While the mainstream gaming community has come to fetishize the idea of “realism” within game aesthetics as being the pinnacle of digital representation, there are many indie titles which take a subtle approach to artistic design, using retro-esque game aesthetics as a means of constructing a different approach to ideas of beauty within the game world. In Minecraft, developed by Mojang Studios, the art style is far from the impressive, true-to-life art style of a game like Final Fantasy XV:
While advances in visual depiction have coincided with advances in graphic processing power, games like Minecraft continue to have a very beautiful simplicity, one that continues to age very well with him. With a blocky aesthetic borrowed from an earlier game called Infiniminer, the procedural landscape offers many different types of environment as the player roams nomadically through the Minecraft world, so, while you are not going to have to do a double take to see if your Wolf pet looks exactly like poochie at home, there is a calming serenity about playing Minecraft, one that comes with discarding the frills, the chugging processing power, and the edging towards the uncanny valley found in mainstream, triple A titles.
In this way, I will argue that Minecraft is an art game. While it does not necessarily speak to a community of art critics or museum attendees, it speaks to the gamer as ‘art critic:’ the gamer who taxonomically rates his Steam library, taking each game to task from the perspective of aesthetics, playability, fun and hours played. I will also argue that the art style of Minecraft is engaging in an artistic dialogue with the gaming community: first, by showing that game’s can have a simplistic beauty which does not hinge itself on maintaining true-to-life characteristics in a never ending stride towards realism; second, by showing that Minecraft can also be game art, acting as a canvas for the imaginative of gamers in the art world of the Minecraft platform. Through these two concepts, it becomes clear that, in many ways, Minecraft is engaging with ideas of artistic representation within the video game platform, first being a beautiful game which counters the narrative of realistic aesthetics, second being a great platform for gamer-as-artist creativity.
Minecraft as Game Art and Art World
At first, the advancement of an argument for Minecraft as an ‘art world’ or ‘game art’ might be stifled by a system of expectations outlining what people expect from Minecraft and those gamers who play it. First, within the gaming community, there is a stereotype about what a ‘Minecraft player’ is, humorously highlighted in this video by Crowbcat:
In this video, Crowbcat highlights the cringe-worthy tendencies of the Minecraft audience, which he wants to show as being mostly prepubescent boys, obsessed with memes and console-exclusives. While this audience of chipper young men is certainly contained, to some extent, within the greater Minecraft community, this picture of Minecraft does not reduce its identity as a game to a digital playpen for preteen boys. In many ways, Minecraft can be thought of as a digital gallery, where people can express their creativity and their imagination, using the block art style as a platform for pixel art and intertexual game references. For Sharp, Game Art is defined as “art made of games” (14). While Sharp expresses that game art “is not in the traditional, functional application of the tools and techniques for producing games,” I would argue that, for Minecraft, there is not typical, proper application of the game assets, and it is literally left at the player’s disposal to decide what he or she does with the components of game.
What this results in is a plethora of creations which come from the psychology of the gamer-as-artist, some of which being pixel art renditions of the next graphics card they are lusting after, or even massive sprawling creations which come from the realm of fantasy or science fiction:
Just like any artistic medium, the artist takes painstaking efforts to find their colors, scale their model, and they create an intertextual conversation with other pieces, communities, and cultures. While Sharp argues that “artists creating game art approach games as tool sets and cultural tropes rather than as medium or craft unto itself,” I argue that both of these can be done: that they are not mutually exclusive (14). Artists within Minecraft think of Minecraft both as a game and as a canvas, with the ability to work within the game interchangeably. An artist can enter creative mode, and work within a procedurally generated world—using blocks as single unit pixels for their pixel art; on the other hand, they can enter survival mode and duke it out with zombies, skeletons, and attempt to survive the setting, all the while creating a home which is aesthetically pleasing and functional within the Minecraft setting.
Likewise, this collection of pixel art highlights how the game art of Minecraft speaks to its own artistic community:
While it might be argued that this view of game art within Minecraft hegemonically excludes non-normative gamers from the fun of art within the Minecraft canvas, this is only one case of what can occur. Since the creators, Mojang or Notch, have restrained themselves from creating a set of rules that dictates what can be built (such as limiting height under some restraint of stability or reducing the size of the color pallet), there within lies the birth of the player. Borrowing from Barthes, the death of the program or developer as God “utterly transforms the modern text” or game (4). Although the developers gave birth to the original platform of game, the players have made it into a platform for artistic genesis, and, hence, “the birth of the reader must be ransomed by the death of the Author” (ibid). So while some of Minecraft’s game art might hegemonically cater to a system of for-gamer-by-gamer knowledge, the fact that Minecraft can operate as a canvas shows that it does not necessarily have to.
Minecraft As Art Game
From a purely anecdotal perspective, my foray into the world of Minecraft was a great break from the aesthetics of shoot-em-up war games, such as Call of Duty and Battlefield. Being obsessed with this style of game at an early age, I had a set idea of what a good game looked like: big explosions, big guns, and an incessant stroking of my God complex. Minecraft, however, has none of those frills.
When you enter the world of Minecraft, you might encounter the blocky llama, strolling around with his pack. You might stumble into a blue lagoon, with a silly looking squid rushing away from you to find safety.
The player, however, never questions the reality of their gaming experience. The player is never shocked by the stunningly, true-to-life representation of a cow, for example. Although, what Minecraft proves is that these things do not need to be the standard of aesthetic beauty within games, and this speaking back to hegemonic ideas of Beauty within games how I deem Minecraft an artgame.
Using Sharp’s discussion of John Hosper’s thick/thin aesthetics, it becomes clear that Minecraft has something to say about games as a platform for art. Sharp explains thin aesthetics to be “those that focus solely on the formal values of the work, while thick aesthetics are those that take into account the work’s place in a more complex cultural context” (77). If Minecraft’s cultural context is to be understood as speaking to/opposing hegemonic ideas of game beauty, then Minecraft’s art style may be understood as a subversive application of aesthetics within an artgame.
Take the act of mining, for example. As you pound away at the geometric shape of your dirt block, there is no long animation as you pound your shovel into the grass, churning up the dirt, eventually hitting rock. Rather, as the player interfaces with the resource, the pixelated graphic style shows the players progress towards mining any given object. This establishes a set of artistic, functional expectations for the player, as they know when the block has become fully pixelated, it is going to be able to be picked up. Aesthetically, this is completely different from the naturalistic, realistic representations that some games hope to achieve, following a Hegelian dialectic where there is a “unity of the divine nature [of an Idea] with the human,” a unity which is “manifested also in an immediate and sensuous way” (86). In Minecraft, there is no direct correspondence between the idea of “mining dirt” and the human act of dirt mining. Minecraft severs this realistic expectation, and, hence, counters this realistic vision of art within games.
This simplistically subversive application of aesthetics is compounded by the soundtrack of Minecraft. Composed by C418, the music drones away as C418 uses an ethereal piano under layers of reverb to play a few simple, resonant chords. “Subwoofer Lullaby” uses a simple 3 chord progression—with some synthetic, naturalistic sounds faintly audible in the background—to create an acoustic ambiance which is true to the style of Minecraft: simple, understated, but uniquely beautiful. While Minecraft is not a stunning blockbuster or a trailblazing adventure, the game does not make itself out to be such. Aesthetically, artistically, and simplistically, Minecraft proves that art within games does not have to speak to hegemonic expectations of either art or games, yet it proves itself to be both of those things—game art and art game.
Sharp, John. Works of Game: On the Aesthetics of Games and Art. MIT Press, 2015.
Roland Barthes. (1977 ). “The Death of the Author.” In Image, Music, Text. New York: Hill and Wang. [PDF]
G. W. E. Hegel. (1998 ). “Philosophy of Fine Art.” In The Art of Art History: A Critical Anthology, edited by D. Preziosi. Oxford: Oxford University Press: pp. 80-88.