Art Videogames

The art of videogames

The fact that videogames are a form of contemporary art is not open for debate anymore; at least not since 2007 with the emergence of the concept of ‘artgame’. The question now is: when will the Portuguese government officially register this art form and give the multidisciplinary videogame artist the same benefits as other artists? This would greatly benefit our videogame industry.

A videogame, according to the online dictionary Merriam-Webster, is an electronic game where players control images on a screen [01]. According to this simple definition, the first electronic games were Tennis for Two (1958) and Spacewar! (1962). The videogame industry gave its first steps with arcade games such as Pong (1972), a very popular game in the 1970s and 1980s. The Portuguese scholar Sofia Romualdo, in her English written thesis – Play, Games and Gamification in Contemporary Art Museums (2013) – pinpoints the birth of the videogame to coincide with the birth of the videogame industry in the 1970s [02].


After that, the consoles and desktops allowed videogames to enter our homes. Nowadays, digital games and apps for smartphones and tablets are very common and ubiquitous. The interfaces of these extensions of our minds – smartphones and tablets –, connected to the Internet, coincide more and more with tactile screens that allow the control of images on a screen. One could argue that this characteristic of videogames has become transversal to the many tasks that are a part of our daily lives. We are living in a videogamatic world.

To understand games and the videogames phenomena it’s indispensable to understand why the humankind has the necessity to play. Why is this activity so important? The Dutch scholar Johan Huizinga (1872-1945) said that many animals play as we do and the act of playing goes beyond our immediate life necessities and it’s more than a psychological reflex or a physiological phenomenon. To Huizinga, play is, above all things, fun. He defines it as a fundamental voluntary activity, executed in a certain space and timeframe, subjected to certain rules. It’s a moment of tension and happiness where the player is aware of the activity and it promotes social engagement [04].

The cognitive psychologist David Whitebread, said that playing is important to the human development, especially for the children, and he defined five specific categories: 1) physical play; 2) play with objects; 3) symbolic play; 4) pretense or sociodramatic play; 5) games with rules. The first category corresponds to the physical games that can go from jumping, climbing, play ball, to fine motricity activities like coloring and building toys. The most researched aspect of this category, believed to have evolved as an aggressiveness control mechanism, is the “rough-and-tumble”, which include activities such as pursuing, grabbing, kicking, fighting, and rolling on the ground. The second category, play with objects, starts immediately when the baby is able to grab and it goes from biting to beating and throwing; this category overlaps with the first. The third category has to do with the symbolic systems we control, such as talk, read, draw, and sing. Playing with language is something babies do when there are not yet one year old. The fourth category is about pretending and dramatic play. This is the most common type of play and most studied nowadays. Children that play like this will be able to better connect with their peers and will be less disruptive. The grownups love playing like this as well: Carnival, Halloween, RPG’s (role-playing games), Cosplay (costume play), and immersive theater are good examples. The fifth and last category is games with rules. These are very important to children and they usually invent their own games with their specific rules [05].

To categorize the videogame as an art form it’s imperative to define the ambiguous concept of art. The definition of art and its utility is controversial and complex in contemporary philosophy. The American philosopher George Dickie decided to define art by establishing three historical phases: the first corresponds to the various attempts to define art starting with the imitation theory; the second is the negation that art could be defined; the third phase is the final definition, free of ambiguities and the difficulties of the traditional definitions. The institutional theory of George Dickie established that art is what is named art by the artworld institution. For the author, the artworld is a group of systems (theater, painting, sculpture, literature, music, etc.) and subsystems, or niches, which accommodate the creative act. Whatever the artworld specialists consider being art it is art [06].

The MoMA curator Paola Anotonelli selected several videogames, in 2012, to the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Her perspective on videogames is very clear:

“Are video games art? They sure are, but they are also design, and a design approach is what we chose for this new foray into this universe. The games are selected as outstanding examples of interaction design—a field that MoMA has already explored and collected extensively, and one of the most important and oft-discussed expressions of contemporary design creativity.” [07]

According to the Canadian scholar Felan Parker, the validation of the artgame concept, arises with the launch of Jason Rohrer’s game Passage (2007). Parker said that the academy is a very important institution that legitimizes the artgames. To Parker, the artgame is a category of the indie games, but he understands that both concepts are unstable and ambiguous.

“Like older popular cultural forms including film, popular music and dance, comics, and narrative television, digital games are now in the midst of a process of cultural and artistic legitimation.”

Felan Parker established a few possible common features for all artgames: a) aesthetic originality; b) small development teams; c) and a conceptual message. Artgames seem to be to videogames what auteur cinema is to mainstream cinema: experimental qualitative superior artifacts considered to be works of art [08]. The industry of videogames, like the cinema industry, is a business with artistic aspirations. This means that some individuals aspire to create art and to be recognized by the public and the critics. The production teams in any videogame are filled with illustrators, artists, writers, cinematographers, designers, etc. It’s not strange that the output of such a team of people, like in the seventh art, aims at the creation of novel and artistic products.


The Portuguese scholar André Carita, in his book Pensar Videojogos: Design, Arte e Comunicação [Thinking Videogames: Design, Art, and Communication] (2015), said that the definition of videogame doesn’t yet exist in its plenitude because the concept is in constant turmoil. Videogames are not just one more medium to produce artistic artifacts; it is also one of the most important media in the contemporary world. André Carita did a critic rereading of the “open work” concept of Umberto Eco – a work of art is open to infinite interpretations – to affirm that the videogame is the maximum expression of the open work. For Carita, the art of videogames is permeable to other forms of art, and a modern response to an ancestral need of the human kind: to play. Carita believes that the videogame, as an open work, is the most important bridge between technology, art, communication, culture, and innovation as well as one of the most permeable platforms to human creativity [09].




[04] Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play-Element in Culture (1949), by Johan Huizinga.


[06] The Art Circle: A Theory of Art (1984), by George Dickie.



[09] Pensar Videojogos: Design, Arte e Comunicação (2015), by André Carita.

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