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Games as Art: The Mechanic is the Message

January 25, 2008

Last night, I saw a lecture by Mary Flanagan at the Telfair museum. Her talk, “Video Games as an Expressive Medium”, was utterly wonderful and inspirational.

Once a traditional game developer, Mary now makes what you might call “art games”, and her works have appeared all over the world. In recent months, I’ve become somewhat of an art game fan, and find myself going in a similar direction as a developer just because I can. That’s not to say that AAA titles don’t hold my interest or that I’m not working on those, too – I am at this moment, actually – but my personal development interests are leaning toward projects that play with the medium’s possibilities.

As Mary showed some of her past works last night, I was reminded of my early response to similar works when I was a pure polygons=power game developer. I think I may have just looked at such a game, brushed it off as “ugly” and not really paused to consider its developer’s deeper intent. I don’t pass up games like that anymore, nor do I judge a game based on how it looks.

9 Comments leave one →
  1. Patrick permalink
    January 25, 2008 10:56 pm

    I’d say “the dynamic is the message”, but close enough. 🙂

  2. January 25, 2008 11:03 pm

    “The mechanic is the message” was Mary’s line. I loved it. I want it on a tee shirt.

    I’d disagree with you, though. The medium is the message, not the story that comes from the message (i.e. the dynamic). No?

  3. ThomasJLKastner permalink
    January 26, 2008 1:15 pm

    I believe all games are built out of multiple elements by the artist that work together to create the message. It is up to the artist and consumer of the art to decide where the message lies. The artist creates and tries to predict what is going to speak to the consumer, but it is ultimately up to the consumer to process this information and perceive the message.

    Unfortunately this theory doesn’t have a catchy ring to it. “The mechanic is the message.” Sounds so much better when you say it out loud or read it.

    The term “art game” really bugs the hell out of me. I think all games are art and using the term “art game” implies that some games are not art.

    When I was first beginning to get involved in art I didn’t think certain things were art just because I didn’t see the artistic value in it. But really as I began to think about this more and more I started to agree with my first art teachers because really you can not decide what is art or what is not art. You can decide if you like a work of art or not but you can not disqualify something as art simply because you can not comprehend it’s artistic value or because you do not care for it.

  4. January 26, 2008 2:03 pm

    That’s an interesting point. In suggesting something is an art game, the implication is that other games aren’t art. Like you, I believe that all games (excepting the H&R block ones that I recently looked at) are art.

    I enjoyed the way Mary Flanagan referred to them in her lecture, actually – as “works” or “pieces”. For instance, “This piece debuted in…” or “For this work, I…” It elevates the intent, somehow.

    Clearly, there’s a genre here, like we have FPS and RTS and so on. Art is the name its been given to it to signify that intent. It works. It gets the point across.

  5. ThomasJLKastner permalink
    January 26, 2008 3:52 pm

    I agree, I also enjoyed the way she referred to them as works and pieces. It reflects her desire for her work to be absorbed in a more serious and respected manner. That being said I still think her art spoke for itself. I think work such as hers are a step in the direction of games being widely accepted as art.

    It is absolutely a different genre, but I am still worried that using the word ‘art’ for this genre may play towards discounting the artistic value of games not belonging to the genre in the eyes of the ‘average joe’. Honestly I don’t even know there would be a good alternative name for the genre. All this is probably rooted in my habit of over analyzing things.

  6. James Caskey permalink
    January 27, 2008 2:27 pm

    This reminded me very much of Hieronymi’s talk at last year’s GDX. In this sense, the essence of the game isn’t found in the graphics or narrative, but in the experience, where even simple mechanics implemented in a certain way can be satisfying.

  7. January 28, 2008 8:28 am

    I really love attending Kokoromi’s Gamma events in Montreal, I really love being able to see what people are doing to make art out of this new medium. One of my favourites from their last event was Passage.

  8. Brian Shurtleff permalink
    January 28, 2008 8:34 pm

    I can’t seem to find that Hush game she demonstrated anywhere.
    It’s a pretty interesting project – why would the students who made pass up such a great opportunity to get their names out there?

  9. January 30, 2008 6:29 pm

    “Art game” may not imply that some games are not art. To me, it says a game described as an “art game” is a work that is created with intention of creating art, more so than entertainment, while it may deliver entertainment as a side effect. (If “game” implies entertainment, than I guess this isn’t totally true.)

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