[MUD-Dev] Art vs. Fun

Michael Tresca talien at toast.net
Mon Dec 10 20:26:41 New Zealand Daylight Time 2001


The below post provides an interesting perspective on the art of
game design. I've personally experienced the failure of my "art" as
something players find fun -- it's a hard reality to swallow.

Thinking Virtually
#35: Just Give Me a Game, Please
An Alternative View to The Fun Factor
by Jessica Mulligan
December 10, 2001

>From http://www.rpg.net/news+reviews/columns/virtually10dec01.html

======================

I'm about toss a lit match onto the gas-soaked clothing of online
game design. Stick around; it'll take me a while to get to the point
and I may get singed, but the explosion will no doubt be very pretty
to see.

If you subscribe to one of today's for-pay persistent world games,
you probably assumed you were paying money to play a game and have
some fun.  Foolish mortal; what were you thinking, anyway? Never
mind, you can be forgiven your error; after all, that's how the game
was marketed, so what were you supposed to think, eh?

No, your importance to the designers is not as a game player and
paying customer; you have a far more important role. You are
experimental performance art, my friend. The experiment may be in
methods of delivering a particular story vision, the outcome of
which is pre-determined in the mind of the designer, to see how you
wiggle on the hook, or in how to force players into taking part in
so-called "player-controlled justice systems" to see how you and
other players form communities (the outcome of which is also
predetermined in the mind of the designer). But guinea pig actors
you are, and paying for the privilege, too.

And make no mistake about it; consciously or not, most designers
consider that a player actually having a good time in the game to be
a happy circumstance, but not the primary goal. Most designers will
give public lip service to creating a playable game that the players
enjoy, but what they are really trying to do is create
Art-with-a-capital-A. God help us all.

Don't believe me? Hit any search engine and run a search on "player
justice systems" or "player-driven justice systems." You'll see some
very familiar names from the persistent world game industry and read
a lot about "using storyline to encode ethical systems" and
"teaching moral lessons." If you follow enough of the subsidiary
links and dig down deep enough (take a shovel, 'cause you'll need
it), you'll read about such arcane matters as "the responsibility of
the artist," "communicating an expression to the audience" and
"artistic differences." When you're done reading, you'll realize
that there is a disconnect between you and many of the designers. In
your mind, you're a game player; in theirs, you're part of a
participatory audience in creating Art.

Before we get too far down this road, I admit up front: all forms of
media are in some way art. You can't be in a creative endeavor and
not help but be part of creating some form of art, be it good or
bad. No one would argue that when EverQuest first shipped in 1999
that the graphics weren't art of a high caliber. And I've no
objection to art, as long as that's what I wanted in the first
place. However, when I walk into a museum to see the works of the
great masters, I don't expect to be handed a brush and canvas and
told to get busy. Similarly, when I boot up a for-pay online game, I
don't expect that my experience is going to consist of admiring the
Art of the designers; I'm paying to have fun and that's what I want,
dammit. What I do object to is the airey-fairy notion that online
games must somehow be Art-with-a-capital-A and must be judged as
such. If Art happens to creep in while I'm playing, that's all very
well and good, as long as it isn't at the expense of my reason for
being there. What I want is entertainment first; what I seem to be
getting are misguided attempts to provide me with Art.

This argument of Art versus Entertainment is one that has been going
on for hundreds of years among creative sorts, and I've seen it
flare up in computer gaming in a major way at least three times in
the last fifteen years. It's something of an 'elite vision versus
doing-it-for-the-money' thing. In general, the argument revolves
around the antagonistic and opposing views that one should either
constantly strive to create Art or, conversely, strive to create
Entertainment. Art is to be remembered and cherished, while
Entertainment is a momentary thing done for money, best done in the
dark and be sure to wash your hands afterwards. Artists are real big
on government and private patronage, whereas Entertainers hope to
strike it big by having lots of people pay for their work in some
form or another.  One side seems to feel that making money off
charging the mass is somehow less righteous than having some moneyed
elite hand out honorariums to advance Art; it has something to do
with "pandering to the lowest common denominator."

This is an argument that will never be "won," of course. Both sides
have valid issues to express and axes to grind, so we'll be hearing
about it until the heat death of the Universe. And having been a
designer, I can tell you there is a subtle thrill in the thought
that you are creating something that people might remember for a
long time. However, the most salient feature of the Art
vs. Entertainment argument that I've been able to discern seems to
be that those who actively set out to Create Art As Art are often
less well-remembered than those who set out to Create Art To Make A
Buck.

As one illustration of this phenomenon, how many of the following
names do you recognize: Thomas Kyd, Ben Jonson, Christopher Marlowe,
Inigo Jones and Thomas Middleton. The average person probably won't
recognize even one of the names, though college theater students and
those with an academic or literary bent will recognize one or two of
them easily. They were all Elizabethan poets and playwrights who
were widely considered in their own time to have written works that
were Art. Each was learned, well-versed in the use of the Greek and
Latin that were the rage in academia of the time, and the customs,
mores and themes that appealed to the educated noble class that kept
most of them alive with honorariums. Most of them couldn't draw a
crowd with a public performance of their work, so they took to
writing for and dedicating their works to moneyed nobles, who were
then expected to send a gift to the author. Each was also considered
a far better Artist than one other of their peer group.

That contemporary of these great artists was considered by his peers
to be a mere Entertainer, a craftsman and panderer to the masses,
the "penny knaves," as Jonson derisively called them in reference to
the cost of admission to the cheap seats. His work was full of
exciting swordfights, hot-blooded romance and all the other things
that appealed to the average Joe. Indeed, he was the Aaron Spelling
of his day, a man who made good money appealing to those penny
knaves and who was liked personally by his peers, but was not
respected by them for his works. When Henry Peacham published The
Complete Gentleman in 1622, this poet and playwright's name was not
on the list of great Elizabethan poets, although it is certain that
Peacham knew the man personally at least as early as 1595. In case
you haven't already figured it out, the person we're talking about
here was William Shakespeare.

What I hope you take away from this example (aside from the weird
and slightly disturbing thought that Melrose Place may be considered
the pinnacle of 20th Century Art 400 years from now) is that
Shakespeare's first consideration wasn't Art; he was trying to make
sure he and his buddies in the theater troupe called The Lord
Chamberlain's Men had food on the table and a roof over their
heads. His first consideration was entertainment; if he didn't
entertain the audience, he was going to starve, pure and simple.  It
was later generations that branded his work Art-with-a-capital-A;
the mass consumers of his own time just considered it a ripping good
time for a penny.

Have some people set out to create Art, made money and remain known
today?  Sure, happens all the time. So what is the point to all this
rambling about dead playwrights and Art versus Entertainment, you
ask? Simply this: it is my contention that too much of what is
called 'design' in today's persistent world games is actually Art in
sheep's clothing. In this case, it really comes down to the need and
desire of a designer to create Art, and the best way to do that when
you're dealing with thousands of individual random action generators
is to try to shove it down their throats.

Thus, introduced are key design elements that ignore the realities
of the Internet and online gaming, trying to shoe-horn the players
into being unwitting performers in an Art piece in which the results
are a pre-ordained vision in the head of the designer. Soi-disant
"player-driven justice" systems in a non-consensual
player-versus-player environment are a perfect example. There is no
doubt a place for niche games that feature non-consensual PvP and
this isn't the place to get into the arguments for and against in
detail. The fact is, the market has shown clearly that even most
hard core gamers don't want non-consensual PvP in a commercial
environment. That hasn't stopped designers' arguments for and
attempts to implement such systems. My favorite rationale for it has
to be "Non-consensual PvP promotes community." I'm sure that it
does, occasionally and among a small and highly motivated sector of
the community. As Ultima Online clearly showed, however,
non-consensual PvP far more often promotes "I'm tired of being
constantly ganked by a gang of social misfits" and "I'm taking this
piece of crap back to the store."

These attempts to create Art also ignore one other important facet
of for-pay persistent worlds, maybe the most important facet; the
need of the player to create his/her own art. Unlike television,
movies or museums, gaming is a participatory medium; any story arc,
photo-realistic graphic or game system is just a backdrop and tool
for the player to create his own story and legend. That's why we're
there. When those get in the way, we're gone, simple as that.

No doubt some quarters will roundly castigate me for suggesting that
the primary purpose of an online game should be entertainment; the
prevailing bent is far more academic than
entertainment-oriented. While there are elements of that attitude
that are good — and maybe, arguably, necessary for the advancement
of online gaming — I'm rather tired of it being the end-all and
be-all. Given that, is it any wonder that today's persistent world
role-playing games at launch are unmitigated design disasters, which
are then 'fine-tuned' to more accurately suit the desires of the
designers and then, finally and generally after the original
designers have moved on to the next project, are fine-tuned to more
accurately suit reality and the desires of the paying customers?

===================

Mike "Talien" Tresca
RetroMUD Administrator
http://www.retromud.org/talien

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