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Pursuing a Video Game Masterpiece

Three speakers reflect on the "games as art" debate -- but not whether they are art (they are) but instead what that means, how developers can best pursue it, and what tendencies might be holding them back.

May 10, 2013

15 Min Read

Author: by Paul Walker

It's time to leave the debate as to whether video games are art or not behind. Instead, there is a need to consider how video games function as works of art, to ask whether game developers have properly grasped the nature of interactivity and to consider whether we as an audience really understand what it is about video games that makes them so compelling.

I invited three individuals to explore these issues with me -- Jonathan Blow, creator of the critically acclaimed Braid and upcoming exploration-puzzle game The Witness; Erlend Grefsrud, developer at Strongman Games and ex-game journalist; and Dr. Grant Tavinor, a philosophy academic at Lincoln University who has written a book and a number of articles on the subject of video games.

It would be all too easy to use other mediums like film and literature -- mediums already widely accepted as being "legitimately" artistic -- as a starting point, a frame of reference by which to judge video games and their potential for communicating with their audience. But as Dr. Tavinor is keen to point out, making such comparisons can be very misleading.

"I think that games have often been treated as film in criticism; often to their disadvantage. Roger Ebert [was] probably guilty of this in many of his remarks about games. If we treat games merely as a kind of film, with the same artistic standards as film, then they often do come off poorly," Dr. Tavinor explains. "As good as Red Dead Redemption is, the acting and writing is quite derivative and firmly B grade".

But it's not only in criticism that video games have been treated as a kind of film; the impact that Hollywood has had on game design is plain to see to anybody who cares to pick up a controller in their spare time. Indeed, video games are often praised for being "cinematic," but I do tend to wonder to what extent this is really a good thing. Will video games not always come off unfavourably in comparison to other mediums if they simply strive to ape what it is makes those mediums appealing? Grefsrud seems to share my concerns.

"Game designers are too preoccupied with proving that games can successfully emulate cinematic or literary techniques," Grefsrud argues. "Critics and audiences appear to measure quality as a factor of the developers' efforts in this meaningless exercise."

As Blow seeks to pinpoint how video games are best used as a form of artistic expression, he finds recourse to a similar position. "Too many game designers think in terms of crafting a linear experience and then forcing the player to have that experience. It's not random coincidence, though -- there are market forces that push triple-A games in this direction."

"I am not a big believer in games as vehicle for story," Blow continues. "A lot of games try that and most of them do very badly at it (though a few are excellent, like Dear Esther). Games are about simulations of worlds according to rules of behavior (even if your world is something very abstract, like a chessboard) and this makes all games like miniature toy versions of the universe we live in," Blow explains. "Unlike other forms of art, games are biased toward ideas that actually have to work. If you want to build a system that embodies some idea, well, you have to build the working system! So I would say that games are biased toward a certain kind of truth in a way that most forms are not."

As Blow suggests, games are all about systems -- they have mechanics, or rules, which define how the player can interact with the virtual world around them. Of course, there is always some degree of interaction between any given work of art its audience, but with video games, that relationship is fundamental in a way it is not for other mediums. The aforementioned tendency to judge video games against the standards of film and literature suggests that we still don't quite understand how that relationship between player and system works. For Dr. Tavinor, doing so is key.

"Do we really know what a video games masterpiece looks like?" Dr. Tavinor asks. "Perhaps we need to develop a distinctive theory of games to really understand their achievements. I suspect that understanding how their interactivity contributes to the art is crucial here." 

"Interactivity gives games a distinctive artistic potential that lots of games have exploited in interesting ways," Dr. Tavinor continues. "Games like Skyrim, BioShock and Grand Theft Auto IV have employed this interactivity to allow for a type of player-generated content, where the player's own role in the work of fiction is the subject of interpretation. BioShock employs the technique to generate a moral dilemma concerning how one treats the Little Sisters in the game, and this allows the game to make some sophisticated observations about altruism and politics. Grand Theft Auto IV has a pivotal moment where the player must make a decision that seems decisive of Niko's character in that work. Red Dead Redemption, both in its initial ride into Mexico section and in the final scenes, is another case where this interactivity is expertly wielded. In each of these cases, the onus is put on the player to perform the actions that ultimately generate the meaning of the artistic work."

If we are to properly understand how games function as art, it seems that we require a distinctly different mindset to that with which we would normally approach any given work of art. Looking for intrinsic meaning, as we are accustomed to do, is perhaps erroneous in a medium where the audience plays such a direct participatory role. Grefsrud argues that this role makes video games unique in the way they generate meaning.

"[In comparison to other mediums] games enable a different and more sensual form of co-authorship that eschews the authorial control of the author and the voyeuristic control of the spectator in favor of a negotiation that is meaning rather than yields meaning," Grefsrud explains. "The mode of agency that the player exerts, coupled with the way agency modulates systems outside the player's direct control, is the art."

An inevitable question now asks itself: if a video game's "meaning" is negotiated between the game's designer and the player, does this not limit the artistic potential of the medium? In other words, is it really possible to eschew the kind of consistency that complete authorial control offers and still produce a work with maintains artistic value? Dr. Tavinor is quick to acknowledge that the interactive nature of video games provides such a challenge.

"The problem as I see it is that the freedom that is so valued by gamers is somewhat inconsistent with the careful structure and determinate nature that you find in much good art," he says. "In a game such as Red Dead Redemption, if you give the player the freedom to do what they want in the world they may act badly, arbitrarily, or in ways otherwise contrary to the narrative or greater meaning of the game. This is actually the basis of one of film critic Roger Ebert's charges against games. He says that video games by their nature require player choices, which is the opposite of the strategy of serious film and literature, which requires authorial control. Though Ebert has taken a lot of flack over this, and though he is probably wrong about the artistic status of games, he has something here: interactivity does compromise authorial control and reconciling this is a challenge to game design."

While conceding this challenge exists, Dr. Tavinor sees a unique potential in this tension between authorial control and player freedom. "Ambiguity is often a valuable aspect in traditional art," Dr. Tavinor explains. "Good song lyrics, for example, are often open and vague enough that they can support multiple interpretations. Interactivity compounds this because of the potential for putting the player in an ambiguous position that they must themselves reconcile. I suspect that we are only seeing the beginning of what game artists will eventually make of this potential for interactive involvement."

As a game designer, Blow is unconcerned about the prospect of losing authorial control of his works and would prefer to embrace the potential for ambiguity and divergent experiences. "I don't really conceptualize games as trying to tell a story or send a message," Blow tells me. "At least, not if the kind of message you are talking about is one that can be stated: 'The moral of the story is, always look before you leap,' or whatever. That kind of story is for children, and it's useful in that kind of role, but reasonable adults deserve more."

"The kinds of things I want to do are multidimensional and nonlinear, fields of ideas for the mind to wander through and be drawn toward things to which that particular mind is inclined", Blow continues. "So this nonlinearity and natural divergence of interpretations is just great. Although, clearly, the divergence of interpretations is true for any work of art or actually for any concrete fact about the world!" 

I had heard Blow talk in the past about the fact that his game, Braid, was not intended to be "fun" in the strict sense of the term. Given that we have seen a number of games emerge from the indie scene which are not afraid to leave out elements one would normally expect from a video game and which stretch the boundaries of what we define as a "game" (Dear Esther and Proteus come to mind), I ask Blow whether we find ourselves in a position where we are forced rely on indie developers to innovate and whether mainstream developers focus too heavily on entertainment.

"Yes, I think mainstream developers focus too heavily on entertainment, but this is actually true of our whole society outside of games as well," Blow replies. "We have too much pursuit of shallow entertainment, which is why we have a society with so many depressed and sick people when in fact we are living in a time of unparalleled advantage and abundance."

"With regard to indie developers specifically, I wouldn't look at them as paragons of innovation," Blow continues. "Some indie developers innovate, but strictly speaking by quantity, most indie developers are just copying other peoples' games with minor changes, just like mainstream developers do. Look at all those iPhone games! The difference is just that you notice the indie games that are innovative because they make bigger splashes than the copies."

Video games have done a lot of growing up over the last two or three decades. But, in a virtual landscape dominated by gunshots, explosions and violence, it seems to me that there remains a lot of potential for video games to broaden their scope. I ask Blow if he feels video games need to continue to mature and deal with a broader variety of themes.

"Most games are extremely immature and in fact kind of embarrassing. That is obvious to anyone who is not immersed in game culture. But if you are immersed in game culture, it might be hard to see," Blow says. "As for whether games 'need' to mature, I don't know if they need to do anything, but definitely I think it would be nice if they were to mature on average. For sure there are some of us out there trying to make games for an audience with mature sensibilities. We'll see if that catches on."

Dr. Tavinor argues that "there is already evidence that this is happening and it is understandable why. As the gaming demographic ages, so the concerns and sophistication of the medium might grow with them," Dr. Tavinor explains. "Of course, not everyone is pleased with this development. When GTA IV was released there was a certain amount of criticism about its serious, gritty artistic tone in comparison to the more cartoonish aspects of its predecessors. Some gamers, naturally, are worried about the artistic ambitions of games designers. But there is probably space for us all in the medium."

As we discuss what it is that is unique about video games as art, I wonder if academia can make an important contribution to such discussions. Like it or not, academia has played an influential role in the way we understand whole mediums, a variety of genres and individual works of art themselves. So can academia help to foster critical discussions which can not only help us to understand the way video games function as art, but also to push the artistic growth of the medium.

"Academia has certainly added a dimension to interpretation of film, literature, music and photography, although I'm not necessarily entirely sure that academia is useful for creators except as inspiration or a way of challenging their own deeply held beliefs," Grefsrud tells me. "Academics like Ian Bogost, Aki Järvinen, and Espen Aarseth have made valuable contributions to establishing ways games can communicate and have meaning apart from as commodities, and they have certainly inspired debate."

Dr. Tavinor tells me that while there is "still a certain amount of academic sniggering over the idea that someone would spend their time studying video games in a serious way," there is an increasing amount of attention being given to video games within academia. "There is increasing institutional support for the study of video games, with a number of research groups; often under the aegis of a media studies department," Dr. Tavinor explains.

"Interestingly, Northern Europe and Scandinavia is strong in games studies. As a philosopher, though, I am still fairly institutionally isolated. I can see a time when there are games studies departments, but this depends on how both the art and its study develops in the future. At the moment there is still a lot of contesting of this topic, and where its study belongs."

Dr. Tavinor thinks it is inevitable that interest in video games within academia, and indeed, culture at large, will continue to grow. "One important force of cultural change is that humankind has, shall we say, a certain 'refresh rate,'" Dr. Tavinor says. "It is natural that as people of my generation who grew up with games come to dominate academia and other aspects of society, games will become just another part of our accepted cultural furniture. Of course we are not there yet, and games are still regarded as something of a deviance in some circles. But this will change." 

Pleasing as it might be to hear that there is a growing interest in video games within academia, Blow is relatively unconcerned about whether established academics are interested in video games or not, and much more concerned about how the next generation is being taught. "I think that most game design courses are crap," Blow says. "In fact, they are unethical, because as an institution you are telling young students with lots of potential to come and spend a lot of their time and money at your university, and implicit in this is the promise that you will take care of them and teach them good things, and implicit in that is the promise that you are competent to teach those things; but then these universities turn around and hire people who don't really know anything about games to teach the classes. It's really terrible."

"More and more game study programs are that way," Blow continues. "Universities are figuring out that lots of people want to take classes about making video games, so they are all in a hurry to hire. Do a web search for 'game design professor' and look at all the help-wanted ads. Extrapolate that across a few years; then keep in mind that almost all of these institutions are hiring people who are not at a reasonable level of competence. They are just scrambling to put people in there so that they can claim to have a game design program."

While Grefsrud praises the game design course he took at university, he shares Blow's concerns. "For every genuinely useful course that equips students with the practical, intellectual, and critical skills they need to create games, there is an ass-on-seats course that exists more because the university has computer labs that can now be used to establish yet another revenue stream, and not because the institution can offer genuine expertise."

And what of the future that this new generation of game designers will come to? EA COO Peter Moore recently proclaimed that "free-to-play is the future," and indeed, the likes of Crytek have already placed their eggs in the free-to-play basket. This development worries me. I ask Blow whether it's possible for a game that has to integrate the process of payment into its very design to be art.

"I believe that most free-to-play models shift the creator-player relationship into dangerous territory," explains Blow. "To make the kinds of games that I care about, it is important that we respect our players and treat them well and wish the best for them. Free-to-play models tend to gravitate toward extractionary relationships: we lure you into our trap and then don't let you out until you pay us this and pay us that, and we are designing everything with an eye toward getting you to click the 'yes I will pay you' button. The relationship becomes corrupted very quickly."

"I have an idea for a free-to-play game design that doesn't work this way, at least not so much," Blow continues. "Who knows if I will do it sometime, though."

In contrast, Grefsrud argues that "business models are not a factor in art." Perhaps he is right. In any case, the impact free-to-play will have on the artistic potential of the medium remains to be seen. Time will tell as far as that particular question is concerned. In the mean time, we might do well to give more consideration to that question raised by Dr. Tavinor: "Do we really know what a video games masterpiece looks like"?

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