Games != art ?
My take on the 'are games art?' question sparked by Roger Ebert's curmudgeonly article:
I say "no, games (with video games as a subset) are not art". But before you leave angry comments, let me elaborate. Games are not art, they are something else entirely, something which is equally capable of cultural significance and equally worthy of considered study as art. They exist on a different plane from art and should be judged on their own terms.
Trying to treat games as an art form actually does games a disservice; games deserve their own critical vocabulary and their own form of analysis because many of the tools we use to analyze art are poorly suited to analyzing games. A player of a game makes decisions and actively participates in constructing what they experience; being audience to a piece of art lacks this dimension. Art critics don't even know how to address interactivity; they lack the vocabulary to ask the right questions.
Art can be meaningful because of the meaning that the artist puts into it (and sometimes meaning that you read there that they didn't intend). A game with a storyline can have traditional author-intended artistic meaning encoded into that storyline, but this is usually incidental to the game itself. Games have their own way of conveying deep meaning: the decisions that you and your fellow players make reveal human nature in action. Games like Poker, or Werewolf/Mafia, or Diplomacy, which have no storylines at all, are like windows straight into dark parts of the human soul. Intense, first-person psychological studies that teach you about relationships, trust, lying, small-group dynamics, mob mentality... there's a whole world of depth there, which can never be understood by asking about "the plot" or "the characters" or "what was the artist trying to say".
Game design is about crafting a rules framework that supports, constrains, elicits, and focuses meaningful and interesting decisions by the players. Good game design contains brilliant gems of ingenuity; rules that work together to subtly draw players in a certain direction or to demand that they consider something they've never thought of before. Like the way the scoring system in King of Siam encourages you to pretend to support one kingdom while secretly angling for a different one to win. Or the way the first few screens of Super Mario Bros. act as a silent tutorial, teaching the player the basics of play without using words. Or the way that the gun dice and fallout dice in Dogs in the Vineyard make you constantly ask yourself, do I care about this enough to draw a gun over it? If you understand the depth of what the game designer accomplished and the elegance of how they did it, it can take your breath away. But all this creative genius is invisible to you if the only question you know how to ask is "what artistic statement is this game trying to make".
Do games deserve more respect than they get? Yes. But the attempt to make them respectable by shoving them into a place on the Pedestal Of Significance that our culture reserves for Art is fundamentally misguided. Games deserve their own Pedestal Of Significance, equally high but separate.
The whole "is it Art" question is a red herring. Ebert, and the gamers who argued with him, are asking the wrong questions and looking in the wrong places.
A party I enjoyed for a change
Even though parties usually make me miserable, I had a good time at a housewarming party for Sushu's friend Christie last night. Even though I didn't know practically anybody.
Not sure why that was but it was a nice change. I was able to strike up small talk with random people quite easily, I wasn't self-conscious, and the people seemed interesting.
Oh but there was this one guy there. He had just come back from 14 months of teaching English in Saudi Arabia. So that's pretty interesting. I asked him a lot of questions about it, and he just kept bringing everything back to how much Saudi Arabia sucks and how stupid and terrible all the students were. He didn't have a single good thing to say about anybody. He actually said:
"As soon as the oil runs out they're all going to go back to being cannibals."
Which made my jaw hit the floor. That's one of the worst things I've ever heard anybody say.
Granted, there probably are a lot of really terrible things about Saudi Arabia, but I think this guy just had a terrible attitude. I remember his type from the JET programm: There were all these people who went to Japan and then did nothing but complain about it for the whole year. Like, can't you find anything to enjoy about living abroad, and if not then why are you doing it? It was mostly the type of person who was not especially interested in the culture but was just bumming around from one international job to another, trying to avoid starting a proper career or getting serious about anything.
All the rest of the people there were cool though. Almost all of them, at least 3/4, were teachers, because teachers make up Christie's social circle. I know just enough about teaching to have a conversation but not so much that I'm bored by stuff I've already heard before. It was nice to be able to start a conversation just by saying "Hey, are you a teacher too? What subject?" and going from there. It might have been this easy way of starting conversations that made the party fun, or maybe it was just my mood yesterday.
Christie's sister, who is training to become an English teacher (this led to a fun conversation about the best and worst books we had to read for school) brought over some of her paintings, and they were pretty amazing. They're huge and detailed and colorful and done in a crisp, chunky style inspired by stained-glass windows.
You know what else was really nice about this party? NOT TALKING ABOUT THE SOFTWARE INDUSTRY. No APIs, no IPOs, no venture capital, no patent lawsuits, no startups, no iPhone apps or Facebook widgets. It was amazingly refreshing.
I really need to hang out more with teachers and artists and less with silicon valley wonks.
Martha Graham on artistic expression
"There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all of time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and it will be lost. The world will not have it. It is not your business to determine how good it is nor how valuable nor how it compares with other expressions. It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly, to keep the channel open. You do not even have to believe in yourself or your work. You have to keep yourself open and aware to the urges that motivate you. Keep the channel open. ... No artist is pleased. [There is] no satisfaction whatever at any time. There is only a queer divine dissatisfaction, a blessed unrest that keeps us marching and makes us more alive than the others."
-- Martha Graham (crazy-ass modern dance choreographer and performance artist)
Game design, music, and storytelling
Games: We start by telling the players the win condition, so they understand what they're trying to do. Each player forms a strategy which they think will take them to victory and then chooses moves according to that strategy. But their desired moves are blocked by the opponent's moves, or are stymied due to random factors, or hidden information, so the player has to rethink their strategy on the fly. This increases the tension as the players are forced to make difficult choices, with the chance of victory riding on the outcome.
Music: The initial notes establish the key of the piece, letting the listener hear the tonic and the root chord. The melody and chord progression take us farther and farther away from that starting point, while creating a tension that can only be resolved by returning to the tonic / root chord again. E.g. the chorus of a typical rock song might have chords C -> F -> G -> G7, setting up a tension which makes the listener desire resolution. Then it goes back to the C chord at the end of the chorus, satisfying that desire.
(The listener doesn't have be able to consciously identify the chords or even know what a chord is - it still works. It's magic.)
Storytelling: Exposition in Act 1 introduces the protagonist and sets up their motivation, so the reader knows who to root for and what's at stake; they expect that the resolution of the story will see the protagonist either getting the stakes or not. Act 2 increases the tension, using complications to challenge the protagonist, put the resolution in doubt, and force some character development. Each complication raises new questions in the reader's mind. Act 3 has some sort of climax, the moment of maximum tension, where the protagonist faces some life-defining decision and whatever was motivating them finally gets resolved.
I'm sure you can think of exceptions to these simple schematics: non-western music may not have a root chord, some computer games deliberately obfuscate the goal in order to create more of a feeling of discovery, etc. Whatever. I'm not going for comprehensive definitions right now.
What I'm saying is: see a parallel here? The ending gives meaning and direction to everything that comes before it, so the game designer/musician/storyteller must hint at the ending. But it's the tension that makes things interesting, and the tension comes from the frustrated desire of the player/listener/reader. To create tension the game designer/musician/storyteller must tease an ending but deny the obvious path to that ending.
We even use the same language - "tension" and "resolution" - to talk about all three art forms.
Godel, Escher, Bach
I just finished it and I looooooove this book. Love it! It has earned a place as one of my top three or four favorite books ever, for sure.
The cover of my edition says Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid: A metaphorical fugue on on minds and machines in the spirit of Lewis Carrol by Douglas Hofstadter. What a mouthful! What a pretentious title! What the hell is this book, anyway?
The title is three dudes' names, so I opened the book thinking it was going to be some kind of triple biography. Nope. It's... something else. A very strange book, not like anything else I've ever read. There's not an easy word to describe GEB, either its structure or its subject matter.
I started the book years ago. 2008, I think, and I just finished it today. This is not the kind of book you try to tackle in one sitting. It is thick, dense, demanding. It is for math/computer-science geeks what Ulysses is for literature geeks. It's like a whole year of college squeezed between two covers.
My favorite books are often the ones that feel like an invitation to come live inside the author's brain for a while. GEB is certainly one of these: not so much a single-subject book of nonfiction as it is a tour through Douglas Hofstadter's obsessions, following the connections that he sees between seemingly unrelated topics.
Specifically: GEB is about the deep connections between mathematics, music, and art. It's focused on concepts of formal systems, self-referentiality, self-contradiction, infinite loops, and paradoxes, and how they're expressed in math by Gödel, drawings by Escher, and music by Bach.
Along the way, there's a series of puzzles, exercises, brain-teasers, and Zen koans to ponder; this book is very interactive. If you're into that kind of thing, you don't just read this book, you do it, like a kind of Activity Book for grown-ups. All of these exercises tie back into number theory and the proof of Gödel's Incompleteness Theorem (yes, even the koans!) So do the music and the art - he's not just throwing in Escher drawings and Bach fugues because he thinks they're cool, but in order to draw analogies with the mathematics, shine a light on it from many different angles, get you to think about it in a creative and intuitive way and not just a mechanistic logical way.
Structurally, GEB alternates between nonfiction "chapters" and fictional "dialogues". The chapters teach you about math, music, and art in a rambling, digressionary, conversational, but basically straightforward way. The dialogues are something else. They star Achilles and the Tortoise (borrowed from Zeno's Paradox) and occasionally also a crab, a sloth, and an ant colony, having absurdist adventures and arguing about logical paradoxes.
Some of these dialogues structurally replicate certain musical forms, such as a six-voice fugue or a "crab canon" (a piece of music that harmonizes with itself when played upside-down and backwards). Most of the dialogues involve seriously lateral thinking; some are shaggy dog stories; some are setups for elaborate multilevel puns; usually the content of the dialogue reflects somehow on the structure of the dialogue or of the book as a whole -- this is a self-referential book about self-referentiality.
The dialogues are kind of like the Shadow Play Girls in episodes of Shojo Kakumei Utena, that seem nonsensical on the surface but serve to cast some metaphorical light on the meaning of the other events in the episode. When you get to each Chapter of GEB you're ready to learn a new math concept because you've already been primed for it by some completely ridiculous Tortoise/Achilles shenanigans.
Hofstadter really wants you to understand Gödel's Incompleteness Theorem - not just in an approximate and hand-wavy way, and not just in a rote mathematical recitation way. He wants you to understand it on a deep and intuitive level. He wants this so badly that he's willing to spend seven hundred pages on math lessons, music theory lessons, thought experiments, riddles, and bizarre digressions about a smartass tortoise all in order to build up your intuition about number theory, just so that when you finally get to Gödel's proof you will have the background you need to get your mind COMPLETELY FUCKING BLOWN by it.
And it's pretty mind-blowing stuff. By encoding a self-referential paradox into a mathematical theorem, Gödel proved that any sufficiently complex system of mathematics will contain statements which are true, but can never be proven within that system. Gödel destroyed every other mathematicians' dream of ever having a perfectly complete and consistent theory of mathematics. He did it in the 1930s, so it was around the same time as the quantum mechanics gave us the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle; it was a time when humanity discovered that there are limits to our knowledge, certain things the universe just doesn't allow us to know completely. Western philosophy is still trying to recover.
Hofstadter has a lot of thoughts about how the Incompleteness theorem applies to other areas. Art and music, of course, but also computer science - there's a lot in here about computability and the Halting Problem. There's a chapter on genetics: is the genetic code a "sufficiently complex system of mathematics"? There's a bunch of stuff about the meaning of "meaning" -- how much of a proof's meaning is in the symbols of the proof, and how much is in the mind interpreting those symbols? How about the meaning of a painting, or a symphony? But mostly, he wants to talk about how the Incompleteness theorem relates to artificial intelligence and human consciousness. It seems that formal rule-based systems like computer programs and mathematical proofs are vulnerable to getting caught in paradoxes like the one in Gödel's proof, or infinite loops like Turing discovered. Yet humans have the ability to deal with infinite loops and paradoxes -- we can recognize when we're caught in one, and make a creative out of the rule system to resolve it.
Does this ability to leap outside of a rule system mean that the human mind is fundamentally different from a computer program? And does that mean that AI is impossible? But how can that be, when the brain is made of neurons which operate according to predictable physical laws? Or is our mind governed by a higher-level rule system that gives us the ability to leap outside of lesser rule systems? If so, what happens when we try to leap outside of that one? Are the sensations of consciousness and free will related to the brain's capacity for self-referential thoughts? What is the equivalent of Gödel for the brain - are there things we're not allowed to know about ourselves, or thoughts we're incapable of thinking?
Central to Hofstadter's thesis is the difference between logical, mechanistic thought and creative, intuitive leaps. So it's appropriate that he leads you to his point using both methods. The chapters walk you through the logical explanation while the dialogues encourage you to make the leaps of intuition for yourself. Again, it's a self-referential book about self-reference: the form reflects the content.
I don't know any other book that has blown my mind so many times.
Crowdfunding vs. DRM as the future of publishing
None of the songs I bought from the iTunes store will play any more because Apple thinks I've authorized them on too many computers; and I can't remember my Battle.net password so as far as Blizzard's concerned I no longer own that copy of Starcraft 2 I paid $60 for.
It used to be I only had to worry about losing my digital "posessions" when a magnet got near my disk drive or when an OS upgrade made my old data formats obsolete, but now... well, let's say I'm very reluctant to pay real money for an intangible electronic "product" when it can be taken away from me any time at the whim of an overzealous and glitchy DRM scheme.
This is why I'm not real keen on the idea of e-books; I like books that I can trust to stay on my shelf and continue existing even if the publisher changes their mind. Sushu's got several Kindles and was telling me about how you can now "loan" e-books to other people - the book is gone from your own Kindle for two weeks, then it comes back. (She likes this because books that she loans out the old-fashioned way pretty much never come back to her, she says.)
It's weird to think that some programmer had to write code whose sole function is to take a file that's still there on your Kindle and lock you out of it for two weeks. I imagine him at a Starbucks, swapping tips with the programmer from Blizzard who prevents users from playing Diablo 3 single-player without a connection to Blizzard's servers.
On a computer, every "move file" operation on a computer is actually a "copy file" followed by a "delete original". The "delete original" step is optional. The default state is for everybody to have as many copies of a file as they want; to reproduce the scarcity of the physical world takes work. Companies are paying workers to make there be less of their products.
Yeah, yeah, yeah, I know. If we let everybody have copies of all the books they wanted for free, then writers couldn't get paid, and we wouldn't have any new books at all. I get that. It's just that, as people have been saying since at least the 90s, the publishing industry should really be coming up with new business models instead of trying to fight technological progress.
For a while we thought that new business model would be advertising. But web advertising has mutated into a creepy track-you-everywhere commercial panopticon, even as advertising fails to sustain print media. The value of web advertising is dropping as well. Advertisers can now see exactly how few people are clicking on their ads, and offer prices accordingly. Besides, I think relying on advertising too much puts the creators into an unhealthy relationship with readers: if the advertiser, rather than the reader, is the one paying your rent, then you have the incentive to do what the advertiser wants, even if the reader doesn't want it.
Lots of creative people on the web have moved to merchandise-supported model. That's great if it works for them, but many types of work (say, non-fiction books) that don't lend themselves to merchandise at all. And besides, there's only so many T-shirts the average comic-reading nerd can fit in their closet. Mechandise seems very limiting.
I donated to my first project thinking "huh, one of those ransom model things? OK, well, they won't take my money unless funding succeeds, so there's not much to lose; let's try it". I didn't think much more about it at the time. But as I've watched Kickstarters get more and more attention over the past few months I'm starting to think Kickstarter, or something like it, might be the answer.
(Obviously Kickstarter did not invent the ransom model of publishing; I know Stephen King did a book that way over ten years ago.)
But here's the thing: Kickstarter-style crowd-funding is one of the very few ways where the creator is actually getting paid for doing the work of creation. With advertising you get paid for delivering customer eyeballs to advertising, and that indirectly funds the creation of the work. Even with traditional publishing, the money comes from rectangular masses of dead tree pulp being shipped around to stores, and the sales of these objects refund the publisher for the advance they gave the author for work already completed.
The work of a creator is to make a thing exist which never existed before. Kickstarter relates this to money in a very direct way: if enough fans say "Yes, I am a potential audience member, and it's worth $X to me for this thing to exist", then they pool their money and the creator gets it. And the successful Kickstarters generally seem to be the ones where the creator explains why they need that amount of money, and what exactly it will be put towards -- the ones where the costs are transparent and justifiable, in other words.
I could even see somebody in the future making a living off of one crowd-funded project after another, setting the funding targets of the projects to cover all their living costs, and not even having to care about piracy or DRM or artificial scarcity. Who cares if some people get a pirate copy, if you've already been paid the value of your time and labor for making the thing exist?
Maybe the bigger risk is that a "creator" will take everybody's money and then never deliver the work. There has been at least one high-profile attempted Kickstarter scam already, but people got wise to it before it was funded and it got taken down. Sooner or later somebody will do a scam competent enough to succeed. It will be interesting to see what happens to Kickstarter then.
I read this interesting article today about how the Kickstarter website doesn't show you the 56% of projects that fail to meet their funding target. He says 56% like it's a bad thing. A 44% success rate is amazing, far higher than I imagined. And it's good that some projects don't get funded. The funding process is a way of gauging interest. If the interest isn't there, won't you be glad to find that out up front? You don't waste time making the thing and you don't go into debt financing it.
So yeah, projects fail. There are still no guarantees of success. Getting publicity for your kickstarter is still hard. There is only a finite amount of donor money out there, and a finite amount of donor attention. (Attention may be even scarcer than money). People who are already famous from other projects have a huge advantage getting attention for their Kickstarter campaign.
But none of those problems are new. It's always been hard for first-time creators to get attention for their work. There's always been competition for a limited number of audience dollars. That's part of the service that publishers provide - they know how to generate publicity. In fact, generating publicity may soon be the only function of publishers that technology does not render obsolete. (Well, that and editing. Editing is a valuable service and most stuff published on the internet would be a lot better if it had some!)
Maybe in the future, a "publisher" will be somebody you hire to manage your crowd-funding campaign for you? And the trustworthiness of the publisher's brand will be part of what convinces potential donors that you're not a scam -- that they can trust you to actually finish making the thing. It's also a reassurance that you meet somebody's standard of quality.
After all, there may be no limits on file duplication, but there are still limits on audience attention span, so that's the resource we need to pay attention to. The future will be interesting!
Braid, and "art" in game design
I just finished Braid today. (Found it for $10 in the Ubuntu Software Center. It runs on Linux now!)
It's a fun and original puzzle game, where you solve puzzles by rewinding time. The story is intriguing, the puzzle design is ingenious, the controls are tight, it's aesthetically pleasing, it's nonlinear enough that you can try a different world if you get stuck, and there's no filler. It deserves the praise it gets for being well-designed.
But unfortunately, through no fault of its own, Braid has been blown way out of proportion by gamers who want to prove that Video Games Can Too Be Art!!
I hate the argument about whether games can be art. It's tiresome and pointless. On one side we got people who are ignorant of video games, and even proud of being ignorant. Like the author of this Atlantic interview with Braid's creator, Jonathan Blow. (The interviewer introduces Blow's upcoming game "The Witness" as "what may be the most intellectually ambitious video game in history" ...then goes on to describe a game very similar to Myst, in a way that makes clear he's never heard of Myst.)
On the other side we got people who don't give a fig about art, but they long for video games to have artistic legitimacy so they can, I dunno, feel better about their hobby or something. (See, e.g., the commenters arguing with Roger Ebert.)
The art people don't understand gameplay, but they understand storytelling. They know how to analyze that, so that's what they analyze. And they point out, correctly, that most video games stories are violent, trivial cliche-fests. Then the gamers are like No! Wait! Look at this game over here! It's got an amazing story! VALIDATE ME WITH YOUR CRITICAL RECOGNITION, I BEG YOU!
Braid is one of a handful of such games regularly held up as candidates for Art. With its ambitious story, painterly graphics, violin music, etc, Braid has the aesthetics of something artistic. More significantly, there happens to be a metaphorical connection between the theme of the story and the main puzzle mechanic. This guy Tim, he's got regrets. He wishes he could turn back time and undo his mistakes. Most video games are strictly representational, so the use of metaphor is unusal. Also, the ending is really cryptic! (Cryptic endings = Art, right?)
But the actual game is just a side-scrolling puzzle game with a neat gimmick. Braid's story talks a lot about forgiveness. But note that the game is played by pushing a "jump" button, not a "forgive" button. If you're trying to win, you spend all your time thinking about how to line up that monster so you can bounce off its head and get the key, not thinking about how Tim's relationship with the "princess" went wrong.
The story of Braid is not the game of Braid, despite their metaphorical connection. There's one part, at the end of the last level, where the story and gameplay mesh in an interesting way. Other than that, the story is just some cryptic snippets of text presented between levels. They're very easy to ignore if you're not into them. You won't miss anything gameplay-wise if you skip reading them.
This is why I think looking for the "art" of a game in its story is a gigantic red herring. Say you made a game with story cutscenes so amazing that they rival the greatest works of film artistry. That still wouldn't make it an artistic game. It would make an artistic movie that keeps getting interrupted by a game. It doesn't tell us anything about whether the game parts would be artistic or not.
The essence of a videogame is a player making decisions about how to interact with a system in order to get closer to a desired outcome. Its effect on the player is via the thought processes the player has while trying to achieve the objective. Whatever the game asks the player to do to win, that's what the game is "about".
Braid - "Learn to picture yourself moving backwards in time"
Portal - "Imagine the possibilities of warping space"
Civilization - "Success or failure of societies depends on how their leaders choose to allocate resources and respond to crises." (The 'Great Man' theory of history.)
Adventure games - "Explore your environment thoroughly; you never know what might be useful!"
RPGs - "Put in a lot of time leveling up on easy stuff so you'll be strong enough for the big challenge when it comes". (also, "go into people's houses and take anything you can pick up".)
Action games - "Be quick or be dead"
Minecraft - this is an interesting one, since there's explicitly no goal. Minecraft says to me, "Life is what you make of it."
Non-video-game example: Chess. It's about outsmarting someone by predicting their reactions, several moves ahead. "To beat someone you must put yourself in their shoes".
Is chess "art"? Who cares? The question is meaningless to me. Would chess be art, if we painted the pieces beautiful colors and attached a narrative and a soundtrack? That's basically what the "are games art" argument is about. I hope you can see why it's a silly question.
Instead of "Is chess art?", how about: "Is chess an invaluable contribution to human culture which enriches the lives of those who choose to engage with it deeply?"
Most video games aren't very culturally significant or personally enriching, but I can think of a few that are. And unlike "making art", "significant/enriching" describes goals I can imagine how to aim for, as a game designer, through the gameplay itself.
How do we do that? Design gameplay that expresses something original and interesting, and not just a repetition of "be quick or be dead"? That is what I want to hear more about.
I love this present
OMG OMG check out what our friend just gave us. We look so cool! |:-D
Hideous Public Sculptures of Palo Alto
I call it "the car on chubby baby legs"
Eh, I guess let's just pile some cubes on top of each other and call it art?
"I've got a great idea! Let's make a rag doll with a disturbing human face in its belly."
A close-up on that expression of terror.
Egg covered in circuit boards. Because the egg is, like, the SYMBOL of CREATION... or something.
According to the plaque, the text on this random-looking collection of signs was generated by asking people "What will be on this spot 100 years from now?"
Some kind of... slanty... maze-like... trident-thing... look, I can't even make a joke about this one, it's too boring.
These rings are mounted on swively-things so sometimes they move up and down. Wheee.