We’ve come to the end of the series, which means it’s time to summarize what we’ve learned and measure our findings against our expectations. I picked up Works of Game: On the Aesthetics of Games and Art for one purpose: to gain a more concrete understanding of theories of art and how videogames fit into them.
I intended to learn as much as I could about artistic concepts so that I could more confidently engage in conversation when I saw gamers flippantly claim that videogames were art. Unfortunately, this book did not provide any meaningful definition of art at its core. However, Sharp provided concepts and examples that refined my own art and videogame comprehension, while also exposing me to other communities outside mainstream games coverage who interact with videogames.
Look, the main reason why I am so quick to challenge the assertion that videogames are art is because I can’t tell you what the hell art actually is despite years of academic interest on the subject. The most compelling explanations I find come from historic, aesthetic philosophers, like Kant and Hume, and even they disagree with each other.
Moreover, I’ve yet to see a compelling argument for games as art come from heated forum discussions, popular podcasts, or the most popular gaming websites. Despite how confidently I see gaming fans tout games as art, I don’t see any videogames featured in the most popular online art magazines.
So if we are going to say videogames are art, we need to first create a definition of art that has more basis of thought than a 140 character subtweet.
This is where my great disappointment with Works of Game lies: it never once gave a rigid definition of art to work off of. I’m not saying that I expected John Sharp to hold the key to centuries of debate within this short hardcover, but definitions are necessary to determine the parameters of, and create the conditions for, meaningful dialogue.
I would have been more than happy to relay Sharp’s definition had he provided one. However, the closest thing we got was that something with expressive character, or with a main idea to render unto an audience, was art.
This all lines up with contemporary thinking on the subject, which Sharp almost exclusively draws from. The problem this creates is simple: if I were to allow my contrarian nature to run loose on this book, all I would need to do is define art in such a way that directly contradicts Sharp’s peripheral statements. Since we didn’t get strong premises on the nature of art, we can easily undo his conclusions.
Still, there was a wealth of information in Works of Game that I will carry forward in my studies. I loved the tangible differences Sharp drew between game mechanics and game systems. As someone who used the words interchangeably when describing the types of games I’m drawn to, it’s nice to have a clearer understanding.
Most of all, the concept of affordances will remain one of my best tools in evaluating cultural objects and artifacts in the future. However, the observations I found most substantial centered around the concept of play; the prime experiential affordance of games. The notion that the “process is the product” is huge. The idea that games are a medium, not in the sense of being a media, but as a vessel that delivers play, is so important to understand.
To know that the formal characteristics of a game, the mechanics, systems, assets, and, yes, even exposition, are all working in tandem to deliver a specific play-experience that can be measured and repeated is incredible.
Ultimately, this book has been fantastic at equipping me with tools that help me approach art and artifacts. It showed me that communities outside of the mainstream gaming fandom view games in drastically different ways which help add to the overall discourse. Most of all, it reinforced my preoccupation with play and has spurred me forward with more zeal towards studying that elusive concept.
I hope you all enjoyed “Challenging Assumptions: On Art & Videogames”, and even more I hope it has inspired you to dig deeper into the concepts I briefly touched on. Our understanding of our favorite hobby can only be advanced if we seek voices outside the digital sphere. We must actively challenge our own assumptions, and realize that our comprehension will never grow if we only reassemble ideas put forth on mainstream websites and YouTube videos. The media and art scholars must be heard.
Edited by Malia Hamilton
Originally published on OK Beast