The play's the thing

>> Wednesday, April 21, 2010

When I read Roger Ebert's recent piece, "Video games can never be art," I thought it was interesting and possibly wrong, but it didn't seem worth much of a response. But people are still talking about it, including the Penny Arcade dudes, who seemed to be sort of overly-offended by it, and I don't have anything else to write about today, so why the fuck not?

(Sorry, Janiece, I even went to the news to try to inform myself about the Goodwin Liu confirmation hearings, and the most interesting thing, personally, was that the dude is barely older than I am--he must have been a 3L when I started law school, in fact; which leads to the embarrassing and probably erroneous conclusion that he can't possibly be qualified to be a Federal Court Of Appeals Judge, because, jeez, he's a kid. Why isn't he writing about video games? At any rate, the petty antics of Republican Senators seem hardly worth getting exercised about. They say he's "too liberal," which, seeing as how they've started saying John Fucking McCain is "too liberal" pretty much means absofrickinglutely nothing--this is what happens when you go around half-cockless as the Party Of Nyet Nyuk Nyuk Nyuk. And they're trying to stall his nomination, which, again, is utterly meaningless for the exact same reason--because when you say "no" to everything it means you cannot possibly be taken seriously because I don't know if you're saying "no" for some legitimate reason or because you're acting like a fucking three-year-old. And that's about all I have to say about Goodwin Liu. Oh, and to say, "Fucking hell, he's only fucking forty?!" again.)

(This means, really, that at some point someone who's fifty will be elected President when I'm eighty or something, and I'll be pissed off and think she's utterly unqualified because, shit, she wasn't even born when I was old enough to buy beer for myself and I don't care if she was the first Senator to represent The Moon in Congress and co-invented the teleportamatron the year before she negotiated peace with the Fomalhautians, bringing the Second Earth-Leptoid War to a glorious end.)

I'm sorry, what was this post about again?

Oh yeah: Ebert, art and videogames. Yeah, well, Ebert's completely right. The problem, however, is that he's only completely right because he basically constructs a tautological argument out of vaguely-defined or undefined terms such that videogames can't be art, some art can't be art, and some videogames can't be games. I mean, if I say "Only squares are red" and then claim that you will never see a red circle, I haven't really said anything, have I? If art is defined as "the imitation of nature" and games are defined as something that "has rules, points, objectives, and an outcome," then it's pretty self-evident that nature doesn't really keep score or reach an end in which points are tallied and a winner determined.

The biggest problem I have with Ebert's definitions is on the game side of it. Hans-Georg Gadamer, who annoyed the piss out of me in college, might say (I think--it's been forever since I read Truth And Method and I only glanced over two or three pages before writing this before my head ached and I had to put it away) that the defining thing about a game isn't that it has outcomes and objectives, but rather that it has rules which define the boundaries of play, and that play is a thing unto itself that is done for its own sake. I bring it up at the expense of my own suffering merely because I would have to give the point to Gadamer, and it's a sounder point than Ebert makes.

Let me be more specific. As regulars may know, I've spent a good chunk of my life playing pen-and-paper role-playing games. Among the earliest RPGs invented, and among the earliest I played, was Marc Miller's Traveller, a science-fiction rules system that allowed players to create planetary explorers and such; much as Dungeons And Dragons offered a generic swords-and-sorcery system, Traveller (in its original incarnation) offered a generic SF system that could be readily adapted to anything from "hard" SF to light space opera.

Now, one of the interesting and/or daunting things about Traveller, and the reason I'm referring to it instead of D&D is this: Traveller had no character improvement system after character creation. That is to say, unlike D&D, which rewarded players for killing monsters and gathering treasure in the form of "experience points" which determined how powerful their characters were, in the original edition of Traveller a character didn't get any mechanical improvement or benefit at all. Character creation was very elaborate and very random, but once gameplay actually started, the only way for a character to become "more powerful" was identical to the only ways for a real person to become more powerful: you could tell the game referee you wanted to go to college or hire a personal trainer or take a seminar, and if you successfully simulated that using the rules, your character became better at whatever you pretended he or she had been studying.

From a "fun" point of view, this wasn't necessarily as enjoyable as killing an orc and seeing an immediate boost to your character's ability to kill more orcs, but obviously it was a more "realistic" system than an abstract mechanical awards process.

As for the rest of the game: it was like other RPGs, and unlike what Ebert seems to think a game must be. RPGs by their nature tend to be open-ended. There's no conclusion or winner or loser--or no more of such things than you might have in a novel or film or a television series that runs indefinitely. "Objectives" are as mercurial as a gaming group would like them to be: there's nothing that says that a role-playing can't be about people who simply sit around and have conversations playing various parts--indeed, there are RPGs where that is exactly what happens.

And yet I don't think there's any serious dispute that a pen-and-paper RPG is a game; it is not merely make-believe, because there are rules that keep the play within bounds. But RPGs aren't necessarily games by Ebert's definition if Ebert's definition requires a game to be something with winners or losers or a definite end or objective beyond the act of play.

It seems that either an RPG like Traveller isn't really a game, or Ebert's definition is wrong.

I could, I suppose, start picking on Ebert's definition of "art" next, but it doesn't seem nearly as worthwhile because even Ebert seems to have trouble taking it seriously. He grapples with the idea of art having an individual creator, admits there are artistic projects that have many creators, reneges and says that even these artistic projects have one primary creator ("Everybody didn't start dancing all at once."), and thereby "un-arts" quite a lot of jazz and improvised theatre. (Notably, improvised music and theatre frequently bear a resemblance to games in a Gadamer-esque sense, since musicians and actors in such situations are freely creating according to previously-agreed rules--all musicians shall improvise around Am, E7, Em and C or all actors are waiting for a bus that is late. This isn't an accident--if I recall Gadamer correctly, he would tie play and art very closely together, with art being a form of play and therefore, I think, innately related to gaming in a cousinly way.)

The Penny Arcade guys seem to think this is all pointless, that Ebert is being a curmudgeon. They're absolutely right, of course, they're absolutely wrong. Ebert is relating a constricted understanding of both art and play, but then again it's interesting to discuss why he's wrong with a sense of understanding what it means to play or what art is.

That having been said, I also have to say this: that I'm not sure whether I can say that he's specifically wrong about games-to-date. I have a hard time thinking of a videogame I'd call "a work of art" despite playing quite a few videogames that gave me an aesthetic or emotional experience akin to traditional media that I would call "works of art." This is separate, too, from the matter of whether there's artistry in videogames--i.e. the fact that a particularly well-rendered cutscene or background might show an enormous amount of artistic skill doesn't necessarily mean the whole videogame is therefore itself a piece of art... I don't think.

Years ago, the second time I played Knights Of The Old Republic, trying to make sure I'd eaten as much of the orange as I could, I played a thoroughly evil character. Hideously evil. Sith to the core. I stole money from children and threatened the elderly, stabbed heroes in the back and wantonly destroyed anything destructible. There comes a point in the game, if you follow this course, in which your party of allies splinters, and like a good frothing tyrant you must deal with the traitors. Particularly, there is a Twi'lek teen in the party and her best friend, a Wookie, and she refuses to go along with your evilness while the Wookie is reluctantly obligated to do whatever you tell him to do despite his loyalty to the girl. You can let the girl go, or you can run after her and kill her, or you can do what I did and force her Wookie best friend to do it for you.

And I still feel terrible about it.

I didn't do it because I'm a bad person. Aside from the fact that I don't think I am, there's also the fact that this was the second time I played the game, trying to see what would happen if you played it differently, and the first time I played it I was incredibly nice and heroic and a kind and wonderful chap who saved the galaxy and forgave traitors and all of that. These were just pixels, anyway, and not real creatures, and it was just a game. But I nonetheless felt awful watching the consequences of my actions and still feel kind of bad about it years later.

All of which I mention because this was obviously an emotional and indeed aesthetic experience as-profound-as or more-profound-than experiences I've had reading artistic novels or watching artistic movies or artistic plays or listening to artistic music. And I'm not saying Knights Of The Old Republic is art--I'm not sure that it is--but I am saying that with that sort of "artlike" experience being accessible, it might at least be something close to art, suggesting that Ebert's "can never be" might be completely off.

Anyway, something to think about.


Janiece Thursday, April 22, 2010 at 10:46:00 AM EDT  

Goodwin Liu may be young, but I guess there's no question about this legal chops - simply his ideology.

Which makes me sad.

But yeah - Video Games! Play-time!

Eric Thursday, April 22, 2010 at 12:05:00 PM EDT  

Although I feel I still know little about Liu even after nosing around Wikipedia and the news, you're probably right. But I suspect there's probably a common human tendency to initially judge someone of a similar generational cohort by one's own modesty or insecurity: "How can he _____?! He's my age! And I don't think I'm qualified to _____!" Then one realizes, upon reflection, that one has gotten old and has entered the era of life one used to associate with "grown-ups"; one's peers are in establishment positions, indeed oneself is in an establishment position--e.g. a career lawyer with a mortgage whose similar-age friends not only have children but those children are themselves growing up rather too quickly. ("I remember when your mother brought ultrasound pictures of you to work--you were a blob! Stop walking around and talking and, and, and... being unbloblike!" Fates preserve me when these infants are graduating from college, I don't know what I'll do. Yes I do: I'll enter a profound state of denial.)

Or, you know, maybe it's just me.

Now, more importantly, how do we get everybody in the UCF on Steam with Tom and I!

Janiece Thursday, April 22, 2010 at 10:09:00 PM EDT  

Oh, I understand what your saying - it's all perception, no doubt. While I recognize intellectually that I'm approaching my prime earning years (and thus my peers are, as well), it's still a little freaky that those prime earning years coincide with greater responsibility and authority.

But, yes - GAMES.

The Smart Man is on Steam. He and Tom are friends if you want to send him an invite. It's extremely unlikely, however, that I will ever be on Steam. Sorry, dude.

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