Four talks at GDC

Well, GDC is officially over for the year. This conference was a powerful one for me in a lot of ways, exhausting and inspiring. Thumbnail sketches of some memorable talks from the last two days:

(1) Chris Crawford spoke on the history of computer game programming, complete with lots of fun pictures of positively ancient machines, and ending with his pitch for games to be about people. I’d heard a lot of it before, but it was an enthralling and well-delivered talk, and even though we disagree on some fundamental approaches to the problem, I sort of love hearing the point made over again. Afterward we met up in the hallway and there was a curious playground-fight vibe from some of the onlookers as we discussed our different approaches to the gameplay-about-people problem. Which isn’t what I intended — I just wanted to say hi to him after assorted emails and comments exchanged over the years. But whatever the surrounding circle may have thought, I have no beef with Chris, nor I think does he have any with me.

Anyway, one of the points Chris made in our unfortunately brief discussion was that he felt the parser in IF doesn’t do a good enough job of taking in information from the player — that it doesn’t listen well enough; it doesn’t allow the player to make a big enough part of the conversation between game and machine. I’m not quite sure what this indicates: is the input not granular enough, or the output too wordy, or the range of things that can be said via parser too narrow, or…? I’m not sure whether I’ll agree once I figure out what this means, but it’s an interesting statement.

(2) Brenda Brathwaite talked about her series of tragedy-focused games, the series to which Train belongs. The core of her talk that stuck with me was this: “Whenever there’s human-on-human tragedy, there’s a system.” So her approach is to explore that system in rules, and make the player complicit. There was a lot else in the talk, about the personal nature of her work and about her own feelings in creating it. I don’t really feel comfortable trying to summarize here, but it was a brave talk to give, and fascinating.

In fact, quite a lot of this GDC has felt unusually personal for an industry conference, from Michael Todd’s talk (which I didn’t see but heard praised by many many people) about designing games while clinically depressed, to the rawly open content of the rapid-fire indie talks, to conversations with Deirdra Kiai and Terry Cavanagh about the motivations behind my own work and/or theirs.

(3) Ernest Adams gave a talk on spec’ing out an interactive narrative, in which he discussed a lot of standard problems: the freedom/agency/story problem, the question of whether the player should be able to change outcomes (and the fact that an interactive narrative doesn’t have to be one in which the player changes the plot), etc. It wasn’t as flashy a talk as the others, and it didn’t contain a lot of information that was new to me, but it was cool to see these issues organized in one place. You can see it too, since he has put the slides (odp) and storytelling template materials (odt) online.

(4) Brian Moriarty gave the most coherent and philosophically interesting argument in support of Ebert’s “games can’t be art” dictum that I’ve ever heard. (This gets long.)

Edited to add: there is a set of point by point notes from Moriarty’s talk here, which covers some details my analysis doesn’t discuss.

I share Ebert’s self-assessment that he shouldn’t have pontificated about games if he wasn’t willing even to try a few, though I also appreciate that he later had the willingness to admit a fault there. Ebert was originally trying to construct an argument on principle, one I’ve heard elsewhere many times and find absurd. The outline is that games can’t be art because games allow the players to make choices, which means usurping the role of the artist. This is nonsensical, in a way that would be obvious to Ebert if he played a bunch or wrote even one. There are no choices that a player ever has in a game except the ones that the designer put there — often with great labor. It’s not the case that the player is a co-author. The choices presented to the player are part (often a large part) of the expressive quality of the game.

Moriarty presented some new defenses of Ebert’s stance, which felt considerably less flimsy.

For one, Moriarty suggested that most works in most media aren’t sublime art but merely kitsch, and argued that a monetized industry inherently drives towards the production of kitsch. I can see what he’s getting at, but also think this is basically a red herring. It seems to me that granting games even the status of kitsch admits that they have an expressive and persuasive power that places them somewhere on the art spectrum; and I reject Moriarty’s argument to the effect that there is some sort of absolute taste that can determine which types of artwork are sublime, and suggests that those and only those artworks have the power to enlighten and civilize their viewers. This simply does not describe my experience. There are incredibly corny works from which I have nonetheless learned important and memorable lessons that made me a better human, or in which there were embedded small surprising observations about human nature. There are great works of art that I’ve failed to receive any value from, or seen other people fail to appreciate at all. I agree that the concepts of quality, taste, and profundity refer to something, but I’m less sanguine about drawing a little box around a set of Sublime Art items and making statements about what people get out of them.

In particular, the statement that great art is attractive to its audience and that that attraction reaches everyone? People are just too diverse, too ornery, too various in their viewpoints and backgrounds to make that true. Cultural background and personal experience are too important. There are works of Japanese art, for instance, that I didn’t understand were beautiful until after some study.

Moriarty’s final and most interesting argument was to invoke Schopenhauer, and here I paraphrase him paraphrasing philosophy, so I may be a bit off. But as I understood it, Schopenhauer was arguing that life is full of a strife that arises from our attempts to exercise free will; and that the only escape from this experience comes in the contemplation of Sublime Art. (Moriarty admitted this is a big-R Romantic view.) And therefore, Moriarty argued, the experience of great art is about surrendering your will to an extent, and radically submitting yourself to the artwork and what it has to say about the nature of human experience — which is inherently impossible in a medium about making choices. Where there is choice, there is will; where there is will, strife and the absence of this kind of contemplation.

I have to confess that I don’t really buy this (again). Choice in games is a constrained exercise of will bounded by what the game allows; but, more than this — or beside it, or something — I would say that there is a place for contemplation alongside the choice. I gather that Frank Lantz gave I talk that I completely missed about the sublimity of poker and go, and how they let the player contemplate his own cognitive processes, which is one interesting counter to this argument. But I’d also say that the contemplation of art does not have to happen completely concurrently with the first encounter with that art, and that I have spent much time contemplating games after I finished playing them or during a replay, where willpower was to an extent set aside and my purpose was simply to elicit the meaning of the game.

Ah well. I’m not sure that refutes Moriarty on intellectual grounds. After the talk, I found myself returning to a dodgy, relativist, egotistical and personal defense, one that’s philosophically flimsy but deeply rooted in lived experience: I believe games are able to be art because what I do when I am making a game is an art-making process. It is a fusion of craft and expression and an attempt at creating something of lasting value. I don’t claim to succeed at this, but I am using games as an artistic medium. And that may turn out to be about as clueless and futile as taking up mashed potatoes as a sculpture medium, but neither Ebert nor Schopenhauer is likely to persuade me out of it purely on philosophical principle.

54 thoughts on “Four talks at GDC”

  1. Yep, I’m doing GDC next year.

    I don’t buy Moriarty’s final argument either; the idea that great art is *all* about surrendering yourself seems just silly. Put it in the same (recycling) bin as the Tortured Genius cliche. At a minimum we learn to appreciate a medium more when we learn about its technical aspects, and that’s a dynamic rather than passive role; learning is a choice in itself.

    And if there’s an *element* of surrender, well, — first, as you say, that’s something the game designer sweats over. And second, the traditional notion of Art is perfectly at home with offering the viewer choices of interpretation. That’s a constrained notion of choice, but we love offering players constrained choices.

    1. I think the whole idea of secondary creation that’s taken such deep root in geekdom, though I love that stuff, is toxic in this respect. We-the-geeks lose sight of the fact that we’re ‘just’ creating a personal experience, ie an interpretation

      I suppose, though I’ve definitely been to dramatic performances where the actors or directors gave a whole new sense to a play I knew well — not always by such radical methods as dressing Shakespeare characters as Mafia dons, either.

    2. “I suppose, though I’ve definitely been to dramatic performances…”

      I’m talking about something different, I think – secondary creation in the sense Tolkien used it. If I’m playing Dragon Age or something else with a good few deliberately reflective choices, it feels (by design) as if my choices determine something external and permanent – as if the creators had built four-fifths of the world and let me fill in the last fifth.

      But the experience is much more similar to (eg) watching a Lynch film and evolving a personal response, or watching reruns of Scrubs in a random and repeated order. It’s really very little like writing the end of a novel where someone’s written the first four-fifths. It’s *meant* to feel like that, but that’s just part of the intended artistic effect – we take it for something meta, fundamental, a difference in kind. Increasingly I don’t think it is different in kind, but I suppose that this(besides generational grumpiness) is where Ebert’s mistake began.

  2. I wasn’t anywhere near GDC, but to speak to point #1:

    In my experience, the interaction between player and computer in IF is somewhat one sided. The player speaks at the computer and possibly gets some meaningful response.

    Perhaps what Chris was getting at is that the computer and the player should in fact have a conversation? What if the computer were able pick apart the users statements, effectively learning from them and provide more meaningful feedback more often? The computer could learn that the player likes to use “grab” instead of “pick up” and dynamically add that verb to its vocabulary.

    Or maybe if the player were to consistently prod around the solution “look at room, look at wall” while missing the more detailed “look at sconce on the wall” the computer could see the trend and provide the user with feedback after some time, to help point the user in the direction of the sconce?

    When I read your comment from Chris that the computer did not “listen” I thought of the Turing test, machine learning and AI contexts. Maybe that is what he was getting at?

  3. Not sure if this has anything to do with what Crawford was intending to say, but the idea of extracting more information from the player reminded me of my recent play-through of Planescape: Torment. It allows the player to specify if the statement that is about to be made is truth or a lie. That’s a nuance that would take considerable player education to work in a straight parser. Too, the parser usually doesn’t have access to the player’s emphasis or subtext.

  4. About Moriarty’s arguments:

    1) That the most popular games are made in a monetised industry cannot show that all games cannot be art — even if it were true that monetised games cannot be art, that leaves open a wide space of non-commercial game development.

    (I don’t really understand where the discussion about enlightenment / ‘getting something out of it’ comes from? Art need not enlighten those who have not developed the taste needed to appreciate a certain form, and perhaps not even those who have. Many of the most enlightening things are not works of art — but, e.g., conversations and one’s own mistakes. This discussion would seem to be irrelevant to the topic.)

    2) I like this argument, but I cannot really see it work outside of Schopenhauer’s system. Schopenhauer believes that the Will is evil and that the aim of life is stifling the will, and learning complete renunciation. (It is very close to some Eastern mystical systems, in this respect.) From such a point of view, any work of art which adds game-elements is not just bad, but evil.

    But for those who believe that the will to live is good, such an argument does not carry much weight.

    1. I don’t really understand where the discussion about enlightenment / ‘getting something out of it’ comes from?

      Further discussion of Ebert’s original remarks. He expressed the opinion that video games are a waste of precious time that could be spent on enlightening or civilizing activities such as consuming great books or movies.

      But for those who believe that the will to live is good, such an argument does not carry much weight.

      No, I agree, but I’m not sure I even completely buy the logic of it on its own terms. There are games that led me to quit the game either because I had learned that my choices did not matter or because I had come to reject the rule system in which the choices were framed; or games where eventually I started playing sort of at random. In some cases that was the intended aesthetic effect. So the presence of choice in the artwork does not necessarily mean that the audience’s will is encouraged and reinforced; sometimes just the opposite.

      1. True, but one could argue that these games manage to generate this effect precisely insofar [i]they are not games[/i] (but only appeared to be games). I’m not really interested in developing this argument; but I can imagine a Schopenhauerian doing so.

  5. Re: “And second, the traditional notion of Art is perfectly at home with offering the viewer choices of interpretation.”

    But not choices of content. In games, the object is not static. That to me is the difference between what people have traditionally called art, and videogames. I’m not a ‘they’re not Art’ person, ala a high-low culture divide or anything, but if they’re art, they have qualities that separate them from art in which the art object is static, and I don’t believe this falls in the area of interpretation.

    If I stand in some extremely obscure position on a FPS map and peer at a weird angle to generate a particular view that it happens no-one else has ever seen or considered before, can the game creators be said to be 100% responsible for this moment? Without them, what I’m doing would not be possible, but the exact object I’m taking in at that moment hasn’t been shared with anyone, nor was it explicitly designated and considered by the authors. This is only a simple example, too.

    This is different to considering the content of a film or painting, or fixed words on a page. A group of people can stand around these things and have different interpretations, but at least they are considering exactly the same object, and the authors are explicitly responsible for the content of each page (the words, the images, the sounds, etc.) I could never point to a frame of Star Wars and say to the authors ‘were you aware of this frame?’, but game players can often do something like that, because the ‘frames’ are generated by an engine with, in some cases, infinite permutations. So a lot of frames may never be seen by the authors. A bunch of them won’t exist for players till the players mess with the game.

    In games, you may be interpreting the same object as others sometimes, or only a similar object, or a completely dissimilar object – depending on the game and you.

    ‘Authorship’ is obviously too strong a word for this transaction, because the authors supply all the materials and the rules for possibilities. But the rules become infinitely complex very quickly. I probably just spelled out what interactivity is in a laboured way, but I feel people don’t consider this often enough in this ‘videogames and art’ discussion, ‘cos to me it’s the main thing sitting on the post between pre-videogame art and post, and which certainly changes the nature of some of the effects that videogames can and cannot deliver versus non-interactive art, and vice versa.

    Film director David Cronenberg said that ‘art is like a dictatorship’ (speaking of Art in the traditional sense, pre videogames – he was talking about his film about a VR game, Existenz – also, not implying that art was ‘bad’, only describing the relationship) and that videogames were more like a democracy, because in art, the author delivers one explicit object. In games, the author delivers an object which interactively generates the object. Anyway I agree with his idea that this is the site of difference. I believe that the object the player is considering is always transforming itself, and even microscopic degrees of change would qualify it to be considered non-static, especially when compared to the natures of non-interactive art objects.

    1. “If I stand in some extremely obscure position on a FPS map and peer at a weird angle to generate a particular view that it happens no-one else has ever seen or considered before, can the game creators be said to be 100% responsible for this moment?”

      You could say the same thing about a building. Does that mean that architecture isn’t an art?

      1. I can’t say that about a building because the building is empirically real and static. For the building, this action does fall into the area of interpretation; people’s interpretation of the exact same object. I already talked about this in my post.

      2. (trying and failing to reply to matt w’s comment)

        *Do* people consider garden design to be art? I don’t think there’s consensus on that. But then, there’s not consensus on an awful lot of art. (see endless arguments over a paper bag nailed to a wall or a dripping faucet)

      3. It strikes me that an important difference between the two — one that partly erodes the analogy — is that, in the game, the view *is* the object, or at least, a significant part of it. It’s procedurally generated, but so long as we’re not talking about a bug, the game was constructed to generate it — or, at least, something like it. An architect may consider possible views of the building, but the building itself is the object. Architects are in the business of designing buildings, and all views of the building are, in a sense, incidental to structure.

        That said, I’m not terribly sure I *would* consider architect, in itself, an art. I would say that some architects blend their craft with other plastic arts (like sculpture) to make buildings that double as works of art, but architecture at its most basic level is utilitarian in a way that most indisputable art (if any purported work can be art indisputably) is not. That divide informs how we interact with architecture as well, since we’re least involved with a building as a work of art when we’re using, and least involved in its utility when we’re simply admiring its artistic value.

      4. we’re least involved with a building as a work of art when we’re using, and least involved in its utility when we’re simply admiring its artistic value

        Hm. I disagree. It’s true that if you’re standing off at a distance gazing at (say) the Taj Mahal, that’s a moment of abstract contemplation that doesn’t really require interaction. But there are a number of buildings that I have come to appreciate better on an aesthetic level through extensive use, because use revealed new vistas, new shapes, new experiences that were clearly anticipated by the architect and constructed into the building with the user experience in mind.

        There’s a particular sly and post-modern building that was built on my college campus while I was an undergraduate, and while I didn’t like it that much on first viewing, I came to be a big fan in several years of attending classes there. There were shapes and textures in that building that alluded to one another and to other buildings on campus that only really made sense with repeated exposure. There were areas that kind of wore in differently over time and usage. That kind of thing. It was a bit like a joke where you only slowly get the punchline. I don’t think I would have understood the building in that sense without the experience of using it, not even by taking a slow and thoughtful walkthrough.

      5. Given that the Taj Mahal is a mausoleum, I think most of us would rather not interact with it — at least, not according to its generic function. But the Taj Mahal was also built with a demonstrative and aesthetic purpose in mind.

        As for your point about use allowing a broader appreciation of a building, I don’t think that observation is necessarily in competition with my point about the utility-art divide in architecture. At any rate, I’ll readily concede that the familiarity bred by use can allow us to better admire the craft of (not just) a building (but any of any artifact), and that our admiration of the craft can lead to a greater admiration of the art that supplements it.

        But to draw on the terms you used in today’s blog post, is the initial focus of the admiration we gain through use on what the architecture *says*, or on what it allows us to do? The description you gave seems mostly related to the utility of the building. That’s not entirely unrelated to the artistry involved, but it does involve the potential for internal discord.

        As a mausoleum, the Taj Mahal may not be particularly useful, but as an objet d’art, it’s astounding. The utility of waste treatment plants tend to outweigh any artistic value they might have; one of the prime conceits driving the construction of difficult-to-use architecture is the artistic motive.

    2. I could never point to a frame of Star Wars and say to the authors ‘were you aware of this frame?’

      Why not? There are *often* accidents in shots that end up on film, sometimes without the director even noticing. Less so in movies than in television, because of the length-vs-development-time, but when you have such a complex system with so many individual actors moving through both space and time, sometimes things happen that were not expected.

      Even a single still photograph may contain elements that the artist didn’t expect or didn’t notice, because a photograph captures a view of highly complex systems that are busy doing their own thing without the artist’s intervention.

      There is a difference in the sense that you mention of the game frames not existing until the players create them, of course.

  6. “I believe games are able to be art because what I do when I am making a game is an art-making process.”

    Quite. The definition of art I’ve currently settled on, after throwing out a lot of others, is: “art is the product of someone trying to make art”. Relative quality (i.e. good art vs bad art) is a totally separate question.

    1. I don’t think the two views are necessarily equivalent. By your standard, wouldn’t it be fair to say that some games are art, and some are only games — because that’s what its makers set out to make? But when we say that the process of making a game is an “art-making process,” we’re talking about the methods, not the intent. The short version of the argument would be something like: writing music is making art; I wrote music for this game; therefore this game is art. And that would stand regardless of whether or not it was my intention to make a work of art.

  7. The “are games art?” debate seems to me quite wrong-headed and confused. Of course games are art. The OED says, “art, n. … Any of various pursuits or occupations in which creative or imaginative skill is applied according to aesthetic principles” and games are exactly such a pursuit. The debate, if there is to be a debate, ought to be about exactly which aesthetic principles should apply to games, and to what extent particular games live up to them. But instead people insist on using the word ‘art’ to mean “a particular kind of creative activity of which I approve,” and that’s just rank snobbery, and contributes nothing.

    There’s an assumption running through the debate that the particular kinds of aesthetic effects generated by some other art form (for example, drama) are the ones to which games ought to aspire, and the failure of the games industry to produce a Hamlet shows that games can never be art. This seems obvious nonsense to me: why would you expect one art form to produce the same kinds of aesthetic effects as another? No-one expects music to resemble sculpture: why should games resemble novels or films?

    The whole debate would be laughable if it didn’t have such a pernicious influence on game developers. Some game developers have apparently been persuaded that games ought to aspire to be other kinds of art, and this leads to a lot of wasted effort. A game is never going to be as good a film as a proper film, so why spend so much effort on lame cut scenes and irritating voice acting?

    I was playing Braid recently. It has entertaining gameplay—rewinding time allows an averagely-skilful player like me to pull off feats that only tool-assisted speedrunners might otherwise aspire to; it presented me with complex relationships between space and time and made me puzzle out how to manipulate them. But the ‘story’ attempts to make out that this elegant puzzle-platformer is some kind of metaphor for the protagonist’s regret for things that went wrong in his relationship. What on earth could have led Jonathan Blow to imagine that a game ought to aspire to the condition of a bourgeois novel, but with additional platforming elements?

    1. I largely agree with you here. Nonetheless, the misunderstanding about choice in games that Ebert propagates here comes up again over and over in conversations I have about what I do; I think he has contributed to a substantial misunderstanding of game aesthetics among people who don’t play or write games themselves.

  8. I was hoping to hear more about the genesis of pOnd.

    (Seriously, nice write-up.)

    (But seriously, I wanna hear about the genesis of pOnd!)

    1. Moriarty is so incredibly out of touch it’s laughable, and a bit sad. This might be ehat happens when you live in Worcester too long. One of these weekends, he should go and check out the Mass MOCA, ICA Boston, or, hmm, I don’t know, any of the thousands of progressive contemporary art spaces (or theaters) where artists are creating participatory works of art.

    2. (But seriously, I wanna hear about the genesis of pOnd!)

      Develop zen-ish game. Develop (spoiler) game. Glue them together.

      Be slightly surprised when people stop playing in the first fifteen seconds and just review that game.

      Get reconciled to that outcome. Laugh.

      1. Whoa, the (spoiler) stuff wasn’t planned from the beginning?

        It wasn’t too much of a surprise to me, actually — the link I found to it said “Peanut Gallery invites you to experience pOnd, a one-button zen relaxation game that celebrates the simple beauty of the natural world…” and my reaction was, something fishy is going on. (But it took me a little while to get the hang of a zen-ish part, so I’m not too surprised that some folks didn’t make it through and thought that was all there was.)

      2. The (spoiler) stuff was developed from the start — but as I understand it, they were sort of looking at these as two separate and complete mechanics that they were rather subversively gluing together.

  9. Do any of these people understand that there is an entire field of artistic work being done with tools like Processing where interactivity is part of an intentionally sublime experience?

    I mean, seriously. These arguments fail to take into account things I’ve done / learned in what few introductory art classes I’ve studied.

    I guess I bring this up any time this debate rears it’s head again, but it confuses me to no end that someone would debate what is and isn’t art and be oblivious to a whole range of major art works being created in the last 3-4 decades. (Or the last two centuries – might as well go all the way back to Dada while we’re at it.)

  10. It bugs me that the games-as-art debate always hinges on “interactivity”, as if that’s the thing that sets video games apart from other forms of art. There is a world of interactive art out there beyond the sphere of video gaming. It’s been around for decades, and as far as I know no one goes around questioning its art credentials.

  11. What I’d really like one of these natural-language supporters like Chris to produce is a ‘fantasy transcript’ of what their ideal parser would look like in an imaginary game. Barring open conversation (which admittedly is a very big deal) every suggestion I’ve heard are things that the parser can do already.

  12. It seems very much to me as if Moriarty is one of Those People who see it as blindingly obvious that “what is art?” and “what makes good art?” are, in fact, the same question with the same answer. (I find this view utterly bizarre, particularly in anyone who has spent any time and consideration on aesthetics, but nobody’s immune.) Those People generally tend towards a view that is basically prescriptive, that simplifies the messy, organic, complicated job of criticism to evaluation against a small, defined set of qualities.

    I don’t really have a good argument against this, other than to say “you don’t seem to be interested in a descriptive approach”, and then writing the whole thing off as a religious difference.

    1. Given that there are many things which we conceive of in functional terms, the questions “what is an X” and “what is a good X” very often are the same, or at least related.

      A glass is something you can use to carry around liquid and drink it. Therefore, a good glass doesn’t leak, doesn’t weigh 1000 kilogram, and so on.

      Of course, one can legitimately wonder whether art should be defined functionally or not: definitions like “everything that a lot of people call ‘art’ is art”, or “everything shown in a museum is art” might be more useful for studying art than functional definitions like Schopenhauer’s. I don’t have an opinion about this. (I suspect it is highly context-dependent.) But the idea that a functional definition is preferable is surely not “utterly bizarre”?

      1. I think that any definition is going to be classifiable as “functional” somehow, so I’m not sure how useful a term that is for distinguishing between approaches.

        Art isn’t like a glass: a glass is a tool with a very narrow range of very closely-related functions. (It might contain water, or wine, or beer. You could trap spiders with it, but its spider-trapping qualities are a happy accident rather than a central role.) Art has a broad range of functions, some of which are not very closely related to each other, and which are often in conflict. And saying that any one of those functions is the essential one, the defining function of art qua art, is not a descriptive, observational approach: it’s an abstract-ideal approach.

      2. Functional definitions are fine (and computer geeks are prone to them), but you have to be absurdly absolutist to find the two questions *indistinguishable*.

        As soon as you start asking “*why* isn’t this a glass” — because there’s a hole drilled in the bottom, because it’s made of salt, because it’s too heavy to lift — that is, as soon as you take a critical approach — then you are considering the notions of good glasses and bad glasses, things that would be great glasses except, glasses which might be fixable. This is still a functional point of view, unless your notion of function is completely opaque and binary.

  13. All art is interactive. Artists typically have very little control over what meaning any individual will absorb from their works, much less how academia or society will categorize it. “Sublime Art” is a cooperative exercise between artist and audience, heavily mediated by curators and critics. It is rare that on person sees exactly the same painting, reads exactly the same novel, or watches exactly the same film as anyone else ever will.

    If anything, I think games offend critical sensibilities because they give their audience LESS interactive control rather than more. The explicit interactivity of games allows designers to anticipate and command more of the available interpretive space. Perhaps critics feel crowded out.

    1. *If anything, I think games offend critical sensibilities because they give their audience LESS interactive control rather than more.*

      Good point! With paintings and sculptures, there’s only subtle control over how an observer approaches the work. With books, there’s an established convention for where to start, and with film and music, there’s not only that but also an added urgency to pay attention before the moment passes. Games take yet another step, blocking certain content until the observer takes an explicit or skillful step, rather than just a subconscious or passive one.

      So the game is a medium whose works can pose intrinsic challenges to observation (not just the challenge of contextualizing a work in culture and usage), which could be more demanding than it’s worth in certain people’s minds. Good point.

      But then film and music are also toward that end of the scale…. If we don’t pause and rewind, we don’t get the whole picture, just the part we paid attention to. Yet they get plenty of critics, including columnists, reviewers, and academics. Games have lots of all those kinds of critics too.

      Maybe it boils down to threatening curators in particular, critics who use their role to guide people in their initial encounters with artwork, rather than critics who dig deep into spoilery details. It’s easy to guide someone to watch a movie and look out for something, and even if there’s another detail they miss, they might at least recall that detail it when it comes up in later discussion. It’s not easy to guide someone to notice a certain part of a game; thanks to the game’s own nature, it can be downright challenging. Even people enamored by great reviews of certain game experiences may need walkthroughs to get there, spoiling it.

      We may believe games are art, but maybe certain people who make it their business to classify things as art have a legitimate reason to be hesitant to adopt games.

      If designers should care about curators at all, then they should probably pursue remarkable gameplay experiences that aren’t locked away behind subquests or secret exits. It’s starting to make sense to me why so many steadfastly-claim-to-be-art games are also puzzleless or short; their creators, who claim them to be art, are therefore also their curators.

      I suppose that leaves long-form games to those who don’t care what art people think. But hey, they can be art too. :)

  14. The observation of a work of art requires both an artist and an observer, the former directing the expectations of the latter who is then surprised or not as the work unfolds. This is true even of a static form like a painting or a sculpture, which is never comprehended all at once but whose elements must be linked up through perception.

    Now the formation of expectations on the part of the observer is a manifestation of the observer’s freedom. The artist can direct but never determine the expectations of the observer. Making this freedom explicit by offering the observer a choice about how the work unfolds is not antithetical to the idea of art but merely another way of presenting the art work’s form.

    The sublime or whatever you want to call it derives not from abandoning the spontaneity inherent in perceiving a work of art, but from the sense of astonishment when one’s expectations are not met (i.e. one is surprised by what one sees or hears) in such a way that preserves the harmony of the whole. I don’t know enough about Schopenhauer to know whether this refutes his claim, but it certainly contradicts the argument Moriarty seems to be making against games as works of art; since without the participation of an observer in reconstructing the work’s form there can be no expectations about what the work is, and so no ultimately no experience of the work as art – sublime or otherwise.

  15. I was (and am) surprised anyone paid any attention to Ebert on games. And frankly disappointed at how easily people are still trolled by the sophomoric “What is the definition of art?” debate, which (I had assumed) croaked its last somewhere roughly halfway between Tracey Emin’s Bed and the Burning Man Playa.

  16. I’m late to the party again. Blame it on the weekend.

    Anyway, one of the points Chris made in our unfortunately brief discussion was that he felt the parser in IF doesn’t do a good enough job of taking in information from the player — that it doesn’t listen well enough; it doesn’t allow the player to make a big enough part of the conversation between game and machine. I’m not quite sure what this indicates: is the input not granular enough, or the output too wordy, or the range of things that can be said via parser too narrow, or…?

    It’s interesting to imagine a game in which the player could (or would be expected to) match the parser in terms of the information being presented. The game pumps out a paragraph, the play counters with their own paragraph, and then the game crunches that paragraph and responds with its own. Maybe once IBM starts licensing its Watson software to IF authors we can see some experiments along those lines.

    But while would certainly be a step toward greater liberty in IF, I’m not sure it would make for better games. Nor is that expectation even particularly realistic, from a gaming point of view. What other genre of video game would we hold to the standard which says that the player should be able to match the game’s output with an equal amount of input? I suspect that has the general look of reasonableness because the output in an IF game is of the same basic form as the input provided by the player: i.e. text. But we wouldn’t expect the player of a graphical genre of game to produce a full screen of graphics for each move.

    The IF model of a low input-to-output ratio is not only standard for gaming in general, it’s also more indicative of our experience of life. In our interactions with the world at large, we each bring very little to the table, and get vast experiences in return.

    But maybe I’m interpreting too much into his comments.

    RE: Ebert’s “games can’t be art” argument, the question to my mind is, why should they want to be?

  17. [i]Moriarty argued, the experience of great art is about surrendering your will to an extent, and radically submitting yourself to the artwork[/i]

    If we allow this definition, there are whole genres of games that are precisely this: the game demands of you, “perform this action, within this tolerance of precision”, and then you do, or you fail to do so and the game does not permit you continue until you submit to its demands.

    At a high enough level of abstraction, this covers practically every action game pre-1990 or so: here is a physics; here is a set of hazards; avoid or destroy these hazards using these physics to pass. If there is no random element – and for a lot of games like [i]Super Mario Brothers[/i] there is not – this reduces to ‘there is a sequence of controller moves I demand you perform: do them.’

    Moving up to the present, the music/rhythm genre presents its challenge in that form explicitly, and lightly disguised rhythm games such as the BIT.TRIP series aren’t far behind. If Moriarty wants to insist on will-surrender as a requirement for games to be art, he doesn’t have to look far.

    If you distinguish the Will from the Mind, you also permit yourself to consider games like Tetris: while the player is in some sense making decisions, they are not really applications of The Will, and those decisions do not carry moral weight.

    Outside of videogames, [i]Simon[/i], [i]Perfection[/i], and [i]Operation[/i] also all meet this criterion.

  18. Thanks for posting this Emily.

    One thought on your last point: If one thinks freedom of choice is evil, I’m not sure there is a medium better suited to exploring that then modern console storytelling games, where freedom of choice is almost laughably constrained to an artist’s vision.

  19. Hullo! I should have come by earlier to see this conversation! I’ve been traveling some more since GDC but glad to see you blogging about this (and mentioning my talk too! whoo, thank you).

    So I was at Moriarty’s talk as well, in the company of Frank Lantz (who was seethingly mad afterwards) and some other veteran designers who are familiar with Moriarty’s style and talks from many years past. The discussion about his talk that ensued led me to some interesting conclusions:

    a) Brian Moriarty was dressed in a very unusual fashion for him, and in fact seemed to be adopting a mode of dress similar to Roger Ebert, rather than himself;

    b) He claimed to be a classical “big R” Romantic like both Ebert and Schopenhauer, and offered a whole explanation of why Romanticism clashes with notions of choice-driven-cultural-forms as “Art” that seemed partially geared towards creating an understanding of Ebert’s mindset. This included dismissing most of 20th century art as rubbish, from Duchamp up to any art that can be critiqued as more about cleverness than “True Artistic Expression.” But it wasn’t clear to me how seriously Moriarty was adopting this position, vs. playing a role; this kind of “20th century art is mostly crap and not Real Art like Monet and Rembrant” posture seemed a little too pre-packaged, too cut-and-dry. A straw man, even.

    c) “Kitsch” was offered up as an alternative of sorts — not just because of the argument that most entertaining, enjoyable, small “a” art or what many people refer to as “media” can only attain the level of kitsch. Moriarty wrapped up by kiiiind of extolling the praises of kitsch as enjoyable sense-pleasure and atmosphere without an attempt to soar into some exalted Romantic sphere. Games ought to be satisfied with being Kitsch because hey, it’s not that bad and maybe is more relevant to the human condition somehow?

    d) A bunch of members of the audience seemed to be eating these last two points up like it validated their existence and their work. And I got the distinct but hard-to-articulate impression that Moriarty was purposefully playing it that way. He knows gamer culture and is aware of the strong impulse among gamers AND game developers to reject any “higher” notion of purpose, meaning, aspiration to a state of “Art” or however you want to phrase it. Of course there are some perfectly decent points to be made about how games shouldn’t necessarily chase after the successes or models of other cultural forms, jealous imitation of film and whatnot, but there’s also an undercurrent of sullen, adolescent rebellion here. A lot of game afficionados don’t want anything LIKE art, don’t want the possibility of grander or deeper meanings, and would prefer to keep refining and pursuing goals of sheer entertainment, escapist fun, etc. (I don’t really think the two are incompatible, of course.) Moriarty seemed to be egging this particular opinion on, and I heard several people around me snorting derisively when he attacked post-Romantic “art,” cheers when he said games ought to be content with just being fun, etc.

    e) I’m not sure WHAT Moriarty actually thinks about all this; maybe he really was espousing some of his views, maybe he thinks all the choice-driven storytelling he did early in his career is just highly un-transcendent fun, maybe he really is a Romantic. But I have a hunch that he was trolling the audience — preaching the somnolent gospel of “just enjoy making things that are fun and don’t aspire to be art” to the anti-Art crowd, and riling up people who want to make meaningful cultural works that just maybe could move people in sublime ways. He’s been out of the “game industry” proper for many years, teaching and consulting and working in totally unrelated fields for a while… so perhaps he just meant to throw a firecracker into the debate.

    If so, nice work, Professor ;)

    1. I don’t think he *was* trolling, though. I mean, first of all, why bother? And second, when I chatted with him briefly at PAX, he expressed what sounded like mingled surprise and annoyance at the response he’s received. I suppose in theory that could be the continuation of a performance, but I don’t see why one would bother with it.

      This included dismissing most of 20th century art as rubbish, from Duchamp up to any art that can be critiqued as more about cleverness than “True Artistic Expression.” But it wasn’t clear to me how seriously Moriarty was adopting this position

      That seemed to me to be a dodge — presumably an intentional dodge — of the institutional theory of art. If we brought up the point that a lot of 20th century art is about exploring what art is, and a nontrivial amount of 20th century art theory about the institutions that stamp the label of “art” on things, the argument goes in a very different direction. It might then wander off into discussing, for instance, whether there is yet any institution equivalent to the artworld for games, a body that can say “YES, I DUB THEE ART.”

      The Nuovo Award, maybe?

      A lot of game afficionados don’t want anything LIKE art, don’t want the possibility of grander or deeper meanings, and would prefer to keep refining and pursuing goals of sheer entertainment, escapist fun, etc. (I don’t really think the two are incompatible, of course.)

      Nor do I. I keep thinking of Ocean’s Eleven, a genre exercise but an incredibly refined and virtuosic one. It’s not Citizen Kane, but if it’s kitsch, it’s kitsch of a very different order from velvet Elvis paintings and lawn gnomes and the Tiki Room.

      1. There is no way that Ocean’s 11 should be called art.
        The reason you think it is better than the Tiki Room or velvet Elvis is the proximity you have to the actors/music/location/etc. of Ocean’s Eleven. It will hold up very poorly with time–and once there is a generation that has not lived with the actors used in Ocean’s Eleven, it will look very dated and shabby.

        Now HERE is some real Schopenhauer–it takes true critics and oftentimes the librarians to do the cultural culling. Ocean’s 11 should NOT survive, just as Ebert’s opinions should NOT survive. They are not worthy of preservation. It will take true critics–and not reviewers like Ebert–to determine what is art.

  20. oh, damn! I missed this interesting discussion. Thankfully, we’re on the web and can talk asynchronously just fine. :)

    Some notable excerpts:
    “The fuse was a TEDx lecture by Kellee Santiago… Her lecture was titled “Stop the Debate: Video Games are Art, So What’s Next?”
    She cited three games, Waco Resurrection, Braid and her own company’s Flower, as examples of games that she believes already qualify as art.”

    “But as much as I admire games like M.U.L.E., Balance of Power, Sim City and Civilization, it would never even occur to me to compare them to the treasures of world literature, painting or music.”

    “Nowhere in 25 centuries of philosophy did I find a single author who regarded games or sports as a form of art.”

    Why is it that everytime someone tries to support videogames as art that they point out such non-artsy games as those?

    Moriarty’s choice are pure games: a bunch of rules and a playfield. There’s no human drama nor visual appeal whatsoever in them, just rules and statistics. They are digital equivalents of chess or monopoly and surely unlikely to please Ebert in his essentially visual narration taste.

    Santiago’s choices seem more geared towards visual arts than narrative arts. Braid has wonderfully paint backgrounds, but in essence is just another platformer patterned on Mario tradition. Flower is visually exhuberant and plays more like some interactive art display than some goal-oriented game. Dunno about Wacco Ressurection whatever that is.

    My point is: why don’t people point Ebert to such games as Shadow of the Colossus, Ico, Metal Gear Solid 4, Uncharted 2, Heavy Rain or some top interactive fiction out there? You know, games with visual narration, where being tied to a character intimately makes a real impression on yourself like only art does?

    There’s both authorial control in there, real drama and characterization and interactivity to make perhaps Mr. Ebert change his head on the subject, but no, hey, let’s present Tetris to Mr. Ebert and make him bash it for its lack of human drama…

    Now, you may tell that if a game is dependent on visual art, music and story to succeed as art it is not art at all because the gameplay doesn’t come into place as much, I’d say movies are alike: take out the visual arts, the actors, the music and the literature and you have nothing either.

    Several games had a huge emotional impact in me by purely allowing me to explore its world and participate in its strange self-contained drama, let alone surviving highly emotional setpiece moments like MGS4’s final corridor, Agro’s fate in Shadow of the Colossus several such others. Of course, you can’t watch it on youtube and feel the same, you have to experience it. And I’m sure Mr. Ebert’s time with the old classics won’t permit him dig this new media.

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