Thursday, January 27, 2011

Games Are Art -- Experiential Art

I've written about this before, but a recent discussion with a fellow gamer at a party has spurred some new and more coherent thoughts.  I believe that the primary obstacle to establishing video and computer games as an art form, with a serious body of criticism and scholarship, is that games are fundamentally not the same as other established media.  And we don't have all the words we need to do the serious stuff yet.

If you and I see the same movie, we may have very different reactions and opinions about it, but our experience of the film is likely to have been very much the same.  The storyline, the cinematography, the acting -- and the ultimate edited record of the production -- will be presented to us as-is.  It will start in the same place, end in the same place, and move through the same sequence of events at the same pace.  The images and sounds, bar environmental and equipment differences, will be identical.

The same applies, I would argue, to books, poetry, music, sculpture, painting, dance, theatre, puppetry... any presentational art form you care to name.  Our personal tastes and knowledge will inform our reactions, but our experience of the work as presented will be consistent.

I don't mean to discount the effort we put into understanding and appreciating a work of art, reflecting the greater effort invested in its creation.  There's a very real interaction, even centuries removed, between the viewer's perception and the artist's intent.  But it's likely that if you and I have similar tastes, we will have consistent impressions of the same work, or at least we can have more nuanced arguments about it.

Games, on the other hand, really have to be experienced to be appreciated or criticized.  You may have noticed that watching someone else play a videogame is rarely interesting; if it's a familiar game, you've seen it, and if it's unfamiliar, you can't always tell what's going on. 

I suggest that this is because, in this medium, the artist's (or artists') work is only truly expressed through the player's experience of it.  Without a player actively engaging the work, it's just a collection of bits gathering dust or running through a demonstration cycle.  The art, if it exists, only manifests while a player is playing.

As supporting evidence, I note that good game design may, indeed, be experienced differently by different participants.  Some players are motivated by story -- "get this challenge out of the way so I can see what happens next."  Some by the opportunity to demonstrate skill -- "I'm trying to beat all my friends' high scores."  Others are more exploration-oriented -- "I don't care if I ever finish this, I just want to spend some time in this world and see and do whatever I can."  And many of us (these are not mutually exclusive types) enjoy the simple pleasures of mild addiction sans withdrawal complications -- "Match three.  Yes!  Can I match three more?"

I would further argue that games are actually a collaborative art form.  And, to be clear, I'm not talking about the cheap, switch-throwing "interactivity" of Dragon's Lair, a choose-your-own-adventure book or pick-the-ending DVD, where long stretches of watching are interrupted by brief flurries of activity.  I'm talking about an ongoing, intensely concentrated period of engagement.

Each player's experience of a particular game is deeply personal; mine will have elements in common with yours, but I believe that I am genuinely helping to create my own version of the "art" at hand, in collaboration with the game's designers.  I am exploring the game's parameters and applying my own habits, interests and preferences to the manner in which I approach it. 

Moreover, I am actively participating in the development of the game's "story," my specific memory of it, even if that story is only about how effectively I can shoot at a target or stack irregularly-shaped blocks.  As the player, I have a stake in the game session's development that nobody outside my own head can fully understand.  I can describe moments and share impressions with others, of course, and I do that via this very blog.  But I can't completely articulate what it's like to play a particular game, nor can I transplant my experience into your head.  You have to go do it yourself, and your mileage may vary.  It's a purely internal phenomenon, truly one's own private thing.

So, let me set this forth for future debate and argument next time I feel like tackling it: 

Games represent a new and unique art form that is experiential, not presentational, in nature.  The art of a game is collaborative and ephemeral, expressed primarily in the moment and the player's memory.
Discussion in the comments or via email is always welcome.

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