The art of games and play

This is a slight reworking of a post from an earlier blog, made here because it seems like a useful addition to the discussion of games in the wider cultural context.

I would propose the following tests for the status of art, good art, and great (or capital-A) Art:

Art is whatever is held to be such. It must involve some act of creation, but the simple act of bringing a natural phenomenon to someone’s attention is enough to qualify as creation for these purposes (allowing nature photography, or even running a hiking tour, to comprise art in and of themselves): directing your audience’s attention is after all a key component of any artform.

Good (or effective) art is art which elicits a reaction from a substantial portion, preferably a majority, of its audience – whatever the size of that audience.

Exceptional art elicits a strong reaction from its audience and can potentially change minds or even lives. It may never be seen outside a small group – ephemeral art left unrecorded in a natural setting, a transformative roleplaying session, an unrepeatably expressive performance of Chekhov or Mozart – but for those who experience it, it is unforgettable, a sublime encounter with truth or beauty. Obviously, as an audience increases in size (and therefore, inevitably, in diversity), the range of possible reactions increases, perhaps exponentially. What is good or even exceptional art to a given, small audience may have no effect whatever on the wider audience.

So great Art is art which can consistently evoke strong reactions across a wide audience, or art that a wide audience agrees across all its internal divisions to be good or even exceptional. (By some definitions, these reactions must be not simply reaffirmations of known emotional cliches, but something more complex; whether or not we agree with this addendum, my general point can stand, I think. It treats the idea of “greatness” as essentially one of scale, not effect – as with great wars, fires, events in history, etc.)

(Side point: does this mean that a single work of art which is only experienced by one person, but which has such a profound effect on them that it inspires them to affect the lives of millions, could also be described as “great Art”? On first consideration, I’d say yes. And I like this because it allows art to be “great” purely by dint of its effect without reference to popularity… But I’m interested in others’ thoughts.)

The problem is that this necessarily tends to favour certain attributes:

  • for breadth of dissemination and scope of potential audience: reproducible forms, then static forms, then scripted live performance forms, and least of all ephemeral forms;
  • for consistency of experience: “declarative”, artist-to-audience media forms over interactive forms;
  • for longevity (i.e. time in which to reach an audience): media which are self-contained rather than dependent on technological or linguistic platforms which may become obsolete;
  • for ability to connect (and maintain a connection) with a wide range of people: obvious or unchallenging themes and content.

(This of course ignores the culture within which the work is attempting to achieve recognition, which can shift these weightings.)

So how do games fit into this model?

Electronic games suffer on the second and third points – and I’d argue don’t make enough effort to escape from the trap of the fourth. As the technological platforms on which they are played become obsolete, they also suffer on the first, though this is changing as gamers begin to take seriously the value of archiving their medium.

Non-electronic games suffer on the second point, and often the first (as they are not always easily reproduced).

This in turn tends to instil certain fallacious presuppositions (simply by dint of long association) about what can and can’t be “art”, let alone “Art”.

The logic used by some critics who argue that games can’t be Art, namely that player interaction with the game – control of pacing and even sequence – nullifies the possibility of the experience constituting art, is one such fallacy.

Consider sculpture and architecture; Michelangelo’s David cannot truly be appreciated from a single angle, and nor can the Taj Mahal, and while the creators have some influence on the flow of their audience’s experience of their work, it is far from absolute.

Similarly, the rules of a game can constitute what I call “the poetry of system” – the choices that you make as you play giving you a personal, even emotional experience of the assumptions, assertions and underlying logic of the game. Nobody who has played Z-Man Games’s board game Pandemic could argue that it’s in any way a realistic simulation of combating contagious disease, but as an evocation of the deeper tensions between spending resources on dealing with immediate threats or on working towards the longer-term endgame it’s both a compelling experience and genuinely expressive of a real truth.

Playing gives you one or more experiences of the possible outcomes, but it’s the underlying balances and systems which are revealed through play that are where the art most strongly lies.

In other words: a given playthrough may vary, but it’s the systems that generate that experience which constitute the art, and possibly Art, of games – in exactly the same way that a play (coincidence?) may be performed or adapted ad infinitum from a fixed script, and the sheet music of a sonata may be played (also coincidence?) by a beginner or a maestro, but the quality of art (and possibly Art) still inheres in the script and the music themselves, regardless of the experience of the audience at any given realisation of the same.

I’d also allow – in fact argue strongly for – the particular “cosmetic” choices in which the game creator chooses to dress their system as being a crucial part of this, even though they are not part of the “system” per se – Pandemic‘s “flavouring”, or central metaphor, being the work of the CDC is clearly relevant, and Brenda Romero’s work is exploring this boundary extremely fruitfully, and along the way making some deeply important statements about choices, the context in which they are made, those choosing, and the complex interrelations of the three.

One final point. The very fact that games allow for a multiplicity of endings – or, perhaps, conclusions – by its nature allows them to make more ambiguous points about their subject matter than traditional media can. At the same time, it allows for very definite statements about the causes of certain outcomes to be made, as multiple playthroughs reveal the different contributions made by each decision to the various conclusions. To me, that hardly argues that they cannot make sublime statements. It just means you need to grok the intricacies of a system (and its fictional and/or real context) of decisions and consequences, rather than a system of other, more traditionally-understood symbols.

Making that step not only allows us to expand the definition of art, but fosters both theory of mind and “systems literacy” – the ability to think through decisions-in-contexts (with part of those context being the interests, goals and decisions of others) to likely outcomes, both intermediate and final.

These are things we need badly to foster at this moment in history, and if games can engender them, I say: Let’s Play.

This is not a particularly high-traffic blog, but should anyone be inspired to comment, I’m particularly interested in suggestions of other games whose systems allow for expressive, even emergent moments.

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