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Subenu avatar 6:51 AM on 06.24.2010  (server time)
Homo Ludens and its importance for Videogames

Wait, don't leave because you think “Oh no, not a 'Why games are Art' Blog AGAIN“. Because, this is not really what this blog post is about.

When discussions about that topic arose again because of some random person that people in Europe don't even know of and should not care about because he has no experience with modern videogames what so ever, I did what I thought was best: I shut my mouth. I did not feel the need to enter the discussion.

Part of the problem to me was that “Are Videogames Art?“ is the wrong question. In my opinion, the right question is “Can Art be a videogame?“ or rather “Do videogames redefine Art?“. Now you might think, this is silly, but please read on.

If we are discussing art, we are also discussing culture, two elements that have to exist in the same sphere, because they define each other. The problem is, as always, that there is no fixed definition to any of those terms, because they can not be built upon facts. However, I want to take a different approach, with the help of my dear old friend Johan Huizinga, who wrote Homo Ludens in 1938. Now, if I quote him, please keep in mind, that I have to translate my quotes from German into English, so some things can be lost.

Homo Ludens, which translates to „The playing Human“, is a very fundamental book about the source of culture in games. It is so fundamental, that everyone who wants to think seriously about videogames should read it. It is also a nice read and not too hard. Now, to cut things a bit short, I will resort to the main thesis of this book:

“Human culture emerges and develops itself in the game – as a game“ (Huizinga, 1936, p. 7)

Short sentence, but huge significance if you ask me. This could mean two very important things:
Games precede culture. Even animals without, what some would call 'culture', are playing games, out of various reasons. But it also means, that culture need a container called „Game“ in order to grow.

If we take the art form of 'literature', we see how this works: Good writers 'play' with language, they do metaphors, turn and twist the possibilities of grammar and language as a whole. They play with the reader, the concepts of our world and the perceptions we all have and seemingly share with each other. So called 'good' literature is able to touch you, to play with your feelings. It reaches out to you, grabs you and twists and turns you around like a roller coaster.

„Play“ can not only be a verb. It also is a noun, describing a theater performance. Theater in itself is similar to literature, they are both media that are very close and find their roots at the very beginning of what we like to call culture. They are essentially games, the participants play according to their rules. If movies oriented themselves on literature and theater, copied their techniques and invented new ones, it still is the result of a game, of a creative thought process.

Video games are very similar to those initial games Huizinga talks about. But they do one thing more, that these old games did not really do: they have narratives, they tell us stories. This, in my opinion, leads to the fatal thought process that people think, they must be recategorized. That is not true, since there is no game whose mechanics (or gameplay) would actually necessitate a narrative in order to work. But in essence, the narrative does not matter for the gameplay itself, at their core videogames are games.

The whole discussion around videogames being art or not is in my opinion interesting in one specific way: It is the very same discussion, that has been led when it comes to movies. During the 1910s and 1920s, the question if movies are art or not, was quite big and filled the Feuilletons of many newspapers. People like Roger Ebert have forgotten about the history of the medium they love so much and ask a question that is irrelevant at best, because:

Games are the foundation of every culture. They don't need to be art, because they define art.

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