Background: What is Gaming?
I've been researching and discussing video game theory intensely for the past year, both for my own business and personal interest, as well as in hopes of eventually getting my own work published in a more traditional book or magazine or scientific journal type format.
A major part of this endeavor has been developing a central definition of "games" that I can work with and use consistently. Is any play considered a game? Do there need to be objectives? Narrative? Start and end? These are types of questions I've been exploring in a very open-ended fashion, disregarding what I've previously learned, considering all sorts of viewpoints. I find very often that it's easier to point out what's not a game, and identify why. I guess that's a very Platonic way of looking at it - assuming there's "gameness" out there and seeking it out. But, I guess for me that's better since I recognize that words are just symbols that should attempt to represent reality.
Video Games as Art?
A recent topic I've been exploring came up with my colleague, Andy, who posed the question to me last week, "Have you ever played a video game that was an 'artsy' game?" - sort of in the same way you might see an 'artsy' movie whose purpose was clearly to be a piece of art rather than a straight-out movie.
Before I can jump into whether video games are art, I need to look at whether any games are art, with the very nature of gaming and art in question.
I guess I believe that all movies are art, but clearly not all are "artsy". Meaning that "artsy" and "art" aren't the same things in regards to movies. At the same time "art" didn't mean "trade craft". I feel that clearly a film can be looked at as a work of art.
Then I came to a tangent where I thought about films who clearly didn't care about the art at all - they were popcorn movies meant as diversion. Does this remove the "art" nature from them? Does "art" need to be intended to be art? If not, then all of nature is art - but I don't think that simply recognizing the environment around you as beautiful is art. I think art does denote some sort of quantitatively measurable input. As in - art requires work of a sentient being, who becomes an artist for making the art.
So movies do have those people behind it making it. And I do believe art is expression, especially including an expression of the subconscious, so even if you don't intend something to be art, it can be art. Or, if you intend it to be a specific type of art, it might be interpreted in other ways. And that's perfectly fine, and an important nature of art. As in - art requires itself to be experienced by a sentient being, who becomes the audience.
I'm sure these are fairly traditional definitions, as I've heard them before. So in the interests of examining a widely-examined medium, let's hop back to cinema, with some new questions.
Edge-case: Can adult movies be art?
Here's an edge-case to test: does something whose intention and implementation dealing almost entirely with a non-artistic goal able to be art, at the same time? Clearly there is art that is explicit in nature that most people would agree is art. On the other hand, there is explicit content that was intended for a strictly carnal use; does that qualify as art under my definition?
If it doesn't, then I've broken my movie definition, and art becomes a matter of intention and purpose, rather than the craft itself being sufficient. Because I believe in the unconscious nature of creative processes, I can't accept this definition.
If it does, then there is a need to qualify art in some sense. Is the art in question significant? Good? Do these things matter? Which leads me to the next question:
Is a young child's finger painting art? (Or a gorilla's?)
I think the answer is yes. So why don't we hang them in galleries? Because art galleries are examples of ground-breaking art, perhaps? Of people who epitomized and popularized artistic forms? This seems to be a reasonable answer to me, since a person could become very good at imitating Picasso or Da Vinci or Pollack, and do a similar quality work. The difference is the impact in art in general, whether discovered in the artist's lifetime or not. And that still doesn't address the issue of whether that child really is a prodigy and their art should be viewed by more than the immediate family.
But in any case, it doesn't disqualify the "art" status, just its relevance.
So all movies are art. Photography is art. Are snapshots art?
No, because if a person makes no significant conscious artistic choices in the photograph, and there is no more expertise needed than pushing a button and holding the camera (not even holding still anymore) then I don't think there is an artist, which I required in my earlier definition. I believe the art aspect in photography has to do with either: (a) making conscious decisions about aesthetics, environment, and/or choice of content of the photograph. (b) a level of expertise needed to capture a picture.
Perhaps photography requires an inherent conscious decision, at some stage of the process. I don't think people simply "live art" and create art in an instant on whims. Art is about some sort of process as well. Snapshots lack the process.
So, finger painting remains art, but adult film now isn't so clear. With automatic video cameras and super easy-to-use editing software, does adult cinema have much, if any process left at all? I'll leave that question open for interpretation in order to bring me back to my original question.
So, is a game art?
When thinking of traditional, conventional games such as "tag" or chess or poker, even if you tracked down the original inventor of each of these games, I doubt these would stand up to an "art" criteria. I don't feel that the open-ended nature to them disqualifies them, as I'm a proponent of interactive art, but I do feel that the fact that there is no tangible work, even performance, is there. If anything, the players themselves would be artists in performance art. I emphasize this because I will come back to this point.
Certainly the person who sculpted the first chess board may be considered an artist and that his/her art, but it was the board that was created as art, not the game itself.
Enter: Video Games
Now, the whole reason I took a tangent with movies is because video game production is very similar to movie production. The process of doing both is similar. And there's clearly artists who design the game and its elements. So the question may become - is there an audience?
Is someone playing the game the audience, an artist, or just a player?
There are definitely games that play out very linearly with elaborate environments and cinematic sequences. These tend to be very literally close to movies, and they might be considered art for that reason. They still retain a beginning, an end, an objective, but when playing these types of games, I feel more like an audience in a movie. The big difference is that I am fully immersed in the movie, rather than just suspending my disbelief.
Maybe the better question with "movie-games" is whether they are games at all, and really just interactive movies? I love the game "The Longest Journey", which was a brilliant adventure game that became very very linear and cinematic near the end. But it was clear that the cinematic parts were elements of the game, and not vice versa. Its sequel came out half a decade later, in 2005, called "Dreamfall", which was another brilliant game. Only ... nearly half of the game was more of that cinematic nature. The story to the games is superb, poignant, touching, sad, joyful, future-looking as well as sentimental. The cinematic, linear sequences by the end were great, fun, but seemed less and less like a game by the end. I wasn't "playing", I was simply "experiencing". And these two things seemed at odds in my brain - as if only one of which could really be dominant at a time.
In the next section I'll explore one specific type of art - movie making - and how it pertains to video games. I'm choosing this one particular sub-genre of art because it's clear how they relate to games because of how similar video games can be to movies, and because cinema is an established, studied, familiar art-form.
A few archetypes of cinematic sequences in video games
Cinematic sequences have been part of video games since nearly their inception. Opening sequences, cut-scenes, and ending sequences are seen as far back as, say, Pacman, where in between rounds, there would be a scene of the ghosts chasing Pacman, and then Pacman returning, larger, chasing the ghosts. Machinimists consider this the first example of what might be considered machinima, as well.
I remember when the Nintendo Entertainment System came out, and in their magazine, they'd have a yearly "best endings" article, because by then, it became an expectation for a game to end with a decent cinematic. Titles like "Contra", "Blaster Master", "Mega Man 2", and "Bionic Commando", and "Metroid" stuck out in my mind for their rewarding, "Oh my god, you totally saved the world / killed the monster!" ending sequences with cinematic elements.
CD-ROM titles for PC upped the ante. I remember playing "King's Quest 6" for the first time and seeing pre-rendered CGI intro sequences. Then there was "Myst" with the embedded real-world actors. Soon after "The 7th Guest" and "The 11th Hour" came out with movie sequences pervasive throughout the whole game. The studio that made them, Trilobyte, had a colorful history of trying to break into movies and subsequently failing. This points me to believe that there is an inherent difference in nature between games and movies (art), and while they were masters at the prior, they were not at the latter.
Two titles stick out in my mind as really altering the importance of cinematic elements in video games. The first was "Phantasmagoria", by Sierra Online, masters of the 1990s adventure games, as well as the publishers for the original Half-Life game and continuing brilliant game designers. The other was Final Fantasy 7 by SquareSoft.
"Phantasmagoria" was very nearly a horror movie, and took "The 7th Guest"'s appeal of a horror-game genre with cinematics to a whole new level. "Phantasmagoria" was a 3rd person view, rather than the creepy 1st person of "The 7th Guest", but it inherently made the game more movie-like, rather than making it a game with movies in them, as "The 7th Guest" did. This was landmark in my mind because the whole game played out like a movie.
"Final Fantasy 7" was landmark for other reasons. The pre-rendered CGI cut-scenes were epic. After defeating a boss and returning to a safe town, or while just arriving to a new area, a player could expect movie sequences from five to fifteen minutes long. The full ending sequence easily topped 20 or 25 minutes. The game had a motion-picture sized budget of approximately $45 million, one of the first of that size, and grossed an enormous profit as well as spinning off countless toy lines, two movies, and a ridiculous number of sequels.
FF7 was epic in length. The first time through, the game was easily north of 100 hours of game play, nearly unheard of. Winning it felt much more like coming out of an epic sci-fi / fantasy novel trilogy, rather than simply beating some arbitrary baddie and celebrating your mastery of a game. It's the only long game I've ever played through four times, and even recently still find new essays on the philosophy of the storyline and look at it in new ways.
But do these games transcend into art?
I think "Phantasmagoria" could be considered art, but it may do so by no longer being considered a game, and instead an interactive movie.
I think playing Final Fantasy 7 had an artistic experience to it, but I question whether or not that was simply the story and movie elements to it that were the art, running parallel to the game elements, where the game as a whole is still just a game?
Other forms of art in games
All of this previous discussion wraps around one specific case: video games being art because they are movie-like, or movies, or whatever. It's a fairly accessible example to explore because I have pre-established ideas about what makes movies art, they are a widely used and analyzed medium for art, and the discussion is straightforward.
However, being cinematic and containing movie elements is certainly not a prerequisite for being art, and there's a host of ways games could be art.
Video games are a great example because they lend so well to evolving into online play, and thus, collaboration. It is through that collaboration we see where players of games can start to exert creative outlets, and become the artists themselves. (See? I said I'd come back to that point.) I greatly anticipate "Spore", a break-through game that keeps getting delayed, where most of the game content is player-created and can be played at scales ranging from cellular all the way through civilizations through space. If you haven't heard of "Spore" yet, immediately watch this 6-minute video of Will Wright demoing the game with music performed by Brian Eno.
And suddenly, Spore looks less like a game, but more like Second Life. I was having a discussion on this whole game / art topic with Bryan Campen, and he pointed me in the direction of James Carse's thoughts on "finite / infinite games". Second Life, by Campen's interpretation, was a game. A meta-game, perhaps, where it's so open ended that you don't have to play. I suppose that's a reasonable interpretation, but it doesn't change the core idea that Second Life is a platform.
Aha! And so, in post-conversation thoughts as I formulated this blog, I realized that Spore really isn't a game at all, it's a platform! And of course, it dawned on me that others had realized this but not known how to express it directly - I'd seen Spore as a "Metaverse" world, or metaworld as I like to call it.
So, while that's super-exciting for Spore, it dead-ends that avenue of the game-art thought process. A "game" like Spore is clearly not really a game, but a platform. And further, it's an artistic platform, where the art isn't Spore, but what the users themselves create.
This actually narrows down the search for a game-art nicely, because I can conclude that the nature of a game that would hypothetically be art as well is not about users creating their own content, albeit that is perhaps even more exciting than a game that is art.
Artist - Audience - Process vs. Developer - Game - Play
Maybe that's also the solution to my question. Or, at least, I am getting closer. The act of a player playing is essential for a game. Without it, there is no game. But if a game is art, then the player becomes one of the artists, because by their nature they are more than a simple audience.
But now I'm contradicting my self, by the fact that I required art to have an audience in the first place. Well, then, is there a difference between audience and player?
Passive / Active
Quantum Physics dictates that there is no difference between being passive and active. Truly, remaining still is a decision, and it still affects outcomes. On a subatomic level, your eyeballs change the path of light waves in order to be able to detect and "see" things. And on a physiological level, your brain may be equally active between interpreting a painting on a wall and playing a (video) game.
But on a psychological level, there is a difference. Interpreting art traditionally is an internal process, and then one that is shared with other people. However, that interpretation doesn't change the art itself, only the art's meaning. In a game, the player's interaction is essential for the progression or sustenance of the game itself. If the player does nothing, the game stalls or ends.
I think back to Spore, and back to SimCity, which worked on similar principles, and especially to SimEarth. (all by the same developers) If you left things alone, the game wouldn't necessarily end. There was no real "winning" or "losing", although the objective of building up complex systems was there. And SimEarth was unique in that you could create a planet, make animals, see them evolve, become sentient, and ultimately leave the planet after becoming super advanced, and then - you're left with a planet where another species could become sentient.
Game or Platform?
Was SimEarth a game or a game platform? It's right on the edge, I think. It both allowed users to find their own game, allow their emergent behaviors, and provided some arbitrary goals to shoot for. But, if that's a game, then isn't life a game? Doesn't that diminish the definition of the word "game" in general?
It's a challenging issue. I'm going to stick with the idea of a "game platform" and rule SimEarth in that category. For now. So it wasn't art, but the things that a user could do in it could be art.
But if it was a game, could that be art?
Interactive Art becomes Art Platform?
What I'm heading for is defining truly interactive art as ... not art in and of itself? It's an art platform, maybe? If art is interactive where the art changes to the audience / participant, then there is still art there. Platform doesn't seem like the right word, because that denotes enabling art, whereas an interactive art exhibit is still part of the artistic piece. So I'm going to say no.
Instead, it seems to me that there is another genre of art emerging which an audience is intended to be an artist, and the creator becomes not only artist, but collaborator. I think it's entirely different from a traditional "artist does work, finishes it, and people enjoy" art, and maybe it's something entirely bigger than simply gaming.
As the discussion of art is never-ending, I suppose I should just leave it at this point, for now, and maybe you all have some ideas you can share. I promise if they're good enough and I publish, I'll credit you in the footnotes. :)
Background: What is Gaming?