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November 15, 2009


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Part of me is breaking this post down for arguments I can use in ongoing debate with those who say that games are not art. So here comes the devil's advocate response: If games are art because they enable the player, does that make a charitable art studio stocked with brushes and canvases and comfortable benches into a work of art as well? Does it make that space into a play space?

At what point do the game designer's electronic play-spaces and the charitable playground developer's physical constructs, in rising, finally converge? (Is it the holodeck?)

For the sake of argument, I'm also curious: Are game designers and players simultaneously artists, collaborating in isolation to create the play, the expression, the content? Or is the designer the artist and the player a part of the medium?

I keep thinking, with your talk of art inclining from the player, that "all that rises must converge." That the beautiful blur where authorship and agency become difficult to separate is the unique territory that makes games not just art, but their own separate art form.

But I'm still digesting.

Correction: I should say, does that make the studio into a game (as the answer to "into a play space" is too easy).

"...he has willingly set himself outside the system of his work so that meaning and art can 'incline' from the Player."

Ironic; that sounds like a pretty good response to the problem of evil. Anyway, here's a different opinion/perspective:

I'm not sure it's fair to non-game art to say that games are the only medium where meaning 'inclines' from the audience. I certainly find meaning in painting and literature that I don't think the author intended to put there, and I find different meaning than those around me. Heck, I know my wife sees something in Pollock that I don't. The artist creates a work that encourages me to find meaning, and perhaps a certain kind of meaning, but typically doesn't just hand that meaning to me.

The question gets more complicated in performance art. Is the meaning and art provided by the composer, the musician, or the listener? Certainly, all three - each must participate to give meaning and art to the performance, and each has the power to prevent that meaning and art from emerging. It's always a collaboration between artist and audience, and the more each party is involved, the more 'art' can be produced.

The problem is, getting involved in a work of art can be difficult. I have a hard time getting intellectually and emotionally involved in surrealism, or dance. Some works of art do a better job of encouraging us to get involved and find meaning than others do, and some mediums better lend themselves to involvement than others. As a performer I find it much easier to see the 'art' in music than I do as a listener, because I am naturally involved. I think games are special not because they are the art form where the player provides meaning, but because their invitation for the player to interact with the system makes involvement easy (even automatic), and gives the game more direct power to encourage or discourage the discovery of beauty and meaning than, say, a painting.

I made a new game and it is art and promotes beautiful self expression. It's called play the violin.

Do game designers own interactivity? Sounds like you're describing a simulation that lets players be performance artists. Which sounds neat but people won't call it a game. Maybe it needs a new word. Gart. I just made that up. Do you think it will stick?

Let me start by saying I totally agree that singular authorship != art. I perhaps disgree as to just how damaging a conflation that is, but it is definitely dangerous territory to tread into as we try to push on what games are and the beauty or meaning players can experience with them.

But, you make a similarly dangerous conflation to me - you conflate the notion of player expression with singular authorship. A game can come from the vision of a single individual while that authorship defines the possibility space for player expression. Whether a game that has a wide space for player expression was driven from the vision of a single individual or a collaborative group is meaningless to the player.

For those of us that wish to both make our own games and encourage player expression, that conflation is frustrating, but it's also similarly damaging in that it's also trying authorship in games with how they can convey beauty or meaning through player expression - it inhibits our ability to push for more player expressivity because you're tying it to how the game is created. If was created through the work of a single individual, would that inhibit its beauty or expressivity? If Spore was created by one person, would that somehow limit the creativity of players making creatures?

Unless your argument is that a single individual truly *can't* create such games, but I'm hard pressed to find support for that argument.

Sucks - I posted a reply, but it got lost in the void... on my own fucking blog too!

Anway - it went like this:

Brad: I think I mostly covered all the stuff you're talking about in the Authorshp post of 2 years ago - linked in this new post. Mostly, I think there is a fundamental difference between 'subjective interpretation' or a work as a 'sort of interaction', and *literal interaction*.

Fran: your smarmy sarcasm and highly suspect link leads me to beleive you're just griefing. If you have something serious to add, please do so - even if it is highly critical - but keep it above board or I'll block you.

Borut: You're right - I do not mean to conflate 'games that promote player expression' with 'games that are created by a team'. This is how it works for *me*, and if it is otherwise for you I think that's great. I just want to refute the notion the article rests so heavily on that singular authorship is what has allowed us to arrive at 'art' status.

To answer your specific question in a way that might enlighten some of my thinking/feeling:

>> If Spore was created by one person, would that somehow limit the creativity of players making creatures?

If that person was me: probably. Even though I advocate abdication of as much authorship as possible in order to leave room for player expression, it still has to be wrenched from me while I cling to it by my bloody fingernails. In some ways, I feel as though the process of working with a team and 'unlocking' their creativity (that sounds more pretentious than I want - but I forget how I said it in the comment I posted BUT LOST yesterday), the process of helping a group of people understand and channel their collective vision is a kind of 'weening off' of the authorship that I ultimately try to give to the player.

If that makes any sense at all...

I think there are two different authorship questions:
1. Who is the author of a game when a player can affect what happens?
2. Who is the author of a game when it is made by a large team?

And the feeling I get is you're mixing the two questions. The lines you quote from the article refer to question 2, what you write at the end about McLuhan etc. refers to question 1. No? I mean, I'm a bit tired and I'm at work and I am supposed to fix a showstopper before we submit, so... maybe I'm wrong.

For what it's worth, my short (and lazy) answer to both questions is that the question no longer makes sense, but for different reasons.


(Also: not amused by TypePad's auth mechanisms.)

Auteur theory is a fallacy in other media as well. I'm surprised that no one has mentioned film as a comparison. Even an auteur film like The Shining had many many talented professionals working on it in lighting, sound, filming, not to mention acting. It seems to be missed in the article, but it's worth remembering that Braid is a collaboration between John Blow and David Hellman.

The idea of the lone author expressing a single pure vision is entrenched in our culture, but it's completely bogus. Games are a crucible in which this issue becomes pronounced, where, even with the most singular authorial vision, the player becomes a participant in the work.

In other words- auteurship was never real, but it took until games before we were forced to acknowledge its falseness.

Great post - real food for thought. I was going to write something very similar to Calvin. Auteur theory in any medium is controversial, not just the collaborative ones. Many totally reject the idea of the creator preaching their reason for being to their audience - many artists refuse to speak about their own art at all to avoid this idea.

When I look at a picture I don't think of the artist at all, I communicate in my own way with the shapes on the canvas. The artist might try to subtly lead me one way or the other via technique, but if they start dictating too much they may annoy or lose me on the journey. With respect to Jonathan Blow, I have little interest in his own reading of Braid, as my own is infinitely more interesting to me (that sounds pompous, but you get what I mean).

But where games are not as unique as many say, is that the decisions taken in the creation of any system are still fundamentally important and 'artistic'. Appreciation of the craft is still relevant. A focus on the 'auteur' of any piece of art still has a useful function, even if its not directly relevant to the experience of digesting it, or expressing ourselves within it.

Excellent post indeed.

I was surprised to see the article published a week after I wrote that the NYT consider games an art form by placing articles about them in the Arts section, and not Technology or Business.

Of course there has been talk (and acceptance) of this amongst gamers/developers for years, but now we see how a respected outsider like the NYT (and other media outlets, who follow NYT's lead) convey the placement of games in society.

For them, it has taken Rohrer and Blow (etc) to embrace the status of independent artist, expressing it through their games - allowing the players to know that they are engaged in a work of art, and then preach it as so.

That process and status is much easier for the NYT to recognize and define. Especially with the unlikely sense of artistic merit emerging from contemporary games published with multi-million budgets, made by large teams, looking for large returns... the ones becoming destined for the 'cultural ghetto' as Hecker put it. That is a connotative view that is being reshaped.

Simply recognizing, accepting, and saying that games are an art form, even if it starts with the auteurs, is just the first step in the evolving renaissance. Luckily we have people such as yourself who are actively progressing the perspective from the inside.

It's only a matter of time that the outside will see it this way. How long have we been waiting for this NYT article to be written?

Sorry! I tried to be funny and that just gets me in trouble. I wanted to be anonymous and made up a link...who knew it actually worked?!

I actually had a point in there somewhere. Our brains are so strongly hardwired to think about things in terms of a person that we cannot even deal with groups of people. We collect them up and anthopomorphize them to form a single person. The way my brain models groups of people like Blizzard and Valve and Ubisoft is as a person...a character with a certain personality and a will. And without a true auteurship, that is how my brain sees most video game anthropomorphic person-like entity called Valve has created this game.

We desperately seek evidence of human agency all around us. If the author of the video game recuses himself, then the player will seek the one other human, himself as the author. I, the player, made this art using a tool I call "Little Big Planet". Then like others said, the art is either the performance or sub-creation and the video game was a tool. Hence the smarmy violin comment. If there is a McLuhan-ian philosophy that says otherwise, then that is in conflict with how most people feel and possibly the only way that conflict is resolved is a clean slate and a new concept to be defined. Hence the smarmy gart comment.

I hope that was all less smarmy!

Excellent post Clint, I totally agree. I've thought for a long time that a few of "games are art"'s most prominent proponents were a little fixated on the Ebert challenge and limited their own attempts to validate gaming because they used such a narrow lens. His interpretation of what constitutes art is almost certainly wrong now, because I think, with the rise of gaming, its definition has been forced to expand to include the end user and larger collaboarative groups (though I'd argue with much more emphasis on the former).

One could, however, see a kind of theoretically infinitely repeating progression of artistic input unique to the medium in that it that never breaks the creative chain: direct input - the team develops a game; primary input - the players create their own experiences within that game; secondary input - the players then give the team feedback on how to improve the experience; direct input - the team issues an update, new content, or develops a new game bearing this feedback in mind. Repeat until creatively bankrupt/no longer financially viable for the publisher.

Anyway, as Calvin pointed out, it's not like film is the most author controlled medium either. Even a Kubrick will usually still have to rely on a large team taking on various areas of expertise, people who know what makes X scene better using their experience and skill, experience and skill that our talented director may lack.

I can almost see parallels between player artistic input in games and outsider art in that there's a group of possibly not artistically inclined people creating works using the tools they want to. Maybe I'm taking that a bit too far.

I've been playing a lot of Noby Noby Boy lately, and it's fantastic, but it could be said that it both passes Ebert's challenge and enables the player. Takahashi (unless this is a huge misconception, which now I think about it it probably is) seemed to be the absolute creative force behind that game in terms of authorship, but outside the aesthetic and premise it's not a narrative driven experience, at least not from within the game itself. It's very obviously a Takahashi game, but it relies on the player to fire the creative processes and allow an experience to unfold based on his or her input. It's truly non-linear, but you'd struggle to see that mentioned in any reviews.

Banjo-Kazooie: Nuts & Bolts is another interesting example. It deals with reliance on player puzzle solving ability in a totally open-ended way and applies that to a very traditional game structure. It's not a perfect union, but it was one of the most refreshing experiences of last year. I'm sort of trying to avoid mentioning Far Cry 2, but it shows a similar ethic of player-centric dynamism within a more traditional structure even if the games work in entirely different ways. Trine is another, more limited example in that it gives the player a more simplistic toolset with which to approach the levels, but it works because this takes place within more simplistic tropes.

Sorry, this post has just been a massive ideas splurge. If I'm misinterpreting anything or am horribly wrong in some way, I apologise. I may also have conflated meta- and normative design theories somewhere along the line. We really need to come up with names for them. I vote for "Universal Inclusive Theory".

The thing I do not understand is how come in movies it doesn't bother Ebert that an art piece can be the work of multiple persons (or, for that matter, in renaissance's giant paintings that had a master and up to a dozen aprentice working on the same canvas) but not in game ?

If you look at movies that are considered art, I believe that it would be hard to defend the point that one person made it possible, even a tyrant as some directors are has to leave at least a tiny bit of space to his collaborator's creativity for the movie to exist.

Aslo, the debate about interpretation / understanding of the original intentionality is not what I'd call new, but if the side of "who cares about what the artist wanted to do" or even "how he made it" were to be taken, would it not solve the whole question ?

If the artist is not relevant to the interpretation / understanding of a piece, why would anyone care about authorship ?

How do you, Chris and other commenters feel about that ?

Sorry I meant Clint (I don't know why I keep doing that, in every conversation I have, you and Chris Remo are mixed up)

I'm probably that guy who spouts things so off-base that no one can justify a response to it. But every blog comments section needs them and this is a fun topic so I'll keep going!

Defining art is subjective but I assume the one thing everyone can agree on is that art has to be a communication of some kind. For something to feel like a communication, there is the speaker and the listener. Our language causes us to say things like "the rules of theoretical physics are speaking to me and it evokes a sense of beauty" but you would not call them a work of art unless you believed in a creator, hence a speaker. It is easier to feel like there is a speaker when the message is from a single person. That is what our brains are used to. It is also possible from multiple people, but only if it feels like the message is from a tribe, or the anthropomorphic collection of a group of people, thought of with the traits of a single person.

If games are blurring the lines between speaker and listener, it is blurring the definition of what most people call art. Like how most people on the street think art means skillfully navigating the challenging possibility space of a medium, and someone like Willem de Kooning trashes that because they think their kid could have painted that. Once those lines are blurred, how long would it take before most people think games are art? How long would it take to convince most people in the world that a Willem de Kooning painting is high art?


I think that's the heart of what I am getting at. I believe the one-way speaker-to-listener notion of art is dead. I think (I'm not an art historian) that this is the general consensus among people fluent in the discussion. But ultimately, that discussion is an academic or professional level discussion and not a broad or general public one.

Games, however, force this more nuanced way of looking at art onto the 'ordinary' person. If you have to be either really smart and/or really well educated, and/or really open-minded to accept De Kooning as 'high art', that's one thing - but even the layman discussion of what art is, what it means, why it is important, and where it resides is brought violently down to earth via games - and it crash landed in the laymans back yard. And that is a good thing.

To me, 'are games art' is a non-question. 'How do we convince people games are art' is a question, but it is mostly irrelevant. How do games - which are art - impact our understanding of what art is, and what the artist is? These seem like important questions to me - questions that games can help us *answer* (to the extent that such questions can have answers) instead of merely theorizing about.

>>Defining art is subjective but I assume the one thing everyone can agree on is that art has to be a communication of some kind. For something to feel like a communication, there is the speaker and the listener.<<

On this, I am not sure. I think the 'art as communication' model inherently ties (as you suggest) to a speaker-listener model. A better model might be 'art as communion' (which I concede is a kind of communication - but with what? - and that'smy point...)

The speaker-listener is 'us' (developers and players) the listener-speaker is *also* us (players and developers). There is a dialectic through input and feedback (what the players say and what the developers say) acting as thesis-antithesis and the 'internal dialogue' that's happening between the 'first us' and the 'second us' synthesizes meaning.

The 'real' art (the thing that matters) is not in the textures or the sound files (which themselves could be art, but that's not what we're talking about) - but neither does the art lie in the authored system space of the game. The art (that matters) lies only in the dynamic space.

To say that the developer has authored the domain of the dynamic space is only the same as saying 'Socrates decided what we will debate today'... but Socrates did not know where his thesis would lead and did not know what the synthesis would be - and that is what makes dialectic beautiful - *something is created out of nothing* by the conversation *among* people (conversely: nothing is created in the speaker-listener model, something is only poorly transmitted from one mind to another).

It is in that magical act of creation that seems not to even have a creator, that we (I?) see something divine. (hows that for flakey and hand-wavey :) )

Anyway, in the case of games - that *something* is art.

Ali bumaye!

Cool! If I'm understanding correctly, you're saying it doesn't matter what most people think because some enlightened people are investigating some interesting things. In which case, I guess it doesn't matter too much what the NYT thinks

This all brings it to abstract territory that I probably have no business being in. What distinguishes dynamic vs static authored system space? If a game designer is carving out possibility space instead of carving out an experience, then why is that not still considered authored (just a different kind of carving)? I guess if the space is large enough, it just doesn't feel like it has been authored or that the designer hasn't fully touched and manipulated the entire space.

If the traditional function of a game is becoming triumphant and skillful by navigating to goalposts within a possibility space, does a game built primarily for self-expression become more of a toy than a game? A toy used for self-expression feels more or less like the definition of a traditional artistic medium

The example I keep coming back to is Legos, which are game-like in the sets and tools designed and provided alongside demonstrable goals (build this castle or this spaceship), and are clearly toys with which games can be played. The point being that while Legos are designed, and the craftspeople who make Legos might be said to be artists, the designer of a Lego set is not the artist of the original works created by the end user. The way that Legos are used makes them intuitively different from games, but I think analogies are the best we can sometimes manage when comparing things to games.

(I tend to come back to Wittgenstein here and conclude, perhaps too simply, that games are often something intuitively recognized, not empirically defined.)

I think it's fair to say that, as they are designed more and more to be play spaces with malleable goals, games may tend to approach the toy end of the spectrum, but that in itself is a design choice. How long until the boundary between, say, a game and the Xbox dashboard is so permeable as to be meaningless? The boundary between playing a game and playing with a toy is soft, too, and yet we get by.

And I say this as someone who would be sorry to see authorship sacrificed in favor of play spaces or toolboxes alone. (As someone chided for making a paper RPG too "toolboxy," I may be overly sensitive on this point.) Sometimes I want a vast playground and sometimes I want an interactive trip through an authored experience.

Anyway, I guess I'm wondering how much you all view the role of the game designer as being like that of a tool designer — is the new aim of the game designer to create tools that facilitate, can I say, emergent communion?

Will, I love the Lego example, especially having childhood memories of building castles and staging battles with them in my basement.

Lego is merely setting up the pieces to do anything you'd like, from staging massive historical medieval battles to simply a duel between two characters that result in leg dismemberment. Or, relive Star Wars in Lego form.

Staging huge battles would not be viable with a toy such as Lego (I couldn't have afforded that many pieces), but it is possible with video games.

When does one have to grow up and stop using a toy? If the Lego pieces are used under a different context - perhaps to stage medieval battles as accurately as possible - then the time 'playing' might be worth investing, as it is actually time learning.

In that case, you probably wouldn't use Lego, but an alternate form of knight better suited for the purpose.

For game developers, the time invested playing games is justified. What about for the gamer? The target audience have chunks of time to kill, and the younger you are, the more surplus time you have to allocate playing games.

Those who have grown up on games (some Gen X, most of Gen Y) now value their time differently, if they have any to spare. They are an established gamer audience and other forms of art still capture their time.

When the gamer enters a dynamic space where they influence their own experience, there is still an origin to the conditions set up as the environment. These conditions are set with a purpose and meaning for the user to discover through their actions.

The best thing to happen to the above is connectivity of additional users inside the same dynamic space. It is no longer just the user interacting with the creator.

The exploration to achieve an answer is often the best part of any creative endeavor. Besides enjoying the creative result.

Thanks for posting this. It’s good to hear more game developers speaking out on the auteur issue. The fallacy of the ‘hero factory’ that’s present in other disciplines is really kind of strange when you think about it. Why do we feel the need to idolize anyway? Is it an issue of apathy? Why is it that the mainstream can’t seem to discuss anything game related without a poster boy (or girl)?

I read “Smartbomb” awhile back and it actually did a great job examining the industry from the inside out. That said, they couldn’t help asking why people like Tony Hawk and Britney Spears are well known but game developers aren’t. Janet Murray essentially says the same in thing in “Hamlet on the Holodeck” (albeit with a much more condescending tone) when she states that the games industry will come of age when a Dickens or Shakespeare appears. To quote Ms. Turner, we don’t need another hero!

Although I respect what people like Rohrer and Blow do (and am probably guilty myself of idolizing the Miyamotos, Wrights, Uedas, Ancels, Sudas etc of the world) it’s depressing that people still eagerly await some sort of gaming messiah to validate it as ‘art’ to the masses.

On the other hand, it’s exciting and encouraging that video games can break this perception (as noted earlier) across multiple disciplines.

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