Games Aren’t Art

Because art is a kind of game.

Obviously, the philosophers will simply draw a larger circle here. There is no definition of game I can give that they cannot draw a larger definition around and call that art. But I want to approach this anthropologically.

See, we have all these ideas about how civilization works. We know this because they are in thousands of civ-inspired games. Most of them divide humanity into some kinds of divisions. We make war, we make science, we make religion, we make culture, we gather resources and spend them elsewhere. We rate civilizations in these fields, these are the activities we perform in the game. And we know civilization has begun because these activities are going on: we’ve stopped being “animals” because we have these early game pieces: we stopped just fighting and invented war. We stopped just eating and invented agriculture. We stopped just reacting and invented thinking about why we react. We stopped just existing to survive and put some marks on a wall just so they were pretty. Civilization begins with the spearhead. The plough. The daubs on the cave walls at Lascaux.

And we know animals are creating civilizations because chimps have been shown to have mysticism. Orangutans can and do use tools. Bonobos domesticate animals and till the soil. Depending on your definition, simians¬†have been in the stone age for up to 700 years, and have primitive versions of currency, trade and politics. We’re still waiting for the caves at Lascaux but we know dolphins have names and seem to maybe be making patterns just because they enjoy it.

See, we believe our ideas about civilization so much that our history is informing our biology. We’re looking to see when animals are doing the things you do in civ games to see if they are human.

And in civ games, sometimes, SOMETIMES…there’s a bit where the culture or war track goes “oh, and then there’s games or the colloseum or something”. Indeed, I was taught growing up that sports and games were invented to simulate war.

Simulate conflict, yes. But simulate war? I don’t think so.

Because here’s what else we know. Dogs play games. They know the rules of games, they know when games start and stop, they know what victory conditions are, and they know how to cheat, and they know how to stop cheating and follow the rules properly. They also know, god bless them, how to cheat forward, ie to make it easier for weaker players. Dolphins play games too, they throw sticks around and hide things and play hide and seek. Monkeys run races with each other.Elephants put paint on a brush and it is sold as elephant art and we have no idea if they see it as making an image or representation – but we do know they find it an enjoyable GAME, to make the colour go on the page.

(Again, leave the definition for the moment. Please.)

The earliest Egyptian artwork that still survives includes them playing games. Before they even developed language they were playing games. And then somewhere along the line, we put the paint on the wall. We made a game of colour-daubing. And then someone made a game of making the daubs look like mammoths and people.

See, we have this idea that art came first and then games. And that games are primitive yet also secondary. And that it’s only just now, right now, that games are so awesome and narrative and pretty that okay maybe they can qualify to be art. Even if we agree that games are art, we have in the back of our mind that they’ve been ALLOWED to be art. That they’ve finally reached that level. That they’ve been let into the club because now we see truly what they are.

And one of the reasons we think that is because we think in Civilization mechanics. We think art came first. We think humans are defined by making art, making tools, making weapons. And we looked for those things, and those things alone, in animals, to see if they were like us. And we ignored games.

What if humans are defined by games. By tools, by weapons, by games. What if games are as fundamental to intelligence, to human-ness, to civilization as using a tool. Why the hell have we ignored that for so long? We’ve watched animals play games for centuries and never once said “that means they’re smart”. Because we didn’t have it in our list of Civ categories. Because we were undervaluing games. Because games don’t count.

And this why I think we need to reverse the argument. Even by saying games are art, we’re still stuck in a world where art is awesome and part of civilization and being human, and games are allowed to be part of that. But games have always come BEFORE art, as far as we can tell, by any common man’s definition of art.

So turn it around. Put games where they belong. Central. Core. Primary of what makes us human.

Games are what makes us intelligent. What shows our soul. What lifts us above and transcends us. And one kind of game is the game where you shape materials into pleasing forms and call it art. We’ll call it a game. It qualifies. It goes in the “non-interaction” section. It’s not always a GREAT game, but you know, it’s better than Monopoly. Pandemic is better than Dracula, but not as good as Hamlet. I’ve played Bridge, I’ve seen the Mona Lisa…they’re about the same. Does that sound weird? It does. Because we’re still thinking art is above, games are below. Because of the language we use.

Games aren’t art.

Art is non-interactive gaming.

That small change in language changes EVERYTHING.