General 11-18-2004

The Game of Attractions and the Art of Play

Video games are an indisputably huge part of American pop culture. But what do they—and can they—mean from an artistic perspective? Ben Davis outlines a new theory of the game-as-art.


Let me be clear, first, on what I’m not writing, and why. This is not a video game fan’s essay; I am not interested in reiterating a favorite game’s excellence or debating about the merits of different gaming platforms. Those sorts of testimonials are a dime a hundredweight in the pages of gaming magazines.

This is also not a technological examination of the breakthroughs in hardware and software that brought game design to its present peak of excellence. That kind of thing is for trade journals and advertisements.

And this isn’t sociology. I won’t be addressing the political economy of game production and distribution, the gender dynamics of game playing, or the tiresome debates about whether games like Quake or Grand Theft Auto warp young brains. There are plenty of academic papers on these topics.

All these things—the fan base for video games, their technological significance, the fact that they are a sociologically interesting phenomenon—are well established, and games have become such a penetrating cultural influence that these narratives have their place. But each, in its own way, is a narrative about what video games are; because of this mounting need to take video games seriously, gaming culture can benefit from a perspective outside the ones that it brings in tow. So what I will be doing is looking to the theory of art (a dialogue the increasingly mature gaming culture is craving) to see not what video games are or have been, but what video games could be.


The obscure first video game is thought to have been a Pong-like diversion created around 1958 by William A. Higinbotham to impress visitors to his Brookhaven Research Laboratory. Close on its heels came Spacewar, a spaceship game designed by bored electrical engineers at MIT. Initially, with games staying close to their source in serious research, there was little need to frame them in artistic terms. Even as the profile of games grew in the 1970s and ‘80s (the invaluable book Digital Play estimates that Pac-Man ate up enough quarters to out-gross the contemporaneous adventures of Star Wars), they remained basic, insulated from the need to invent more lofty aspirations for them.

But after Nintendo’s success shifted video games from arcade diversions to household purchases, Sega and Sony and Microsoft successively targeted ever-older audiences in order to get the monetary edge on one another, increasing the median age of players considerably throughout the 1990s. As a result, games’ themes have gotten more mature, as has the complexity of the virtual worlds on offer. Most game studios now employ teams of art directors and scriptwriters. With global capital at the wheel, there has arisen a keen justification for taking games seriously—and an increasing impetus to find alternative discourses to the dominant forms favored by the massive industry.

This artistic impulse was expressed as early as 1984 by Chris Crawford, a designer who created Eastern Front (1941) and Balance of Power for Atari. His manifesto, “The Art of Computer Game Design,” made the case for video games as an artform:

[T]he most fascinating thing about reality is not that it is, or even that it changes, but how it changes, the intricate webwork of cause and effect by which all things are tied together. The only way to properly represent this webwork is to allow the audience to explore its nooks and crannies to let them generate causes and observe effects. Thus, the highest and most complete form of representation is interactive representation. Games provide this interactive element, and it is a crucial factor in their appeal.

Despite the pace at which the games industry has expanded, Crawford’s reflections still form the spine of the discourse about the artistic merits of video games. A programmer who worked on Pandemic’s instantly-legendary Full Spectrum Warrior recently told me that designers still use “The Art of Computer Game Design” to orient their aspirations. Crawford’s definition of art, embraced by the industry, is simple: the artistic potential of games resides in their ability to emotionally involve the user. But what is at stake in the attempt to reach this goal? What lies in its way?

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