Are Videogames Media or a Medium First?
We’ve arrived at the end of John Sharp’s peek into games and the many ways artistic communities utilize them, and I’m crestfallen to tell you that it’s a bit anti-climactic. The final remarks of Works of Game don’t dive as deep into the form of videogames as I expected, but instead reinforce the foundational concepts elucidated in prior pages while highlighting lingering questions. Sharp cuts to the heart of games, revealing the medium’s innermost traits and laying bare our most basic understanding of the form.
We now comprehend fully that games are marked by their ability to create play. Although we have begun to create cursory discourse evaluating the games themselves as objects, Sharp points out that we’ve yet to gain the “understanding that can assess the materiality of play.” We still can’t describe the non-concrete idea of play in any satisfying way when it’s drawn from a game.
We know games can produce experience, but what kind of experiential meaning, if any, can play truly fabricate? Sharp wonders if the play generated by artgames is any different than that engendered by Candy Crush.
(This question tangentially highlights my own understanding of play going into this book. I see the physical aspects of playing games, the movement of your hands and eyes in concert with the stimuli on screen, as the most important ingredient in the joy of gaming. But how does the enjoyment of those trance-like, physical states truly differ game to game?)
Tying games and art together, Sharp calls on artist and writer Victor Burgin’s claims that the search for art’s definition lies not in the object, but in the effect on the perceiver. In this vein, he goes further and explains that like art, the experience of a game depends greatly on the player.
The experience is never the same twice, and though games are comprised of boards, tokens, or software, those pieces aren’t the most important part. Instead, “games become material through the player’s perceptions expressed through play performance.”
(Again, you know how thirsty I was for a definition of art throughout this series, and I’ll point out that we still never received one. I can safely assume his ideas on its nature now, but a clear delineation would have greatly facilitated discussion.)
Sharp’s most profound idea in the chapter, and perhaps the book, is also one of the most digestible. He recognizes games as both entertainment and as a medium, except here “medium” does not mean “media”, or anything transmitted in the form of text, sound, still or moving images. Instead, “in the same way oil suspends pigment for application to a surface in order to make an image, games are the medium in which play is suspended.”
(I implore you to take a moment and ruminate on that last quote. Don’t let it’s quiet simplicity subvert its gravity. It perfectly captures the dependent relationship between games and play, while also explaining in the most simple terms what games intrinsically do.)
Finally, Sharp points out the growing importance of games due to their rising, global ubiquity. He notes that a broader literacy is required before artists’ games and artgames can grow in appreciation. Furthermore, game makers must continue to develop their thick aesthetics that make it clear how artists can appreciate them as art. Conversely, if videogames are to wear the title of the A-word with greater ease, they must adopt the values of contemporary art.
As the status of games rise, and the population of gamemakers diversifies, the boundaries of what constitutes a game will expand. We should all be eagerly awaiting the new ideas and inspiration that will widen the creative reach of this medium we hold so dear.
All ideas in this article were pulled from Works of Game: On Aesthetics of Game and Art. More specifically, chapter 5.
Edited by Malia Hamilton