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.

Talking points: Games as culture

[First posted on the IGD blog on June 6, 2013]

Hello folks! This week, the first of that series of more detailed talking points we mentioned. (Normally we’d be doing these in the second week of the month, but… well, you’ll see.) Here’s the summary from that original post:

Games are a form of culture that is as old as culture. Every known culture has some sort of games. If libraries can support movies and music and other forms of culture, games have a place at the table too – especially since, unlike most other forms of art, the closest thing we have to a public institution dedicated to playing games is usually a casino.

Play is one of the foundational human activities: so much so that in 1938, Dutch historian, cultural theorist and philosopher Prof. Johan Huizinga wrote a book called Homo ludens, arguing that not only was play an important part in culture but that it was a necessary (though not sufficient) precondition for culture. I am not sufficiently well-read to make a definitive statement on the subject, but based on the reading I have done I am prepared to state with some confidence that there have been very few societies in the entire history of humanity that have not featured some kind of more-or-less formalised or ritualised play – which is to say, games.

That ritual or sacred dimension to play is worth noting. Just as theatre and literature have roots in the mystical, games also have similar links. The ancient Egyptians played a game called Senet as a meditation on the soul’s journey. Snakes & Ladders was based on an Indian game with a strong element of moral teachings (which was copied in at least some Victorian boards, with prideful behaviour at the head of a snake leading to a downfall at its tail; some modern boards still feature these little parables). Even modern playing cards are based on the cards of the tarot.

And the importance of games even in our own modern culture is hard to deny: even setting aside the crass indicators of the recent incredible surges in money being spent on games (they say videogames are now making more money than movies, and tabletop games are also undergoing a sharp growth in popularity and public interest), consider the incredible importance placed on the Spassky-Fischer chess matches in the Cold War – or the ubiquity and importance of poker in US culture – or the deep respect accorded to go masters in Japan, China and Korea. Skill at all these games is meaningful beyond the pleasure of winning, showing that it is possible for a game to demand, and therefore symbolise, qualities which a culture considers emblematic of the virtues it holds dear. (And of course the language reflects this ubiquity, with game terminology well-represented in everyday turns of phrase and cliches, such as “playing the hand you’re dealt”.)

Some scoff at the idea of games as art, a prominent recent example being film critic Roger Ebert (he specifically spoke against videogames but his argument applies equally well – or rather poorly – to non-electronic forms). Such people claim that games cannot be art because the outcome is determined not by the artist but by the player(s), denying any chance of the work expressing any meaningful authorial intent.

This ignores the reality that many forms of art are not experienced in a strictly linear, artist-defined fashion – architecture, sculpture, improvisational performances, procedural art and more all allow the audience to control the pace and/or content of their experience to some degree, and are no less artful for that. (And it is no less possible for them to express a particular sensibility, or for audiences to read design intent from them.) Art can be made of anything (when you know what has gone into paints and pigments throughout history, you know this to be indisputably true), and that includes arrangements of rules and decisions and restrictions and consequences, let alone the other art (in writing, in the design of boards/cards/pieces, or in the design of models, animation, audio, music and so on) that a game may incorporate.

Ebert’s error, understandably enough, was to look at the artfulness of games and judge it in terms of the artfulness of movies. Each artform has its strengths and weaknesses, and it’s certainly true that the game will probably never be as good at showing a coherent, tightly-controlled piece of audiovisual narrative or exposition as film can, or as good at describing the inner psychology of its protagonists as prose. But games have their own extraordinary ability: they may not be great at describing subjectivities, but they are amazing at inducing them, and/or allowing people to explore decision and consequence. Brenda Romero’s* discussion of her The Mechanic is the Message series in this video is well worth viewing if you have any doubts about whether this can produce meaningful capital-A Art.
* Her name at the time was Brenda Brathwaite; you may find more of her work under both names.

So, OK, games are culture and they might even be worth taking seriously. But what has that got to do with libraries?

Libraries are the place where a community comes to share information and ideas and culture. In most libraries that have any kind of recreational/cultural component to their collections, we have already expanded our holdings to include other media, such as movies, TV series, and music.

Games, as stated above, are a form of culture which it is (in most cases) simply not possible to experience without sharing that experience with other people. They are, if anything, the single form of culture which most requires the sharing-focused community that a library supports, fosters and houses. (Further, games are one of the single best ways to create ties between community members, as we’ll discuss in a later Talking Points post.)

And if you were to design an institution to support games, it would probably look a lot like a library. It would have places people could sit together and engage in cultural pursuits. In order to maximise the pool of potential players, it would be open to all the members of a given community, subject to appropriate behaviour. It would probably even have some books, since getting good at any game requires you to get smart at thinking about probability and systems and psychology, plus reading up on the history of the game and notable past matches, plus other specific knowledge that may be useful (or just interesting) to players of a given game.

So games and libraries are already a great fit. But there is a further impetus to inclusion of games in libraries.

There currently are no public institutions dedicated to supporting the actual playing of games. There are local game stores, but those have none of the public profile of the kind of institution I mean; those are book stores rather than libraries. Then there’s the (fast-vanishing) games arcade, the economics of which almost mandate nickel-and-diming and heavily favour electronic games, and therefore rule out huge swathes of gaming possibilities. The only real high-profile venue for games in most cities is the deeply-exploitative casino, most of whose “games” are closer to Skinner boxes operating on a variable-ratio schedule, designed that way to maximise their addictive qualities.

Regardless of the intentions of their owners and staff, neither of these institutions has any kind of inherent interest in getting people to engage critically and creatively with systems and human psychology – in fact they have a vested interest in not doing so. But fostering that kind of well-read, reflective, creative mindset in the citizens we serve is what libraries are all about – and games, especially integrated into our existing activities, give us an excellent opportunity to do just that.

(Click here for our second Talking Points post – “Games, sharing culture, and connecting people”.)