Toolsets and Paintbrushes
With so much left in the hands of the audience, the old standards of separating art from utility become even blurrier for interactive media. If WoW is a social platform, why do its 12 million users pay a monthly fee while 300 million Facebook users enjoy the same basic functions for free?
"A work of entertainment is meant to evoke an emotional reaction, you could argue that email also has buttons and increases social interaction but at its core email is a functional technology, an online game isn't," said Rod Humble, Head of EA's The Sims Studio and art game developer.
"A utility advances by reducing user interaction time and increasing productivity, a game does the opposite, it's the non productive bit that's enjoyable."
During the past 40 years, video games have vindicated the idea that they should be considered as separate from other forms of software. They require purchase of consoles in five-year cycles for the sole purpose of entertainment and expressive experience.
"Playing a game on a console is sort of like going to a movie theater or watching a DVD in your living room. That's a really different experience than browsing the web," said Young.
"Both can be entertaining, both can be engaging, both can be interesting; games on a framework like Facebook and games on your phone are, to some degree, a function of the medium."
With the advent of Facebook, the iPhone, and mass market pricing for computers entertainment and utility are inching closer and closer together. You could be playing Passage on your iPhone when you get a text, Facebook update, or Twitter message.
You could be playing FarmVille on Facebook (whose 60 million users dwarf WoW's user base) with Excel and Outlook a mouse-click away. With games like Spy Master invading Twitter, it's hard to tell where the true art and craft comes in interactive media. Does the designer deserve credit for creating the interactive environment or does the player make it artistic through her creative use of it?
"If we simplify a developer as someone who directs how something should work and an artist as someone who directs how something should feel, then a player definitely swings both ways," said Waldman.
"When playing online shooters I have seen players who do things that are unnecessarily beautiful (like winning a round using only a bolt action rifle or a pistol), it reminds me of ballet or at times improv comedy," Humble said. "Some games are based almost entirely on players sharing their creativity such as The Sims."
As a writer I have a natural interest in better delineating all the potential categories of the emerging media. But what is the purpose of such a distinction for content creators? Designers bring ideas to life; call it art, a utility, or an iPhone game.
"I think it's probably worthwhile to have some sort of taxonomy, but at the same time, you run the risk of over-thinking the categorization versus really trying to understand what's common between these things," said Young.
"I think that's the thing that hasn't really been explored or articulated is the commonality and how compulsion is consistent across MMOs and social networks and traditional video games."
The connective tissue between all forms of interactive media, from Facebook to WoW, and from MS Office to Wii Sports Resort, is in defining the wants of an audience, offering them tools to satisfy that want within a constrained space, and then anticipating consequences for as many possible inputs as you can imagine. In some cases the end result will be a PowerPoint presentation, in other cases it will have been participation in an interactive narrative.
As we continue to wrestle with where exactly the art of interaction comes from, all signs point back to the users. What will inspire or surprise them? What will make them more efficient? What will give them the tools to express a fuller version of themselves within the boundaries of the environment you've created? What purpose do those boundaries serve?
"There are varieties of art, from the narrative rational family such as literature and theater -- to the emotional irrational family such as music and dance," said Humble.
"That's one axis, the other axis I cannot define yet but it has something to do with where the art is experienced, on its way to its final destination -- a person's mind."