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  • The Aesthetics of Play Control: The Role of User Interfaces Discussion of Games as Art

    - Daniel Gronsky
  •  Over the years there has been a great deal of debate as to whether or not video games represent an artistic endeavor, in the same sense as film or literature. While it may be taken for granted that most of the of the people reading this essay would agree that they are (or at least have the potential to be) art, there still remains the question of what we mean when we apply that definition. Problematically, video games represent a unique and complex form of media, which can be very difficult to analyze from an artistic standpoint. Furthermore, video games incorporate a component which is absent from the worlds of literature and cinema -- interactive control. However, I contend that interactive control can itself be an element worthy of artistic consideration, and which should be addressed as such by designers, players, and academic critics alike.

    I do wish to be very clear at the outset of this article, however. I am not a game designer, and I do not wish to be accused of telling game designers how to do their jobs. I respect the hard work and vision of the people in this industry, and I appreciate the high quality of gaming they have so far delivered without any input from myself. However, as an academic and as video game enthusiast, there are certain topics regarding video games and art that I would like to see broached more often. And while I will be making a number of assertions throughout the course of this article, it is not my intention to lay out some kind of all-encompassing definition for the proper role of video games as art, but rather to open a dialogue on the subject, and promote the exchange of ideas on the subject. To this end, I have reviewed a number of texts relating to game design, and have enlisted the aid of Stephen McLaughlin, a designer at Screenlife Games who was good enough to answer some questions about the industry for me. I feel that this has provided me with necessary perspective, and has helped to focus my arguments while taking into consideration some of the more practical aspects of game design which are outside of my expertise. That said, Mr. McLaughlin's opinions are his own, and should not necessarily be taken as the definitive industry positions on these issues. As I said, it is not my goal to define the issue in concrete terms. I simply hope that by raising the subject, others within the industry might be encouraged to take a more serious look at how they approach art in a video game context, and to reexamine how they think of play control when they do.

    Of course, any time the question of what is and what is not art arises, the question "what is art?" must first be confronted. However, finding the answer to this can often be a far greater challenge than the question we started with. Art is, of course, notoriously difficult to define. Entire works, and indeed, entire schools of thought have been created solely to answer this question. Debate among academics is often particularly fierce, but for most people the simple maxim, "I know it when I see it" generally suffices. This makes perfect sense, because art can be a highly subjective experience. Unfortunately, if we are even to examine the question of whether or not video games can qualify as art, we need to have a working definition; a standard to which we can apply the medium.

    Rather than subject this question (which is not even the question we are most interested in) to exhaustive debate, it is far more useful, not to mention expedient, to simply use the most basic, least controversial definition - the one most based on public consensus. For this we turn to Wikipedia. However, even Wikipedia's contributors understand the difficulty of categorizing art. Art is something which is understood intuitively rather than rationally, and which can both be interpreted and appreciated in a variety of different ways. All this means that art a subject which inherently resists classification. Nevertheless, Wikipedia provides us with three basic attributes which can be used to define art (Art).

    The first of these attributes is the idea that art requires skill and craft. This may be thought of as the ability to execute the work skillfully through the medium of choice. For example, in classical portrait painting this may refer to the degree of photorealism with which the subject is portrayed, or the degree to which the artist has performed certain brushstroke techniques. The second attribute is that a work of art confers a value on its subject, usually through its aesthetics. In other words, subjects which one wished to portray in a positive manner would be depicted as beautiful, strong, or heroic, while in contrast one would portray subjects negatively by giving them ugly, weak, or cowardly attributes. The final attribute Wikipedia gives for a work of art is that it is capable of communicating some aspect of the human condition, and through this is capable of generating an emotional response from the audience. This is a much harder concept to sum up, but essentially it means that any work which aspires to be art needs to convey some idea of what it means to be alive and human, and that the audience will then recognize this. Through this recognition, the audience then connects to the work on an emotional level, feeling joy, sorrow, or fear as the work intends (Art).

    Now that we have a working definition for art, we can begin to address the question we actually started with - how can video games be considered art? Generally speaking video games, when they are discussed as art, are considered from two basic perspectives. The first is game's visual aesthetic. Graphics have been an integral part of video games from very early in their existence, and many gamers still put a great deal of stock in a game's ability to present an exciting and enjoyable visual experience. In terms of assigning the label of art to the aesthetics of a given game, however, it tends to be more heavily stylized works which garner the most praise. Recently, games such as Okami and Shadow of the Colossus (at this point, I do wish to address the fact that the examples given in this article are all from the world of console gameing: that is where all of my expertise and experience lie. However, I hope that many of the points I make here may also be applied to PC gaming as well.) have drawn a great deal of acclaim because of the unusual visual styles they employed. Still, the ever-increasing degree of photorealism in video game graphics should not be overlooked either. Games such as Gears of War or the current generation of Zelda titles are also quite capable of conferring value and generating emotional responses through their approximation of real-world figures. In fact, as with any visual medium, video games have many, many choices if they simply wish to attempt to create art in a visual sense.


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