Classifying Game-Art Movements

This writing is predicated on two assumptions:

  1. Games have been around for a long time but never as intensely analyzed or created as today
  2. Games are an art form

Mediums for art are subject to change based on the advancement of technology, however slow or minute this change may be. Look at painting from the earliest examples on cave walls to the highly synthetic modern materials used. Sculpture as well has adapted as we have created new metals, plastics, and tools and now 3D printing. Never has an artistic medium been more dependant on technology than games. Or perhaps more positively, never has a medium taken better advantage of technological growth. A skilled painter could use stone age methods and materials to create a beautiful cave painting, and a sculptor could do the same. What we’ve gained has largely been in the realm of efficiency and craftsmanship. In games the art has been a reaction to the limitations of the time and has expanded accordingly.

When defining game aesthetics today words such as “8-bit, low poly, photo-realistic, toon, anime-style, papercraft, minimalist, absurdist etc.” are used. Some of these are tech-dependent while others are references to other art forms (cartoons, origami, photography, animation). I have heard animations defined as every frame being a work of art.

like animation games are, when broken down, just a series of images and audio waves. however much of the art in games is participatory. As a minor example, you jump and see dust get kicked up. This relationship between the art and the player, this interaction is never used as a parameter for describing the artistic style of a game.

Many have had the experience of revisiting an old game that they remember as visually stunning and finding the return years later to be underwhelming. This can easily be explained as our expectations and idea of “high graphic fidelity” shifts. If our interpretation of game visuals is so subjective, to the point where we grant certain computational benchmarks the status of artistic style (pixel-art, and low poly in particular) then why is that strategy not used to describe all games? Instead we have a Frankenstein system of descriptors.

If I took an impressionistic painting and put it in my game (or had the visuals match it) we would say that the game’s aesthetic is impressionistic. Entirely independent of what you did in the game and how you did it.

I can light the Mona Lisa with a disco ball and it wouldn’t change it’s description.

Classifying games based on their independent visual elements has been useful but fails to fully capture the role game art has in communication to, and experience of, the player.

Conceptualizing games based on how player interaction relates to artistic content can help get to the emotional connection that game art has with players. Beyond the level of the artistic mediums from which we so often draw inspiration.

Below I’ve included a breakdown of potential interaction-aesthetic categories:

Observational – the simple act of being present and running the game or looking at something changes the artistic state of the game (idle games such as Mountain)

Translational – art elements positional information is the only aesthetic development (most board games adhere to this along with Pong and to a certain degree Tetris)

Reactionary (binary)- art elements can be changed through player action from one artifact to one other artifact (spaceship sprite turns into explosion sprite when shot)

Reactionary (branching) – art elements can be changed to a number of different results (early uses of character customization)

Impact-game world is permanently changed through play (Minecraft, many MMOs)

*these are far from all-inclusive and recommendations are very welcome





  1. Jerry T. John

    Interesting commentary. But the question you were trying to answer, or the point you were trying to make was unclear to me. Illustrations might have helped?

  2. Daniel

    Like Jerry, I didn’t understand what you were trying to say. For a post that is about the aesthetics in games, I would’ve liked some examples to look at.

    That said, I’m interested in your choice of putting Minecraft and “many MMOs” in the same category. In Minecraft, you can modify the world however you want, with almost no restrictions. However, I don’t know of any MMO that lets you modify the world to that extent. Maybe Trove or Everquest Next (if that ever becomes a thing), but most MMOs that I know of have static worlds where player actions don’t have meaningful impacts.

  3. Anonymous

    That was some deep stuff.
    I also had trouble understanding few spots of your post, but it is interesting to look at games as an extension of the art in human history.
    Art really does influence enormously what kind of experience people will have. And I also agree that art should be totally interconnected to what kind of experience you want people to have.

  4. Eric vonFischer

    The core problem which you discuss, that the classification of games does not do games justice based on our current system for classification, is interesting. Personally I feel that the attempt to classify games with just one descriptor is a massive Sisyphean effort. I appreciate that you attempted to classify games based on their interaction however, because at the end of the day, interaction is truly what separates a game from being a movie. I would have liked to see some more examples of you classifications or potentially screenshots, and I believe that many games have at least some elements from each of these categories rather than exclusively belonging to one.

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