Tales of the Rampant Coyote

Adventures in Indie Gaming!

Games as Art: Communication Required?

Posted by Rampant Coyote on April 22, 2016

Mona_Lisa_originalI recently read an old essay (we’re talking pre-WWW!) discussing what makes art, and the author suggested that for a work to be art it has to engage the audience in a conversation… inviting them to mentally and / or emotionally contribute, interpret, and invest something of themselves into the work to derive meaning from it. This was a powerful thought that left me thinking about it for a while afterwards. Which, I guess, might nominate the essay as art? (Note to self: inviting audience contribution might be necessary, but probably not sufficient, criteria).

I’ve always valued the media that encouraged me to invest a bit of myself into it, but I never thought of it being the difference being that which separates ‘art’ from ‘non-art.’ This definition would probably preclude any work in any medium that is too literal, too “preachy” (leaving little or no room for audience participation & interpretation), or … on the flip side … too abstract or minimalist, which “contributes little to the discussion.” Note that the audience simply refusing to invest of themselves and contribute (because they don’t like the subject matter, or what have you) doesn’t impact the artistic quality of the work. It just means that beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

This has a lot of ramifications. It also suggests a spectrum rather than a dividing line.  Photography requires a great deal of the photographer to push it up the capital-A Art side of the spectrum… but really, that’s true of all media. Your average crowd-pleasing summer blockbuster would probably come out on the low end, which is sadly appropriate even to this fan of big summer blockbuster films. It would also mean a lot of the horrible preachy books that some folks like to elevate with awards would also not score very high on this particular Art-meter, which tickles me a bit. It tends to naturally elevate science fiction (and speculative fiction in general, to a lesser degree) because of the ease in which that kind of fiction raises questions about the human condition and the future of our species and role in the universe, without having to provide the answers.

It’s not a forgiving criterion for most video games, however. Video games, particularly those that address the mass market (similar to the Hollywood blockbuster films), tend to be pretty literal. What you see is often what you get. While the audience is certainly welcome to inject their own ideas about the world of Super Mario Brothers, what’s on the screen is pretty straightforward. For me, I don’t see much of an invitation to contribute.

More exploratory games, however, probably get bonus points, simply because the invitation to explore may also be an invitation to engage the imagination. Sometimes.

BraidStartFor video games as a whole, I don’t think the literalness (that really is a word; I looked it up!) is a requirement for video games, or necessarily a restriction on their potential. I think a lot of games have done that. I think a lot of games have tried, and failed. It takes a lot more than just throwing in a controversial or politically charged element. I think some games that might rate higher on this measure of the artistic scale have done so almost by accident. Some great examples (for me) of games that I’d rate higher (given my own subjectivity of what really invites my participation) would be: Braid, The Sims, Shadow of the Colossus, Emily Short’s Galatea (or pretty much anything by Emily Short), and Jason Rohrer’s Passage. Ultima 4 and 5 would, for me, be moved along to a comfortable spot on the artistic spectrum. While I can’t say it inspired truly “deep thoughts” from me, Minecraft would score pretty well here, and I know it has inspired amazing creativity from tons of players. Spec Ops: The Line at least attempted this as well, and I’ll give them points for effort even if execution was (for me) a bit lacking.

A few RPGs could probably fit this description, but I think some of the more modern ones try too hard to appear relevant without allowing the player a (figurative) word in edgewise. Games with multiple endings based on player choice is a great idea in theory (and not limited to RPGs), but too often it’s one-good-ending plus two or three variations of suck. If this was a conversation, this is the equivalent of yelling “BZZZT! WRONG ANSWER!” and pretentiously dropping the mic.

While I don’t necessarily care about “games as art,” I do like the idea of more games serving up more intellectually and emotionally stimulating content that challenge and inspire players. Heavy-handed “message” games or games that depend on shock value need not apply … not that they are necessarily bad, only that these techniques don’t inspire much contribution from a player. But with subtlety (yes, not something that usually works well in video games), the interactivity of games could really act as a mirror to the player’s own values and engage in a “conversation” far better than any static medium.

Stuff to consider.

Filed Under: Art, Geek Life - Comments: 4 Comments to Read

  • Tesh said,

    Tangential thought: What does this say about games where the most engrossing part is avatar creation? Or about players who are so obsessed with “representation” that investing themselves is only a measure of counting characters of a certain gender/race/creed/etc?

  • Rampant Coyote said,

    On the character creation side… I get that. Totally. I mean, you want the game to be as awesome as the adventures you imagine during character creation. It’s impossibly for the game to match up to your imagination, of course, but I totally understand character creation being engrossing.

    We’re human beings, and hard-wired to people-watch. We are fascinated by characters. I think that in some ways, stories and role-playing games are all about some deep-seated survival mechanic measuring how a person with THESE traits do in THIS hypothetical situation… with details!

    As to the representation thing… people want to identify with a character. I totally get that, too. I feel sorry for someone who cannot identify with a character who doesn’t closely mirror a significant subset of their own traits. But if someone wants to play an avatar that represents “them” in the game, I can understand preferring a variety of characters that allows them to tailor someone closer to their own self-image.

    If I’m only playing an RPG once, I’ll often pick an avatar that’s closer to “me,” and I do get disappointed when I don’t like any of the portraits. On subsequent playthroughs (or alts on an MMO), I’ll get a bit more experimental.

  • Anon said,

    “Games with multiple endings based on player choice is a great idea in theory (and not limited to RPGs), but too often it’s one-good-ending plus two or three variations of suck.”

    Oh, you are sooo right!

    But why is that? IMHO because there can be only one really good (fitting) ending for the character you created. The “optimal” ending, whether you are a selfless world rescuer or a villain. Everything else is second rate to utter disappointment. Like a final punishment for the player (“See, idiot, had you played better you would’ve gotten the price!”).

    The Deus Ex games are possibly the exception of the rule – all of their endings sucked. At least to me.
    But perhaps this was intended as well?

    Give me a linear plot where the outcome is already predefined when you reach it (by “playing the game”, which is the real reason to get a game in the first place).
    A well-made ending should be only the cherry-topping and nothing more.

    So, for my humble self, multiple endings suck. Always.

  • Tesh said,

    My concern with the thoughts I noted earlier is that such are so superficial that, while engaging in some ways, they really don’t plumb the potential of games as a medium.

    That’s what I like about games, anyway; the potential to do things with stories and systems that you don’t get from non-interactive art. That’s engaging to me, those “what if” questions and the experiments in a safe environment where mistakes don’t carry heavy personal penalties.

    It’s the choices made during play that I find to be the whole point of games. “Content of character” stuff. It’s the actions that I consider crucial, not the superficial traits, and games stand almost alone in the potential to explore the ramifications in letting the end consumer affect the outcomes of the presentation. You don’t get that in TV, film, books (Choose Your Own Adventure books and their kind are as close as it gets), sculpture, paintings, or most theater.

    It’s not so much that I think that to be considered “art” (always a nebulous thing anyway), games require communication. I think that games *are* communication by nature, and there’s a spectrum of possible pieces of art that the medium can produce. So far, most are like crayon sketches or Jackson Pollock pieces. We don’t have a Michaelangelo, a Titian or even a Van Gogh.

    That doesn’t mean that crayon or splatter pieces can’t be good, just that there’s a lot more potential than is commonly explored. We do a lot of theme park work with Potempkin villages and aspirations for (or aping of) Hollywood, but little to really explore what happens when players exercise agency. Maybe the state of AI and finite state decision boxes and the like aren’t up to snuff on the tech side, and writing for agency is too time-consuming and ego-bruising, but the medium itself has great potential.

    VR, like The VOID, might change this up a bit. Or it might provoke the Holodeck Apocalypse…