Games | Art (@ebertchicago)

Twitter exploded this morning with a variety of responses to Roger Ebert’s post this morning in the Chicago Sun-Times entitled “Video games can never be art“. Various folk have posted responses and twitter comments, but I saw a criticism that while Ebert’s post was detailed, nuanced, and provided good arguments, the responses failed to do the same. I hereby run the risk of adding to this pile-up of drivel.

I feel strongly about this subject because I truly believe that modern videogames are a medium which is able to produce art. Yes, I realize this is not the first time people have debated the subject. Apparently, it’s not settled yet.

I do not wish to quibble over definitions with either Ebert or Plato on what exactly art is nor do I wish to address Ebert’s befuddled depiction of gamers’ strong desire to have their choice of entertainment validated as art. However, I feel one thing does need to be cleared up before we address his main point and that is his tenacious hold to the belief that games must have a win-option.

He is right that games have rules, objectives, goals, even that they often have an outcome. But I do not think that any of these necessarily equals or necessitates a win-option. Civilization has win-options but you can continue to play the game after you’ve “won”. Dragon Age has win-options in a way but I would disagree with anyone who said play ended at that point. In fact, it seems new every time you play it. Other games certainly have winnings and endings. Super Mario for example. You beat Bowser and you have won. Of course, you can keep on playing. I know I did as a child with wonder as I looked at rows and rows of items having been giving to me for “beating the game”. Others have an infinite-like point system. Some of the early arcade games like Donkey Kong for example are still being “won” if you can call it that.

I realize that this does not at all contradict his point that games are not art, but I’m not finished. He goes on to claim that if you don’t win a game, you are merely experiencing a representation of some other kind of art – a story, a dance, a film, etc. This is entirely false. Certainly, you are experiencing a game in that you are viewing, interacting, hearing, understanding, questioning, wondering, etc. as you play it. It is not a representation of something else though. It is its own. It transcends those categories and is what we call a game. Perhaps as Justin McElroy noted, our terminology is faulty, but it is what we have and it is what Ebert was referencing. Yes, you experience games. No, they are not simply images of art. They are art.

Ebert goes on to speak of how he disagrees with Santiago’s point that “Art is a way of communicating ideas.” Judging from his response, his adjustment to that statement would be something like art is an avenue for viewers/readers/listeners/etc. to have their own ideas and create their own art. I think he has a valid point. Many artists certainly try to communicate with viewers but I don’t know that they are trying to communicate specific ideas nor that they end up communicating anything they had originally intended. Think Derrida and the infinite interpretations of a text. It is as if art comes out and becomes its own inspirational force.We see a painting or hear a piece of music and are driven to either paint or write in response or perhaps something entirely different. Can games do this? Yes. I of course have a rather personal claim to such if you’ve read anything else of mine over the last year, but I’m not unique in this practice of feeling the need to create after having been inspired by a game. Players create videos, stories, galleries, even cake because they’ve played something and want to respond or because they’ve experienced something and need to express it. Further, games are able to address ideas and problems and allow players to work out resolutions on their own. Dragon Age addresses concepts of racism, morality, justice, love, and more. It doesn’t spell them out and ask for a right or wrong answer. It gives us an experience (actually many experiences) and we are free to be inspired as we will.

Ebert: Art grows better the more it improves or alters nature through a passage through that which we call the artist’s soul or vision.

Going by his definition and assuming that developers have a soul (or some of them), can games do this? Can games improve or alter nature? I would use his own example against him – Braid. He judges it based on an assumption of its rules, namely that they are analagous to chess, but he is in fact quite wrong. A simple trip to another Wikipedia page would have told him this much. Braid does not simply let a player redo their actions if they mess up (that’s what Farmville cash is for .. to unwither your abandoned crops). Rather, it allows the player to examine the way we as humans view the process of time and interact with it. Not only do we redo actions, we have choices about the flow of time. We can see time not be all-powerful – that is, some objects will not be changed by time. One could write a great deal on this game if they gave it some thought after even a brief play-session. My point is this simple, independently-designed game alone alters and changes nature through the vision/soul of its creator. Does it improve it? That is for the player to decide.

Art is not a list that sometimes gets added to or perhaps I just do not have such an exclusive view of art as Ebert’s “greats”. Perhaps Braid or Flower or Dragon Age or anything else doesn’t get compared to Homer or Van Gogh. But it shouldn’t. It isn’t even the same medium of art. Nor is it a copy or an attempt to mimic masterpieces. Art isn’t the business of replicating art. It’s the business of creativity. It’s the business of viewing and experiencing and responding to reality in a way that makes us feel something “real”. If I can play Braid and see the world in a new way, if I can play this game and be inspired to ask questions about what terms like “yesterday” mean and “fate” and “finished”, if I can have this experience/reaction/inspiration out of playing a game, I am experiencing art. We may not have our Michelangelo yet, but that doesn’t mean we aren’t creating art. Even chicken scratchings on a wall can be art as Ebert himself so eloquently showed. A matter of taste – perhaps. If so, Ebert has successfully shown that his palate with respect to this medium is as yet uneducated.

As to his final point, I must agree. Santiago’s circles are circles of fail. Art is not the business of making a profit.

Blizzard’s new RMT – who needs great content?

I have since tempered my reaction with rainbows and harmony. Please see my revised view on the sparkly pony here.

I know this isn’t a news blog, a WoW blog, or a ranting blog, but today, I feel this needs to be said. Also, perhaps I’m revved up on caffeine and sugar cereal.

Today, Blizzard released a new digital download item in their store. It’s a flying horse mount and it’s $25.00. Yes, that’s right, it costs half as much as an expansion.

“No one will pay that much for it”, you say as you scoff at my doomsday expression.

Orly? Well, take a look at this.

That’s right, 17,000 people were in line to buy a digital product.

There are two questions I have :

a) What need is this filling that people are willing to pay $25 for?

b) What is going to be in my next expansion now? It better be more than two new mounts.

“Co-op” and Social Games: Squashed

This is not a post about how social games are changing the meaning of games nor about how simple and capitalist they are. Rather, it is a post about how one new feature added to an already existent and stable game can dramatically affect if not completely change the way its players…play.

Last week, Zynga introduced a new feature into Farmville, that little darling of Facebook investors everywhere. This new feature is called “Co-op Farming”.

Oh, how fun! I get to farm things with my friends!

Or that’s what everyone thought.

In reality, yes, you do farm things with your friends. You have a “work order” that says someone (someone who is randomly disconnected from any narrative or persistent world) needs 1600 pattypan squash pronto. You and whoever you can spam into joining you plant those 1600 pattypan squash just as fast as you can for a bonus in coins and XP. If you harvest them fast enough, you get *ding* *ding* *ding* a GOLD MEDAL!!!!! (A medal = a very small bonus in coins and XP, neither of which are hard to come by.)

Now, that sounds fine right? And not too game-changing. You plant crops, you harvest them, you get coins and you get XP.

Sure, it’s exactly the same game except that players used to farm things based on other criteria. The game hasn’t changed – the play has. A week ago, a player’s decisions were based on personal priority. Either they like planting flowers because they can decorate with them, or perhaps they like planting vegetables so they can earn mastery signs. Maybe they want to plant 2-hour crops or maybe they want to plant 2-day crops because they won’t be back to a computer for awhile.

Decision-making in the game has been completely changed by this new “Co-op” feature. Now, all planting decisions are dictated by the arbitrary needs of your work order (there are only four different work orders in the game). Instead of making designs in fields with different crops and colors, all one can see now is row upon row of pattypan squash.

Why does this feature, which is strikingly familiar to a very basic quest, change so much about how players play? Why does this change what is fun? It is as if a dictated goal automatically trumps anything else that used to be enjoyable. Ooo, red tulips. NOOOOO. YOU MUST PLANT PATTYPAN SQUASH. Instead of farms in revolution crying out for tulips, we have fields and fields and fields of squash.

They’re not revolting because they are still free. They could plant all the red tulips they want if they wanted to. But they don’t.

The squash has conquered. Tulip season is over.

Is Design a Performance?

GDC was a few weeks ago now, but it’s taken me this long to finally edit and finish this post. Forgiveness begged.

At GDC this year, a couple of the talks I found particularly inspiring, the first by Ian Bogost. In his view, authorship doesn’t mean you necessarily tell a story – you simply provide the backdrop and allow the player to discover themes and meaning within it. His example is a poem by Ezra Pound, but it also hearkens back to what I posted last time. The author provides the location for adventure but what happens there is up to the hero-bard.

The apparition of these faces in the crowd; Petals on a wet, black bough. -Ezra Pound

Yoshio Sakamoto of Nintendo has a different philosophy about the relationship between authors and players. He sees emotion and experience as something to be constructed ever so meticulously. With his four elements of creation (mood, timing, foreshadowing, and contrast), he attempts to “control audience reaction“.

This terminology of an “audience” sparks questions. Rather than creating something for people to play from more of a gift or service approach, Sakamoto is performing for an audience. A design built for an audience versus one built for players is going to be very different, and one may not sound like a design for games at all. However, how much control do designers ever truly have and how much freedom do their players? Are players that different from an audience, albeit an interactive one?

These design philosophies are perhaps not as effective as they may appear. A carefully designed narrative flow that attempts to anticipate audience reaction can be thwarted by restarts, foreknowledge (from wikis or the like), mental state, environment of play, etc. An entirely abstracted one can simply result in confusion and frustration rather than providing the discovery and wonder the designer intended.

Bogost isn’t advocating a completely freeform approach, but he does speak of the author-designer’s job as one of creating “wonder instead of clarity”. The player’s job is more to excavate the author’s ideas and themes rather than to be told them. But are players qualified to be narrative archaeologists? Or rather, are there a few who do the dirty work of excavation while most wander through the museum reading wall plaques?

I’d like to think of myself as a narrative archaeologist, but I don’t actually think I am. Something like Oblivion which is very open and allows for freedom of experience leaves me feeling lost. I need some kind of guidance to allow me to fully enter the world and then have a meaningful experience. To go back to our archaeology metaphor, I need a ready-made site and the tools (coupled with A/C and cold beer) if I’m going to discover anything. An X to mark the spot wouldn’t hurt either.

Does this mean that players like me need an entirely scripted experience? No. There is still room for interactive cooperation between author-designer and player but it exists on a continuum between free-form and script. Creating something that is successful for such a broad audience is challenging, if not impossible.

Know your audience.

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