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'Systems-As-Art' In Games 106 106

GameSetWatch has an interesting essay about the relationship between games and art. Matthew Wasteland discusses the difficulty in translating other artistic creations to video games, giving Moby Dick as an example. "If Melville had so much as allowed for any possibility at all where Captain Ahab 'wins,' no matter how remote, the work's message and its interpretation of the world completely changes. Instead of destiny and fate, we would now speak of probability and chance." He then goes on to examine whether the logic systems and rules that define a game can achieve the status of art. "Distancing the work from the 'entertainment' of popular games is fine, but even the most artsy, obscure and difficult works must connect with an audience somehow. I am not sure a system of rules by itself is the best method to achieve that. If rules are art, could not one just as easily publish a rulebook, and leave it at that?"
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'Systems-As-Art' In Games

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  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday September 29, 2008 @10:47PM (#25200909)

    There are rules when reading music, or reading poetry. You don't read a book backwards, or watch a movie from the middle.

  • by argent (18001) <[peter] [at] []> on Monday September 29, 2008 @11:04PM (#25200989) Homepage Journal

    While I would say that there are very few games that have noticeable depth as literature, that doesn't mean that's inherent in the medium.

    For that matter, very few movies have as much depth as novels, even novelizations of movies explore areas that the movie simply can't reach, and that doesn't mean movies aren't art. Not all games are "play balanced", and not all books are "Moby Dick".

    And speaking of Moby Dick...

    There are plenty of stories where the ending would be just as satisfying and meaningful if you got there by a different path, or even with a different character. Getting there can even give you an appreciation of the trials of the protagonist that you wouldn't gain if success or failure didn't depend on your decisions.

    And play-balance doesn't mean giving Ahab a chance to live, there are plenty of games where it's impossible to "win" one side, and the "victory conditions" are based only on how well you lose. There are even games where the story is almost completely fixed, and all you can do is spend more or less time exploring the scenery.

  • by WDot (1286728) on Monday September 29, 2008 @11:41PM (#25201165)
    I think what TFA is trying to do is warn developers about being too "artsy" in their games. If the whole point of their game is to convey a point, rather than be "fun," then he suggests that it is not a very good game. He prefers the artistic level of Portal, where it had character and depth without being completely avant-garde.

    I think the whole "games-are-art" debate is silly, because art is subjective. But I think it goes on because some people feel that their hobby will be validated if it's considered an art form. I imagine in a generation or so people will wonder why the debate ever took place.
  • Dance (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Mr_Blank (172031) on Monday September 29, 2008 @11:42PM (#25201171) Journal
    Blah blah blah. Is this art. It is all in the eye of the beholder. The author goes on and on, but if you skip to the conclusion you will find

    Citizen Kane is accessible and easy to like. It synthesized much of what was known about filmmaking up to that point into a coherent whole. It married technical innovations with a good story. It showed that a film could be high and low, art and spectacle, serious and entertaining all at once. A medium that can deliver all of that in one package is a great medium indeed.

    By that definition, dance is art. Dance has highs and lows, can entertain, incorporate a story, and bring spectacle. If these little swans [] are art then so are these little morons []. If we want to argue that the first is art then the same applies to the second, even though there is a pretty big quality difference.

    For the players of games, each has their own Citizen Kane. Maybe it is Halo. Maybe it is Super Mario Brothers. Maybe it is WoW. The particular game does not matter - some people hate the movie Citizen Kane and no game is loved universally. The point is that games have highs and lows, can entertain, incorporate a story, and bring spectacle - just like every other medium considered to be 'art'.

    Let's get past this dumb debate and move on to talking about the merits of the great games. AND! while we are doing that, let's avoid trying to compare games to other art forms directly. It would be insane to compare Citizen Kane, to the Mona Lisa, to Beethoven's Ninth Symphony. That is part of the reason games are having trouble getting their art credits: Art is art and comparing it to other art only detracts from the appreciation of what is.

  • Re:Not now, but.. (Score:2, Insightful)

    by NuclearError (1256172) on Tuesday September 30, 2008 @12:06AM (#25201305)
    Video games may introduce interactivity, but most of the games that I would consider "artsy" are so not because of the interactivity. I think the only game that made step back and think "woah" was Metal Gear Solid 3. However, most of its story and depth and impact were delivered through non-interactive cutscenes, save for pushing a button every once in a while to change the angle. Another game that I consider artful is Max Payne - the dark atmosphere and gritty comics definitely set a distinct mood for the game, but again, this has little to do with interactivity. I guess what I'm trying to say is that games have yet to use their unique attribute - interactivity - in an artful manner, but rather accomplish artfulness by incorporating other artful mediums such as movies/cutscenes, graphic novels, or music.
  • If rules are art (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Bent Mind (853241) on Tuesday September 30, 2008 @02:04AM (#25201887)

    If rules are art, could not one just as easily publish a rulebook, and leave it at that?

    LISP is poetry. But then, I suppose that art is in the eye of the beholder.

  • by phantomfive (622387) on Tuesday September 30, 2008 @02:19AM (#25201943) Journal

    Is Beethoven's 9th Symphony not art, simply because its meaning is decided upon by the listener and not by predefined plot elements?

    The ninth symphony has very real meaning, given to them by their author. It even has words, and is in fact, an attempt to give those words meaning in music. Much of Beethoven's music has very real meaning, the obvious example is the pastoral symphony, which portrays peasants and a storm.

    The rest of your post is pretty good. Not that I read the article either.

  • by xenocide2 (231786) on Tuesday September 30, 2008 @03:15AM (#25202143) Homepage

    100 percent of the people who didn't finish reading Moby Dick don't think about fate and destiny versus chance. They haven't read the ending to care. At every point in the book, you as a reader have the choice to stop reading. At every point in the game, you as the player have the choice to stop playing. Failure in a game creates struggle where none would otherwise exist; only art critics choose to ignore the obvious intent of the designer. Your death in Shadow of the Colossus is not some statement about the implausible odds of success. By adding that challenge, it serves to place you in the lead character's role. You are a warrior, who's risked death in combat against beings of colossal scale, and you innately understand the gravity of it all.

    A set of rules does not define or exclude art, there's no human element. But two people playing by a set of rules introduces humanity, and the actions they take may say something about themselves or ourselves. Portal is basically super duper excellent, and art. Despite you being the only human in the game, there is engaging dialog that serves to manipulate your own emotions, and that power comes from the struggle you undertook.

    Of course, the ethics of video games is so overwhelmingly violent and the plot so irrelevant that people just skip the plot entirely [].

  • by Talgrath (1061686) on Tuesday September 30, 2008 @03:42AM (#25202219)

    "High Art" is mostly bullshit; it's an attempt to say that something is greater than it is and has no clear definition. Art is art, there are various ways that art is expressed but ultimately they all serve to "explore the human condition", generally "high art" is used as an excuse for snobbery. In short, "high art" is a good way of saying "things are this way because I say so"; when Roger Ebert was given ample proof that video games are art, he hid behind the "high art" shield and those with any sense dismissed him as an idiot (which he is).

    I'd say trying to isolate the rules of the game is a disservice to games as art; or art in general. If we take the "rules" away from various forms of poetry and just studied them, they're just rules governing structure in writing poetry; by the same token, if we just take the rules of a game away from it, they're just rules as to how the character interacts with the world. Instead of looking at the rules of an artform, we should instead look at the piece as a whole; as we do for any other form of art.

  • by FornaxChemica (968594) on Tuesday September 30, 2008 @07:03AM (#25202815) Homepage Journal

    If you start thinking of video games as possible translations for other arts, you're missing the point. Same if you're trying to make your games "artsy". What makes an art an art is the quality of the different works through original and skilful use of the defining materials. A masterpiece in one art category is not guaranteed to become a masterpiece when translated into a different category; actually, most of the time, it doesn't become one and when it does it ends up having its own identity (Kubrick's films for instance, which are all based on books but are all fore and foremost Kubrick's films).

    Games making the best use of the core principles of video games are the ones more likely to become works of art. It will not be the ones using movie-like cut-scenes, or novel-like plots, or a famous soundtrack, it will be the ones that look, sound and, more importantly, feel like real video games. That GameSetWatch article questions if video games have already had their Citizen Kane. In one review I wrote in 2001 for my website, I said Super Mario Bros. was the Citizen Kane of video games and was the turning point when games (at least console games) elevated to art.

    You may disagree this one specific game did it, but what's important here is when it happened; gaming didn't wait 20+ years for polygons and realistic graphics to become an art unlike what some people would like us to think. Games are art when they were/are true to themselves. Incidentally, there's one word of the video game vocabulary where we hear the word "art", it's pixelart. Again, this isn't about games looking like movies -- and bad ones most of the time -- it's about game's inherent qualities and true nature.

  • Re:you know (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Hatta (162192) on Tuesday September 30, 2008 @09:55AM (#25204057) Journal

    I don't understand why games need to be 'art' in the first place. As long as they're good entertainment isn't that enough? I don't think it's the least bit important whether a game is meaningful enough that some pretentious art critic is going to declare it 'art'. The fact is that the works of Sid Meier, or Ken and Roberta Williams have had a more profound effect on my life than the paintings of Picasso, or the plays of Arthur Miller. To me, that makes them art.

  • by BaronHethorSamedi (970820) <> on Tuesday September 30, 2008 @10:38AM (#25204455)
    The Moby Dick example is really just a tired rehash of Roger Ebert's contention that games cannot fundamentally qualify as art, since the author doesn't fundamentally control the outcome. My answer to this has always been: nonsense! Maybe a group of people getting together to blow each other up in Halo has no aesthetic merit, but that's irrelevant to the broader question of whether game designers can and do exert control over the outcome of the systems they create.

    The average JRPG, for example, involves a limited amount of player control over the technical aspects of character development, but that won't usually affect the outcome of the overarching story in any meaningful way. Similar to the Moby Dick example, there's no way in, say, Final Fantasy X for Tidus to survive at the end. The Half-Life series has a pretty constrained, cinematic style of gameplay, as do, frankly, the majority of story-driven titles on the market. System-type games with truly limitless potential outcomes are probably in the minority, and are usually experimental titles where the system/ruleset is really the main event (Spore, et al).
  • by xappax (876447) on Tuesday September 30, 2008 @11:43AM (#25205277)

    If games are made out of rules, paintings are made out of brushstrokes. Nevertheless, an ordered list of brushstrokes isn't the same as a painting. And similarly, a rulebook isn't the same as a game.

    Rules are simply the material used to build games, and in both a good game and a good painting, one stops thinking about the materials used and is captivated by the emergent properties of the whole work.

The tree of research must from time to time be refreshed with the blood of bean counters. -- Alan Kay