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August 10, 2007


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Good analogies. I have one where I use architecture as the analogy, but that's probably not as good for general use, because not so many people think of a building as art (and most buildings are craft), whereas a symphony is stereotypically art.

The part of this that was most interesting to me was the bit about the game presenting the same thing as the sum of a bunch of individual stories. However, of course, this points out one of the weaknesses of games, which someone is sure to call you on: that the points in that story-space that we find the most meaningful or "artful" are at various extremes, and the game system is (probably) going to mostly produce things toward the middle, and if it reaches an extreme, that's an accident.

I don't think that property reduces the artfulness of what a game is, but for someone who doesn't understand games, it might be a good enough excuse to maintain denial.

I also use the symphony analogy when this comes up. It's not a perfect mapping to games, but then again that's also the point.

(And the questions/challenges that analogy doesn't address--I don't find those interesting anyway.)

The thing that I do like about the architecture analogy, though, is that there is a clear separation between the art object and the usage, the way there is in games. (i.e. the building is the work, it is designed to influence the way people live in it, but not to control that, and the living-in-it is not supposed to be the art, though it is all the time affected by the art.)

Mr. Coins,

You are being fairly cynical and glib. Your argument is seemingly invalidated if even one person with artistic intent produces a game and gives it away to be played freely. And indeed there are many such games today.

Very nice post Clint.

Maybe I'm just overly sympathetic to Ebert, but I think his declarations are half an expression of his position, and half a set of questions he'd like answered. He clearly wants this to be discussed and argumented intelligently and, given the large audience he brings along, I thank him for that. I hope your extremely insightful answer will reach many more people than those normally reading your blog (we are mostly sold to your side already).

That said, a few comments:

- The artistic value of a craft is not so much tied to its ability to communicate intellectual messages and information, as it is to convey emotions, stimulate sensibilities, and allow sophistication of execution. A documentary may teach me more about the nature of racial tensions than Crash, but I won't necessarily consider it more artistic because of that.

- GTA may be more meaningful and compelling than Crash, but to whom? My mother "gets" Crash, but she doesn't "get" GTA. Heck, _I_ get the art in Crash, and I can barely get the art in GTA. Not everyone will be able to experience and appreciate the value of all artforms and works of art. A craft becomes accepted as an artform by the majority, when the majority (or a sufficiently influential subset) has a reasonable amount of works that they appreciate as having artistic value. We discuss with Ebert, show him all the things that make GTA or Shadow of the Colossus works of art, and at some point he says "Ok, I see what you mean; games *can* be art. I just personally won't appreciate the art in games because games (the activity, the themes, the dynamics, the literacy) are as alien to me as painting is to a blind person." Now what? Nobody cares except those who already did.

Our most important challenge is not to convince others that games can be art, but to learn ourselves how to make games that are more valuable, memorable and meaningful rather than simple, forgettable, opportunistic (even if very entertaining and fun) pastimes.

Dude, you've been ranting about this since 11:40 last night. That's like 17 hours non-stop. I happen to agree with Clint, but regardless, though you are of course entitled to your opinion (as are Clint and Mr. Ebert), this is verging on obsessive. RELAX and get some freaking sleep man. Don't take out your frustrations on Clint, he's just voicing his opinion, as is his right.

I should think that the breadth of installation artwork would be a sufficient rebuttal of Mr. Ebert's position. Videogames are not unique in abdicating a certain degree of control to the audience; many installation works are interactive and essentially meaningless/inert without some participant. Among art scholars, I don't think it would be controversial to label the work of Rafael Lozano-Hemmer as 'art,' and his works are quite dependent on an audience to interact with the works (particularly "Vectorial Elevation.")Ken Goldberg's "Telegarden" is another good interactive new-media-art example.

I also like the architectural analogy, because it works on both a metaphorical and literal level - videogame level design is essentially architecture in practice (crafting literal spaces for players to traverse and to induce a particular mood,) and the crafting of game systems and mechanics is a metaphorical type of architecture (crafting systemic spaces for players to explore, etc.)

Of course, with all that said, while I think videogames are necessarily art(I like Dr. John Valentine's definition - any artifact intentionally made or remade to be a candidate for aesthetic notice) most of it is bad art (though that doesn't disqualify it from art-ness.) As long as public literacy of interactive spaces remains low (preventing ordinary folks from discerning high art from low art in games,) it will be a while before videogames are popularly recognized as 'art.'

Whether games are legally art or not is immaterial. The philosophy of aesthetics is certainly not bounded by the law. The status of games can be compartmentalized in that sense.

In that same sense I consider the creation of toys to be art as well - they certainly require artistic judgments in their design and production. It might not be considered a "high art," but under the definition of art I use it certainly qualifies just as much as any Duchamp or Renoir. That doesn't have any bearing on the legal status of toys, of course.

That's something of a fallacy - is a painting not art if the artist keeps the work private? Of course not - the Mona Lisa was art the moment it was created; not the moment it was submitted to the Louvre. The art status of an artifact is not tied to its location, physical or temporal.

Of course, one's personal definition of what art is depends on one's philosophy of aesthetics. As I stated above, I subscribe to a very broad definition of art, and I don't see a clear line between "art" and "craft." Certainly everyone is entitled to their own viewpoint on a personal matter like that, although it seems your view that games are not art is rooted mainly in some sort of anti-capitalist ideology.

Philosophers do - and that's the nature of this question Mr. Hocking is examining. The point I make is that the art-ness of an object is intrinsic to the artifact - it's not bestowed on it by virtue of where or when it can be found. Therefore, just because videogames are not found in museums does not disqualify them from being considered as art objects.

Similarly, the monetary question (which you raised) earlier I feel is also immaterial. You posited above that videogames cannot be art because they are commissioned for money, and that 'no artist is an employee.' You're certainly free to take that view; but bear in mind that you will have inadvertently disqualified pretty much the entire Renaissance from art-ness. Most works of that period were commissioned for money, either by the Church or by wealthy nobles. Further, many of these works were completed in part by apprentices under the direction of the master.

Thus, I think it is fair to say that the art-ness of an object is also not dependent on whether there was a financial incentive, or whether the artifact was crafted by a team of artists. While I can understand some of the distaste held for crassly commercial art (e.g. the works of Thomas Kinkade,) that does not disqualify them from being art objects.

Wow, who let the Insert Coins comment-bot loose on this thread? Someone ought to nice that process. ;) BTW, IC, I think Clint's employer is clear from the games listed in his sidebar, but hey, that's just me.

A clearly considered and well thought out post. Jon, I agree with your thoughts -- if you think of it as a set of possible stories, you do have to bear in mind that the bulk of stories possible to generate are not interesting. Indeed, I think that in a way, games with a narrative arc are merely grafting on a more interesting story on top of the story that the player tells himself, and scripted "wow" events that occur in highly linear games serve that purpose as well. I'm particularly interested to see what Braid brings to the table in this respect -- from what I've read (and continuing the analogy), you're presenting not just a set of stories, but a set of sets of stories, since the governing rules (and themes) change from level to level.

In a sense, games as systems tend to these stories in the middle much as complex systems in nature tend towards stable states. For example, when you think about things on a quantum level, there's a chance that a large bunch of molecules could arrange themselves in a geometrically repeating pattern (such as required for superconductivity). In practice, that never happens -- the odds are vanishingly small -- but it can be made to happen by putting some energy into the system. In the case of a set of stories, the writer supplies the energy to the system to push that set of characters into an interesting extreme, as you describe. In the case of a game, we hedge (providing narrative elements and big bang events), assuming that most players will not do that, though some will; Clint gave a GDC talk a year or two ago about a video he found on the Internet where a player made use of Splinter Cell's systems to tell an interesting and humorous story. This was a player who went the extra mile to fully explore the systems of the game, to become expert with them, and to use them to show one possible interesting extreme of the system, in this case a humorous one. And, of course, mods involve some part of the player community collaborating on derivative works which might themselves be works of art, and here the energy is put in to push to some other extreme of the play space (Counterstrike being a swell example of this).

Highly non-linear games (such as the traditional adventure game) simply involved lots more energy on the part of the designer to push to an interesting state; play was introduced via puzzles, typically with a single solution. In a way, old-school text adventures left the player to find the complete solution by putting lots of energy into the system, typically through lots of replaying the game (I'm thinking of Deadline, for example, which really required multiple playthroughs, but even games like Zork where you had to decide what to carry made for a lot of replay to get a complete trophy chest).

Another example of the designer putting the energy in is levels of difficulty. It gives the player the choice to determine what sort of story he wants to be told -- one in which he'll probably die fairly rarely vs one in which the game will probably be a constant challenge (but which may itself tend to yield some interesting stories, such as being low on hit points or what have you but triumphing nonetheless).

I believe he means that Clint is not trying to hide the fact he is employed by Ubisoft, or trying to insinuate otherwise.

The videogame industry is (unfortunately) not unique in receiving corporate welfare. There isn't anything special or unusual about it, and the videogame industry is not any more sinister or greedy for taking it than any other industry/interest group. If you oppose your government funding videogame development...this is probably not the right journal or audience to complain about it.

I don't buy the idea that sold for profit = not art. This seems like yet another arbitrary rule, limitation and definition of art that has no real place in the discussion. This gets back to the fundamental discussion of art and it's definition, which eventually leads to a complete devolution of this debate... but the fact that the game is taken from the artists by a corporation and then sold for profit does not, in any way, change the fact it was -- first and foremost -- and artistic production.

Political involvement in the cash-in of these products also has no real bearing on this discussion. If I produce an artistic piece, give it to someone, and he makes $1 profit by re-selling it, the piece is not taken from the world of art into the world of product.

And let's face it, art is intent. When we make games, even the simplest, we are trying to tug some emotion from the player. That "intent" alone makes the game a form of art. Ebert tries mightily to distinguish between "high" and "low" art, which is his own personal way of separating games from what people would thusly consider to be "real" art (low art is not art, apparently). which gets back to the first point of this little post: we cannot, and should not, put arbitrary rules, limitations and additions to an already elusive definition of art.

If the people who make the games intend for the games to be art, then they ARE art.

I can understand why Clint doesn't post in this comments thread. This guy is a nutjob.

To me, this is an argument with no pragmatic consequences. If games are art, I will continue to make games as I do. If games are not art, I will continue to make games as I do.

I personally believe games are art simply because they take an aesthetic eye to create well.

But this whole argument is one big ego trip for gamers and non-gamers alike. Gamers want their hobby to be intellectual verified and non-gamers don't like to think of that-thing-that-kids-and-nerds-do as valuable to society in any form.

I'm more upset that my tax dollars are NOT being used to give 'insert coins' the proper mental care that (s)he clearly deserves rather than having my tax dollars going to fund one of those cultural industries that HAS put Canada on the map. In this age of brain drain and declining relevance, Canada should be proud that such people and such developers are not just successful, but successful AND Canadian.

Well, though I don't agree that you need to own a company to create art - if you did, then almost three-quarters of all the world's great films would suddenly not be art - I do like the fact that there are still fresh, angry voices like insert coins around. The rest of the game industry is so incestuously steeped in groupthink and drivel - so thoroughly indoctrinated to be corporate lackies and not stand up for their own rights and take their own power - I'm not surprised they accuse IC of insanity. Truth is, his voice is one of the most sane I've heard in a long time.

First, I'll apologize for having modified the comment history on this post. About 25-30 comments from a single commentor have been removed at his own request as off-topic. I apologize also to the other commentors above whose responses have in some cases lost some of their context with the removal of said comments. I hope something liek that does not happen again.

Now that it has calmed down here a bit, I'll reply quickly to a few of the insightful replies this post generated.

Jare - I am also very sympathetic to Ebert. Early drafts of this post were more of an attack, but after I calmed down a bit I realized that in fact Ebert represents the vast majority of people on the planet in his failure to understand this new medium. It's not his fault. He's not trying to beat us down or anything. He just doesn't get it. Helping someone who is clearly as intelligent as Ebert try to understand is a small step in the right direction. And you're right - even if we win him over... what now? Well, nothing now. It's not going to change anything materially. It's an argument in principle. Even if he were to accept it in principle, it will not materially affect his literacy in the medium and enable him to experience the art. No matter how much your mom wants to see the art in GTA:SA, she likely never will. The literacy required takes years to build, I think. I'll be posting my thoughts on this form of literacy sooner or later....

Brett - I really like the analogy of designer energy into a dynamic story system being able to generate potential wells that take middling game mechanical movements and pressure them toward the extremes to create functional climaxes. In this way the necessarily ordered states of high intensity dramatic climaxes are generative - not formally authored. You're right to point out that it's not fundamentally different than level-of-difficulty management. It's significantly more involved and complicated, but ultimately it's the same core concept.

Zack - I agree with the point you are making - that the argument is more or less moot - but I would caution against thinking there are NO pragmatic consequences. The most important pragmatic consequences I see are those of protection of speech (in the US, at least). Given recent pushes by legislators throughout the US to curtail our freedom of expression, there may indeed be very pragmatic consequences to the offical recognition of games as a form of artistic expression. When someone with a prominant public platform aserts that games are not art, sadly (and as dull and repetitive as it starts to feel) we are kind of obligated to rebutt, I think.

In a world of insane people, the truly sane sound like they are mad. His comments about control of the product were bang on. Of course, he raved about it, but that is just a delivery element - the substance cut right to the heart of it. Game designers are corporate whores. They don't control their own intellectual property. They don't get their name on the box. They waive their moral rights far too soon. If you're gonna talk authorship, then talk it. Don't dance around splitting intellectual hairs - get to the meat of it: control and authority.


I won't go too far down this path with you, but I think your stance is ideologically anti-corporate as opposed to well-reasoned. As James O mentions above, the vast majority of artists in history have created their works in much the same climate that corporate employed game designers do today. Do you discount Michelangelo's work because it was commissioned by the Church? Believe what you like about the individuals - I don't give fuck if you think I'm a whore - the authorship still fundamentally and inseparably connects back to me or to Michelangelo or whomever, regardless of who is productizing the work. To state otherwise is to deny 90% of the works achieved by humankind. It's absurd. Laughable even. Idealised anarcho-communism is not the only social/political/economic structure that can have 'art' as an output.

You reject the idea that the 'fruit of my labor' should belong to the corporation, and then you turn around and suggest that as an author I should somehow get credit - with my name on the box - for the fruits of the labor of 100+ people working on my game. It's a team that make my game. We do it collectively. In reality, I just don't give a shit about my name being on the box, or about owning the intellectual property created with the money of my company and the labor of my team. Why should I own it? I DON'T WANT TO OWN IT. I WANT TO MAKE GAMES THAT MOVE PEOPLE. I am not interested in the rest.

Well, Clint, if you manage to massage that into a game at some point, I wouldn't mind a credit ;)

I've been thinking about that stuff for a while. I think that we already do this to a certain extent, in games with multiple endings. Of course, I've been recently playing BioShock, and that's what's going on here, albeit in a very crude fashion. (The amount of energy applied to the system is essentially an equation -- if rescued(x sisters) then Ending1 else if harvested(...) etc.) But it seems like we can design systems that force or nudge towards, as you say, functional climaxes either in story or in-game events.

Just as a for example, or gedankenexperiment, consider an Oblivion-style game where rather than leveling up the creatures with us to maintain level of difficulty, we apply some sort of systemic dungeon ecology. Small monsters are eaten by bigger monsters, even bigger monsters come in for the hoards of treasure, what have you -- with nudges towards what look like reasonably steady states based on player time or level or what have you. You start off the game with giant rats to the east, and kobolds to the south, with a spider's nest off to the west. If you address the spiders first, the kobolds move in and start training the rats as mounts; if you address the kobolds first, perhaps orcs from further east move in and start eating the rats. Perhaps the spiders accumulate webbed up kobold bodies around their southeastern border -- rescue a few of those and maybe generate an uneasy truce between town and kobolds. Granted, there's a lot of issues swept under the rug here (and as a game programmer and tech lead, I fear that the rug begins to look like the Himalayas), but it's not too tough to imagine the sorts of systems that would be required (perhaps we divide monsters into classes and apply rules: humanoids expand their territory at particular rates, and when encountering "rideable" critters, begin training them, all of this taking time or being based on player variables such as level). With a little bit of designer nudging (i.e. doing whatever we do with the player variables to nudge towards these extremes), we begin to have a system which generates a handful of interesting stories.

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