Friday, 17 January 2014

But is it art?

Keith Stuart has a crack at the ongoing question of whether video games count as art or not in this piece for the Guardian. It's a good read, so feel free to take a break and have a look, I'll still be here when you get back.

Anyway, the debate got me thinking about whether, regardless of the status of video games, can a traditional board or wargame be considered art?

Certainly elements of them can be. A miniature is, fundamentally, a small painted sculpture and the construction of many game components can be considered artistic. In some cases, say a particularly finely-crafted chess set, all the physical elements of a game may be considered a piece of art in their own right.

But what I am wondering is whether the totality of the game, from components through to rules can be considered a collective work of art?

Keith, quite sensibly, avoids trying to define art in his article, that way madness and the bodies of more than a few philosophers lie. But, I'm going to have to touch on it at least if I am to engage with this particular question. Certainly there seem to be some common elements to almost everything we think of as art. They are creative endeavours, that express some idea of the artist. They may reproduce things seen in the world, but not exactly, in some way this representation is filtered through the perception of the artist, even if unconsciously. Even a child's crayon drawing reflects the way they view the world.

Based on this definition, then games are certainly art. But somehow, this definition isn't entirely satisfying. To my mind, truly great art has to be saying or doing something beyond representation. What that is may be quite vague, and sometimes the difference between art and not may simply be a question of setting (think of Tracey Emin's bed for example) and I certainly don't want to get into the business of trying to draw the line between art and non-art. But are there any examples of wargames or boardgames that do this. I think there are.

Monopoly, oddly, began life as a piece of satire, attempting to attack the concept of monopolies, a fact largely forgotten today. But, more recently, Terrorbull games have produced a number of games, available both physically and as print outs from their website, that use the concept of a game to make a satirical point. Sometimes these points are quite crudely made, but art isn't necessarily subtle.

Political and social satire seems largely absent from wargaming, but their is no reason why this should be the case. A well constructed wargame may teach us a great deal about the strategic and tactical decisions made by real-life generals (by the same token, a badly constructed wargame may give us completely the wrong idea). But it would be interesting to see if a wargame could be used to raise moral or ethical questions about warfare. I don't think such a game has been made, but that doesn't mean it one couldn't be made.

Of course some games are abstract, intellectual exercises that don't bear any relationship to anything outside of the game. I'm thinking of abstract dice games like Yahtzee or something like Carcasonne, Settlers of Catan or Alhambra which use their setting as simply a visual theme and don't pretend to realistically depict the activity they theoretically simulate. Can these be considered art, perhaps they can if the intellectual process makes us consider the world or ourselves in a different way.

Part of the reason the question of whether video-games count as art has been raised is because they borrow from so many disciplines that are considered art, film-making, painting, sculpture, literature, acting, while adding an interactive element. But while they may be less technologically sophisticated, traditional board and tabletop games still combine many of those elements. So if video-games can be art, then why not any other kind of game?

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