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The poetry of system: our inability to describe the art of games is a form of illiteracy
by Philip Minchin on 03/15/11 02:59:00 am

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The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
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This started as a comment responding to Brian Moriarty's articulate apologium for Ebert, and to a trend in the responses to argue that "whatever anyone says is art is art" - as though Moriarty (and Ebert) were not talking specifically about "great art", or "Art", art that epitomises and exemplifies the best of its kind.

It got too long. So I'm posting it as its own blog entry, here and on my personal blog.

There's a certain irony in that Moriarty and his populist counterlocutors (e.g. this comment), who are superficially arguing against each other, both ultimately seem to be using popularity as an index of whether or not something is art.

In Moriarty's case, he's talking about "great art", or "Art", as opposed to the broader category of "art" (which is what his critics are talking about, and can certainly include the commercial, non-challenging "kitsch" Moriarty is explicitly removing from consideration). A lot of commenters seem to miss this crucial distinction - Moriarty will happily admit many games to the category of kitsch. But ultimately even Moriarty's argument seems to come down to a question of quantity as much as quality - art is about instilling a sense of discovery or rediscovery, but the only way you can tell it's really good is if it has that effect on enough people.

That's fair enough, but the problem with this is that, especially in new media, it can be very difficult to get the kind of exposure you need for your work to pass whatever the threshold is of "great art". So part of the reason games have not yet produced capital-A-Art is simply that they've only recently reached mass audiences, and even now they are still not universally experienced the way every other form has been by the time its "great" works were created.

I would propose the following tests for the status of art, good art, and great (or capital-A) art:

Art is whatever is held to be such. It must involve some act of creation, but the simple act of bringing a natural phenomenon to someone's attention is enough to qualify as creation for these purposes: directing people's attention is after all a key component of any artform.

Good (or effective) art is art which elicits a reaction from a substantial portion, preferably a majority, of its audience - whatever the size of that audience. Exceptional art elicits a strong reaction from its audience and can potentially change minds or even lives. It may never be seen outside a small group - ephemeral art left unrecorded in a natural setting, a transformative roleplaying session, an unrepeatably expressive performance of Chekhov or Mozart - but for those who experience it, it is unforgettable, a sublime encounter with truth or beauty.

Obviously, as an audience increases in size (and therefore, almost inevitably, in diversity), the range of possible reactions increases, possibly exponentially. What is good or even exceptional art to a given, small audience may have no effect whatever on the wider audience.

So great Art is art which can consistently evoke strong reactions across a wide audience, or art that a wide audience agrees across all its internal divisions to be good or even exceptional. (By Moriarty's definition, these reactions must be not simply reaffirmations of known emotional cliches, but something more complex; whether or not we agree with this addendum, my general point can stand, I think. It treats the idea of "greatness" as essentially one of scale, not effect - as with great wars, fires, events in history, etc.)

(Side point: does this mean that a single work of art which is only experienced by one person, but which has such a profound effect on them that it inspires them to affect the lives of millions, could also be described as "great art"? On first consideration, I'd say yes. And I like this because it allows art to be "great" purely by dint of its effect without reference to popularity... But I'm interested in your comments.)

The problem is that this necessarily tends to favour:

  • for breadth of dissemination and scope of potential audience: reproducible forms, then static forms, then scripted live performance forms, and least of all ephemeral forms;
  • for consistency of experience (Ebert's key point), "declarative", artist-to-audience media forms than interactive forms;
  • for longevity (i.e. time in which to reach an audience), media which are self-contained rather than dependent on technological or linguistic platforms which may become obsolete;
  • for ability to connect with a wide range of people, "lowest-common-denominator" themes and content (i.e. content that tends towards what Moriarty calls "kitsch"). say nothing of the culture within which the work is attempting to achieve recognition.

Electronic games suffer on the second and third points - and I'd argue don't make enough effort to escape from the trap of the fourth. Non-electronic games suffer on the second point, and often the first (as they are not always easily reproduced)

This in turn tends to instil certain presuppositions (simply by dint of long association) about what can and can't be "art", let alone "Art".

Ebert's logic that player interaction with the game nullifies the possibility of the experience constituting art is one such fallacy. Nate Logan's point about sculpture (and Glenn Storm's addendum about architecture) are key to understanding why; Michelangelo's David cannot truly be appreciated from a single angle, and nor can the Taj Mahal. (Though unlike most games, you actually have to work hard to find any part of the experience which is not extraordinary.)

Similarly, the rules of a game can constitute what I call "the poetry of system" - the choices that you make as you play giving you a personal, even emotional experience of the assumptions, assertions and underlying logic of the game. Nobody who has played Z-Man Games's board game Pandemic could argue that it's in any way a realistic simulation of combating contagious disease, but as an evocation of the deeper tensions between spending resources on dealing with immediate threats or on working towards the longer-term endgame it's both a compelling experience and genuinely expressive of a real truth. Playing gives you one or more experiences of the possible outcomes, but it's the underlying balances and systems which are revealed through play that are where the art most strongly lies.

In other words: a given playthrough may vary, but it's the systems that generate that experience which constitute the art, and possibly Art, of games - in exactly the same way that a play (coincidence?) may be performed or adapted ad infinitum from a fixed script, and the sheet music of a sonata may be played (also coincidence?) by a beginner or a maestro, but the quality of art (and possibly Art) still inheres in the script and the music themselves, regardless of the experience of the audience at any given realisation of the same.

I'd also allow - in fact argue strongly for - the particular "cosmetic" choices in which the game creator chooses to dress their system as being a crucial part of this, even though they are not part of the "system" per se - Pandemic's "flavouring", or central metaphor, being the work of the CDC is clearly relevant, and Brenda Brathwaite's work is exploring this boundary extremely fruitfully, and along the way making some deeply important statements about choices, the context in which they are made, those choosing, and the complex interrelations of the three.

One final point. The very fact that games allow for a multiplicity of endings - or rather conclusions - by its nature allows them to make more ambiguous points about their subject matter than traditional media can. At the same time, it allows for very definite statements about the causes of certain outcomes to be made, as multiple playthroughs reveal the different contributions made by each decision to the various conclusions. To me, that hardly argues that they cannot make sublime statements. It just means you need to grok the intricacies of a system (and its fictional and/or real context) of decisions and consequences, rather than a system of other, more traditionally-understood symbols. Making that step not only allows us to expand the definition of art, but fosters what you might call "systems literacy" - the ability to think through decisions-in-contexts (with part of those context being the interests, goals and decisions of others) to likely outcomes, both intermediate and final.

These are things we need badly to foster at this moment in history, and if games can engender that literacy, I say: Let's Play.

I'm particularly interested in suggestions of other games whose systems allow for expressive, even emergent moments - please share them in the comments.

[Edited for typos]

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