Ebert & Moriarty Addendum

A couple of things keep coming up in the discussion about Ebert and Brian Moriarty’s defense of him, which let me take one at a time.

1) “I don’t see what’s great about Moriarty’s argument. Why is it better than Ebert’s original statement?”

Moriarty offered a much more coherent argument about why, exactly, choice might be a problematic thing to have in a game. Of course, coherent doesn’t mean “right” or even “compelling,” but I am sick to death of the argument that a choice-based work entails the absence of the artist and therefore the absence of meaning and artfulness. That is obviously nonsense, and if it’s not clear why, try Home or Photopia or Rameses or The McDonalds Game or Judith or Don’t Look Back or Passage or The Path or Treasures of a Slaver’s Kingdom or any of a gazillion other works that convey meaning in the gap between what the player wants and what the player is allowed to choose.

Moriarty’s defense did not rely on this argument, but looked at some other possibilities that do hang together intellectually, even if in the end I don’t agree.

2) “Why do we care what Ebert says?”

I mostly don’t, but he’s got immense cultural clout. When he says things that dismiss games as a cultural product, that enables others to do so comfortably without further investigation. This isn’t the end of the world, but it’s unfortunate.

3) “Why do we care whether games are art? Is it even worth arguing about this?”

Maybe not, but in Ebert’s argument and in many other people’s, “games aren’t art” is shorthand for saying that games don’t and can’t convey anything important, can’t meaningfully enrich the lives of players, can’t be a valid mode of expression for game designers. Ebert himself makes this explicit.

But possibly the secondary argument (“what is art? are games that thing?”) is just obscuring the original question, and we can and should go back to that. Can games say things that matter? To me this is an obvious yes. But once we embrace this seriously, maybe we can have more conversations about what they’re saying and how. There’s not enough game criticism of this kind and I would like to see more of it.

61 thoughts on “Ebert & Moriarty Addendum”

  1. Re #3 – Yes, I think it’s much better to address questions like “Can games say things that matter?”

    In the height of 90’s cyberfetishism, I recall attending readings of Unix source code at a coffeeshop, and being advised by my companion *not* to query whether such readings were “art”, because that was an argument that could never be resolved (except by ultimately defining everything as art).

    Arguing about the definition of art is an example of a philosophical problem identified by Wittgenstein: that categories can be near-impossible to define. Wittgenstein introduced the notion of “family resemblance” to circumvent this problem. I think your comment that “games are art because they feel like art when I make them” is actually a perfectly valid example of such “family resemblance” reasoning, even though you said you thought it was an unsatisfactory argument.

    Interestingly, the canonical example of a hard-to-define category that Wittengstein used was, in fact, the category of games! (Is work a game? Is science a game? Is life a game? Is *art* a game? etc.) So screw Ebert — let’s just blow a big fat raspberry right back at him and say that “movies aren’t games, and never will be” and let him wriggle his way out of that category argument. (Er, as you point out in #2, we’ll first have to find a cultural megaphone as big as Ebert’s, but that’s a minor detail)


  2. Can games say things that matter?

    I certainly think they can, but I’m more interested in how they involve the player in doing things. It’s instructive to take away as many of the non-essential trappings as possible. Consider a game like go, which is about as stripped down a complex game as I can imagine. The board and pieces can be made more artistic, but they more often tend toward the maximum of austerity, which means the minimum artistry needed to make the game functional. Thus you have contrasting pieces (usually stones) and a playing field composed of a grid (usually 19×19). From there, we can chart a spectrum of increasing opportunities to layer artistry onto games. A little up the scale from go is chess, which invites artistry in its elaboration of pieces with different functions. You generally won’t find Don Quixote or Simpsons-themed go sets, but you’ll definitely find chess sets that layer those resonances onto the game. And in doing so, those sets “say things,” maybe even beyond the intent of the set designer, of varying degrees of importance. But strip away that layer of artistic affectation, and it remains possible to play the game. Most of us will never know a *Monopoly* not couched in certain artistic motifs, but it would still be possible to play *Monopoly* without a design that made it “about” real estate empire-building.

    As a whole, I think we pay too little attention to what it means to play the game. I like go as an example because its austerity practically forces us to focus on what constitutes the essential act of playing it.

    Which isn’t to say that it is uninteresting to layer artistically-evoked themes onto a game. *Monopoly* is fun, but much of what makes it culturally relevant is the way its artistic design encourages us to think of it as an analogy for commercial enterprise. But I think it’s also important to recognize that when a game achieves an artistic effect, it does so, first and foremost, by layering artistry on the bare mechanics of a game that, at least in principle, doesn’t need those trappings. In doing so, it induces us to imagine that the realities represented by the art (e.g. the real estate and utilities market) are an instance of the game, inscribed onto the world.

    1. disagree that GO pieces are minimal/functional — the slate and clamshell stones & nutmeg-yew boards form an aesthetic that is adhered to rather strongly by the GO fanatics I’ve met…

      1. Yeah, this caused me mental whiplash. The aesthetic behind a Go set doesn’t usually involve layering fictive content on the mechanics — you don’t mostly get stones with little faces on them, or something, thank heaven — but there’s a very strong one.

      2. You don’t have to have slate and clamshell pieces or a nutmeg-yew board to play go. We could construct a perfectly playable set by gathering up some leaves of contrasting colors and using a tile floor for the grid. The game remains distinguishable from the artistry of the traditional set people use to play it.

        You could, I suppose stalk the argument ever further and say that the tile floor and our selection of game pieces are, themselves, artistic choices, but that would be a step toward extending the concept of art to the extent of losing all meaning. By that token, bathing is the same kind of art, since it involves choosing a soap and a venue, all of which can be interpreted.

        An aesthetic is adhered to by nearly everything that humans do, so aesthetic value ends up being a woefully broad criteria for defining art as it’s being used in this discussion. My point is that it’s easy to win the “games are art” argument for the home team as long as you’re willing to make “art” applicable to everything that humans do. But in doing so, you’ll also have rendered the argument rather facile. As far as I’m concerned, it’s as bad (though in a different way) as the argument that art is whatever appeals to purportedly superior tastes.

        So, sure, we could take even a non-manufactured game like tag, and say that even it involves an aesthetic — a *kinetic* one, like dance — but, then, we could say the same thing about a fire drill or a police raid. Some game-as-art skeptics are in it to denigrate gaming and exalt whatever medium they think best, but if the point is to understand what makes art art, what makes a game a game, and whether or not there’s any overlap between the two, then I think we have be more careful in the first place about distinguishing the two from one another the same way we’d distinguish them from everything else.

    2. Most of us will never know a *Monopoly* not couched in certain artistic motifs, but it would still be possible to play *Monopoly* without a design that made it “about” real estate empire-building.

      As a whole, I think we pay too little attention to what it means to play the game. I like go as an example because its austerity practically forces us to focus on what constitutes the essential act of playing it.

      Aside from what the others said about the specific Go aesthetic, I’m not entirely comfortable with the idea that you can separate gameplay and aesthetics like that. (You haven’t actually said that, but it seems like it’s in the offing….) Aesthetics can determine gameplay. To pick an extreme example, imagine a level of Guitar Hero where the visuals were the same, and you had to press the same button at the same time, but a different song was playing. In a sense, the rules of the game would be the same — press this button when you see this sign — but it would play very differently.

      And this goes for a lot of other games, even ones that don’t involve reflexes; I’ve tried to protect characters in games when it wasn’t essential for winning, when I wouldn’t have done so if those game elements had been presented differently. Even Go has a martial metaphor which I suspect affects the way beginners play the game, as does chess.

      In short: I don’t think the trappings are non-essential, even if you’re just considering how the game is played.

  3. Can games say things that matter?

    If you believe that the quality of a piece of art depends on whether it says “things that matter”, then you’ve already picked an aesthetic principle that privileges certain kinds of artform over others. Novels, plays, and poetry are just better at making meaningful statements than, say, music, gardening and architecture (and, in my opinion, games).

    To take an example, one of my favourite pieces of music is J. S. Bach’s Fugue no. 5 in D major from Book II of the Well-Tempered Clavier. As far as I can tell, this has nothing whatsoever to say about anything that matters (though I suppose a sufficiently fluent bullshitter might be able to make something up). If it says anything at all, it’s demonstrating Bach’s cleverness in building an intricate fugue out of such a tiny amount of melody (just four notes!). But it gives me great pleasure to listen to it and to (attempt to) play it. I reject the notion that I should judge Bach’s music by the aesthetic principle of meaningfulness.

    In Ebert’s “Video games can never be art” he analyzed a talk by Kellee Santiago. Basically Santiago lost the debate at the outset by accepting Ebert’s terms, that is, that games must be judged on whether they can achieve the same aesthetic effects as film or painting.

    I think that when someone asks when games will produce something as deep and moving as Hamlet, it’s a mistake to try to bluff with a response like “well, um, the end of Ico is pretty moving, and well, it’s kind of sad when Aeris dies in Final Fantasy VII“. Instead, you should ask when theatre will produce as good a boss battle as the ones in Ocarina of Time.

    1. Yeah, this is a point I actually meant to touch on but didn’t have time to get too deeply into. In my view, the type of aesthetic experience offered by a game is often closer to the aesthetic experience of music or poetry than that of a movie or book; it’s rarely easy to present the theme or significance as a series of declarative statements, and if you can, there are never as many of those statements as there might be if you were attempting a summary of Tolstoy.

      That said, I think music does contain meaning of a kind. I am not a close student of Baroque music, but when I listen to Bach, I have the sense of being offered a particular view of the universe, a view that involves tremendous complexity and yet a reassuring order behind that complexity. Is that the wrong level at which to be understanding it? Possibly a music theorist or performer would think so, but to my mind there is a kind of meaning which goes beyond simple pleasure.

      Anyway. Hm. I take your point, but I think I might resolve it by suggesting my view of “meaning” is very broadly scoped.

      1. I think Oscar Wilde, champion of the decadent movement (slogan: “l’art pour l’art” = “art for art’s sake”), would just say “write the game and damn Roger Ebert’s eyes for any false obligation to create meaning!”

        Unfortunately, we cannot ask Oscar, but I’m pretty sure his current spiritual incarnation (Stephen Fry) would same the same thing.

      2. The meaning of Bach (or any other music based solely on the abstract) is in relationship to the medium itself. Someone who says the fugue doesn’t matter is saying that music without words doesn’t matter. Which is a fair enough position, but I hold that things matter beyond politics / love / death / etc. — that greatness within a medium is reason enough for existing.

      3. agree w/Emily – there is meaning in music – Bach speaks of spiritual order, Mozart of whimsical intricacy, Wagner of power and myth, etc

      4. Emily, I believe you are being quite unfair to the aesthetic experience of literature. In fact, I was a little horrified by your opinion (but perhaps it does much to explain why you are IF instead of traditional fiction). The following quote of Schlegel applies to literature and interactive fiction that is trying to do more than entertain:

        “The lessons of a novel ought to be of such a character that they are communicable only as a whole and cannot be proved singularly or exhausted analytically. Otherwise the rhetorical form would be far more preferable.” –Friedrich Schlegel, from the Athenaeum Fragments

    2. Bach may not be the best example there. I’m no expert, but my understanding is that Bach belonged to the last generation that believed that the order of music (and canon in particular) was expressive of the God-instilled order of the universe. If that’s true, then it would be relatively easy to make the argument that the Well-Tempered Clavier “says” something meaningful — and the title might be taken to give an indication of what.

      On the other end of the musical spectrum, it could be said that all punk contains a message relevant to its context (the earliest punk bearing a message of social and political revolt, with more “commercial” brands of punk sending a more irony-laden message of aesthetic or social allegiance). Rock-and-roll (originally slang for sex) describes a range of messages teased from an original context that complicated the message of the blues by amping it up with the cultural subversion of sexual promiscuity. And so on, and so forth.

      Which is not to defend the position that art is a vehicle for delivering a message. Rather, I’d say we get closer to its functional core when we say that all art employs an aesthetic in order to invite some prospective audience to adopt an attitude toward its subject. That’s a premise that, I think, could be applied even to something as non-representative as a Jackson Pollack painting, even if we can find potential meanings in less clearly representative media like music.

      1. the title might be taken to give an indication of what

        “If you tune your clavier like I do, then you can play pieces in all twelve keys.”

      2. “I’d say we get closer to its functional core when we say that all art employs an aesthetic in order to invite some prospective audience to adopt an attitude toward its subject.”

        I don’t agree with this, and I think the Pollack example is a straightforward counterexample. Of course, an *interpretation* of the artwork can make such an invitation, but the artwork itself communicates only intensities of experience. The “meaning” of a work then, what it communicates, is paradoxically incommunicable in the way that any intense experience is incommunicable. And yet good art manages to make us feel these intensely personal things. The experience of art may change us in profound ways, but not in the way a political tract or work of philosophy might change us.

      3. Andrew, I think you’re actually expressing more or less what I meant by that quotation. There’s no noetic content to a Jackson Pollock painting that I can discern. It functions by eliciting an aesthetic (perhaps emotional) response, and in doing so, it’s inviting you to develop an attitude toward that response. The subject doesn’t have to be conceptual.

    3. Novels, plays, and poetry are just better at making meaningful statements than, say, music, gardening and architecture (and, in my opinion, games).

      Nevertheless, there is some reason to believe that at least a certain subset of games (those with a strong narrative) are closer to novels and plays and movies than to any other art form; and that some of the aesthetic principle of the latter will carry over to the former. The suspicion that interactive fiction has an aesthetic continuity with literature seems especially well-founded.

      While the question of whether games can say things that matter is not the question that will decide whether games are worth your time, it is a legitimate question. It is one I, for one, am eager to investigate and see investigated further.

      1. Even if Moriarty is right and choice is inherently anti-artistic (he isn’t, but still), there is a great deal that goes into games that is not about choice.

        (You set up a gorgeous room: design the architecture, the fittings, the thread in the tapestries; pipe in carefully-selected music, carefully arrange all the elements, establish rules of dress and etiquette that must be adhered to in the room. You turn it over to some politicians, who use the room you’ve built to meet lobbyists — which was part of the plan, and anticipated in your design. Then someone comes along and says that what you have done isn’t art, because what people are encouraged to do in it isn’t art.)

        Partly to blame for this, I think, is the overwhelming attention paid in game crit to qualities of interaction; too often there’s the implication that the only qualities that matter about a game are the ones that directly pertain to interaction. Obviously choices and interaction are a distinctive, revealing and hugely important thing about games (actually, the amount of aesthetic crit dedicated to it is a pretty good indication that it is an artistic thing, but whatever), but I don’t think that they’re the law and the prophets.

    4. It’s worth noting, though, that Ebert has not taken the stance that, since prose novels are pretty clearly a medium demonstrably more suited to the delivery of meaningful content than movies, movies are therefore to be considered a second-class form of art.

  4. The misunderstanding about how “choice” works in games (that is, the idea that the actions of the protagonist correspond to moral choices on the part of the player) is awfully convenient for certain game studios when challenged about the unsavoury content of their games. When it’s suggested that the murder of prostitutes is a pretty unpleasant subject for a game, the developer (or his partisans) can respond to the effect that it’s all about the player’s moral choice, and if players don’t want to murder prostitutes they can do some other mission instead. The relative amount of development effort put into the depiction of murdering versus other activities get mostly ignored.

    In the other thread I said that a pernicious aspect of the whole “are games art?” debate is that some developers take it seriously, and try to make games that aspire to be novels or films, instead of trying to make better games.

    The misunderstanding about “choice” has a similar pernicious effect, in that some developers take this public relations strategy seriously and try to make games that present the player with (supposed) moral choices. Since only a small minority of players are really interested in this kind of role-playing, and most just treat the “moral” choices as ordinary tactical choices (that is, which choice gives the best outcome with respect to the main goals of the game?), these developers find themselves having to impose increasingly complex systems of constraints to try to get the players to take the choices seriously, but which just serve to undermine the whole idea (because if you turn “moral” play into tactical play, then it’s not moral any more), and leads to the witless alignment system in the Fable series that doesn’t even allow role-players to play roles.

    (This isn’t quite as bad as the art thing—at least the developers who are pursuing “choice” are also trying to make good games, and you never know, maybe they will get there in the end.)

    1. Yeeeah, I mostly agree with that, though I’d also say that it’s *possible* for games to investigate moral issues. They just have to do so in a way that isn’t about pandering to the player’s whims.

      It seems to me like a pretty common but still effective strategy is to make the tactically “best” choice obviously be the “evil” one (see The McDonalds Game) in order to expose the immorality (or pressure towards immoral behavior) inherent in the system that’s being modeled. Several of Victor Gijsbers’ games take a similar tack.

      1. Yes, that’s the level on which a game can investigate moral issues: by offering choice to the player as a means of exploring the consequences of actions within a system. But the moral judgment has to come from outside the game: any attempt to put it into the system of the game just turns it into a tactical judgment.

        In SimCity 3000 you can play as a ruthless despot or a benevolent dictator, create a garden city or hell on earth. But if the game tried to give you morality points it would cheapen any lessons you might derive form it. (Incidentally, Vincent Ocasla has some interesting things to say about games as art.)

        But most games aren’t really in a position to offer even this level of investigation: I mean, Grand Theft Auto does not attempt to show the moral consequences of tactical choices made by criminals—none of your choices has any long-term effect on the game.

      2. I wholeheartedly agree. There are a lot of interesting things to do with games and morality, but having the game judge the character / player is not one of them. (Indeed, simply by having an alignment system, Fable can no longer offer interesting moral choices without undercutting itself. Something to think about.)

        For me, this diagram captures something of the intuitive idea.

      3. The problem with making the tactically best choice the evil one is, as Victor observes above, that actually takes the moral element out of the process entirely.

        “Be moral or be effective” is not a moral choice, it’s a choice in which “being moral” is an option.

        A moral choice, IMO, involves presenting a player with a situation in which they wish, for their own reasons, to pursue the morally correct course of action, but must choose which course of action is in fact most moral.

        The alternative leads to some serious cognitive dissonance when you find that the “immoral but effective” choice actually seems to you to be more moral than the moral but impractical choice. (This happens to me a lot, half the good options in the Fable games strike me as morally worse than the evil options).

  5. Is it just me or is this ‘choice’ argument easily dismissed?

    Say you exhibit a sculpture, I can look at it from numerous angles, I can walk around it clockwise or counter-clockwise, and I can choose how long I pause to look from each angle. I cannot perceive every angle simultaneously (even with mirrors), so instead I compel the work to generate a series of ‘scenes’ for me in an order of my choosing by moving around it.

    That description also reasonably fits a work of IF, whether the movement is in the game’s geographical space or its story space.

    The IF author has generated an X-dimensional layered pastry of algorithms that generate content (drawn from a finite source pool, let’s not forget). By entering commands I compel the work to generate ‘scenes’ for me.

    Just because I don’t know exactly what my commands will produce on the first run-through doesn’t strike me as relevant to the choice argument. Plenty of ‘art’ is said to require multiple experiences to full appreciate.

    Also irrelevant is the fact that the output of IF is much more fluid, due to orders of magnitude more recombinations, than other mediums. A sculpture is more 3D than a painting but both are ‘art’.

    So it seems to me that the element of choice is a red herring, because it does not create a meaningful distinction between IF and any other medium. Every medium incorporates viewer choice to some degree.

    Even with movies or paintings, I choose which part of the scene to focus my attention on. The author may employ tricks to try and focus my attention or direct it through a particular path, but I still have choice.

    Am I missing something or is choice truly a red herring as I think?

    1. One big difference is that games are designed specifically to elicit choices. In some cases, those choices are pretty limited in both scope and range. In a game of Pong, my choices at any given moment will be to move either up or down, and depending on the trajectory of the ball, one of those choices will be the wrong one. In a game of DeadSpace I can choose to use any number of weapons, and in most (though not all) cases, that choice will have only limited consequences. At the other end of the scale, there are games that give you multiple paths to arrive at the same ending, and games that allow you to make choices that will lead to different conclusions.

      The point, in any case, is that those choices were all built into the work. Sure, you can hang out in the lobby during the second act of Glengarry Glen Ross, but that isn’t a choice the movie prompted you to make. And while the choice to only listen to the first first movement of Adagio for Strings may have meaning in an absolute sense, it’s a meaning achieved by working against the art, rather than according to its design.

      1. Ever see a movie that splits the screen and shows two simultaneous threads of action (e.g. Timecode)?

        That type of presentation is designed specifically to elicit a choice, and your choice as a viewer influences your experience and interpretation of the work. Therefore this is not a valid dividing line between movies and games.

        I’m not claiming every medium incorporates choice, or that they all incorporate choice with the same frequency or to the same degree of complexity.

        Obviously IF is one of (if not the) ‘choiciest’ mediums, but being at the end of the spectrum doesn’t mean you’re in another category.

        What about interactive art installations? You know, you wave your hand and it changes a sequence of images or a sound or whatever. If those can be art, IF can be art. And if those can’t be art why are they *called* art and treated like art in the way they’re created and exhibited?

        That’s another example that I think clearly breaks the argument that ‘viewer choice prevents art’.

      2. Oh, I wouldn’t say that involving an element of choice necessarily takes a work out of the category of art. To my mind, the most well-established example of art that demands a choice is one that you pointed out in your first comment: Renaissance statues designed to be seen from multiple angles. Rather, my point was that choice is a sine non qua of games — a purported game that doesn’t present choices is actually an example of false advertising — whereas in art such choices are, at best, optional.

      3. choice is a sine non qua of games — a purported game that doesn’t present choices is actually an example of false advertising

        Some of the first games that children are likely to play, like Candyland and Chutes & Ladders, have no choices.

        (Hm, according to a quick search Candyland may offer you the choice to go down a path or not. Still.)

      4. I think MadArchitect makes a good point: choosing not to listen to a piece of music is not a choice offered by the artwork itself. But there is nevertheless an element of freedom on the part of the observer which is essential to experiencing art.

        In the previous thread I put it in terms of the expectations that a work of art elicits in the observer. Walking around a statue, one spontaneously forms expectations about what one will see from another angle, expectations which are prompted by the work itself but which then may or may not be satisfied by the work, which is capable of surprising the observer. These expectations aren’t choices per se. But a work of interactive fiction can introduce choices as part of the process of observing the work, deliberately branching the stream of expectations which the observer experiences.

        This kind of choice does not detract from the artwork because (i) as Emily argues, it’s very much a feature of the work (unlike e.g. choosing to leave during a performance), and (ii) it depends on the participation and spontaneity of the observer which all works of art depend on (and which I think is the point Saul was driving at).

      5. Are you really suggesting there aren’t choices in, say, piano music? There’s practically nothing but choices. Even if you’re playing on a harpsichord, which has essentially no volume control, you’ve still got tons of choices in the quality of the notes, the tempo, etc. If you’re playing on a piano – pianos were basically built to give the player more choices. You can play fortissimo or pianissimo or anything in between. The thing is, the music usually doesn’t specify.

        I can play Für Elise absolutely correctly twice, and it won’t even sound like the same song.

        You could say that this is not the way the music was “intended” to be experienced, but actually, the idea that we are meant to listen to music in performance (rather than performing it ourselves) is a fairly novel one. Around the turn of the century, player pianos were in vogue specifically because they took the labor out of playing music (the labor here is learning the notes) and left only the art (determining the tempo, etc). (One thing to note: Player piano ≠ reproducing piano. Reproducing pianos are the ones that reproduce dynamics and tempo as well as the notes themselves. Player pianos let the player decide those things and are what I’m talking about here.)

        Eventually, phonographs won the fight, and so today we think of music as something that we listen to on a recording. But it’s absolutely not the case that, historically, people would just listen to a recital of music. And playing music implies performing it artistically, making decisions about it. The piece as written by Bach is a work of art, but so is my interpretation of it in my living room.

        (Of course, music for single piano is different than music for orchestras. But the point stands – we’re talking here as if it’s all the same.)

    2. I think the thing about the “choice” argument is that while the presence of choices doesn’t preclude games from being art, it frequently *does* preclude them from being the kind of art they aspire to be or attempt to imitate.

      Video games very often ape linear narrative structures and often a “choice” amounts to little more than the choice between “do what clearly makes narrative sense” and “do something stupid and arbitrary just because you can.” It winds up feeling like you’re watching a DVD with all the deleted scenes and blooper footage cut back in.

      This isn’t an insurmountable, structural problem with games-as-art but it *is* a problem with the way in which games often *try* to be art.

  6. “(3) Why do we care whether games are art? Is it even worth arguing about this?”

    I think it’s important to remember that the definition of art has significant political consequences, especially in the United States, regarding how a given possible-art-thing and its creators might be treated.

    1. Very much so.

      Did you know that for customs purposes, digital art does not count as “fine art”? You can import “fine art” in your luggage duty-free, but if that art was made by a digital artist, it does not count and you have to pay for it, no matter how small of an edition or how significant a work. Or so my curator friends tell me.

  7. An absolutely beautiful chess set, with the wrong pieces on a 7×7 board: unplayable.

    A well-constructed, well-nigh indestructible one, welded out of nuts and bolts: ugly.

    The gap between what the player wants and is allowed to choose is not the only one. Also between intentions and outcomes.

    1. Is the game of chess art? Or is a game when well-played?

      JJ says that making a fire is a practical art. Then making a game must be too.

      But is making art a game?

      I’d say I’m just playing but don’t want to imply I know the rules.

  8. I thoroughly disagree with your statement that Ebert’s comments have clout.

    They have little to no clout in the world of academia–and I think most anyone involved in film studies would laugh at this comment.
    The question of what is art is determined at the academy. Ebert is not Kant. He isn’t even Mathew Arnold. No one truly intersted in “what is art” should give a second thought to defending or attacking Ebert’s position. Fuck, Tolstoy’s view on art for art’s sake will always and forever figure more into a debate on video games and art than Ebert’s comments.

    People quoting, defending or attacking Ebert are really addressing to the lowest common denominator and should raise the level of debate from this sinkhole. Any reference to Ebert should be to those dark days of video game aesthetics and criticism, before the medium had academic legitimacy. And it will never have academic legitimacy if its designers and proponents are responding to a popular film reviewer (from his work, he honestly has not earned the title film critic).

    1. Is academia the only world that matters?

      Not to me – and I’m an academic.

      You may or may not think that Ebert is a good critic, that he has clout with the “people who matter,” or whatever, but a lot of people read Ebert, and a lot of people like him, and the very fact that his comments could elicit this sort of response is evidence that he does, indeed, have clout.

      1. When it comes to aesthetics, the academy may not be the “be all”, but it certainly is the “end all.” Questions of aesthetics will not be determined on blogs or pulp reviews, but in classrooms, scholarly journals and university presses. This is because the academy will preserve and build upon (or dismantle) notable additions to aesthetics. Comments like Ebert’s will not survive. And not because he is outside the academy, which he is, but because his ideas should not last–and film critics know this, it is part of their critical function.

        Again, it is incorrect to call Ebert a critic. He does not perform a critical function. Ebert is a professional film reviewer–which is nothing to be ashamed of. For the present day, a film reviewer is of considerably more use than a film critic. It is the future that depends on film critics. One should not criticize Ebert for being a film reviewer–one should criticize people looking for film and aesthetic criticism who turn to Ebert.

  9. Let me be more constructive. A reading of Gotthold Lessing’s Laocoon with its description of visual art (ie, painting, sculpture, and nowadays film and video games) compared to non-visual arts (poetry, prose, and interactive fiction) would be a much better place to start judging aesthetics than Ebert.
    Also, working with theories that are concerned with intentionality and the construction of meaning in a work of art (see Fish’s [i]How Milton Works[/i]) could also give some legitimacy to int-fiction as art.

  10. The preoccupation with choice needs to be abandoned–or significantly rethought. It may well be a fruitful avenue of criticism, though it does not hold an interest to me. The fact remains that it is unclear how a range of actions has any determination on something’s existence as an art object.

    And here’s what really matters–thinkers with actual clout, say John Cage, would sharply disagree with the statement that “choice” is incompatible with art. I would imagine that figures in pretty much every artistic medium would be baffled by such conservatism–and certainly poetry, literature and drama. A very elementary choice regards who the reader identifies with, which is in many ways analogous to choices available to the player. The artist/author/game designer can try and exercise control, but in the end such interpretive choices are in the hands of the reader/player.

    For those trying to defend IF as art, it is fairly easy to show this “choice” dilemma as something invented by those unaware of a century of aesthetic criticism. The focus should be on interpretation–for art objects lend themselves to criticism.

    The rub: to be seen as art, the quality of much IF writing must improve. This is more of a barrier than a blow-hard like Ebert. Given capitalism, it would also credit IF’s existence as art if it had a market.
    Luckily, our host and several posters have been active in remedying the quality of IF writing.

    1. Is art only art if it is of a high quality?

      Are my high school figure drawings not art, because they aren’t very good? Is it different if you know that I was considering attending (visual) art school when I drew them? Is it different if you know that I didn’t end up attending art school?

      1. flourish, please notice how I chose my words:
        “in order to be seen as art…”
        this is not saying that bad writing/bad drawing is not art. but to be understood as art by people who are not aestheticians or critics, qualitative standards must be met.

    2. The fact remains that it is unclear how a range of actions has any determination on something’s existence as an art object.

      Given that the “work of art” in interactive fiction is arguably the playing-session-as-it-takes-place, not the program or the transcript, it seems to me that a range of actions (and the availability of a range of actions) are essential to the existence of IF. (And thus also, a forteriori, to its existence as an art object.)

      Given capitalism, it would also credit IF’s existence as art if it had a market.

      Surely both the left and the right see art as something that could not survive a free market without government subsidy — even if they disagree about whether subsidies are good? :)

      1. Victor Gijsbers–thank you for the response. I would encourage you to think about the path your first comment starts one down. I do not consider the work of art as the playing session as-it-takes-place. This would lead to as many art objects as there are different playing sessions. It is analogous to the statement the work-of-art is not the novel, but the individual’s reading of the novel. (Such theories exist, surely, but I do not adhere to them)

        I play through “Lost Pig” and I burn the farm down immediately. Session ends. Then I replay and I sort of win, but didn’t get all the points. Session ends. Then I replay and get all the points. Session ends. Is this game three art objects? I would strenuously argue no. I am very uncomfortable with the idea that a single IF game/novel/play exists as an infinite amount of art objects.

        I will agree the perception of an availability of a range of actions is essential to IF (not the availability–as I could imagine IF where this range of actions is an illusion). Just as “an availability of a range of actions” is essential to dramatic theatre. They are indeed part of the art object. I should have said, “I do not see how a range of actions could possibly prevent something’s existence as an art object.” Thank you for catching this pretty glaring error.

        I find your comment is better than most, however, as it does ask questions that have corollaries in literature (which seems natural for IF).
        The comment about a market for IF is unfair. I personally do not believe art requires a market. This is more of a comment about society at large: for the majority of people to see IF as art, more people need to see IF. This implies a market presence.

      2. I play through “Lost Pig” and I burn the farm down immediately. Session ends. Then I replay and I sort of win, but didn’t get all the points. Session ends. Then I replay and get all the points. Session ends. Is this game three art objects? I would strenuously argue no. I am very uncomfortable with the idea that a single IF game/novel/play exists as an infinite amount of art objects.

        This makes me uncomfortable too, but I wouldn’t discount the reader’s actions as part of the art object either. The Renga in Four Parts I had at the IF Demo Fair occasionally (rarely) used one of the reader’s words in the poem. This choice of word could be entirely arbitrary. With zero control over what the word is (and possible unawareness by the reader that such a thing is going on), how can the reader’s words be separated from the author’s in the art object?

        What about Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy making an elaborate joke based off a player’s typo?

        What about a piece of art that invites viewers to vandalize it with Sharpies?

        It seems sensible to think of the “original art object” as the author’s thing (with whatever conceptual rules, like “feel free to vandalize with a Sharpie”, that apply) but also discuss “potential art objects” as what can result from the experience of such a thing.

  11. On art and kitsch:
    Emily, you are correct in stating that labeling video games as ‘kitsch’ puts them definitively on the art spectrum. I was talking about kitsch with someone–and my own definition was along the lines of “a hackish production or use of genuinely artistic material.” Stock sentimentality and its marketability are two of the defining aspects of kitsch. If someone suggests that video games are kitsch, it would imply that original and exemplary work in the medium could raise above kitsch and exist as an art object.

    Today, interactive fiction has almost no market. This fact alone makes applying the definition of ‘kitsch’ as fairly inaccurate.

    More on choice and art:
    1) A playwright writes a play. The play is considered a work of art. A production of the play involves almost innumerable choices on behalf of the director, stage crew and players. It would be absolutely naive of Ebert/Moriarty to state that the choice inherent in drama precludes plays from existing as art objects.

    2) I attended a festival of new American music two years ago that distributed slide whistles to the audience. The composition gave the audience the choice of performing on the slide whistle at various moments in the piece. There were all sorts of choices available to the audience–when to whistle or not to whistle, what sounds to make with the slide whistle, etc. It is debatable whether this particular composition was “good” art or “bad” art, but the fact remains that it was indeed “art” and there was a good deal of choice available to the audience.

  12. Jason Dwyer–I could not find a way to reply underneath your comment (it would have replied under Victor’s)…I have taken the problems you post in a different order, to make my argument flow. Pardon the length, but you brought up good questions that necessitate examples.

    I’ll begin with the Hitchhiker’s joke–it is simpler than the rest. It is coded so that if you make a typo, that word will be broadcast across the galaxy, plunging two civilizations into war. I believe this is stated in one of the footnotes. The game was constructed so the typo would result in that action. Any typo would have this effect and the probability of making a typo in the average Infocom-length game is probably pretty high. It is part of the art object as such. The player typing a typo that results in the joke is equivalent to making any number of decisions that does not affect the game but adds to immersion in the game environment. I do not think this joke is unique in terms of IF/art objects.

    Now, onto your game (one I have not played):
    “With zero control over what the word is (and possible unawareness by the reader that such a thing is going on), how can the reader’s words be separated from the author’s in the art object?”

    This is an interesting pursuit. Luckily, some smart people and avant-garde artists have come before you and me–so let’s call what you coded a “chance operation.” The idea may be original in IF, but it is old hat in the art world. Dadaists and futurists were thinking about this around a century ago. The original art object allows for the player’s words to be included, the manner of inclusion is–according to you–arbitrary. Because the manner in which the player’s word is included is arbitrary, it seems difficult to say the player had any real part in the art object as it exists (for criticism and contemplation). You coded a “chance operation”, but there is no real *agency* on behalf of the player/reader. They may have added to the artwork, but they had no control over what they were adding–the control was still up to the game designer, who was comfortable with including a chance operation. There is not an infinite amount of potential art objects, each of them coming into existence when they come to the particular point in your IF where the chance operation occurs. There is a single art object which includes a chance operation.

    Now, the most complicated idea:
    What about a piece of art that invites viewers to vandalize it with Sharpies?
    This is still a single art object. I’m going to substitute this simple artistic idea with a real, more polished one. On http://www.ubu.com, you can find a book by La Monte Young and Marian Zazeela called “An Anthology of Chance Operations.” One of these, I think by Terry Riley, is a box with an object. This object cannot be seen but can be felt. Once the object is felt, it is meant to be seen and then replaced with another object by the individual that felt then looked into the box. This gives each individual a LOT of agency, much more than even writing on an art object with a Sharpie. After the first object (placed by the artist) has been replaced, is it now a different art object? Who is the artist? This very art object is meant to raise such questions. It is a great exercise to think of such things. A stroke of genius.

    Your question, and indeed Riley’s artwork, confronts a problem with the one and the many, a very old question. I am also uncomfortable with a single art object existing as an infinite amount of potential art objects. I am certainly NOT opposed to a single art object existing as an infinite amount of potential experiences. Good art and even some bad art will probably have this quality. It seems your “potential art objects” are simply the potential experiences each individual has with the single art object.

    Let me follow your logic in regards to “potential” art objects:
    I do not like going down a path that says Riley has invented a single definite/definable art object that also an infinity of potential, indescribable and undefined art objects (at least indescribable until they are actualized). It leads one down a VERY rocky road: you have a building that architects applaud as a work of art. After its construction, the building begins to change: graffiti appears. There is also the famous “Turner Prize” in Britain; there was one year where one of the winning exhibits was a bed. Two Asian artists decided to make their own art object, having a pillow fight on the bed inside the gallery (they were arrested). Does every art object then exist as innumerable potential art objects? This argument can be made, but I think it creates far more problems than it solves.

    In your Sharpie example and my example of Riley, there is a single art object that invites the audience to take part in its becoming. I am not opposed to the idea that some art objects exist in a perpetual state of becoming–I like the idea. But let me make this clear: I currently have not seen an IF work that is in this perpetual state of becoming. It is very easy to theorize the existence of such a work–especially with the Internet. In the Oregon Trail, players can leave headstones for their dead family members, changing the game environment–this is the first step towards having players alter the game environment for future players. Anyone familiar with MUDs knows that users can often leave semi-permanent additions to the world. MUDs are different, because they generally do not have an endgame. But, one can think abstractly about an IF game that could be constantly changing with player input–a single art object in a state of becoming. To me, this state of perpetual becoming is preferable to a single art object that is simultaneously an infinite amount of potential art objects.

    A good comment, thank you.

    1. I was indeed influenced by the Dadaists — I used chance operations in writing some of the verses — although I wouldn’t say a chance operation is going on with the reader’s interaction, exactly; there’s a certain amount of steering going on in that the reader is expecting to see things (and do) related to the words they type.

      I feel kind of silly talking about this thing when I haven’t even officially posted about it yet so I went ahead and did that.

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