Other things we play: comparing games and music

I’m being kept busy with work; to fill the void, another slight reworking of a post on an earlier blog, this one selected as a featured post on game developer site Gamasutra.

This was written in response to another entry in the “are games art” discussion of a few years ago. Jason VandenBerghe set aside the debate about games as art, and made a good point that the art of games is present in the gameplay. The problem was that in that post he suggested that it’s ONLY in the gameplay, and not in the creation of the thing played. This was my response.

What about music?

The performance is art.

The instrument is art.

The composition (the music-as-written) is art.

Even the sheet music might be art, especially if it’s handwritten and illuminated.

I agree with [VandenBerghe] that gameplay, especially where exceptional skill and or insight are freely at work, can be art. (And thank you for reinstating it as also expressive; it’s a hugely important, and neglected, point.) But that doesn’t mean nothing else in the equation is.

We don’t have the language to describe the poetry of system yet, and we’re not conscious enough of it as a form of poetry. [Poetry here is used in the way justice can be “poetic”; it comes from from the Ancient Greek for “making” and means anything artfully, mindfully made.] It’s a chicken-and-egg situation; until we start talking about it in these terms (to see what makes sense as much as anything else) we can’t think about it in these terms, and vice versa.

But let’s be clear. If a movie is a more or less artistic arrangement of more or less meaningful images and sounds (and optionally but usually plot, character, narrative) – a game is a more or less artistic arrangement of more or less meaningful judgments and decisions and tests-of-skill and random inputs and consequences of all the above, possibly with one person playing it, and possibly as a meeting ground for more than one.

The point is:

although the elements being arranged are different, experienced differently, and appreciated fully only over a longer timescale and possibly in the context of multiple plays of the game,

the basic act is the creative act of arranging meaningful elements to produce an experience or sensation, and/or to express an emotion or idea,

and the basic act is therefore is fundamentally the same in designing and playing games as it is in composing or playing music, or any other artform.

Gameplay can be artful, and whether intended that way can certainly always be judged on that spectrum. Game design – or should we call it game composition? – is always artful. It may be crass art that deals with its subject matter only in the most superficial terms, and I would argue a great many games are; but so is a lot of music and a lot of cinema, and that doesn’t disqualify them from being art. They’re not great art, or what Moriarty [in the piece referred to in my earlier repost] calls capital-A “Art”; but they’re still art in exactly the same way movies are, and Ebert’s lack of systems literacy (while hardly blameworthy given the wider cultural context) doesn’t change that at all.

And therefore I’m with Moriarty:

games are art, but really, pretty much anything can be, so who cares about this?;

and games CAN be Art, and not enough are;

and (my corollary) we need to get better at talking about the unique forms of poetry offered by our medium as such, so we can get to the games that are truly, life-changingly great – and maybe even some that tell truths only games can.

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, systems, and systems literacy

[First posted on the IGD blog on October 14, 2013]

Welcome to the fifth and final entry in that series of more detailed talking points we mentioned! (Click here to start from the beginning.) I hope you’ve found them interesting and informative – or at least useful in making the case for games as having a place among the many modes of culture the library supports. I would be very interested to hear feedback in the comments! Anyway, here’s the summary of this final Talking Point from the original post:

Games are systems, and fostering intelligent literacy about systems is an important educational goal on par with fostering intelligent literacy about words.

As we’ve discussed, games are culture that creates connections between people; they force us to exercise our capacity for mindfulness; and they are as capable of seriousness and at least as capable of fun as any other medium. But we have not yet talked about perhaps the single most important aspect of games: their existence as systems of rules. (And in some cases nothing more – no physical components at all!)

The world we live in is full of systems. Many of these are natural systems, such as the immensely complex system of air and water circulation that moves heat around the planet and (for instance) allows the west coast of Ireland to be far warmer than it has any right to be out there in the Atlantic with nothing between it and the Arctic. Or the migration patterns of birds and insects, or the dance of subatomic particles within every atom of matter, or the myriad physiological systems (nervous, digestive, circulatory, immune, endocrine…) whose interactions enable the individual existences of every complex living organism on the planet – including us.

Then there are the hybrid natural-human systems on which we depend, such as agriculture, water storage and distribution, various forms of power generation and resource gathering, shipping, fermentation, various medical interventions, and many more.

And lastly, of course, there are the entirely anthropogenic systems – languages (and for that matter language as a whole); the high technology of the internet and its billions of electronic components (including the computer on which I write this and the device on which you read it) which of course are themselves systems; government, the military, cities and towns; economies, corporations, production systems, workplaces; architecture, narratives, music, culture… We have always been surrounded and pervaded by systems of tremendous complexity, but increasingly and for an increasing number of us, the systems with which we interact are either heavily influenced by human intervention, or human-created.

(And we ignore to our peril the inescapable reality that all these systems which can so easily engross and consume our attention are themselves embedded in and emergent from the larger natural systems which surround us, supplying their raw materials, enabling and/or constraining their processes, and being affected by their outputs.)

One of the many extraordinary things about humanity is its capacity to perceive not just the moment-to-moment flow of phenomena, but – indirectly – the systems which underlie the endless tumble of events. It’s like trying to work out the inner workings of a tremendous factory by peering through the windows – only the factory is the size of the universe, some of its machines are smaller than atoms, and each of us only gets one window a few centimetres across.

It is my firm belief – and I am far from alone in this; Plato, Einstein, and many other great minds agree – that this capacity is intimately linked to our capacity for play. Play is about consequence and experimentation, about if-this-then-that and what-if-this-happens? It is hard to imagine a behaviour better adapted to learning and responding to the parameters of a system.

Games, as codified play, are themselves systems. Some are incredibly simple systems – Tic-Tac-Toe or Snap – while some are tremendously complex systems which attempt to approximate reality (or some imaginary version thereof) – particularly the “crunchier” or more rules-heavy end of the tabletop roleplaying genre and the wargames from which it evolved, which have their roots in genuine military attempts to simulate various actual battle – and economic and ecological – conditions, and which typically by their nature need to be able to respond to player actions outside a rigorously predefined set of possibilities.

I am not an especially good Chess player, and barely know Go, but in both cases I know enough to see that one of the keys to successful play is the ability to successfully visualise the myriad interactions of a single move both on the board at the time and in the branching possibilities that arise from the new game state – the way it shifts the interfering patterns of support and protection. If I move my rook here, it protects my king, but leaves my bishop vulnerable, and if that goes my queen has nothing to protect it either. Of course, this is just one aspect of play; the ability to use the shift of pieces to manipulate your opponent into making key mistakes is another (and according to some, though I personally disagree, even more important) dimension – playing on your opponent through your play on the board.

Clearly these are skills which are worth cultivating – as our ancestors have known for millennia, as evidenced by the prestige rightly accorded excellence at Go, Chess, and similar games by cultures all around the world. This same ability to visualise and anticipate multiple interlocking influences and consequences is vital to biology, medicine, climate science, economics, physics, engineering, advanced manufacturing and informational workflows – pretty much any advanced discipline, and especially cross-disciplinary work and even advanced generalisation. (If you’re interested in further reading, the pioneering work in systems thinking – the art of understanding system dynamics – done by Donella Meadows and others is an excellent place to start developing the general skill of analysing systems.)

So that’s one aspect of this topic: the inherent merits of games as practice for life in the same way that fiction is – as a playful practice of necessary analytical skills with very real applications. But as we discussed last month, games aren’t just systems, they’re poetic systems – systems which are designed to express and/or induce particular emotions, ideas, or other responses.

And this is for me perhaps the most valuable aspect of games as culture: they teach us that systems are not neutral, that they can and do embody particular values and weight themselves towards particular outcomes, and that these outcomes are expressive of the way the system is designed at least as much as they are of the qualities of particular participants in or elements of the system. Given that many of the systems which are most negatively impacting most of us at this point in time are human-created, and many of the natural systems affecting us negatively are human-influenced, this is an essential lesson for us to learn – and apply.

This concludes our Talking Points series! I hope it has helped to persuade those who need persuading that there is substantial value to be found in games, and that they have the capacity to be the active, dynamic complement to the pensive, contemplative cultural mode that books foster. We need both reflection and decision in our lives; I would argue that we need both games and books as ways to keep those parts of our psyches in good health without being overloaded in reality.

There is a great deal more to say about games – the lessons they teach us (through game theory) about mutual support, competition, community, and more; the mental health benefits; the extraordinary range of social and technological innovations they have driven; the fact that gaming culture, although (somewhat deservedly) having a reputation for being riddled with nasty online behaviour, is in many ways ahead of the mainstream in identifying and constructively attempting to address bigotry and discrimination. But those posts are for later.

[EDIT: Follow this link to read those later posts.]

Talking points: Why games in libraries?

Hi folks! I’m going to repost a series I wrote for the International Games Day @ your library blog during my 2013 editorship thereof, both because I am happy enough with the way they state the case that I want them to find more readers, and because I am reasonably likely to refer to them a fair bit and it is easier to link content on my own blog 🙂

I’ll post the introduction today and then an additional entry each following day.

Talking points: Why games in libraries?

[First posted on the IGD blog on May 22, 2013]

Hey everyone! So one of the things we’re planning on doing is offering you some talking points for those conversations about why games are even happening in libraries. This first post will give the overview, and then we’ll go into more detail on each point as we go along.

Before we begin, it’s important to recognise that libraries are about books. It’s right there in the name, after all – “Library” is closely derived from the Latin word for “[place] of books”.

But libraries have always been about more than books being in a place. They have been about storing them, yes, but also about making them accessible. Hence the physical care of books is only part of a library’s job – we also catalogue them.

Even that is just a means to an end, though, and it’s important to recognise this as the familiar physical medium of books – the bound codex – moves into the electronic realm. Ultimately what a library is about is providing a place where a community can share culture, information, ideas, beauty – where human thought can be made accessible for people to engage in self-directed study and exploration. And the community is an equally important part of the equation.

Take the iconic library, the Library of Alexandria. It’s estimated it held half a million scrolls. (Note: scrolls. Not codices, not books as we know them. Physical form is not the point.) In addition to shelves, chairs, tables and study spaces, it also held lecture theatres and even dissection rooms. Again, the community of self-directed learners was as much the point as the works they studied (and in turn produced – which leads us onto a whole fascinating tangent for another time).

So that’s great and all, but what relevance does it have to games in libraries? Well:

  • Games are a form of culture that is as old as culture. Every known culture (pretty much) 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. [Full post up here.]
  • If we’re talking about sharing culture, games are the form of culture that you (usually) have to share to experience. For that reason, games foster socialisation and allow members of the community to connect across demographic barriers like age, gender, ethnic background – even language. [Full post up here.]
  • Further, games develop and reward theory of mind – the mental models we each have of what other people are thinking. [Full post up here.]
  • Games can be serious, poetic and expressive – or trivial, silly and fun – and be so brilliantly or leadenly, just the way other forms of culture can. (Does anyone seriously dispute that, fluff though P.G. Wodehouse’s work is, it’s completely brilliant fluff?) [Full post up here.]
  • Games are systems, and fostering intelligent literacy about systems is an important educational goal on par with fostering intelligent literacy about words. [Full post up here.]

We’ll come back to each of these points over the coming months, but hopefully that will get some ideas flowing. Let us know what you think!

(Click here to start reading the series in order.)

Bonus TED video: Your brain on video games (because who doesn’t enjoy the occasional TED talk?)