

Chapel. Amongst the art culture of the modern age, such categorization has begun to evolve and

the term ‘high art’ is now commonly used to describe real classic works of importance and

historical value. These include not only paintings, but pieces of music (most often of the classical

genre), sculptures and when pushed, some of the great works of cinema such as ‘Citizen Kane’.

Contrasted with what may be referred to as ‘Low Art’ or ‘Popular Art’, the most elite is that which is

created by the absolute masters of any discipline, showing exemplary skill in design, craft and

execution. Additionally, High Art might be work which has significant cultural importance,

challenging, redefining or innovating in it’s chosen subject and/or field. At the opposite end of the

Can Videogames Be Art?
John Appleby - MA Games Design

scale is the popular art. The graphic design, adverts, TV-shows, theme music and pop-songs. Art

which is mass-produced to meet a demand or suit a purpose.

Blogger ‘Jabsonic’5 references “Litlove’s analysis of what makes the difference between high and

low culture:

• Low art comforts, satisfies and reassures audiences’ expectations

• High art challenges and questions audiences’ expectations”

Interestingly, in his article ‘On High Art’ 6, Lawrence Nannery states that “there is no absolute

dividing line between high and low art. In fact, in modern industrial society, low art has

disappeared and been replaced, for the most part, in adult entertainment, by what has been

called midcult“. He goes on to suggest Hollywood as an example of midcult and argues that it is

“very, very rare” for midcult works to cross over into High Art.

Video Games are very much at the centre of contemporary debate as to where they may fit on this

scale, primarily because they are such a young form of media. Perhaps given Nannery’s

definition, the majority of modern videogames might fit into the bracket of midcult? It is fairly safe

to say that when they were first introduced, they were seen purely as simple games such as

chess, ping-pong or ‘snap’ (although debate even rages over thew artistic merit of the likes of

chess, but that’s another story...). The very earliest titles lacked even the complexity of most card

games due to the limits of technology and the designers/programmers technical knowledge and

efficiency. While other media such as painting have explored many different styles and techniques

over the years in order to create new and interesting pieces, they have never been limited in the
5 Jabsonic ‘Pure example’s of high or low art’
Dated 20/1/07, viewed 9/12/10
6 Nannery, L. ‘On High Art’
Viewed on 9/12/10

Can Videogames Be Art?
John Appleby - MA Games Design

same way as Video Games have by the tools used to create them (with the slight exception of

cinema - something I will come back to). A trained painter or musician is really only constrained

by the power of their own imagination with the costs of paints, brushes, and canvas amounting to

very little whereas Video Games designers have consistently been fighting an uphill battle as to

what they can produce, limited by the processors and software that is available to help them

realise their vision as well as a skilled team of developers and a big budget.

In the late 70’s and early 80’s, designers were still simply exploring the potential of what they

might be able to do and as the commercial appeal of the games they were making began to

increase while the costs of production and complexity of their methods gradually decreased, they

were able to explore further still, adapting and improving with each ‘generation’ of technical

hardware. Admittedly however, the evolution of Video Games has been a slow one. While

technology is improving more and more rapidly as the years go by, the fact that games are still

very complex and expensive to produce, requiring a plethora of different skills to effectively build

has meant that they are still largely commercial products. As with any other commercial industry,

creativity and experimentation can be scrutinously stifled and held back in order to make

products which will generate a guaranteed income. For this reason, atop the significant

disadvantage in time that Video Games have in comparison with other recognised art-forms, they

have always been and still are struggling to convince many that they hold anything of real value in

terms of cultural significance and importance.

This leads to another possible problem for the acceptance of Video Games. In a media that is still

so much in its infancy, there are many people who may have played Video Games at some point

very early in their development and ‘written them off’ due to their simplicity. For example, if

somebody played ‘Pong’ on it’s debut, then maybe ‘Donkey Kong’ some years later and didn’t like

them, they may well have decided from those experiences that they don’t like Video Games in

Can Videogames Be Art?
John Appleby - MA Games Design

general and as a result, avoided them ever since. Since these early games represent very little in

terms of artistic expression, be it visual, audio, narrative or interactive, such a player would find it

very hard to imagine the dramatic evolution of today’s games. They would not consider what they

know of games as art and most people wouldn’t blame them.

It would be safe to say that cinema probably encountered the same kinds of barriers but it

overcame them through years of exposure and credible works by reputable people. Since cinema

is easily accessible, once it starts to get exposure all over the world, it is hard to avoid it and this

then opens up opportunities for quality directors to prove their worth. Videogames have a

significantly larger barrier when it comes to accessibility.

Possibly because of the focus on interactivity, which does serve as a hindrance for a lot of people

due to intricate and complex controls, many simply cannot experience games with as much ease

as they can other art forms. Games take patience and skill among other qualities and they are

things that a proportion of people simply do not have the time for, nor are they interested in such

things. Anybody with a working set of eyes can view a painting and make judgement on it in an

instant, a song will last a matter of minutes and a movie a few hours but not everybody is willing to

sit through 60+ hours of a Final Fantasy game which includes a lot of learning and challenges in

order to indulge in everything it has to offer. Ebert himself has admitted that time constraints are a

major factor in his reasons for not trying out more videogames.

From a players perspective, Video Games should arguably excel in elements of story-telling

because they have so much longer to embellish their tales and the interactivity required should

immerse the audience more-so than any other art form. It is obvious that this advantage comes at

many costs. In addition to the lack of time available to play, the barrier of controls and challenges

and the commercial restrictions and limitations, the manpower and skill-levels required to put a

Can Videogames Be Art?
John Appleby - MA Games Design

Video Game together mean that often the quality of one or more of the elements that makes one

will suffer. For example, a modern AAA title may require upwards of 100 designers, developers,

artists, writers, directors, composers, technicians, programmers and testers plus a few years

development time to create a game. All these costs for production, technology, publishing and

manufacture mean that a company simply cannot afford to have the worlds leading artist,

musician, writer, director etc. all together working on one project. The idea is just unfeasible.

Because of this, it is common that at least one of the disciplines will be sub-par and this can drag

the quality of the title right down.

As an example, Grand Theft Auto IV (the best-selling game of 2008) reputedly cost over $100

million to produce with a staff of over 1000 people working for over 3 and a half years7.

Grand Theft Auto IV

7 Top 10 most expensive videogames budgets ever,

Dated 10/2/10, viewed on 9/12/10

Can Videogames Be Art?
John Appleby - MA Games Design

A brief history of Video Games and their artistic merits

With the vague stipulations as to what makes a Video Game a piece of art, it may be hard to

discern where and when their artistic integrity was called into question. Who first claimed that

their game, or a game that they had played was art?

Early signs of artistic development


Let’s start at the beginning. Pong was released for home use in 1975. It was more or less a virtual

on-screen translation of Ping Pong, the only details shown on screen being a pair of white

paddle’s (in the form of shapeless rectangles), the ball (a white square) and the centre line

against a plain black background. Only as an abstract interpretation of reality could one argue

that Pong's minimalist visual style was either aesthetically pleasing or artistic, but it wasn’t

designed with that purpose in mind. Pong looked the way it did because that was the best and

most effective way that it’s designer could translate what he needed to to the player. The game

wasn’t commenting on contemporary sports or trying to say anything to it’s audience - it was

simply an interactive electronic game to be played and enjoyed for it’s simplicity and use of

cutting edge technology.

Pong and Space Invaders

Can Videogames Be Art?
John Appleby - MA Games Design

Space Invaders

Space Invaders (1978) was a step-up from the simplicity of Pong. It involved guiding an avatar left

and right at the bottom of the screen in order to shoot at aliens above and avoid their incoming

return fire. While still extremely basic, the objects on screen now implemented more complicated

design than the cuboids of its predecessors. The players ‘laser cannon’ looked vaguely

reminiscent of a tank and the aliens themselves were uniquely distinguishable from one another

from row to row. While the game still only consisted of a monotone white on black, the games

principal designer and creator Tomohiro Nishikado, did put thought into a theme for the game and

worked to represent the visual elements in a specific way which wasn’t simply a translation of

something real. Notably, one of the alien designs has in recent years become something of a pop-

culture icon used to represent gaming as a whole. It is this early on in gaming’s life that the idea of

a game as art can begin to creep into question. Nishikado was restricted by the processing

capabilities of his hardware and so he could only have a certain number of pixels and colours on-

screen. He worked within these limits to produce something which communicated an idea or

feeling to his audience. Even aside from the visuals, the gameplay mechanics themselves which

could involve taking cover behind buildings to avoid attack and the tense feeling of the aliens

gaining ground and drawing ever closer (which would inevitably lead to a game over if the player

could not eliminate them first) all added to the immersive player experience. It isn’t necessarily a

‘deep’ experience, or indeed one that was intended that way, but if Nishikado’s man-made

creation, which was an expression of his own idea can move someone, then surely it deserves

some artistic recognition.

Can Videogames Be Art?
John Appleby - MA Games Design

Super Mario Bros.

Sprint forward to the mid-80’s and after what has become notorious as Video Gaming’s worst

‘crash’ in ‘83, Nintendo almost single-handedly revived the medium with ‘Super Mario Bros.’. By

this point home consoles were powerful enough to display full colour graphics and support more

complex game mechanics in order to provide a deeper and more enthralling overall experience. It

is now widely know that many of the elements which went into the design of the game and which

have since become internationally iconic, were in-fact created in such a way because of technical

limitations. Mario only has a hat, sports a large black moustache and wears white gloves because

graphical constraints meant that it was too difficult to depict hair, a mouth and arms on such a

small character model. Nevertheless, the psychedelic plumber’s creator Shigeru Miyamoto built a

narrative, a fictional world and other accompanying characters to support him in his adventure

and has gradually evolved this model now for 25 years. Among other things, the Super Mario

franchise has sported a cartoon, a movie and countless imitators. It’s artistic style set a basis for

pretty much every platformer in the years that followed and it’s musical score, composed by the

now legendary Koji Kondo, was unique, innovative and is widely recognised, the world over.

In terms of Artistic merit, Super Mario Bros was another game which set a standard in it’s medium.

The Legend of Zelda series which followed it, imagined by the very same man, adopted its puzzle

solving elements, its focus on story and characters and created an even deeper play experience.

In both games and their many homages and copycats, players really do get moved by the

interaction that they make with these onscreen sprites. Long have songs, books, paintings and

theatre depicted the classic tale of a brave knight coming to the rescue of a princess. Games

offered the opportunity for their audience to play that role. Just as the ‘limitation’ of reading words

on a page in a book means that an audience must use their imagination to flesh-out a story’s

Can Videogames Be Art?
John Appleby - MA Games Design

setting and characters, the primitive computerised depictions of fantasy characters in a game

offer the player the opportunity to conjur the rest of the world themselves and experience

something unique and meaningful. It is arguably a strong piece of art which provokes the

thoughts and the senses and thus provides a deep experience rather than spoon-feeding an idea

that will remain unchanged from person to person.

On the other hand, does Super Mario Bros. have a more meaningful underlying theme? Is it telling

us anything important? Does it have any cultural significance? Is it’s story original, deeply moving

or compelling? Has it provoked enough of an impact to move someone to change in some way?

Unfortunately the answer is probably not. Not at this stage anyway. But it was getting closer.

Can Videogames Be Art?
John Appleby - MA Games Design

Golden Age of Platformers

Artistry Evolves

Over the second half of the 80’s and right through more or less until 1994 with the arrival of Sony’s

Playstation and the first major leap from 2D graphics into 3D, developers experimented with this

model. As with any medium, titles were released with various levels of sophistication and artistic

value. Platforming games such as the Super Mario series and Sega’s rival Sonic series attained

huge popularity. Many movie tie-ins were built in the same way and there was a barrage of other

titles that copied the formula with different levels of success. This particular genre generally had

it’s main focus on gameplay, however. The visuals may have been fantastic, the characters

interesting and original and the music memorable and now for many, extremely nostalgic but it is

obvious that each production was primarily driven by commercial aspirations. It is obvious in the

common elements.

Since game designers are making products that need to be interacted with and thus understood

easily by their audience, it is in their best interests that certain fundamentals become

commonplace. This way, if a person plays a game that they enjoy, when they then come to play

another new title by a different developer, they don’t have to learn a whole new set of rules and

aims in order to enjoy it. The health bar, collectible items, lives, the method of jumping on an

enemies head to eliminate it, bonus rewards that grant new abilities, end of level boss battles.

Each of these elements can be found in almost any 80’s/90’s platformer. In the same way, control

schemes are often the same and this concept can be applied to most games from the birth of

gaming right through to present day. It has become a language unique to it’s medium that works

to create an easily enjoyable and more importantly an easily accessible experience.

Can Videogames Be Art?
John Appleby - MA Games Design

Popular Platfomers - Sonic 2, Earthworm Jim, Super Mario Bros. 3 and Rocket Knight Adventures

Other mediums that are considered art-forms suffer from the same form of repetition geared

towards big sales rather than artistic experimentation or raw expression. The Music industry

churns out numerous manufactured pop-groups that release ‘one-hit-wonders’ in order to rack up

cash sales with no interest in creating art whatsoever. Similarly Hollywood is guilty of following

trends and all too often giving the green light to a movie because it is reminiscent of another that

recently achieved big success. It is a terrible pitfall for any artistic medium and once again, the

gaming industry probably currently suffers worst because it is so much younger than the others.

In her Presentation ‘Are Video Games Art?’ whilst discussing the impact that modern media has

on our lives, thatgamecompany’s Kellee Santiago suggests that “it has become somewhat

destructive to our culture, very often honouring the completely superficial and the empty”. She

then goes on to explain how video games are in some ways, slowly breaking away from that area

as the medium expands and new opportunities are presented to new designers.

Can Videogames Be Art?
John Appleby - MA Games Design

Other genre’s such as Sports and Racing games have always attempted to simulate reality. They

have no intention of commenting on it, or rousing any emotions in their audience other than

providing a similar virtual experience to the one they are based on, at home in the living room.

Probably the first evidence of video games actually doing such a thing was provided in the form

of Role-Playing. It is a concept which has naturally evolved out of story-telling and ‘Dungeons and

Dragons’. As with most games around this period, the cream of the crop came out of Japan and

while many western designers were creating action games involving ceaseless fighting and

wanton destruction, the east were creating arguably more mature games that were very story

focused and centred around gradually earning experience and abilities in order to become

stronger and better at the game. Such titles as Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy told long epic

tales involving large casts of characters. A player becomes deeply invested in the story, the world

and the characters over the course of it’s play-time, arguably more so than in any other medium

because the players actions directly effect their avatars progress and consequently the entire


Can Videogames Be Art?
John Appleby - MA Games Design

3D Generation
Techniques that have been developed which prompt artistic qualities in modern

An excellent prime example of the drama and emotion that can be garnered in an RPG came in

1997 with the Final Fantasy’s first 3D title on the Sony Playstation, Final Fantasy VII. In the game,

the player takes main control of Cloud Strife who finds himself wrapped up in an epic journey to

save the planet. Along the way, among other characters, he meets a girl called Aeris. At a few

points during the early hours of gameplay they converse until Cloud finds her being attacked and

has to protect her from her pursuers. Afterwards she decides to join him on his quest. On top of

conveying a growing relationship between the two through the games storyline, the designers

used Video Gaming’s unique opportunity to build an even greater bond between Aeris and Cloud

(and the player) by making her important to gameplay too.

Although you primarily control Cloud to Navigate the world and interact with its inhabitants, the

Final Fantasy series allows the player to choose a limited number of characters with witch to battle

enemies. In this particular game, you may choose 3 of a possible 9 characters, Aeris being one of

them. The more you use a character, the more experience they gain, thus ‘leveling-up’ and

learning new powers and abilities. Another way of looking at this might be that the more the player

uses a character, the more important that character becomes to players progress. Many players

will choose Aeris as part of their main fighting team (possibly guided by the story and their own

feelings about the developing relationship between her and Cloud) and they will put hours of

playtime into improving her abilities until about a third of the way through the game when the

unthinkable happens.

Can Videogames Be Art?
John Appleby - MA Games Design

In a rather unexpected twist in the plot, Aeris is killed by the games main antagonist Sephiroth.

This doesn’t happen in gameplay and there are no ‘extra-lives’ or restarts on offer because her

death plays an extremely vital role in the narrative. Not only is this a hugely moving and emotional

point in the storyline, but had the player been using Aeris up until this point, they are essentially

robbed of one of their primary assets and this adds a deeper and more personal charge to the

event. Not only has Sephiroth killed a character in the game, he has taken from you something

which you put hours of skill and patience into to obtain and now you want to get revenge, not for

the sake of the story, but for yourself. No other medium can create that intimate connection with its

audience and because of that, this particular instance has become one of gamings most

memorable moments and made Sephiroth into one of gamings most notorious villains. As a player

myself, I would rate this particular example to be as moving and engrossing as any movie I have

seen or book that I have read. The story is intricate, deep and compelling and the method by

which it is told, only serves to glorify it and make it stronger. Final Fantasy VII is constantly topping

‘Greatest Game of All Time’ lists in magazines and on websites worldwide which just goes to

show the impact it has had on many others as well.

The death of Aeris. A poignant moment in Final Fantasy VII

Can Videogames Be Art?
John Appleby - MA Games Design

While few games can claim to achieve this degree of depth of interaction, it seems that by the

time of the 2D-3D transition, whether it be through technical evolution or the maturity with which

developers were beginning to craft their works, video games were experimenting with these types

of techniques and moving closer to what most would class as respectable examples of art.

‘Doom’ was the first 3D first person shooter to achieve critical acclaim and although it was pretty

much a simple ‘run and gun’ affair with the odd puzzle thrown in and small doses of tense scares,

by the time of the Playstation, the Medal of Honour series was depicting it’s unique

representations of World War II events in significantly more effective ways. Due to the compact

disc format, designers could now incorporate much more grandiose soundtracks to their games

and include proper live-action or CGI video. The sound effects themselves also improved, along

with obvious graphical advances - all elements geared towards creating a more immersive


Although Resident Evil is often knocked for it’s terrible acting, it was one of the first games to

make use of real voice acting rather than on-screen text. Now your in-game partners could

actually talk to you, you could feel the emotion in their voices (when the acting is up to scratch!)

and the use of this was also refined with each title. The same was true of Metal Gear Solid, which

was highly story orientated and too used voice acting in gameplay and for it’s many extended cut-

scenes. MGS in fact involved a dramatically intricate plot, comparable with a thriller or action/spy

novel and once again, it’s way of offering the audience control over the actions of the main

protagonist only works to boost that feeling of intimacy and attachment that grows between the

player and the games world and it’s characters. It actually went one step further at a few points by

directly addressing the player within the context of the story.

Can Videogames Be Art?
John Appleby - MA Games Design

Whilst fighting the enemy ‘Psycho Mantis’ who supposedly harbours strong telekinetic powers, he

tells Snake that he is going to prove himself by demonstrating his abilities. A shock for a lot of

players, Psycho Mantis then goes on to read out a list of games that you - the player, have

recently been playing (in real life). Obviously rather than actually being psychic, the game simply

reads the memory card which is inserted into the Playstation, but it is quite a profound way of

connecting with the audience and while retrospectively quite humorous, at the time it can increase

the sense of danger and vulnerability that the context is trying to convey. Methods of engagement

such as this can make an experience way more deep by translating their message into something

personal that it’s audience can directly relate to.

MGS – Psycho Mantis reads your mind...

Can Videogames Be Art?
John Appleby - MA Games Design

Interestingly the outcome of the game was dependant on a particular moment that occurred

roughly half way through. Once again, in the same vein as Final Fantasy VII, MGS created a bond

with the protagonist Solid Snake’s love interest Meryl. When the two are captured and Snake is

tortured, the player must win a ‘mini-game’ which involves resisting the torture in order to save her

life. If the player succeeds, Snake will meet up with Meryl at the games conclusion but if the

player fails, Snake will find her dead. This imposes responsibility onto the player. In a movie or a

story or a painting when someone is murdered, it can have a moving emotional effect because

you can imagine the circumstances - you put yourself in the shoes of one of the characters or you

relate it to personal experiences. In such an instance as this, you actually have an influence over

the development of the story. If you want Meryl to live, you have to fight for it and if you win, you

feel a sense of achievement when you see her at the end. If you fail however, that feeling

becomes one of guilt and frustration.

So immersion is obviously a big deal in the gaming industry and something that every designer

strives for. By immersing a player in an experience, it is making that journey all the more real and

with it all the emotions and thoughts and feelings that are had will have a considerably more

lasting effect. With modern technology and 20 years of design, there are numerous ways that

designers are achieving it. Game mechanics such as those previously mentioned are a prime

example. Other elements include the improvements in visual art, music, 3D and the mastery of

combining each one in order to create moods. Some designers do this by attempting to emulate

reality as best they can whilst some do the opposite and try to create titles which look new and

original but even simulation can have artistic merit. “When a game crosses this divide of realism,

we tend to forget about the graphics altogether. We have ‘crossed over’ and accept the game as

reality. At this point, immersion becomes something that designers can measure.” 8 Are movies

and plays too not designed to emulate reality in the most convincing manner?

8 GamesTM (Imagine Publishing), issue 102, pg80 “State of the Art” Ed - Rick Porter

Can Videogames Be Art?
John Appleby - MA Games Design

In argument against the interactive immersion theory Denis Dutton, Professor of philosophy at the

University of Canterbury, New Zealand puts forward his perspective - “Consider Shakespeare's

Othello. Why should I imagine for a moment that my having an ability to intervene in the play could

make it better? Would a happy ending - Othello and Desdemona singing a love duet, with me

seated behind them strumming a harp - be an improvement on Shakespeare?”9. While his

argument holds weight, Shakespeare never designed his stories to incorporate interactive

elements. They were created in order to be read or watched by an audience in a theatre.

Videogames on the other handed, are crafted with interactivity as their main focus right from the

offset - it’s not just an added feature tacked on in an attempt to add depth. In examples of great

games, the interactive element of gameplay is something that feels seamless and goes almost

unnoticed. When The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time tasked it’s players with playing music on

a virtual instrument as an integral part of gameplay it very successfully added to the games

immersion. You didn’t simply witness a character playing nice music with his friends, you yourself

had to learn how to play specific songs, remember them and then use them to solve puzzles and

create bonds between other characters. Importantly, such a thing is still ‘gameplay’ and may have

been created for the purposes of fun more than anything else but as an overall product, the game

benefits in it’s ability to evoke an emotional response from it’s audience by incorporating it. So

would having the ability to play this instrument removed from the game make it worse? Definitely.

Notably the user interface is another stab at immersion technique that has taken on new life in

recent years as designers look at replicating physical gestures as part of controlling their games

with Nintendo’s ‘Wii’, Microsoft’s ‘Kinect’ and Sony’s ‘Playstation Move’. Once again this is a

feature which is still very much in it’s experimental stage and whether or not videogames will

benefit from it’s presence is yet to be ascertained. With the right design and imagination, it may

9 Dutton, D ‘Can videogames be art?’ on CultureLab

http://www.newscientist.com/blogs/culturelab/2010/09/can-video-games-be-art.html Dated 20/9/10,
viewed on 9/12/10

Can Videogames Be Art?
John Appleby - MA Games Design

well be another move forward for the industry in creating recognised art. The game ‘Flower’ which

is regularly cited as art is an example of a game controlled purely through the gentle motion of the

controller and it does so with great success.

Top to bottom: Playstation Move, Nintendo Wii, Microsoft Kinect

Simulation which is a form of immersion, is something that has always relied heavily on

customization. Nowadays it is not uncommon for players to have absolute control over almost

every aspect of their virtual adventures. Firstly they will name their character, then they will create

that avatars visual appearance choosing sex, race, build and facial features. Next they can select

clothing, perhaps weapons or items that the character will use and then even statistics relating to

the avatars skills, temperament and moral standing. Games like Black & White, Fable and Fallout

3 have incorporated what is generally now referred to as a ‘karma’ system whereby a players

actions directly effect the games world. Others in-game characters may react to you differently,

you may learn new things which effect general progress, different places may evolve in various

Can Videogames Be Art?
John Appleby - MA Games Design

ways as a virtual economy is altered by the players spending habits. Such complex workings

within what is a highly sophisticated simulated environment may not just lead to an immersive

experience but can also be a factor of learning and indirectly lead to change within an individual.

In Fable 2 for example, a player who sticks to the rules, helps out other characters and generally

does good, positive deeds will become a hero amongst the games population. Non-player

characters (or NPC’s) will offer the player gifts as rewards for their kind, discount in their stores

and new quests will become available, fitting for these kinds of skills. On the other hand, if the

player chooses to be ‘bad’, NPC’s will avoid him/her and will be less likely to ask for help,

although other more fitting opportunities may be unlocked committing crimes or working with


Fable 2's cover art, showing the good/evil progression

Can Videogames Be Art?
John Appleby - MA Games Design

Similarly, 2009’s Modern Warfare 2 sparked outrage in the press when it was revealed that one of

it’s missions included disguising yourself as a terrorist and massacring an airport full of innocent

civilians. People naive to the medium immediately presumed that this was some kind of sadistic

fun - that the only point of the level was to attain pleasure out of shooting people. It is an

understatement to suggest the the sophistication of the video games as a medium is drastically

underrated by a huge percentage of non-gamers the world over. The mission, called simply “No

Russian” never actually required the player to do any shooting at any point and there was even an

option to skip it because of it’s controversial content. The ‘point’ of it then was as a story-telling

device, designed to incite emotion in the audience and influence their feelings as the game

progressed. It is a pivotal moment in the plot which precipitates a full scale war and by witnessing

the trigger first hand, players may be encouraged to feel even more strongly about what they are

fighting for in the rest of the game. As with FFVII’s Sephiroth, it fuels a desire for revenge and acts

as a driving force to play on. According to publisher Activision, it’s aim was "designed to evoke

the atrocities of terrorism"10 and like any good piece of modern art, it caused widespread

controversy, being banned in more than one country.

These kinds of moral dilemmas do equate to learning experiences and although free will and

experimentation obviously come into play, their intention is to test the personality of the player and

make you ask yourself what kind of person you really are. What would you do in this situation?

Anything that prompts this kind of self-reflection and philosophising can surely be considered a

work of art? These examples are the groundwork for where video games may go and once again,

it could well be argued that this level of depth is only scratching the surface but elements such as

the ones noted here a becoming common place in more and more titles everyday and as the

medium grows in popularity, more opportunities are opened for designers to experiment.

10 Kotaku - http://kotaku.com/5392161/modern-warfare-2-features-skippable-scene-of-atrocities,

Can Videogames Be Art?
John Appleby - MA Games Design

Approaching High Art

The games that do more than simulate immersion


Team Ico, released ‘Ico’ on the PS2 in 2001 and it was something quite unlike any game that had

ever been seen before. It’s focus centred around the development of the relationship between the

two central characters Ico (playable) and Yorda as he tries to help her escape from a castle within

which she has been imprisoned. While computer controlled partners in games often notoriously

become ‘burdens’ rather than actually helping the player, Ico was an exception. With very little

dialogue and quite minimalist in every way, the mechanics of the game worked to create a feeling

of mutual benefit whereby, the player would have to work with the computer in order to get past

puzzles. The gameplay worked in harmony with the story to really exaggerate this and it made for

a highly moving and emotional climax when Yorda ends up saving Ico’s life only to lose her own.

Ico leads Yorda to safety

Can Videogames Be Art?
John Appleby - MA Games Design

Shadow of the Colossus

The same development studio made what is widely accepted as Ico’s ‘spiritual sequel’ with 2005’s

Shadow of the Colossus. Equally as revolutionary, it was more of an action game than it’s

predecessor but with a twist that set it apart from the rest. In a similar vein to Ico, SotC only

features two main characters the protagonist ‘Wander’ and the Coma induced ‘Mono’. At the

beginning of the game, you are instructed that the only way to wake Mono from her slumber is to

kill 16 giant beasts known as Colossi which roam the nearby lands. So off you set on horseback

only to find that that’s it. There are no other enemies in the entire game, no other NPC’s to interact

with and no puzzles or interactive elements as part of the landscapes. All of the interest is

focused on the Colossi. Each one is as it’s name suggest, gigantic and as a normal man, in order

to bring one of these creatures down you must learn it’s movements, navigate it’s body and find

it’s unique weak-spot The enemies become levels, puzzles and ‘bad-guys’ in and of themselves

and importantly they don’t necessarily attack Wander until he makes the first move, neither are

they doing any harm to anyone/anything else.

The extreme minimalist style of the game draws attention to the moral dilemma of what Wander

has set out to do and by eliminating any and all distractions it brings it’s focus to the forefront. In a

huge open fantastic, magical landscape in which nothing dwells besides these last seemingly

peaceful animals, is it right to kill every last one and make them extinct in order to awaken one

girl? The game is peaceful and sad and exciting and thought provoking all at once and it is

largely considered by gaming critics as an exemplary work of art. Shadow of the Colossus has a

simple message which it delivers directly and effectively and it’s experience is both enjoyable and


Can Videogames Be Art?
John Appleby - MA Games Design


Thatgamecompany’s Jenova Chen cites emotion as the main goal of the games that they create.

He describes the struggle that games designers are faced with when attempting to use their

medium for such a purpose: “videogames are a very young medium. The relative vocabulary in

game design for human interactions is very little compared to established media. We never had

trouble telling a music composer to make something with a precise feeling [or] an artist to create

an image or animation that communicates a certain emotion. In fact, I can picture the exact look

and sound of a particular scenario. Unfortunately, I can’t see them when it comes to gameplay

interaction design. We can only find it by trying.”11

Flower (2009) puts the player in control of a group of petals caught on a breeze. In the same way

that team Ico emphasised their message through simplicity, flower follows in a very similar vein.

The game is controlled by tilting the Playstation 3’s ‘sixaxis’ controller to influence the direction

and power of the wind. There are no specific goals, no scoring system and no way to fail. As the

petals pass nearby flowers and plants they give life to them, changing the world from dull

monotones to bright natural colours. The menu screen which depicts a single lonesome flower on

an apartment windowsill in a busy city suggests tones of nature vs. technology and the impact

that humankind is having on the environment. The gameplay itself feels like a metaphor for nature

taking the world back and strong mood and feeling of peace and calm is created through all the

combined elements of visuals, music and simplistic gameplay. With no narrative, characters or

clutter, Flower appeals to the senses and provokes the mind.

11 Chen, J. GamesTM (Imagine Publishing), issue 101, pg13 “How Many Roads Must a Man Walk
Down?” Ed - Rick Porter

Can Videogames Be Art?
John Appleby - MA Games Design

The simplistic beauty of Flower


Jonathan Blow’s Braid was an unlikely success released independently on the Xbox Live

marketplace in 2008. It’s plot and gameplay are intertwined around the theme of time and more

specifically making mistakes and the idea of being able to go back and undo them. This is

created as a gameplay mechanic by implementing a ‘reverse-time’ button so that any accidents

that are made by the player can be undone, thus negating any fear of death and shifting focus

onto puzzle-solving. The narrative is unravelled through passages of text which hint at the main

protagonist Tim’s past and mistakes that he made with a girl that he is attempting to put right.

Again, the theme is extremely thought provoking and again it is the way that the combination of

artistic components are weaved together that makes the experience so strong and effective.

Braid has a harrowing ending which dramatizes it’s theme and arguably ranks it’s story among

some of the most provocative tales across modern media.

Can Videogames Be Art?
John Appleby - MA Games Design

The Future of Videogame Art

“The single most exciting thing about videogames is that the technique is still evolving. Cinema,

Literature and Music continue to cannibalise their own histories - re packaging the familiar with a

knowing, nostalgic wink - but, with videogames, new ground is being broken all the time.”12

The examples offered of the most contemporary works of art are of those which have achieved

critical and in some cases commercial success. That’s not to say however that such opportunities

are only available to developers in privileged positions. With the arrival of Xbox Live Marketplace,

the Playstation Store and Apple’s iphone/ipod/ipad gaming platforms, it is becoming much easier

and cheaper for artists to put together and put out simple independently produced videogames.

There is a thriving scene for free online flash games and sophisticated development software

such as Unity has also recently become available for free to download. Indie designers are taking

great advantages of these new opportunities and artistic indie games are beginning to garner


Jason Rohrer’s ‘Passage’ (2007) was an incredibly simple 5-minute game with no goals or

objectives other than to keep walking forwards. Your avatar begins as a child and as you continue

to walk, he ages, finds a partner, gets married, grows old, watches his partner die and then

eventually dies himself. Rohrer used the interactive element of the videogame platform to convey

his idea of life and mortality and it was successful in achieving his vision. The game was released

for free download on PC and Mac over the internet.

12 GamesTM (Imagine Publishing), issue 102, pg77 “State of the Art” Ed - Rick Porter

Can Videogames Be Art?
John Appleby - MA Games Design

‘I Wish I Were the Moon’ by Daniel Benmergui took an interesting experimental approach to

implying a theme through a simple videogame. The game includes a couple, the moon, a bird, a

boat and the stars all of which can be moved about on the screen, resulting in different

occurrences. There are 8 ‘endings’ in all, with each one being easily reached in a matter of

seconds. The goal was to explore the different possibilities of a scenario and how by altering

small features you can create big changes. In this particular instance, the situation involves a

romance and it’s fragility.

I wish I were the moon – shown above is the entire game

Can Videogames Be Art?
John Appleby - MA Games Design

All in all, designers are getting much closer to competing with the Masters of High Art. From the

well-established multi-million dollar companies to the handfuls of creative individuals with a

knowledge for programming are experimenting constantly with the medium and finding new,

interesting and innovative ways to express themselves through videogames as a tool for

interactive expression and communication. Perhaps, right now the best of the bunch have only

reached the level of ‘midcult’ to most, but it took film the best part of 50 years to be accepted by

most as a valid form of art. Ask the majority of ‘hardcore’ gamers for their most inspiring artistic

experiences and it’s likely that you will get examples of games in abundance. They may have

began purely as a medium for play but videogames have come a long way in 20 years and even

if a games original intention was simply to entertain, if it moves it’s audience, connects with them

emotionally and provokes them to think in new ways the it has become something else entirely.

“Gaming and play bear an interesting relationship to art. Like art, play is experimental, creative,

flexible and immersive. It is done for its own sake. And like art, games can challenge and

transform us” … “The games that feel more like art tend to have qualities in common. They do not

pander to the player; they are mysterious; they feel more serious than most games; they have a

complete, holistic feeling. Such games are rarities, but they exist, and as the form evolves, just as

cinema did, more and more of them will appear.” 13 - Assistant professor of entertainment

technology at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and CEO of Schell Games.

13 Schnell, J. Assistant professor of entertainment technology at Carnegie Mellon

University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and CEO of Schell Games
‘Can videogames be art?’ on CultureLab http://www.newscientist.com/blogs/culturelab/2010/09/can-
video-games-be-art.html Dated 20/9/10, viewed on 9/12/10

Sources and Referencing
Games (in chronological order)
1972, Atari Inc.

Donkey Kong
1981, Nintendo

Grand Theft Auto IV

2008, Rockstar

Space Invaders
1978, Midway

Super Mario Bros.

1985, Nintendo

The Legend of Zelda

1986, Nintendo

Sonic the Hedgehog

1991, Sega

Dragon Quest (Dragon Warrior)

1986, Enix/Nintendo

Final Fantasy
1987, Square

Final Fantasy VII

1997, Square

1993, id Software

Medal of Honor
1999, EA

Resident Evil
1996, Capcom

Metal Gear Solid: Tactical Espionage Action

1998, Konami

The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time

1998, Nintendo

Black & White

2001, EA

Fable 2
2008, Microsoft Game Studios
Fallout 3
2008, Bethesda Softworks

Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2

2009, Activision

2001, Sony Computer Entertainment

Shadow of the Colossus

2005, Sony Computer Entertainment

2009, Sony Computer Entertainment

2008, Microsoft Game Studios

2007, Jason Rohrer

I Wish I Were the Moon

2008, Daniel Benmergui
Images (in chronological order)

Ronal McDonald

Sistine Chapel

Grand Theft Auto IV



Space Invaders


Super Mario bros. 3


Sonic 2

Rocket Knight Adventures


Earthworm Jim




Motion Control

Fable 2


Shadow of the Colossus


I wish I were the moon


Games TM, Imagine Publishing 2009/10

Issues 76-103
Directly Referenced:
Issue 102, pg77 “State of the Art” Ed - Rick Porter
Chen, J. Issue 101, pg13 “How Many Roads Must a Man Walk Down?” Ed - Rick Porter


'Video Games and Art', Clarke, A., Mitchell, G.Intellect Ltd. 2007

Websites & Journals (Alphabetical, all accessed 9/12/10 latest)






CultureLab 'Can Videosgames be Art?'


Digital Battle 'Top 10 most expensive video games budgets ever'


Jabsonic 'Pure examples of ‘high’ or ‘low’ art'


Joho The Blog 'Can Videosgames be Art?'


'On High Art' Lawrence Nannery


Talking Philosophy 'Can Videosgames be Art?'


Teen Ink 'Can Videosgames be Art?'


Video games can never be art - Roger Ebert's Journal