The phrase "game as art" gets tossed around whenever there's a work that strays from the notion that a game is something to be completed. This term is usually applied to games with unusually interactive environments and breathtaking artwork, or games that attempt to deliver a message or toy with your emotions. In both of these cases, the gameplay itself is de-emphasized. What doesn't get mentioned often are games where the gameplay is the art, the thing of beauty. These games are often misunderstood, classified as boring by those who like a game to have such devices as characters and a story. They are simple by necessity, for the subtleties of gameplay are easily obscured by flash and sparkle. Yet for those who have the patience to explore the space carved out by the constructs around which the game is built, they can be a thing of true beauty, not unlike the beauty found within fractals and Fibonacci sequences.
Consider Pixel Grower, by Joey Betz. Visually, it's appealing, but not awe-inspiringly so. Likewise, the gameplay also appears simple, at least initially. Your mouse controls the paddle with which you must collect as many falling pixels as possible. Much like certain elements in falling sand games, the pixels stick to your paddle wherever they strike it, so before you know it, you're wielding a Christmas tree rather than a simple paddle. Your goal is quite simple: catch as many pixels as possible before your health meter runs out from letting too many pass you by. Whenever your pixel stack reaches the white line, the game zooms out and passes on to the next stage.
So where's the art? Well, let's take a step back and ask ourselves: just what is art? I think most people can agree that all art (good or bad, classic or just plain weird) shares the following two traits: 1) it was conceived as something to be displayed to, played for, or otherwise experienced by others; 2) it elicits from its experiencer some sort of mental or emotional response, whether it be awe, disgust, sadness, or simply: "huh."
With that in mind, we might begin to see how the gameplay in Pixel Grower might be considered artful. As you first begin to play, the game seems pretty straightforward: catch all the pixels, right? But after dying earlier than you think you ought to, it starts to dawn on you that how you catch the pixels is also extremely important. Slowly, you adjust not only your strategy, but the mental state with which you approach the simple task of catching. Like the morphing growth of the pixelated paddle, your impression of the game writhes and shifts, with no two people experiencing the same tactical mental progression. Little by little, you hack away the detritus of sub-optimal strategy, uncovering the gem that lies within.
Of course, like all art, games such as Pixel Grower do not appeal to everyone, as evidenced by the mixed comment response to one of the shining examples of gameplay-as-art. It certainly requires you to put on your abstract glasses to really appreciate it. But for those whose boat is floated by an artfully crafted piece of gameplay, Pixel Grower awaits your discerning fancy.