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.