[MUD-Dev] Art vs. Fun

Robert Zubek rob at cs.nwu.edu
Thu Dec 13 11:25:36 New Zealand Daylight Time 2001


Oh great, I thought to myself reading this article - here are the
beginnings of yet another games vs art flame war. :)

I have to admit, I'm always a bit confused by the arguments over
whether games ought or ought not to be 'art'. You know, the kind
that usually begins by constructing a dichotomy: games on one side,
'art', whatever it is, on the other. And in the middle, an argument
over whether or how the former should aspire to the ranks of the
latter: whether games can become more like 'art', that they should
aspire to be more theoretical and 'high-concept', or perhaps more
story-telling devices like film or theatre, or conversely, that
maybe games ought not to become 'art', but rather just
entertainment, or mind puzzles, or toys. And the characteristics
ascribed to 'games' and 'art' end up looking as if they were
mutually exclusive as well: either games should strive to present
'high concept' or to be just fun, either they should tell stories or
just be an open playground, and so on, and so forth.

There is a clear presupposition here: that games and art are two
separate phenomena. But this only begs the question - is this
presupposition actually true? Perhaps the questions to ask here are
not whether or not games ought to be more like 'art' - because this
requires building on uncertain foundations. Perhaps the question to
resolve first should be: *are* games art, or not?

Now it's easy to mix up domains of discourse here, as the word
'games' can refer to different levels of abstraction. We must
distinguish games the communicative medium from games as individual
artifacts. This will let us distinguish the medium question (does
the gaming medium support art?) from the artifact question (are
games as artifacts art?).

Gaming, as a medium, certainly appears to be expressive enough to
support artistic production, just as photography or film
are. Unfortunately we can't show this by invoking the definition of
art (the word doesn't have a successful definition; attempts at
defining 'art' lead inevitably into the tar pit of
arbitrariness). But we can consider art's workings. We all have an
intuitive feel for what art is supposed to do: in the very least,
provide an aesthetic and communicative experience. The least it can
do is show us a novel perspective on our selves (on us as humans, on
our world), whether aesthetically, or experientially, or
conceptually, or better yet, in all ways at once. Film is certainly
capable of this, and so are painting, literature, sculpture, and
many other endeavors. By this account, the question of games vs. art
seems to have an obvious answer. Of course the medium is capable of
presenting a meaningful aesthetic and communicative experience.

As for individual games, it's a similar question as if we asked:
"Are individual movies art?" This depends on the particulars. Any
general set of movies, insofar as they communicate, can't help but
be art - and even if they don't communicate very well, or don't
communicate anything too interesting (such as James Bond movies :),
then they're just bad art.  And the same with individual games. They
cannot help but engage the player, give them a novel, interpreted
world in which to interact, and novel, highly interpreted ways of
interacting with this world. They cannot not communicate a novel
view on the world.

This isn't to say that all game artifacts are necessarily works of
art, in the same way that not all movies are. Anyone's home videos
usually aren't communicative enough to be artistic. And neither is
Pong. :)

The one problem with this, however, is that current games usually
don't communicate very well, at least not yet. We don't quite know
how to use the medium to convey interesting insights. This, perhaps,
is what prompted the dichotomy in the first place: that 'art',
whatever it is, at least communicates well with its audience. A good
painter, for example, will know how to use the medium, the colors,
lighting, texture, geometry, form, spatility, and a large battery of
other concepts, to convey something far more interesting than a
simple amateur's drawing. But with the gaming medium, we're still
figuring out how to use it to communicate something interesting
about our experiences.

This, then, is the point of this story, if you've been patient
enough to read thus far: that the dichotomy of games vs. art appears
to be false from the beginning. It's missing the point to ponder
whether games should be art, because gaming already is an embryonic
art form, one whose affordances we now need to figure out. What new
ideas can we communicate about the human existence, about the world
we live in? How can we use the characteristics of the medium to best
express them?

That we can still ask questions such as "should games be art, or
should games be fun" is only a sign of the immaturity of the
medium. History repeats itself here - photography, film, other
modern media also faced similar doubts in their formative years. Now
it would feel misguided to ask of film or photography: "Is this art,
or entertainment?"  Surely, it is both, and much more. And so are
games.


--
Robert Zubek
rob at cs.northwestern.edu
http://www.cs.northwestern.edu/~rob

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