Baba is You - The Question of Videogames and Art

This essay stems from a seminar given by Leonardo Macarto. The seminar was conducted in the summer of 2019 at Klagenfurt University. One of the guiding questions posed, was the notion of if and how videogames can be considered an art form. Given the complexity of videogames, there are many ways to try and approach the phenomenology of this art form. This essay sheds some light on how a videogame in its entirety can be considered art, that is to say, when all its components symbiotically work well together.

Videogames have come a long way since the early versions in the 60s and 70s. As Aaron Smuts rightfully states, it is “apparent that video games have moved far beyond the primitive states of “Pong”.” (2005, n.p.) This state is primarily attributed to simple graphics and mechanics stemming from the technological constraints of the time. Since then, however, many technical improvements have led to technologically sophisticated and artistically pleasing games. We are now at a point where the development of games has given rise to the discussion of games as a form of art. As games are produced in large quantities, they are often demeaned to mass art. As this categorisation arises in discussions that compare games to other, established art forms, it lacks considerations of the medium-specific character of games, namely multimodality and potential to participate. First, this essay scrutinises the existing literature and stances taken towards video games as an art form. Thereafter, Baba Is You is analysed to showcase that games can be considered art when sufficient amounts of its elements work together harmoniously.

One argument that is often brought up against video games as an art form is a lack of sophistication. There is indeed a plethora of instances that support this argument. However, Smuts argues that “the same can be said for some products of any art form without calling the value of the whole enterprise into question.” (2005a, n.p.) By drawing a parallel to the development of movies, Smuts sees an increase in sophistication throughout the years (2005a, n.p.). Similarly, Tavinor supports the notion that the artistic improvement primarily stems from the technological development (2009, 6-7). The essence of these positions shows that, similar to other art forms, video games have gone through an evolutionary process of maturation. The fact that counter-argument still stand tall primarily has to do with the relatively young age in relation to other, more established art forms and their solid bodies of supportive literature.

Evidently, falling back into the habit of analysing games by employing established theories cannot encompass the very nature of video games. Instead, as Paul Gee suggests, we should regard games as “a new art form, one largely immune to traditional tools developed for the analysis of literature and film” (2006, 58). While it is true that games cater to artistic qualities in their graphics and narrative that are akin to other forms of art, there is more to games than just that (Tavinor 2009, 5). Rather, games “should be treated on their own terms and not seen as a derivative form of pre-existing types. (2009, 172) The approach that Tavinor suggests is a cluster theory of art (2009, 175-80), where a “set of conditions which an object might meet in any number of ways.” (177) Employing such a theory allows for a much more elastic assessment of video games and approach the art status by considering unique elements of games, such as aesthetics, kinaesthetic, or narrative qualities, rather than the game as a whole. In this way, the art status of games can be met by satisfying a certain number of sufficient criteria. The benefit of this approach is that the relatively young age of video games and lack of theoretical body as well as it’s multimodality can be accounted for much more easily.

Given that hundreds of video games hit the market every year, notions of mass production are not far-fetched. These notions are accompanied by the dichotomy of high art vs mass art. This differentiation of high vs low is attached to the argument of passivity. Carroll states that “mass artwork does not call on the viewer, listener, or reader to do anything. The art is spoon-fed to the consumer. The audience is passive.” (2009, 417) Here, video games pose a peculiar problem. Whereas there certainly are portions where the player merely sits back and takes in whatever the game throws at them, on most occasions playing requires of the player to be active; to interact with the game and engage in a dialogue with what is represented on screen. The argument of passivity, mass production of games aside, does not hold much ground as a part of the definition of games.

Lastly, the element that closely ties into the nature of games along with the participative elements is the notion of performativity. Because of the input that players provide, the game provides feedback, representing the dialogue the game and the player engage in. Smuts contests the performative notion by claiming that “what might count as performance — the playing — is not considered art. Perhaps this is because the games themselves draw more attention than the player.” (2005b, para. “Where’s the art?”) Intuitively this might seem logical, given that the pushing of a button has less of an audio-visual impact than what happens on screen. However, to exclude this crucial component from the discussion of video games as art implies subscribing to the notions of passivity mentioned above, which would, in turn, serve to regard the art in video games to be akin of that in film.

What Smuts is excluding from the equation, are some of the critical qualities that Henry Jenkins elaborates on in his seminal text “Game Design as Narrative Architecture” (2004). Especially emergent narratives (124-26) make video games so memorable. James Gee (2006) describes one such moment in his analysis of Castlevania:

Castlevania is an instrument on which the player plays a visual, motoric, auditory, kinaesthetic, and decision-making symphony. For example, for me, the look, feel, and flow of Alucard’s movements as he jumps across underground springs of water at the bottom of the castle while simultaneously breaking Frozen Shades into ice crystals is one particularly beautiful movement (and moment) in the overall symphony that the playing of Castlevania constitutes. And it is one I produce. (60)

This quote concisely illustrates just how video games should be considered as art form. Beyond the obvious audio-visual elements, the individual performance of the player is the crucial factor that needs to be considered when assessing video games as a form of art. Without these considerations, claims that games are “… mere trifles – low art – carrying none of the weight, gravitas or credibility of more traditional media … “(Newman 2004, 5) may linger without ever ceding the status of art to video games.

Baba Is You is a prime example of how these individual moments contribute to the overall experience. The first level achieves to convey all there is to know about the game without any explicit instructions. By consecutively inserting words on the screen, all the rules are established, and the player knows what each element represents. In a sense, the ontology of the world is overtly displayed on-screen in the form of word-blocks that signify something by themselves and in connection with other words. The simple solution for this level is to push away a stone and touch the flag to finish the level. Because the level design takes a minimalist approach, the player is not distracted by anything, allowing them to freely grasp what the game wants them to do. Whereas the simplicity of the graphics may not necessarily suggest an art status, it serves the purpose of not overwhelming the player. This allows the player to soak in the game as a whole and relish their own performance, creating memorable experiences.

While the game has a very simplistic appearance, interacting with the game elements opens up a plethora of solutions to seemingly simple puzzles. The introductory level alone has three different ways of winning. The player who chooses to explore the level will notice that the word ‘win’ can be pushed around and attached to other strings of words. Thus, the experience the player can take away from the level is always individual. The player learns to marvel at what the game allows them to do. It invites the player to explore the possibilities and engage in an intimate dialogue with the game. Whereas the game itself never changes, it is these emergent narratives that add so much depth and complexity to the game as a whole, which is akin to the sophistication of other kinds of art.

The potential that arises from allowing the player to directly tinker with the ontology of the game adds a strong sense of coherence. Many games create a sense of dissonance by obfuscating the rules that are at work behind the scenes. Baba Is You, however, openly exhibits how it works, tying the very framework of the game much closer to what is represented on screen. The player is invited to explore the levels and change how the world works. Beyond the winning conditions, the player can enable or disable rules by pushing the words around. It is even possible to become a stone, a flag, or the walls of a level, allowing for a great amount of freedom. In a way, the exploration of the possibilities and the joy gained from it takes on a much more prominent position than winning the level itself. Where other games have predefined goals, Baba Is You does not. It is up to the player to decide how they would like a level to play out.

 This sense of cohesion is further heightened by turning the map, which serves as a hub to access levels, into a level itself. By changing the ontology of two levels, the map itself can receive a flag, which allows the player to ‘win’ the map level. Rather than merely serving the purpose of displaying progression, elements that normally serve a pragmatic purpose can provide meaningful experiences to the player. In doing so, these elements become less of a distraction and enhance what the player can achieve on an individual level when engaging with the game.

Especially in the later levels, the relevance of games as a participative art form becomes obvious. Over time, Baba Is You adds more nouns, connectors and modifiers to the levels. From a game design perspective, this serves the purpose of adding variation and challenge to the game. When considering games as an art form, however, it serves the purpose of enhancing the sophistication. The additional elements invite the player to engage in exploring the world even further. Now the player can even turn into more than one character or simply turn the character itself into the winning condition. The further the player progresses, the more possibilities they get to directly influence the way the world works, which adds a great deal of enjoyment. Observing all the walls of a level move at the push of a button or even cloning one’s character provides a personal touch to the experience of the game that goes beyond the simple solving of puzzles, allowing for the creation of emergent narratives in almost infinite amounts.

Baba Is You is a remarkable game that showcases how something that is mass-produced defies many negative notions that are attached to something that is still widely considered entertainment, rather than art. Regarding the cluster theory approach to art, the cohesion of technical and representational aspects showcases that it is rather a collection of elements that, in combination, generate an experience that is sufficient to consider games as art. From a graphical perspective alone, Baba Is You may not have much to offer. The intricacy that underlies the simple graphics, however, is a world that contains only meaningful elements that can all be interacted with and even modified to one’s desire. The player is at the heart of the art piece and engages in a dialogue with both the mechanics and the graphics and generates a multitude of emergent narratives along the way. As the review of literature has shown, games still have a long way to go before their status truly is settled. Yet, examples like Baba Is You do well in showcasing the uniqueness of how games should be considered as art. Only when all the elements of a game work together harmoniously and when the individual experience is the centrepiece of the analysis, we can truly see just how games can be art.         


Carroll, Noël. 2009. “Mass Art.” In A Companion to Aesthetics, edited by Stephen Davies, Kathleen Marie Higgins, Robert Hopkins, Robert Stecker, and David E. Cooper, 415-18. 2nd ed. Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell.

Gee, Paul James. 2006. “Why Game Studies Now? Video Games: A New Art Form.” Games and Culture 1 (1): 58-61. DOI: 10.1177/1555412005281788.

Jenkins, Henry. 2004. “Game Design as Narrative Architecture.” in First Person New Media as Story, Performance, and Game, edited by Noah Wardrip-Fruin and Pat Harrigan, 118-130. Cambridge and London, Engl.: MIT Press.

Newman, James. 2004. Videogames. London: Routledge.

Smuts, Aaron. 2005a. “Video Games and the Philosophy of Art.” Accessed August 14 2019.

Smuts, Aaron. 2005b. “Are Video Games Art?.” Contemporary Aesthetics 3 (1): n.p..

Tavinor, Grant. 2009. The Art of Videogames. Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell.


Hempuli Oy. 2019. Baba Is You. Hempuli Oy