The Difference Between Games & Artgames
Now we’re getting into the meat and potatoes of “Challenging Assumptions: On Art & Videogames”, and this next entry satisfies the appetite of those who think games can express ideas in ways unique to the form. John Sharp dedicates a chapter to artgames: which use “the innate properties of games–among them interactivity, game mechanics, and player goals– to create expressive play experiences” that push for more than pure entertainment. Let’s dig in.
In this section, John Sharp takes some time to define in great detail what a game is. At their core, games are systems “set in motion and experienced through play.” Furthermore, a system is “a set of objects, each with their own attributes, that interact within an environment.” The point of contact between the player and the game which facilitates interaction are the game’s mechanics.
(I always love when authors lay out the definition of games and break down the object in its most basic terms. It’s a sobering experience to remember what is often lost in the deluge of game discussion. Also, notice how he defines games so pointedly? If only Art was so easily explained…)
Developers making artgames utilize and manipulate the above characteristics. Sharp explains these games arrived in the mid-2000s when developers began considering the “aesthetic, theoretical, and conceptual intentions” typically associated with art making.
(Is this his definition of art? A piece of it? A form made with the above considerations?)
Ultimately, artgames take care to create sets of “highly stylized systems” and mechanics that represent ideas, metaphors, and allegories. These are then experienced through the playspace and player interaction.
Let’s hear Sharp’s prime example. In an autobiographical game from Jason Rohrer titled Gravitation, players assume the role of Jason and must balance two crucial responsibilities: loving Jason’s son and satisfying his own creative urges which provide for his family.
To fulfill Jason’s creative side, players navigate a maze above the house while collecting stars. These stars also fuel the hearth that provides warmth in the home. Meanwhile, if Jason doesn’t play catch with his son, the window through which players view the gameworld shrinks, meaning Jason can’t navigate the maze easily. Additionally, Jason sometimes has creative eureka moments, communicated to the player by Jason’s head catching fire. In this state, Jason jumps higher and can navigate the maze easier.
Balancing quality time with Jason’s son and keeping the hearth alive show how game mechanics can create metaphorical play experiences. Games by their nature put players into active decision making roles, which extend the potential impact these metaphors can hold.
(In my eyes, the above example is a masterful example of how to tell stories in ways unique to games, and why I actively seek to disagree with the conventional story telling practices in most triple-A titles. If I asked a player what they did in Gravitation, they would say, “I tried to satisfy my creativity but I didn’t pay enough attention to my son so he left.” That right there is your story, no cutscene needed.)
Artgames are almost always concerned with conveying a message. Yet, Sharp points out that the “open-ended nature of games” lies in direct tension with the ability for them to deliver a message. Since players can do anything they desire in a playspace, it’s far from guaranteed they’ll receive the intended message. Personally, I acknowledge that systems and mechanics may elegantly create metaphors and allegories, but the aesthetic experience of playing games, the physical trance our bodies enter while engaged, carries no meaning.
Lastly, I want to mention Sharp’s analysis of well-known game developer Jonathan Blow. Sharp describes Blow by saying, “as far as the ‘are games art?’ argument goes, Jonathan Blow is decidedly in the ‘who cares?’ camp.” He also adds that Blow “finds ‘Art’ to be irrelevant both to culture as a whole and to his own life and work.” Instead, he is concerned with how games can provide knowledge “understood through play”.
(I must admit, I was pretty freakin’ stoked to see my attitude towards the ‘are games art?’ discussion reflected so exactly by a game-making genius the likes of which I will never equal.)
In conclusion, artgames seek to make games with expressive content, or with the goal of conveying ideas. They leverage the inherent qualities of games, the systems, mechanics, and interactivity to do so. This approach fits in nicely with John Dewey’s outlook on how art can produce knowledge. Specifically, “knowledge produced through art is experiential.” For those looking for games that express ideas in ways no other medium can, you should start here.
All ideas in this article were pulled from Works of Game: On Aesthetics of Game and Art. More specifically, chapter 3. Header image features screen capture from Playdead’s Inside.
Edited by Malia Hamilton