Thursday, June 17, 2010

A conversation on Art & Games (Transplanted from Facebook)

I want to try something new here.  Part of what I enjoy in the blogs that I follow is seeing how people think.  Under the assumption that there are others like me out there, I wanted to share a conversation I had elsewhere and see if it sparks any further conversation on the topic of Art: What is it? Is it a closed system? Who gets to arbitrate what does or does not constitute art?

I've been contemplating the matter I discussed yesterday for awhile now.  When I first encountered Ebert's comments on video games, I posted a link on my Facebook wall to see what my friends had to say.  My "inner circle" is a curious amalgam of writers, artists, game tesrters, and gamers with all sort of creative types thrown in among a healthy addition of accountants, librarians and historians (some of them manage to be many of those things at once) and I was curious to see what they thought of Ebert's comments.

What follows is a transcript of the conversation that followed, "anonymized" for the privacy of those involved.  I post it to show my thought process as I first started to parse Ebert's opposition to games-as-art and the way in which I bounce ideas off of my friends on these issues.  I began from the default position that even if they are not currently art, the potential to create art is there.

(Some very minor copy-editing, clarification of antecedents & emphasis added where I thought it necessary or appropriate.)


Commenter #1: Do you think boardgames can be art? What about role playing games (RPG's)? Live action role playing games (LARP's)?
Commenter #2: I certainly do. Creating a good game is something that takes alot of emagination, and encompasses many other art forms. Music, writing, 2d and even film making. And in the case of RPG's and LARPS, acting. Yes it takes much talent to do a game well.

Me: I like Douglas Adams' definition of art as 'holding up a mirror to creation' but I take it a step beyond that; I say that art without an audience is no more art than throwing a ball to yourself is a sport.

If you agree that performance art is a legitimate discipline among the visual arts, then I suppose RPG's and LARPs may contain elements that rise to art. But on the whole, they do not fit my personal definition of art insomuch as theater isn't art for the actors playing to one another, theater only becomes art when there is an audience.  Elements of the writing associated with the game may rise to art as well where it ventures beyond the realm of written instructions much as a play is a work of literature, but the stage direction is not.

For my part, I believe that like sound, art constitutes both a sender and a receiver and without both it is self-nullified. Also, art must generally (and with few exceptions) be an intentional act.

Back to traditional games. Let us place games within their continuum. At one end of a line I would place the humble boardgame with a defined path for pieces from which one may not deviate and with players who have no volition and there is little or no strategy. The only random element is a dice roll. That is not art. Watching someone play it in defined circumstances may be raised to art, but the act itself is not art in my opinion.

Somewhere in the middle of the pack we find the strategy games such as Chess and Go. Strategy and elegance and often (as in tournament play) an audience. T his is where it begins to get sticky, but it is more a martial art - attack and defense, gain and relinquish territory, trade pieces, and there is an ultimate winner and an ultimate loser. In the world of visual arts, it does not qualify because even if there's an audience (in tournament play or a park setting, for instance) there is no more a message delivered than watching a family play Sorry or Monopoly.

(time passes while I mull things over and get some work done)

Me: The video game messes this up because it bridges the divide between the movie and the board game. On their own continuum, there are games that can only be defined as games, and there are games that are truly immersive and rise to the level of true interactive novels or movies.

Mario and most of the "navigate level/kill monsters" games fall on the opposite end of things. Play is constrained, and repetition will eventually get you through the level, but again the goal is to win or capture the princess or whathaveyou. Grafting a story onto these puts them into a strange storytelling void space where I take them on a case-by-case basis.

Likewise, games like Little Big World where you use them to create your own games do not rise to the level of art insomuch as they are a very creative and interactive tool to create art akin to an animated version of Photoshop. My paintbrushes or typewriter are not art, they're the foci by which I strive to create art.

(Arguably, unconstrained Role Playing Games such as World of Warcraft and even tabletop RPG's are in the same realm as Little Big World -- they are a tool by which art could conceivably be created under the right circumstances.)

The place where video games breach the art/game divide is when they become a conversation between the game designers (artists) and the gamers (audience). This is a relatively new phenomenon brought about by advances in computing that blur the lines between movie and game and further blur the line between the gamer and the character.

Where Ebert when seriously astray (as he sort of admitted himself) is in saying that they aren't art and *could never be*. I look forward to seeing artists take full advantage of these tools and whether or not they are now art, I see no reason to expect that they cannot be or that they never will be.

But all of this is largely irrelevant because I'm no more the arbiter of taste for you than Ebert or Rudy Giuliani are.

Commenter #1: I think a lot of gamers are freaking out over the Ebert kerfuffle because they are implicitly assuming "if it's not art, it's not important." And since games are important, then they think they must be art. Of course there are many more important things in the world than just art.

Your definition of art as needing an audience is interesting. Couldn't you view traditional games as also being a conversation between the designer and the players-as-audience? When we sit around and interactively enjoy the creation of Gygax [co-creator of Dungeons & Dragons], Teuber [Settlers of Cataan], etc., surely we are the intended audience?

I suppose that's one interpretation. Except that in my view, the game in that case is a tool of expression, not the expression itself. Because computers are used to create art doesn't make computers de facto art themselves. Or perhaps a better comparison would be textbooks aren't literature, but what we do with what we learn from them can be. If the game consists of a series of rulebooks, then they themselves would not rise to the level of art but would become the tool by which it becomes possible for art to happen. I suppose it's possible that gaming modules are art or at least an interactive form of literature, but I still don't think the game as a whole meets the qualifications.

On the whole, I think you're right about the reason for the outcry. I also think it's absurd to assume that games are or have to be important. Or that there's any actual need to make them so. Millions of meals are consumed, shared, and enjoyed without ever rising to the definition of cuisine. But that doesn't invalidate their enjoyment or make their creation a worthless endeavor. Personal nourishment and the experience of eating them together with friends is the important element there. And so to I think it is with games even if the nourishment is wholly metaphorical. Joining together around a gaming table to tell a joint story is a worthwhile endeavor whether or not it ever attains literary stature.

I find the idea that whether or not society at large validates your activity as "Art" either validates or invalidates that activity is patently absurd. [Note: In fairness, Ebert makes this same point about the absurdity of looking for the 'art' label to validate your interest in gaming as well.]

Commenter #1: So where do you draw the line between a tool for creating art, and an interactive piece of art? (Assuming you think it's acceptable for art to be interactive.)

Me:Certainly art can be interactive. In fact, the requirement of audience hinges on the need for an interaction real or implied between artist and audience. Certainly in the literal sense kinetic sculpture is a fascinating and highly-interactive discipline.

I'm thinking aloud here, so forgive me if this seems convoluted...

The line is fuzzy and is getting fuzzier and therein lies the rub with video games. I'm fighting the urge to say something airy-fairy about how art is a conversation with the cosmos and defined by that which echoes in our souls... or some such thing. And in a manner, that really is what we're talking about. Art persists. It has the ability to span a time frame larger than the lifetime of its creator. Even if it persists only in a collective memory of what was lost or ephemeral, art has to have an ability to be... well, timeless, I guess. It isn't about the enjoyment of a moment's gameplay or the passing glance on a gallery wall, but the long-term effect that it has in how it reflects society and what society does when confronted with that reflection. That is a level of art in which film certainly excels.

A lot of what passes for art in the present tense is really just about an "artist" (self-defined) convincing a target audience that this is what he's done. So too with literature, film and all other artistic movements and I imagine that video games too will follow in those footsteps. In a manner of speaking, it's about throwing everything at the wall and seeing what persists even once the sales pitch falls silent. The poseur will fade and the art will be what remains, what persists, and what is echoed in later works by those who follow.

In truth (or Truth, perhaps?) I think that art is defined so greatly in retrospect by the appreciation of our descendants that defining it now is - at best - a guess. We cannot know, we can only guess what will be seen as art by those who follow. We can only hopefully spend our best energies in pursuit of it and trust to the curious wisdom of posterity.

Commenter #1: Is it possible for a Choose Your Own Adventure type of book to be art? Assuming it's sufficiently well-written, of course.  From there it is a small step to Zorkesque interactive fiction, and on beyond zebra.

Me: Sure, I suppose if a writer of Cormac McCarthy or Margaret Atwood's literary caliber wrote a choose your own adventure, anything is possible. I would certainly pay good money for a copy.

Commenter #2: Art needs an audience. If a man in the forest screams and no one hears him did it ever really happen? To him it may have given something on the inside, but to everyone else, no. Likewise when the artist creates the art, it is for his own enjoyment and self expression. He may or may not care about the interpretation of others.

Me: Welcome back to the tussle.

That's an interesting point and very true to a certain extent. On the whole, almost everything we consider art was created by the artist for himself or herself, not to fit a market demand. The personal nature of the creation is paramount and one of the many hurdles games have to cross before they can fully rise to the level of art. This was also a hurdle that comics/graphic novels tripped over time and again before they finally ascended fully to become literature. Only when they were under the control of a dominant personality with a strong vision, a personal artistic quest and a message to convey did guys like Spiegelman, Moore and Gaiman pull the whole genre up with them.

The greatest movies, novels, paintings, and sculptures (since the end of the papal patronage era anyway) were created to satisfy an inner desire of the creators... in fact, even those artworks that were created on assignment (as almost all of the works of the great masters were) are unified by the ways in which they went beyond the stultifying bonds of their assignments.

But that doesn't negate the fact that part of what defines them as art is that they are in conversation with their audience. The audience reaction, and most especially the reactions of other artists in how they react to or spring off of the piece is a large part of what differentiates the mass-produced paintings for sale at TJ Maxx from the paintings that flow from your brush.

That and the fact that those paintings suck, but that's another show.

Which, I suppose, brings us full circle back to the difference between just reflecting creation and reflecting it and saying something about it at the same time.

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Pages to Type is a blog about books, writing and literary culture (with the occasional digression into coffee and the care and feeding of giant robots).