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?
NY Meetup Meeting Again
Last night I was at the New York Metaverse Meetup to celebrate Mark Wallace and Peter Ludlow's new book, The Second Life Herald: The Virtual Tabloid that Witnessed the Dawn of the Metaverse, or as I think of it: "Virtual Tabloid: The book with a really long subtitle that, realistically, can't be shortened for people to understand what it's about, and it provides a lot of good keywords for searching".
The party was fun, Peter and Mark were in good spirits, and I even bumped into Jerry Paffendorf, who since leaving Electric Sheep Company has been gathering troops and working on a secret project under "Wello Horld". So secret, in fact, that at least two people working for him have told me that they don't know what it is that they will be doing. But that's how valuable Jerry's ideas are to people!
I might note that there are two other books about Second Life out that I wholly endorse, only partially because I'm quoted in them:
Daniel Terdiman's The Entrepreneur's Guide to Second Life
Ideas - How Similar Are They?
At the meetup, I bumped into Boris from Combined Story, one of my company's contemporaries in the metaverse field. We were chatting about various things, and he mentioned that Joel of the Sheep blogged about how he'd bring Ikea into Second Life, hypothetically. This is something my company's done before, and it actually helped to win us our contract with Dell Computers. Having not read the article, I shh'd Boris, and before he could tell me what Joel thought, I proceeding to come up with what *I'd* do.
So now I'm curious to compare. I still have yet to read Joel's blog, but I'm going to jot down my ideas here, now, and then read his blog afterward, compare and contrast.
What I'd Do With Ikea
Ikea to me is an experience, and that differs from how most large stores work. Most large stores have departments, but Ikea shuffles you along a set, linear path and makes you look at everything. It's a highly engineering experience, and while you still go through various sections of the store (office, bedroom, etc), you wind up seeing, quite literally, everything. So when I go to Ikea, I wind up spending 3+ hours there, and usually buying something I'm not planning on getting originally. Considering most items are furniture, that's a big up-sell!
Ikea's got this *down pat*. The irony is that their online US site, and their catalogs for that matter, are much more similar to a traditional department store. You pick your categories, perhaps get a few ideas, and pick your product. It's utilitarian and easy to navigate.
In Second Life, however, I think Ikea could explore entirely in new ways, as compared to their website. A quick list of what I would do, and for the record, this is off the top of my head with perhaps 15 minutes of thinking:
- Customize-your-own-room: Clearly, the obvious idea.
- A guided walk-through like a real Ikea: Still obvious, since that's how SL furniture stores are. It's also a near literal translation of Ikea's real store.
- Give away all of its furniture in Second Life: That's right, I said it. I'd tell Ikea to give away all of their virtual furniture, because it's iconic in design (like Coca-Cola) and it's instant advertising, especially if that furniture linked to where to order online. Heck, people may even build their real home or apartment in Second Life and see how the Ikea furniture looks and where to put it. I know I'd personally do that.
- Provide a public forum to share/swap/rate and critique different peoples' furniture setups. Have regular contests for the best setup of the week/month.
- Staff the store in-world: with people knowledgeable of the real products, and could help with ordering assistance.
- Link Ikea's site to the virtual experience. "See this in 3-D!" is the thought-process.
- Different sims for different areas: I'd have a different store for different European countries, the USA, and other locations. This is important since their marketing can be much more targeted.
Well, first off, Joel immediately tells the readers to view Ikea's own trippy, experiential website Dream-Kitchen tour.
Joel comes up with a list of what you can and can't do with Ikea's online experience, and bases his recommendations on it. The list, unedited:
Ikea’s online kitchen design tool is potentially really great. With it you can:
- Lay out your kitchen, choosing from all the elements available.
- Get a price list for all the components of your kitchen.
But there’s much you can’t do:
- Easily position your camera due to the wonky camera controls.
- See textures, other than the simple ones provided.
- Change wall colors and textures to make your kitchen look like the space it will eventually live in.
- Share your kitchen.
- See other people’s kitchen ideas for inspiration.
- Position items where you want them to go because sometimes the positioning logic is buggy.
- Really understand which pieces fit together better with others. Suggestions would be good here. (”I see you placed the corner base cabinet in your kitchen. May I suggest these other cabinets to go next to it?”)
- Really understand the underlying logic of their system, so you can make intelligent choices quicker.
- Get initial suggestions based upon price ranges.
- Use the design tool for other rooms in your house.
- Easily measure arbitrary distances like you can with the measure tool in Google Earth. This would help position islands.
But I'm happy to see that Joel didn't list a few ideas that I did, including staffing the stores, having different stores for different areas, linking the website to the 3-D experience, and having contests to encourage people to customize rooms.
There you have it! Now I suppose I'll go ping Joel and see what he thinks. :)
I've said previously that number of total users and number of total L$ transactions aren't very good numbers to gauge the success of Second Life. Things like Lindex$ transacted, land owned, and concurrent users are.
But what about "active users". There's "premium subscriptions" which Linden Lab tracks, and that shows a definite money invested into Second Life by the consumer. However, that only tells a partial story, since many many residents choose to rent from larger land distributors, and they would not have to be premium subscriptions.
Blogger Tateru Nino (av) has been using last-60-day logged-in as her measurement. I got a link to this image this morning:
So, from the chart, it appears that "Active Residents" has slipped from 1.7 million to 1.4 million since May. Of course, realize that "Active Residents" is only a title applied, and the real data is "Last 60 Days Logged on" (not Last 60 days active - if you look at the full graph on Tateru's page, at the bottom it makes this clear). Realize that Linden Lab's own metrics defines active users with a more rigorous standard, which you can download monthly stats from their blog. They put the number at 500,000.
Tateru has a full array of graphs as well.
So, knowing that, why the trend, and why the difference?
I think a big part is that new users come and go in waves, and if we look at another of Tateru's charts, the answer is becoming clear:
Aha! There are two main correlations I'd like to point out:
1. The recent spike, widely attributed to the television show CSI:NY having a Second Life episode and related experience, correlates with a flattening of the first chart.
2. (And more importantly) there appears to be an overall downward slope of new user sign-ups per day.
But how much less? I don't have Tateru's source numbers, but it appears a drop from about 28,000/day to 20,000/day, or a net of minus (-) 8000/day. That's minus 240,000/month, which, no surprise, makes up 5/6ths of the difference of the 300,000 net loss from "logged in within the last 60 days".
To further illustrate my point, I've taken Tateru's "total sign-ups" chart and added a red line to show how the initial, seemingly linear rate of sign-ups has slowed. It should visually show that new sign-ups have clearly dropped.
Less new sign-ups: What does it mean?
If we take Tateru's first chart, and subtract new sign-ups, what we get is "Non-new Users who have logged in the last 60 days." or basically, "Active users that aren't new", since we are removing both the non-active new users and the active new users. This is likely a much more reliable statistic (outside Linden Lab's own logged-on hours statistics) to look at how many active users there are. (Note: Reliable, not complete. But a reliable statistic can more accurately show growth.)
The conclusion I make is that non-new, active users are around 1 million users, which is the 1.3 million "last 60 days" minus the 240,000 lost user sign-ups, rounded down to be cautious. That's nearly a 2-to-1 different from Linden Lab's 500,000+ statistic, but I think it illustrates another interesting thought:
casual user = regular user
So if a million users are logging in, and only half a million are by Linden Lab's metrics "active", then the other half a million have come into Second Life briefly. But at the same time they aren't new, so they are people who likely regularly use Second Life - just not that much.
And there's nothing wrong with this. In fact, it's encouraging, because it shows a similar trend to how the regular Internet works. Sure there are people surfing websites all day, checking email all the time, but there are lots of Internet users who just log on once in a while to do whatever discreet tasks they need to complete. To see the same emergent behavior in Second Life shows evidence that Second Life can and does work like an extension of the Internet.
Of course, this doesn't account for alts or bot usage, and so my follow-up that I would scientifically suggest would be a study on how many active users have alternate accounts, how often they log onto these accounts, and about how many bots there are. The latter could be identified by libSL or openSL initiatives sending a special code, much like a Mozilla / IE / Opera browser code that is sent in HTML. This would allow Linden Lab to track what is being used.
Or, perhaps Linden Lab has this info already?