Are video games art? No – but playing them can be

It is only when you appreciate that gaming is an inherently creative activity that you can look at the time, the energy and the enthusiasm people invest in games and not fall to your knees in utter despair.

When Roger Ebert wrote that video games are not art he was right. Art, whether it is a painting, a poem, or a movie, is a statement, a soliloquy, a tirade. There is no dialogue with art, you cannot wipe that smile off Mona Lisa’s face and you can’t take all of Michael Bay’s ridiculous robots, transform them into cars and drive them all off a cliff. That is the weakness of most art, that it is a one-way communication. Even with performance art audience participation is not often a good idea. You start humming along with the Royal Philharmonic, for instance, and they will club you to death with bassoons. That’s what the bassoon is for.

The video game is not the art, it is the medium. The artist is not the writer of the story or the person who designs the characters. The nearest thing to an artist in a game is the player. Whether it is because you performed a perfect evasive manoeuvre or battled heroically against impossible odds, or maybe because you’ve constructed a perfectly efficient city, it is the player who is performing and creating. Is that art? Probably not under normal circumstances, but it is still a product of a creative action just the same.

Understanding this is very important to an understanding of video games, because it is only when you appreciate that gaming is an inherently creative activity that you can look at the time, the energy and the enthusiasm people invest in games and not fall to your knees in utter despair.

A game like Kerbal Space Program is a perfect example of the sort of game that becomes a medium in and of itself. It is a sandbox game par excellence. It gives you a solar system, complete with laws of physics, a pile of space ship and aircraft components and some little green men with funny names willing to pilot the rockets you build. What starts for most players as an exercise in mucking about with rockets parachutes expands organically into whatever you really want it to be, within the limitations of the game, as your own experience and expertise grows.

The level of expertise demanded by Kerbal Space Program is deceptively high considering how friendly and uncomplicated everything looks. You go into the game wondering why shooting rockets straight upward doesn’t get them into orbit but before too long you will have picked up the bare bones of an introduction to rocket science. You might have to do some homework, you might have to read articles, watch videos, ask other people, or obliterate a few hundred eager would-be astronauts through brute trial and error, but however you do it, you will have to learn.

To look at Kerbal Space Program and acknowledge the fact that the game manages to be both educational and rewarding is one thing, but perhaps the greater thing about Kerbal Space Program is not the game itself but the community built around it. This is where we really start to see the beauty of a creative game like this and it shows the communal spirit that games can create, something that is largely forgotten when coverage of gamers tends to be limited to their childishness and tribalism.

If you do a search on Youtube for “kerbal space program tutorial”, you get just over seven thousand hits. A small, independently made game, still in development, and there are over seven thousand videos made by players for the sole reason of helping others. Moving past that, to look at the videos people have made to just show off their efforts, there are many thousands more.

Is Kerbal Space Program art? No. Is playing it art? No. Playing is playing. But here’s the nub of it, when you’ve got a game that is encouraging you to learn, encouraging you to create and encouraging players to share their ideas and their creations with each other, that’s a great thing. It is that engagement with the game that means that a game like Kerbal Space Program, for all the limitations of its budget and the lack of an orthodox story, will typically be played for a very long time indeed. Forget the gaming equivalent to Citizen Kane, what we’re dealing with here is the gaming equivalent to the building block, Airfix kit, Lego set and Anarchist’s Cookbook rolled into one.

But it is easy to talk about the creativity and intellectual engagement using Kerbal Space Program as the example. Kerbal Space Program is the nicest, cuddliest, most loveable astro-hugfest ever to let you incinerate hundreds of funny little aliens in the name of physics. How does this idea of creative engagement with games stack up when you take something as incredibly restrictive to play as Bioshock: Infinite or one of the Call of Duty series?

Even here, in the land of the video game as a sort of digital theme park ride, we still encounter the sort of player agency that makes games so compelling. The choices here are perfunctory compared to those of a sandbox game but you are still the director of the action sequences. You choose the weapons, you choose the methods and it is those choices that turn even a corridor shooter into something fun and engaging, albeit it not for any great length of time.

You can see how compelling player choice makes a game interesting illustrated in the Call of Duty series. Players will cheerfully wade through the single player campaigns, but the bulk of the choice and freedom lie in the multiplayer and that is where the players who play the game the most will spend the majority of their time. There is little functional difference between a single player first person shooter and a multiplayer one, you’re doing the same things with the controls, but the chaos and the liberation that comes when you play with and against other human players makes everything that much more fun, even if you are in effect still just shooting people.

It is because playing games is creative, even in a small way, that it can be so absorbing and so consuming. Games can offer a sense of agency and satisfaction that you simply don’t get from more passive media, or sometimes even from work. It is this ability to entertain and satisfy people in ways that movies, books and music simply cannot manage which has powered the rise of the video game in popular culture much more than improvements in graphics and hardware.

The level of expertise demanded by Kerbal Space Program is deceptively high considering how friendly and uncomplicated it looks.

Phil Hartup is a freelance journalist with an interest in video gaming and culture

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That’s no moth, it’s a wisp of delight on the wing

In recent years, some of the most beautiful moths have either died out here or are now only rare summer visitors.

Many years ago, I was a volunteer moth-hunter. I wasn’t a collector (I’ve always been puzzled by the impulse to capture a live creature, gas it and then pin its motionless corpse to a board); I was just another helping hand for a number of surveys aimed at estimating the variety and size of local populations. At the same time, I was working at one of Cambridge University’s zoology field stations, an idyllic smallholding just off the Huntingdon Road, where my boss, Gerry, bred cockroaches, locusts, tobacco moths and other insects for study purposes.

I was the merest factotum at that facility, a rather feckless boy taken on to tend the gardens and glasshouses, but Gerry did his best to include me in the more interesting work, including his daily, highly security-conscious visits to the tobacco moths, which were kept under dark netting in a double-walled building within the complex.

At that time, as I recall, you needed a letter from the head of zoology to hold a key to the tobacco moth house, and government documentation was required by anyone seeking  to transport the creatures – because tobacco moths are potentially devastating pests of any commercial crop that belongs to the Solanaceae (nightshades) family; and because these include potatoes, tomatoes and peppers, we had to be extremely careful not to release these insects into the wild. For me, however, they were a source of wonder and a dark, almost Gothic pleasure.

An even greater source of wonder was to set up a moth trap and count the various species that drifted into the light – necessary work to estimate loss of species, changes in distribution and migration patterns. (Some moths – the hummingbird hawk-moth, for instance – can travel very long distances.) Moth losses rarely get the column inches reserved for birds or butterflies, but 62 British species in total became extinct during the 20th century and a further 81 are gravely endangered.

In recent years, some of the most beautiful moths – gorgeous creatures such as the orange upperwing, the bordered Gothic, the Brighton wainscot and the stout dart – have either died out here or are now only rare summer visitors. At the same time, species that have never been recorded before in these islands are taking up residence in parts of southern England – a sign of climate change, perhaps.

I am not an entomologist, nor have I ever been one. Nevertheless, insects – especially the larger moths – have brought me a great deal of pleasure over the years. Even the names are cause for delight. “Garden tiger” and “snout” are self-explanatory, but who came up with “Brighton wainscot” for an exquisitely beautiful creature that looks like nothing so much as a tiny bride in her wedding gown, or “Clifden nonpareil” for that astonishing specimen whose underwing – a very dark blue, fringed with silvery white and streaked all the way across with a sky-blue stripe – is actually a defence mechanism, startling any predator that might descend upon it with a riot of unexpected colour?

Meanwhile, even though many of the nocturnal moths are subtler in hue, there is a delicacy to them when in flight – the faint, sometimes tiny wisps of what might easily be myrrh or chrism on the wing – that makes a night in the woods all the more enchanting. Back in my surveying days, they seemed so abundant that I didn’t mind watching the one bat that would circle the street lamp outside my window, picking the papery morsels from the warm glow of it.

Now, though, I worry: the losses of these magical creatures have come to seem too much to bear, especially as the reasons for their extinction – loss of habitat being the main culprit – could be so easily avoided.

This article first appeared in the 28 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The new fascism