An Abstract Racing Game Channels Kandinsky and Mondrian. But Is It Art?

Joost van Dongen’s Proun explores one of video gaming’s most fraught and complex questions, without forgetting the fun.

A few years back, the movie critic Roger Ebert ignited a fierce debate when he declared, categorically, that video games could not be art. He later recanted (sort of), but his comments added new vigor to the games-as-art conversation, prompting reviewers to point out the cinematic scope and psychological depth of games like L.A. Noire and Heavy Rain. Joost van Dongen, an independent game developer from the Netherlands, is squarely in the “games can be art” camp. But he also thinks such a black-and-white question is missing the broader point entirely.


His game Proun recently took the prize for “Best Digital Media” at the 2012 Dutch Design Awards. The game is fairly straightforward: Balance a ball on a thin rail as you whiz by colorful, abstract landscapes, spinning around to dodge obstacles and picking up speed as you go. It’s like a racing game meets Marble Madness–without any other racers on the track.

It’s a beautiful experience. The various levels borrow loosely (or, in some places, not so loosely) from masterpieces of contemporary art, putting you inside the abstract worlds of Kandinsky and Mondrian. “El Lissitzky was only a minor influence on the game: I mainly just borrowed the name Proun from him,” Van Dongen tells Co.Design. “The main influence on the game was Kandinsky, especially his works ‘Composition VIII’ and ‘Unbroken line.’ I really like how his paintings are abstract, yet they also contain a great sense of life and joy. Watching works like that makes we want to dance to a hidden music that seems to resound from the paintings. I wanted to capture that sense of joy in the game, while at the same time exploring my own style and my own interpretation of abstract art.”

Proun‘s soundtrack tries to capture that “hidden music” with a jazzy, rockabilly sound–a nice departure from the 8-bit electronic music currently de rigueur in some of today’s most creative games. “I wanted players who are doing well to reach a high level of concentration that is combined with exultation and happiness–not with the aggressiveness of most techno,” Van Dongen says.

But even though his game leans heavily on abstract painting, that is not, in Van Dongen’s opinion, what makes it art. Nor should the “cinematic” nature of L.A. Noire necessarily qualify it for that classification automatically. Those types of assessments, Van Dongen points out, fall victim to the same wrongheaded assumption–that games can only be art by imitating accepted forms like literature, painting, or cinema. He made the case to me persuasively:

When someone has a definition of ‘art,’ it is usually an old definition, from before games even existed. Of course games don’t fit that. So when people talk about whether games are art, they talk about whether games contain certain features that are considered artistic in a different medium. Which is why Heavy Rain is compared to film, and my Proun is compared to paintings. I think this is a completely wrong approach to the topic. When you want to describe why certain literature is art, you don’t do so in the same [way] as when you are talking about a painting. We have simply agreed that both paintings and books can be art in their own way. Games, however, only seem to qualify as art if they can be expressed in a traditional medium.

I think 50 years from now, games in general will be considered a medium in which art can be made, and some games will be considered art, and others will not. I also think that at that point, people will realize that the most important artistic merit of a game is not in its story or visuals, but in its rules, its mechanics: what the player can do and how the player experiences this. In that light, it is kind of weird that my game Proun is considered art because it is linked to paintings that are considered art. Instead, I think Proun should be considered art because when playing it, the high speed, the obstacles, the minimalistic visuals and the joyful music all combine to make the player feel a euphoric trance of extreme concentration. The interaction and the feeling, that is what makes it special, not the comparison to paintings.

Well said. But of course, borrowing from Kandinsky certainly helps people get into the right state of mind.

Proun is available as a PC download on a pay-what-you-want scheme. Find out more on the game’s site and check out Van Dongen’s other projects on his page.