Games as Art: a constructive approach 04/28/2010
This is going to be a long article, so I'm splitting it into two sections. The second section will hopefully go up in a few days.
Part 1: Motivations and That God-damned Question
For a long time, I’ve somewhat sidestepped the ‘Games as Art’ debate by saying ‘I believe games can be art, but they aren’t there yet. Over the last few weeks, I’ve had a number of conversations with people of differing views and approaches on the topic, the net result of which has been to challenge my preconceptions about the medium.
In thinking about this, I’ve discovered why I took this stance: the debate of whether games are art or not is, for the most part, not a constructive debate, but a clashing of perspectives which echoes between interested parties. As such a charged debate, it doesn’t facilitate the creation of new ideas, instead preferring to take an existing game and argue over whether this particular game should be considered art.
In effect, I’m not so interested in the question ‘Are games art?’ as I am in the question ‘What can we do to help games gain a greater artistic value and elegance as we move forward?’
Because at the end of the day, art or not, the way we make games is lacking some basic properties that we find commonly in other media we definitely consider as art.
In this article, I’ll be exploring these differences and pointing out directions that games can (and hopefully will) go in the future. I’ll then look at games as a medium and make a judgement on their ability to be art.
But whichever way I feel about this, the message that comes from this article shouldn’t simply be that I chose one side or the other, but that games do have a long way to go as a medium, and that distance can only be covered by designers who choose to explore new methods of interaction and storytelling.
Part 2: What is a Game?
So in order to properly analyse the medium, we first need to know what a game is. For the purposes of this article, I’m going to use ‘games’ to mean ‘video games’ for the sake of brevity. This is also going to include any ‘interactive fiction’ and ‘interactive art’ that people might call what is essentially a game.
The first thing to notice is that games have two parent media: they are, essentially, a marriage between board games (which includes everything from Chess to pen and paper RPGs such as Dungeons and Dragons) and film (which includes television, short films and anything else that has audio and video and no interaction).
To understand what games are inheriting from these parents, it’s important to understand the major properties of these media.
The outcomes of board games are usually divergent, with different play leading to a different winner or game ending. The developer of the board game (as distinct from the GM in the case of a roleplaying game) usually does not attempt to control the story or implant any specific thematic content into the board game past what is required to justify the gameplay.
A film, however, is completely controlled by its director, who crafts the story in order to tell a specific story and to help the audience reach certain ideas.
The extent to which games inherit properties of these two media changes with each game: there is a spectrum between Board Game and Film on which games can lie. Games such as Bejeweled, Facebook Scrabble or the Sims are lie on the board game end of the spectrum, while story-heavy games such as Fahrenheit and Half-Life 2 fall on the film end.
Part 3: The Cracks
Now whether board games in themselves are art is a fascinating and separate discussion I’ll be discussing a bit further on, but its clear that there isn’t universal consensus on the topic. So I want to look at games in relation to established art forms, such as film, literature and painting.
There are three aspects of all these media that games do not possess. Firstly, the mediums meaningfully deal with a broad range of genres. Film, literature and painting all encompass genres ranging from action, suspense and horror to romance, comedy and feel-good (and countless more besides).
So far, games can do the first three of these well, and I’ve seen some good examples of comedy. And while you see romance in games (there could be a whole debate about whether it is dealt with meaningfully), it is always a side-plot in an action or suspense-based game. Essentially, where is the gaming equivalent of a Romantic Comedy or a Musical?
When I say this, I realise that every so often, a genre that doesn’t involve death and violence is well utilised (Façade was a good example), and I take this to be both an encouraging look to the sheer potential of games as well as a reminder that we shouldn’t use a lack of technology as an excuse not to try. We aren’t used to designing games in this way, so it will be difficult to get it right the first time, but if we do, we might be able to make games a more rounded medium (not to mention the massive untapped markets for the business people out there).
The second crack may be closed with improved technology, and that is the concept of widespread accessibility. All films are accessible to anyone that can see, hear and understand a specific language. All books are accessible to anyone with the required literacy skills. Directors and writers will play with the rules of writing or film-making, but the rules required for a base understanding are the same for every book or film.
This is simply not true for games. Every game has different rules required to play them. We need to present these rules to the player and teach them the rules before they can reach any understanding of what is happening. If we want to change the rules to create a different feel to a game partway through, we have to teach the player the new rules. This training requirement is a huge limitation to narrative game design, as the narrative must allow for training wherever it is necessary (and as awesome as Portal was in making this training mode a part of this story, there are a lot of stories which don’t work in that same way).
There is a definite design challenge in creating games where instructions are not necessary. I think that more natural controllers will improve this, but we still need to design games to make the effects of these controllers incredibly intuitive before we start to reap the benefits (the Wii, for instance, has not reaped these benefits).
The final crack is an incredibly important in our understanding of games as a possible artform, and it involves the concept of elegance. As a general principle, a decent example of a film, novel, poem, painting or sculpture will contain some sort of elegance within its components, wherein different components will complement each other. The pacing of the Da Vinci Code complements its plot. The music of Iron Man will complement the editing style. Note that I’m choosing works here that are not considered to have a huge amount of artistic value on purpose: this is a property of most effective works in the medium, not of the few very notable works.
In games, my general observation is that we’re becoming pretty good at getting the cinematic aspects of a game to complement each other (art, story, writing), and we’re very good at creating complementary aspects from board games (mechanics, level design, learning curves etc.), but these two aspects rarely complement each other. As with the genres example, there are a few standout examples which achieve this (Portal, Braid, and to an extent, Bioshock). Interestingly, these games have all done stunningly well commercially.
The repair of these three cracks aren’t necessarily going to determine whether games are art or not, but the exploration of them will certainly create some new and exciting game designs and push games that aren’t bejewelled into a more ubiquitous role in society.
That’s all for today. Next time: What is art? Are games art? Will I get lynched? Stay tuned for answers to all these questions and more!