Games as Conceptual Art
Loose thoughts on, perhaps, surprising parallels.
“In conceptual art the idea or concept is the most important aspect of the work.”
(Paragraphs on Conceptual Art — Sol LeWitt)
At first sight, it seems that very few modern video games fit into the category of conceptual art that developed throughout the 1960s.
“What the work of art looks like isn’t too important. […] Art that is meant for the sensation of the eye primarily would be called perceptual rather than conceptual. […] This kind of art, then, should be stated with the greatest economy of means. Any idea that is better stated in two dimensions should not be in three dimensions.”
Graphical and technological spectacle are omnipresent in pretty much every major release.
“It is the objective of the artist who is concerned with conceptual art to make his work mentally interesting to the spectator, and therefore usually he would want it to become emotionally dry.”
Many popular games provide elaborate emotional and narrative reasons for the player’s actions.
“There is no reason to suppose however, that the conceptual artist is out to bore the viewer. It is only the expectation of an emotional kick, to which one conditioned to expressionist art is accustomed, that would deter the viewer from perceiving this art.”
The “kick” from audiovisual stimuli, psyschological tricks or both is a regular part of gamer expectations these days.
The more a game is created to generate revenue, the less it’s actually “about the idea” — be it exploring the implications of a gameplay mechanic or a statement implicit to the interaction (e.g. The Marriage). Instead, the idea is drowned in a hodgepodge of necessities generated by commercial interests. Ultimately this is an understandable consequence of the developers’ systemic reality of life.
However, even within these circumstances — beyond the mainstream — one can find examples that are worth looking at through the lens of conceptual art. First and foremost, a whole subcultural movement developed in the 2000s in the form of game jams, which actively encourage developers to create small, unusual experiments, consciously putting things like audiovisual polish or playability aside.
“The Indie Game Jam is a yearly game design and programming event designed to encourage experimentation and innovation in the game industry.”
(Indie Game Jam 0 — Chris Hecker)
Of course, it didn’t stop there. Hundreds of thousands of jam games were published on itch.io alone. Ludum Dare and Global Game Jam have grown into major worldwide virtual events, with exciting creative forays to be discovered time and again. This year’s annual “GMTK Jam” — hosted by the YouTube channel Game Maker’s Toolkit — features almost 15,000 participants already. And again, “ideas” are part of the first sentence of its description:
“This is a 48 hour game making marathon, focused on design, mechanics, and clever ideas.”
(GMTK Jam 2021 — Mark Brown)
But there’s more: Entire platforms — and around them communities of players and creators — have formed that do not primarily view games as products, but instead focus on experimentation, sharing, and learning — in short, on creation itself.
For example, the limitations of the PICO-8 fantasy console were deliberately chosen to induce a mindset that is very close to the idea of conceptual art in many aspects.
“I feel much more touched by small things that I see other people making. […] I just love to see isolated little thoughts.”
(PICO-8 and the Search for Cosy Design Spaces — Joseph White)
There are also various open-source physical consoles, each with its own unique character that spawns its very own culture of independent, free, non-commercial game creation.
Of course, as so often, we’re looking at a spectrum here. One end might consist of open non-commercial games and platforms, but even within those we’ll find projects that are sometimes more and sometimes less visually polished and “marketable”. And moving further, successful indie games like Braid, Journey or What Remains of Edith Finch are obviously technically and audiovisually sophisticated, but still extremely valuable from a conceptual art point of view, i.e. in terms of what they have to say and teach. Zach Gage is himself a conceptual artist and sees games as a natural part of his practice. And after all, even between AAA titles you’ll be able to find differences in terms of how important the core ideas end up being — even though once you enter this realm, concepts will never really be the priority anymore.
So where does this leave us? Sure, some games are conceptionally more interesting or innovative than others. However, some of them — usually those falling more firmly into the conceptual art category — are relatively easy to dismiss as small, short, irrelevant oddities.
However, if you’re interested in games — be it as a player, creator, analyst, or any combination — it’s worth wandering off the beaten path. It’s worth developing the ability to see through the facades, to the level of concept art. It’s worth asking what the conceptual statement of a game is — both for titles that focus on conveying one and for those that do not.
There are whole worlds of creative energy and inspiration to be discovered out there, no less and often more fascinating than the “big ones”. They are worlds that thrive independently of technical progress and sometimes deliberately push it aside. Not just for the sake of minimalism or nostalgia, but simply as a distraction from the concept. The idea.
“Seeing is not as simple as looking.”
(Joseph Kosuth, conceptual artist)