So this Friday just past, the latest New York Times Magazine ran a piece about the rising 'indie movement' in game development. It's a good piece - providing what I feel is an accessable overview of the current state of the games/art discussion and the rising importance of the indie scene and what these developers are doing.
I'm sure a lot of people will roll their eyes and say 'games and art again - isn't this discussion over?'. I suppose it is over for us (developers, I mean) as we all know that games are indeed an art form but that just like painting, literature, or music, games can also be just simple entertainment and there is nothing wrong with that. In other words, for those 'in the know' - a game can be a work of art. Full stop.
That said, I am not convinced that the 'real' population of the world is aware of this yet. An article in New York Times Magazine that talks about it is thus very welcome. I don't mean it is welcome because it is a validation for those of us who stood up and said 'of course games are art', but simply because it means that the 'real' population are now about to step into a world that - for the first time in a century or so - has an entirely new art form in it. That's amazing and wonderful. And even though the article does not represent some giant breaker being flipped in the cultural consciousness, it is one of the more significant bitflips in the grand scheme of games' general acceptance as an important form of art and an important contribution to human culture.
Anyway - mostly the piece is an interview with Jason Rohrer, but also interviewed are Jon Blow, Jonaton Soderstrom, Jenova Chen, Eric Zimmerman, and several others, myself included. It seems like I get cast in the role as the 'big industry dude who is sympathetic to the cause' - which I suppose is how a lot of people see me. I myself would call that an oversimplification, but hey - it's an overview piece for a broad audience. I'll live.
There is one thing I want to call out in the article and kind of 'distance myself from' however - and that is the emphasis on the notion of the importance of the 'auteur'. I'm going to be careful not to put words in the mouths of Jason, Jon, Jenova or any of the others, but it feels to me that this article pushes the notion that central to the indie movement, and central to the idea that games are (or can be) art is the need to demonstrate that there are auteur game developers and it is the existence of the auteur that allows games to be art.
The meme pops up a few times in the article:
Even when working on more original fare, the enormous teams that create today’s video games dilute artistic intention. There are exceptions like Will Wright, whose legacy includes The Sims, but they stand out because they are exceptions. “For the most part,” Rohrer said, “there’s no single person trying to bring a specific vision to life.”
“Braid is something you could show to Roger Ebert and say, ‘Here is a work of authorial intention,’ ” Rohrer says.
"But it does reflect the fact that Braid is both a game and the artistic vision of a single person."
SoI think it's not unreasonable to read that the article is presenting the stance that the evolution of the status of games from 'toys and entertainment' to 'art' is fundamentally linked to the idea of authorship coming from the singular creative vision of an individual.
For the record, I strongly disagree with this stance - and furthermore, I feel it is treacherous ground in which to plant the 'games are henceforth art' flag, as I suspect it is ground that will quickly be lost to (or surrendered by) the first generation of artists who even attempt to question it (in fact - for those of us 'in the know' it has been and continues to be, questioned all the time).
Now - keeping in mind that not that long ago I wrote a post titled 'On Authorship in Games' - a kind of sister post to this one - that championed the notion that there was authorship in games (in an attempt to address Ebert's challenge). How can I say the opposite now?
Well, frankly, I am not saying the opposite. What I said then was that there is authorship in games and if that is the criteria Ebert needs to have fulfilled in order for him to count games as art - then it exists and the question is closed. I was not arguing that authorship is universally, or even for me, what makes games art.
For me the criteria is much simpler - games are art because some people believe them to be. That's all that is really required. And it is with that definition safely in my back pocket that I will continue to question the 'auteur' model of meaning and artfulness that seems sometimes espoused by the indie movement and by others (and by the article in question).
I really, honestly, do not believe that games 'ought to come from the singular creative vision of an individual'. They can, of course, and I celebrate the existence of the Blow's and Rohrer's out there. But for me, the real beauty of games comes (partially) from the collaborative process that creates them (the development process) - which itself parallels the (centrally important) collaborative process that allows them to mean at all (the playing of them).
I guess what I am saying is that I am concerned that the article conflates two ideas that for me are very separate; one, that there is authorship behind these seemingly unauthored stuctures we call modern games, and two, that games are art. These ideas existing side-by-side seems (in my reading of the article) to suggest a connection between the idea that it is in authorship that the art of games lies. This idea is runs counter to everything I believe about games and I can't accept it.
I believe very fundamentally that the more authorship is removed, the more room there is in a game for beauty. By extension, I further believe that the more the 'auteur' abdicates his own 'singular vision' to those with whom he is collaborating in the creation of the game, the more room there is in the game for beauty.
Now this notion of 'leaving room for beauty' is a bit tricky, I admit. There is a lot of room for beauty in the Louvre, but there is also a lot of room for beauty in an abbatoir. How that room is used is kind of central. Clearly, you can much more predictably provide beauty with a well-rounded portion of authorship while still leaving lots of room for players to add to that beauty if they so choose. Clearly, abdicating all authorship means asking the player to be an artist, and that's probably not a very high-yield recipe for art.
But in some ways, I feel this is the very purpose of games. Every other artistic medium is authored in the traditional sense: the message passes down from author to audience through the medium. But games (as we know) are different. Input is expression, and when players input their expression it passes back into the medium, where it feeds back against predictions the author(s) made about the kinds of things players might express (never reaching the author directly).
In McLuhan-ian terms the message of all (okay, most) other media is that the Author is 'above' and 'primary' and that meaning and art 'declines' from His Wisdom and Grace. The message of games is that the Author has 'recused' Himself and that he has willingly set himself outside the system of his work so that meaning and art can 'incline' from the Player.
That's, like, the most beautiful thing ever.
To me, it does not matter that most of the art will be 'bad'. In fact, the notion that all these player expressions are 'bad art' only exists when we cling to auteur-centric models of what makes good art. It's like the religious notion that morality is not valid unless you subscribe to the religion in question - that even if you lead a 'good' life, you will go to Hell if you don't accept Jesus or some shit. The point is that it doesn't matter if the vast majority of player expressions are nonsensical and seem to be 'bad art' - the beauty comes from the fact that they are player expressions. It doesn't matter if you take Jesus into your heart if you live a good life. If believing in the player's expression condemns me to eternity in player-created-content-purgatory, so be it.
To me, that's what games are: they are places for players to practice self-expression safely, where they can gain confidence in their ability to express themselves and hopefully one day recognize that all the ways in which they express themselves are beautiful. When all of mankind is able to confidently express themselves beautifully, I believe the work of human culture is done.