Videogames are one of the most significant developments in the popular arts in the last fifty years, and a great deal of philosophical interest arises from their artistic employment of computer technology. Whereas other artistic media such as music and film have felt the effects of digital technology – especially concerning changes in digital modes of production and distribution – the development of videogames seems to constitute the growth of an entirely new artistic medium (Tavinor, 2009).
Videogames and Interactivity
Insofar as technological and formal developments make videogames distinctive as an artistic medium, this distinctiveness arises from their interactivity. There is an immediately plausible sense in which videogames are more interactive than some traditional artistic media: unlike the movie Star Wars where the viewer is passive with respect to the events on the screen, in the videogame Star Wars: The Force Unleashed players may adopt the role of a character such as Darth Vader through which they can act in the fictional world of the game.
There are doubts, however, about the usefulness or accuracy of describing videogames as interactive. Games theorist Espen Aarseth opposes applying the term to videogames, thinking the term “interactive fiction” either meaningless or trivial (1997: 50). Indeed, there may be some warrant for the charge of triviality: videogames are games, and calling a game “interactive” seems redundant. A further difficulty is that maintaining that videogames are interactive implies, somewhat problematically, that traditional media are “passive” in some respect. But all art is interactive insofar as it involves appreciators in a physical and cognitive engagement with a work. Finally, as Dominic Lopes notes, because of its sheer ubiquity as a technological buzzword, the concept of “interactivity” is prone to abuse, and is of limited theoretical use without specifying a substantive meaning (2001: 67).
Indeed, we can frame the interactivity of videogames by drawing on Lopes’ theory of digital art. Lopes argues that a number of recent artworks, exploiting the representational potential of computers, allow appreciators modes of interactive engagement that “no other art media can enjoy” (2003: 112). Lopes’ theory, developed to address digital artworks, promises to apply to videogames because he sees traditional game activities as a paradigm of the kind of interactivity now seen in digital art. Distinguishing between “strongly interactive” works and “weakly interactive” ones, he claims that:
Games are “strongly interactive” because their users’ inputs help determine the subsequent state of play. Whereas in weakly interactive media the user’s input determines which structure is accessed or the sequence in which it is accessed, in strongly interactive media we may say that the structure itself is shaped in part by the interactor’s choices. Thus, strongly interactive works are those whose structural properties are partly determined by the interactor’s actions. (2001: 68)
Much of what is referred to as interactive in the digital realm is, he concludes, only weakly interactive because it involves an appreciator merely navigating their way through a predefined structure. Games like chess, however, are strongly interactive because the sequence of game states is determined by decisions made by players given the starting state and the rule set or “algorithm” that defines the permissible state transformations or moves (Juul, 2005). This characterization of the strong interactivity of games can be applied in the case of many interactive artworks because they share a productive algorithmic structure with games. When the interactive object in question is an artwork, the structures in question are those that are behind “whatever intrinsic or representational properties it has, the apprehension of which are necessary for aesthetic engagement with it” (2001: 68).
It seems clear enough that videogames do count as strongly interactive in Lopes’ sense: videogames do not merely involve choosing the order in which the representational structures of the game are experienced, but involve the player having an effect on just which potential structures of the game are depicted and how those structures are depicted. Playing as Niko Bellic in Grand Theft Auto IV, the player does not merely cue the representation of parts of an artwork that have been previously encoded, as they might by choosing in which order to read the chapters of a novel or listen to tracks on an album – both of which are among Lopes’ examples of weak interactivity (2001: 68-69). Rather, players shape what actually occurs in the game. My playing of Grand Theft Auto IV is likely to be unique to me in that the fictional events that occurred in my playing of the game were dependent on my decisions: the game in all its detail was rendered only after I had my input.
Thus interactivity is tied up with the ontological issue of videogames as multiple instance works, because videogames seem to be work types that necessitate the interaction of a player before they are instanced as tokens. In setting out his ontology of mass artworks, Noël Carroll notes that though a type/token distinction is crucial for capturing something of the relationship between multiple instance work types and their instances, the logical distinction is not “fine-grained enough” to capture what it is that instances various forms of type artworks (1998: 212). A theatre performance, he claims, is instanced by an “interpretation” of a script; a film is instanced by the screening of a “template.” Videogames are clear cases of multiple instance works, and there are equally clear differences from other kinds of art in the way they are instanced. The representational artifact at the basis of a videogame like Grand Theft Auto IV is not a template from which the appreciated work is shown, or a script that is interpreted. Rather, the kind of interaction that is crucial in instancing a videogame is a playing, whereby the player “reveals” something of the structure of the game through their interaction (Lopes, 2001: 74). The work relies on an algorithm that makes possible any number of varied renderings, which depend for their detail on the input of the player.
The structures that comprise an instance of a videogame are various kinds of graphical, aural, textual, and even tactile representations on a display device, because it is these things that a playing has the role of rendering from the game’s algorithm. Furthermore, given that these representations are almost always of fictional events, in depicting situations with an imagined existence only, we might in a Waltonian sense say that the structure that is being determined by the interactor’s choices is a perceptually modal “prop” that depicts a fictional world (Walton, 1990: 21). Hence, videogames may be “interactive fictions” in a theoretically robust sense (Tavinor, 2005).
Effectively, the control of fictive events that in film is invested in the choices of the director, writer, editor – because it is they who play the crucial roles in encoding the template from which the film is shown – is ceded somewhat to the player. Whereas in the case of film the audience encounters the work after it has been rendered in the form of a film reel or digital file, in videogames the imaginative prop is rendered only after players interact with it, and in a way that accords with their own imaginative and participative activities regarding the prop. This means that whereas previous audiences were somewhat passive in respect to what was rendered by the work, players in videogames genuinely are active contributors to the fictions and narratives of the games they play.
Of course, this interactivity derives squarely from the technology of computers, which through their algorithmic structures, act as representational props able to render audiovisual representations in real-time, contingent on the input of the player. The means by which videogames have achieved these representational ends, involving things like game-engines, polygonal models, virtual cameras, the graphics pipeline, and so on, are immensely interesting in their own right (Tavinor, 2009: 61-74).
Videogames as Interactive Art
I have claimed, without anything in the way of argument, that videogames are artworks; and moreover that they are interactive art. Two difficulties loom given these claims. First, there are the general worries with the art status of videogames. Second, there is a worry that even if videogames are art, their artistic aspects are not in fact interactive ones. Remembering Lopes’ claim that traditional gaming is a paradigm of interactivity, it might be argued that even though some videogames are properly called art, they are interactive only in virtue of their nature as games. Indeed, it seems that is just the case with a great many videogames where key artistic structures – such as narratives – lack the interactivity characteristic of the gameplay. In a game such as Metal Gear Solid 2, the gameplay intermittently pauses so that the game’s story can be conveyed by short, pre-rendered films. Furthermore, the story that is told by these cut-scenes is identical for all playings irrespective of what the player does during gameplay. In such cases, the art of the game may seem to constitute a non-interactive or merely weakly interactive artistic veneer on a strongly interactive game.
Given the space I have here I will not address the first issue directly and argue that videogames are indeed art; this is an issue that has been discussed elsewhere (Smuts, 2005; Tavinor, 2009). But I will address the second issue, and claim that the structures that are determined by user interaction in many recent artistically inclined videogames are the representational states that are crucial to both the gaming aspects and artistic aspects of the videogame. The reason for this is that increasingly these two aspects reside in a single representational structure. What then is interactive about videogames qua art?
Because recent videogames depict their games in representationally rich ways, the principal strongly interactive artistic structure in many videogames is itself the gameplay. Gaming has been a major part of the Western conception of the arts, and though some games may have aesthetic properties – a gambit in chess might be described as elegant – this has not frequently been the basis for calling games like chess art (but see Humble, 1993, and Osborne, 1964). But the games to be found in videogames often do seem to be depicted in an artistic way, because of their representational nature as complex fictions. The moves and objectives in many recent videogames are not mere formal possibilities with little representational significance, as they might be in a game like chess or checkers, but stories of survival depicted through aesthetically engaging fictional worlds.
For example, the rules and objectives in the post-apocalyptic role-playing shooter Fallout 3 are defined by the fictional abilities of the player-character and their fictional goals, and the game is about surviving and advancing in the gameworld of the Capital Wasteland. To do this the player must battle the adversaries they find in that world, scrounge for resources, and interact with the gameworld inhabitants through conversation and other (often more violent) means. Because of the genuine artistry of the game, many of the gameworld encounters have an extraordinary sense of atmosphere and style: emerging from their fallout shelter at the beginning of that game, the player is struck by the glaring bleakness of the post-apocalyptic world; or, deep in the Wasteland, close to nightfall, the player encounters the Dunwich Building, and the tale of horror within. Gamers and game critics also describe gameplay in aesthetic terms, and evaluate it in ways strikingly similar to the evaluative practices of traditional art audiences: the best evidence for this is the reviews and critical pieces to be found in the growing gaming literature.
Many recent games, especially of the “sandbox” or “open-world” variety, encourage gameplay in the form of a free aesthetic exploration of a fictional world. The exploration of an aesthetic environment, such as Liberty City in Grand Theft Auto IV, or the fantasy province of Cyrodiil in The Elder Scrolls: Oblivion, is strongly interactive because though the graphical environment is based on a determinate 3D model, the artistic structure that is ultimately rendered depends on the explorative activity of the player. Technically, this “exploration” is determined by the player’s control of the virtual camera that is used in 3D games to define the player’s fictive perspective on the gameworld (Tavinor, 2009: 67). Open-world games are often played with aesthetic motivations, with the player framing the virtual world in an aesthetic way. The games themselves encourage these kinds of aesthetic playings: Grand Theft Auto IV gives the player access to a helicopter, and one of its most alluring uses is to take scenic flights to experience the significant dynamic beauty of Liberty City. The Elder Scrolls: Oblivion contains hard to access locations in the mountains that seem placed there solely to encourage an aesthetic exploration of the environment.
A further key reason why it is tempting to characterize gameplay as artistic is because of its rich emotional nature: increasingly, gameplay has the ability to depict rich first-hand fictional experiences that draw on the player’s emotions. In videogames, the player can have kinds of emotions that depend on their ability to be a participant in an emotionally provocative situation: it is possible to be worried about harming a fictional character, guilty for having done so, or even have feelings of sympathy and care for characters, as the game BioShock demonstrates. Hence videogames have the ability to involve the player’s emotions in a way that may be denied by traditional non-interactive fictions such as novels and films. Again, this is because the game – the rules and objectives – is presented as a set of challenges and obstacles in a fictional world.
Ultimately, that both the gaming and art of such games are generated by their interactive fictions means that art and gaming coincide in the single structure of an interactive fiction. The art of such games is not a mere gloss on the game (as it may very well have been in earlier instances) but is the means through which the game is depicted.
The interactivity of videogames has an impact on how they are evaluated for their artistic qualities, because gauging the artistic qualities of videogames demands repeated playings. Lopes argues that in strongly interactive digital art, “the contours of the work type are drawn by what interactions it makes possible” (2003: 112). Similarly, the range of playings made possible by a videogame discloses the true extent of its artistic properties. Getting a real sense of the achievement of a sandbox game such as Fallout 3 demands that the player approach the game on a number of occasions and in differing ways, and indeed, that game supports some very different playings. This, of course, explains something of the immense depth and replay value of such open-world games: whereas a linear first-person shooter may be finished in ten or so hours, open-world games can support hundreds of hours of gameplay.
The formal developments in videogaming rest on the empowerment of the player as an actor having a substantive interaction with the artistic prop whereby something is revealed of the digital artwork. This interactive potential cannot be altogether irrelevant to the question of videogaming’s rapid growth and popularity in recent times, and it may be that this popularity is in part based on the fact that videogames do engage players in a more richly interactive way than other fictions. Though videogames may still be in a state of artistic adolescence, there is surely already enough evidence that their interactivity is not lacking in artistic promise, and that they do have the means to be a genuinely valuable and distinctive form of art.
Aarseth, E. 1997. Cybertext: Perspectives on Ergodic Literature. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.
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2009 © Grant Tavinor