Note to potential readers: If you don’t find the philosophy of language interesting then you can kindly fuck off.
Wittgenstein once observed that it is impossible to define the term ‘game’. Oh sure we all think we know what the word means, however, when you really sit down and think about it it soon becomes a hopeless task. Are games fun? Not always, certainly it would be hard to imagine how problem gamblers are having ‘fun’. Are games somehow the opposite of work? Not always, for professional athletes play is work. Similarly not all games involve rules, and not all games involve winning or losing. Perhaps one of the most complete academic attempts to define ‘games’ Juul’s Classical Game Model comes to the rather amusing conclusion that Sim City is not a game, despite the fact that it is regularly called a game, sold as a game and played by gamers.
We can not create a complete holistic definition of game which includes all of the things that people regularly and habitually label as ‘games’. What is startling is that we don’t need one. Despite the fact that it’s impossible to precisely define the word game, if I tell you I played a new game last night you would understand what I meant.
This is because of what Wittgenstein called family resemblance. Why do siblings look the same? Is it because they all share a single common trait? Or is it because of a vague and hazy hodgepodge of different shared or similar traits? We look at the siblings, notice that three quarters have blonde hair, three quarters have blue eyes and three quarters have the last name John. Not all the siblings have blonde hair, not all the siblings have blue eyes, but all things considered we can see the four people and intuitively understand that these four siblings are related. Similarly we can look at chess, DOOM, poker and yes Sim City, see the various shared common aspects and happily declare them all games despite not having a complete definition*.
Wittgenstein therefore concluded that the meaning of a word was not a ‘picture’ or a symbol of a factual thing but rather words are actions. Which is to say that words do not describe, they are used. We use words for various reasons, they are not representations of the world. ‘Game’ does not describe some platonic ideal instead we use the word game to suggest that something is a vague sort of something. The change is important. In the ‘picture’ model a word represents the thing it represents and can only logically represent that thing, in the ‘use’ model a word does whatever you can use it to do, which means that words can mean many things, in many different contexts to many different people.
Consider the word “Art”** Cultural critic Raymond Williams charted the usage of the term in his book Keywords and the way that the meaning of the word ‘Art’ has changed over time is fascinating. At one point astrology and maths were called arts. At one point any highly polished skill was an art. We can see the vestigial remains of these meanings now “The Dark Arts” in reference to sorcery, artisan as a name for an exceptionally skilled craftsman. At some point in the Victorian era the meaning of the word art changed to what we could consider the modern (although certainly not contemporary) definition of art as a kind of spectacularly powerful secular creative expression by an idealised genius creator. This is followed closely by the separation of high culture from low culture and the fervent belief that only truly exceptional works are worthy of the title “Art”.
Yet we should remember that words do not describe things they are actions. The word art does not describe a kind of perfectly platonic formed idea of “Art” instead it is used by people to achieve certain objectives. In the case of the modern definition of art I would argue that calling something art is a way of asserting worth or projecting dominance. I do not think it was a coincidence that the modern conception of art arouse during the period where a new wealthy bourgeois was rising in power. Picture this: you exist in a society with both money and power however you have neither the political legitimacy of noble birth or the spiritual legitimacy of the church. How do you legitimate your privilege? The answer is you spend lots of money on art and argue that art has both the transcendental properties of religion and the world changing power of politics. This is an over simplification of complex historical movements, however, keep it in mind the next time you ever feel superior to someone else because their taste in music sucks.
When we say “Games are Art” we are saying games are important, they are worthy of academic investigation, they can be transcendentally beautiful and maybe, just a little, we’re also telling the haters to go fuck themselves, that it’s okay to spend 20 hours a week pretending to shoot people cause “it’s art dammit”.
However, I don’t think we’re just using the term art for polemic reasons, it’s also because it’s probably the best way to describe the modern videogame. Remember the family resemblances. Modern games can tell moving stories, they are visually stunning, they can change people’s lives. Ebert said they couldn’t be art because they weren’t the work of a single author, that they involved the player too much. However that’s just because Ebert invented a definition of art which exclude games, much like Juul invented a definition of game which excluded Sim City. We can comfortably call games art because they bear a family resemblance to every other known art form.*** They may not share all of the same features that paintings and music do but I would argue they share more features with architecture and sculpture than film does. At this point if you don’t think games (all games) are art you either don’t know enough about art or you don’t know enough about games. Most people outside of gamer culture don’t know enough about games, sadly too many people inside the gamer culture don’t know enough about art.
Last year while studying at university one of our lecturers talked about her efforts to preserve old games which were in danger of falling into the digital dark age. Naturally, I thought it was a worthy endeavor. However, when it came time for class discussion there were students in the class that were angry that someone should try to preserve them. In shock I witnessed people argue that games should be destroyed, that these old games were worthless. “Oh sure”, they argued, “you should preserve old films because, they’re art but games are too simple to be art”. That’s an obviously ridiculous argument to anyone who’s ever made the simplest of games. I quietly put forward the suggestion that if they could demonstrate to me how Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat was art I would explain to them how Space Invaders was art. Sadly no one took me up on the challenge.
Point is, how do you argue for game preservation without invoking the A-word? By saying old games are worth preserving don’t you implicitly agree that they are art? For the most part in the gamer culture the dust in the “are games art” debate has settled, but in the wider culture it hasn’t even started. It needs to start.
Let’s put this another way, language is a tool, we use words because they have effects. Saying games are not-art has an effect. If you wish to live in a world where historical games are preserved, or where game creators are given free speech rights then it makes ideological sense to evangelise them as art. Perhaps that’s cynical but to not call games art would be stupid and at this point in my life I’d rather be cynical than stupid.
* Consider this my rebuttal to this.
**Ha ha sucked in you’re totally reading another “games are art” essay. My apologies, hopefully it is interesting.
*** Incidentally, I’d suggest that the hazy definition of roleplaying games doesn’t prevent Baldur’s Gate and Final Fantasy VI from sharing a similar family resemblance. However, over time that difference appears to have widened just as it’s become more common to refer to Japanese roleplaying games as jRPGs. It seems so much speciation has occurred with the genre of Roleplaying games that there no longer exists a family resemblance between say Fallout: New Vegas and Final Fanstasy XIII or at least that resemblance is very weak.