Saturday, November 28, 2009

Games 'that are art'

Continuing on from play this thing

I think he's right, it's not art. A finely crafted chess set might be art as an object, but that doesn't make the game itself art. Nor does a bunch of arty stuff in a video game make it rise above being a game. It's just a crappy game with a bunch of art tacked on, in this case.

Now, can you make art by playing a game? Yes, yes you can. But that still doesn't make the game become art itself. A paintbrush can make art - that doesn't mean a painbrush IS art itself.

It's actually quite annoying to see people create art with a game in their own heads, then attribute what they created as being part of the actual game/activity. It attributes too much to the game and does not give credit to their own creativity. Table top roleplay suffers from this extensively.


  1. A book isn't art, it's just something you read.

    A painting isn't art, it's just something you look at.

    A game isn't art, it's just something you play.

    Is this a fair analogy?

  2. Not terribly. I refered to a paintbrush above as not being art, even though art can be made with it. Same as a pen is not art, even though books can be made with it.

  3. Dice and computers are not art? I agree that process and product are not equivalent, but surely a game is a finished product, there to be experienced?

    RPGs are in a slightly different category, as there the product is modified by being played, and each session is prepared in response to the way previous ones were played.

  4. As I said above, a finely crafted chess set can be, as an object, art. But just because you make the pieces all fancy, doesn't make the actual game of chess suddenly become art as well. You've only made the physical components into art. It doesn't osmotically make the game art.

    Not to mention, a game isn't something you passively experience. It's something you do - a verb. Where your having 'an experience', your not playing. You might gaze in wonder at the cover art of a board game (and have genuine reason to do so). That doesn't mean staring at the box is playing the game. Same for video games - any experience component is not play.

  5. I think the point I'm making is that you don't PASSIVELY experience any work of art. You have to "read" it (whether or not it's actually a piece of writing). You interpret the symbols, make links to your prior experience, and try to extract the meaning of the piece. I don't think experience is every passive, and I think reading, viewing, and playing are various active modes of experience.

    I think perhaps, we're working with different definitions of art. I consider a work of art to be something that exists only to carry meaning (sometimes just the message "This is what beauty is"), rather than serving some other extrinsic function. So a billboard isn't art, but if you take a billboard from the 1920s and display it, you can call it art, because it's no longer serving as a product advertisement. Games, by this definition, are almost definitely art, because they don't serve any purpose but to be enjoyed.

    What would you call art? All I know at the moment is that you seem to say that games aren't art because they're games.

  6. I think 'experiencing' is passive, and with it reading and viewing are passive. You are not acting, your are being acted upon.

    I mean, I almost wanna soap box on that, asking whether some big military industrial complex has managed to start training people to think passive is being active.

    But moving on, your ideas are pivoting off the assumption that "Games...don't serve any purpose but to be enjoyed."

    Maybe you take them that way, so they become just another recreational drug for you right next to alchohol, coffee, dope, etc.

    To me and I'm pretty sure to a large number of people (atleast Sirlin as well), in a gamist sense games are like a set of weights at the gym. Sure you might enjoy lifting them (or perhaps not), but afterward you have bigger muscles for it. It serves a purpose - and even if your set of weights is all encrusted with artistic stuff, it still about the purpose.

    Even at a moral, narrativistic level, games can be a moral work out - putting weight on what we think is right to do and testing that. That's a purpose. We can become morally stronger (which might involve being less strong about our certaintly). Granted this is a less well known mode of game play, mostly done in table top roleplay right now.

    As noted game designer Mary Poppins says, a spoon full of suger helps the medicine go down. A game that is like lifting weights can be fun and enjoyable, but that's the suger that helps the medicine go down.

    But some people, many people, like you, just describe it as only being about the suger and nothing else.

  7. Callan,

    First of all, I’m in agreement that games can serve more purposes than just fun. I’ll return to why I said that in a moment. Obviously, since I promote the use of games in education, I must see some kind of merit in them. It isn’t a case that they are just sugar, in fact it is that I don’t draw a distinction between the sugar and the medicine: I think games are well-suited to carrying complex messages.

    Given that, it was a little silly for me to say they were just for fun, but I suppose I was less focussed on trying to define games than on showing they fit my definition of art: intrinsically worthwhile media. A game can refer to the world or moral ideas, but it doesn’t have to. It can stand alone as a statement. When I said that they were just for fun, I meant it as an analogy to works of art that have little to say but “this is beautiful.” Once again, I agree that games CAN say much more, but as you yourself admit this is a minority practice. Certainly the vast majority of commercial games don’t seem to say much except “this is fun” (and, perhaps, it’s okay to go to war, or all American soldiers are heroes, if you’re playing certain first-person shooters). In any event, my comment on games was less well thought-out than what I was trying to say about art. I'm still curious what you think art is, as you haven't yet given me a definition, though you have said some more interesting things about games.

    On a separate note, I didn’t appreciate your creation of categories of those who understand the purpose of games (you and Sirlin) and philistines (me and Mary Poppins). Writing in that way gives me the impression that you’re more interested in insulting me than in engaging in a conversation. I have tried to write fairly and respectfully, but, given our medium, I realise I might have come across as disrespectful myself, and if that is the case I really do apologise. If you would like to continue this conversation, though, (and I know I certainly do, I find it pretty interesting), I would appreciate if you would avoid writing like that, and respond more to the arguments I’m raising rather than a few off-hand comments from my blog, which I don’t find particularly relevant. If you DON’T want to continue this conversation, that’s fine too. Just say so and I’ll find some other way to occupy myself.

  8. I refered to Sirlin simply to indicate I'm not some single, mad guy who's taking this on a weird angle. I was trying to say the gamist self improvement model is very natural for millions of humans to engage in, instinctually.

    And with Mary Poppins, it galls me that there's almost a genius in the phrase 'a spoonful of suger helps the medicine go down'. It's an idea I respect greatly, even though I'm galled by where I found it.

    BUT I will say, I do have a disrespect for a hedonistic 'wow man, their just like an experience and just for fun' attitude to games. I just do - it's not you, it's the attitude I disrespect. So that's probably been coming through in my posts. And maybe its not even something you do, but even so I'll still show disrespect to that attitude to some extent, even if it's off topic. I don't like that attitude. We already have a bunch of recreational drugs.

    Now, onto, I think your being distracted. It's like I'm trying to talk about a car, but because I mention there's a painting of a hot chick on the bonnet, the conversation has slipped onto 'what is art'. Art is related to the car, since it's stuck on there, but I don't think its important and further 'what is art' is such a deep question, it'll totally distract from the car.

  9. Fair play.

    I wanted to know what you thought art was because we began a conversation about whether games could be art. Specifically, I wonder what it takes to, quoting your original post "rise above being a game."

    So do you think games CAN be art? Are SOME games art? Is a game-as-art a theoretical possibility, that you don't think has been realised? Or do you think they are separate categories?

  10. Okay, I think I can link that in

    I think art is about reflecting upon and considering something.

    I don't think you can both use something and reflect upon it at the same time. Well, perhaps you can do both half assedly - but when I reflect on something, I want to reflect on it fully, not in some reduced way which is not the real way I reflect on things.

    One can look at a paintbrush and see art in it, but you can't use the paintbrush to make art and see art in it at the same time. Your brain just can't do two things at the one time - or atleast not two things at 100%, that's for sure.

    I think art deserves proper, full reflection. I don't think anyone can give full reflection upon an item, while using that item.

    I guess I'll grant some people don't care if they don't give 100% reflection or even a high percentage. But I think the lower the percentage, the more you head toward art as recreational drug.

  11. When I see the word reflection, I understand it essentially as meta-cognition or "thinking about your thinking." So we could play a game and enjoy it, or look at a painting and find it pleasing (or find either rather boring or ugly, whatever), and this would be a "hedonsitic" experience as you put it.

    Reflective thought-processes involve asking questions about other ideas you have encountered. For example, let's say I look at a painting I like, namely "Liberty Leading the People."

    I may enjoy it hedonistically, so to speak. It inspires me, to some extent it validates my ideology, and it is aesthetically pleasing.

    Now, I can reflect on three things:

    I can reflect on my experience by asking such questions as:
    What do I find inspiring about it? What about the painting makes it worth looking at? What about my past experiences makes me enjoy this painting?

    I can reflect on the artist by asking:
    Why is Liberty female? Why are the people armed? Why are The People all male? Why is she clean, and why are they dirty? Why is there a diversity of ages, but no gender or ethnic diversity? Why did the artist put in a French flag? For what purpose did the artist paint this painting?

    I can reflect on (some of) the abstract ideas by asking:
    Why do people accept this as a representation of Liberty? Why do people accept this as a representation of "the People"? Why do people "Follow" Liberty? Why does Liberty lead us to war?

    I hope, at this stage, that I have understood your meaning. From your writing, I think you are primarily referring to reflecting on the abstract ideas of the piece itself, and to a lesser extent to these other facets. Please let me know if I've missed your point about reflection, or what one is reflecting on.

    If I have followed you so far, then I would have to say my one major disagreement at this stage is that you seem to separate the "hedonistic" experience from the "reflective." I would argue that one must first "experience" before one can reflect, because one is above all reflecting on ideas one is exposed to and experiences one has. One can't look at a painting and immediately reflect on it. One must first absorb its messages and decode its symbols. You might not even be conscious of doing this, you might wish to move straight to the sorts of questions laid out above, but I think consciously or not your mind must "read" a text before beginning "higher-order" processes.

    I'm getting quite close to Bloom's Taxonomy here, which you might find interesting, specifically the cognitive domain:

  12. I think reflection includes reflecting how you you have been trained to read. If your minds been trained to read in a way that just looks for suger, then that's all your going to see. And there wont be anything to reflect on - just suger.

    Reflection includes considering the idea you may be blind somehow (simply by prior training). The man who is trained to look at trees becomes blind to the forest.

    Not to mention that suger is a reward loop - it'll train you to look at/for it, quick sharp.

  13. Ugh, I think I'm meandering with that comment and can't find an edit button.

    My main point is if the way your trained to read doesn't look for medicine, well, you wont percieve it. If the way you read is trained to look only for the hedonistic, then that's all it'll read.

    I don't think that you find hedonistic enjoyment in percieving something means it's about hedonism. It's just how you've been trained to percieve.