Monday, December 18, 2006

Video Games On Tape

In response to the idea that the length of recent blogs makes them difficult to respond to and comment on, I’m going to try something a little different for the next segment of discussions. I’m going to do one blog on one idea. So no “Thirty Year Old Art: II”, just some more issues that relate to part one, starting with one that I have a really hard time fitting into any other discussion very well.

As far as how people consume and interact with them, video games are an interesting combination of movies and books. This was really surprising to me when it came to light (thank you Stuart) because I'd always sort of assumed that video games were most similar to movies. My concept of a video game was basically a movie that was interrupted by gameplay, or a movie in which you controlled the action. The only similarity I saw to books was the fact that they had a story. But the way games are experienced, not just the way they look, is in fact very similar to how people read.

Obviously different kinds of games share different things with other art forms. Abstract puzzles have little in common with any narrative art. But for the most part, and especially in the post 8-bit video game era, games have taken on much of the visual style and appeal of manstream movies and video media of similar subject matter. For example, science fiction settings in video games tend toward the robots and lasers that mainstream film uses. Explosions, gunfights, highspeed chases, panoramic landscapes, shapely figures and dramatic camera angles have all worked their way into video games as the technology to create interesting images becomes cheaper and more accessible to developers. Especially as CGI becomes a staple for action/adventure movies, the visual style of movies becomes imitated by video games. Video games and movies always seem to be interwoven, as they make direct use of each other's subject matter and pump out movies of games or, much more often, games of movies. Direct inbreeding of the two media never seems to work though. I wonder why...

The fact of the matter is that video games and movies employ vastly different methods of engaging an audence. Movies, television, music, theater, painting and sculpture are all what I would consider arts which require passive participation by the viewer. The audience participates in their mind, relates to the work in a personal way and adds to the work by bringing their own perspective, but the art will continue whether or not the people are paying attention or even present. A person can zone out in a movie and the movie persists. This is not the case in either literature or video games. The art will only exist if the viewer actively invites it to. If you stop reading the book, the story stops. There can be no story without the abstract shapes being translated into meaningful ideas as they are read. Similarly, there can be no video game unless someone plays it. It is true that a person can zone out reading a book too, or absentmindedly play a game without any thought, but the disruption to the artwork in these instances is substantial and different from the way a person can passively observe a movie or listen to a song without focusing.

I think this may be something that turns people off to gaming the same way people sometimes get tuned off to reading. There is a significant amount of effort involved in each that is needed to get the information contained in the artwork. Books and video games require some imaginative input from the audience to be fleshed out in their entirety. In 8-bit and 16-bit RPG gaming especially there's a lot of imagination necessary to become immersed in the world. The graphics and dialogue are limited and beg the player to mentally fill in the dramatic and visual gaps to make the story come to life. Those who are willing to do this find themselves in wonderfully emotional and exciting stories. Those who aren't find a flat, unengaging series of electronic bleeps, pixellated bodies and simplistic dialogue. Obviously there's a lot of imagination that goes into reading a book too, since you can't actually see or hear anything you read. The images and ideas in a written story only exists in the mind of the reader.

Games also need some imagination and thought to complete at all. Decisions have to be made, puzzles need to be figured out, initiative has to be taken to get anywhere. That is of course the point of playing, but especially for non-gamer types, this may be too much to do for the sake of having a story told to them. In fact, in this respect games require more effort that books do. Video games are sort of a half way point, which sometimes makes them difficult for people to enjoy. They require more effort than just sitting and watching, and don't allow for as much imaginative oportunity as a book. I think this middle ground is also a reason some people love them so much.

The other really interesting parallel between video games and books that i think is worth mentioning is the fact that, more so than most other arts, video games and books require a vocabulary in order to be experienced at all. This is more true in books than in games. Obviously books require literacy, but more than that, books require understanding of the specific vocabulary that is being presented in the story. Many children would be considered literate are completely unable to read many books, despite their ability to pronounce the words on the page. Even many movies in a foreign language can be understood by what seems to be a fairly universal vocabulary of images. I know I can follow spanish telanovelas about as well as I probably could if I spoke spanish. Games require a vocabulary also. Games have commonalities in what's expected of the player, the sorts of solutions that will probably solve certain problems, how to control an object in the virtual world, etc. The best example of this is fighting games. Street Fighter II's quarter-circle-punch has been a staple in video game vocabulary since its inception. When a player new to the entire genre comes to the controls, the motion is completely alien and sometimes incomprehensible. Just the fact that video games require instruction manuals and training for each game shows how much of a vocabulary is require to experience the game. Both video games and books understand that this is a potential barrier between their art and the audience, so both have developed "media supplements" in the form of walkthroughs and line/cliff notes. These allow the art to be accessible to people who would otherwise pass it by due to a failure to develop the necessary vocabulary.

So there ya go. Books and Video games. Now, how do we get more old people to play video games...

(it's still pretty long isn't it...)

Friday, December 08, 2006

The Thirty Year Old Art: Part I

Art is a difficult thing to talk about.

As much as it is an extremely old and intimate aspect of society, it is notoriously difficult to define. Disputes about what art is have been the subject of artwork for centuries. I’ve never had an art teacher who didn’t look at least a little uncomfortable when the subject was raised, or an art class that was satisfied with the conclusion. The definition expands and contracts regularly. However, there must be some boundary. If there is none, there is no such thing as art. If everything is art, the word becomes meaningless. I feel that art is one of the most important things in the world. For a person who things the point of living is experience, and I do, nothing seems more meaningful than a human endeavor who’s purpose includes experience for experience sake, and the communication of experiences.

So what is art to me that makes it so easy for me to say that video games are clearly included? Well, for me, art is this (don’t worry I’ll explain): anything presented for consideration of the thing as it exists apart from the rest of the world. An apple eaten as food is not art. And apple looked at as an example of an apple is art. And apple looked at as an example of an object is art. Eating an apple is not art. Presenting yourself eating an apple is art. The taste of an apple is art if the taste is presented as such. Art can be seen to have many purposes, or none, but for me art serves the function of providing experience and conveying information. Words cannot say everything. It may help us understand others, or simply be enjoyable and enhance ourselves and our personal environments. It is essential to understanding our nature as people, and subsequently to be a responsible person.

Art can be anything. Any sense, any object, any idea. Through art we have the potential for self-expression. This, of course does not make everything good art, but the different ways in which human experience can be communicated are limited only to the number of things that can be experienced. Video games often employ so many conventional examples of visual and auditory art that the supposition that they are somehow excluded from the Art umbrella I think is irrational. They create emotional experiences, are often aesthetically beautiful, and certainly require skill and craft to create. So, yea, video games are definitely art.If you don’t like my definition, here are a few more. Video games still fit into them pretty nicely.

“The use of skill and imagination in the creation of aesthetic objects, environments, or experiences that can be shared with others.” Britanica Online
“Any human activity which doesn't grow out of either of our species' two basic instincts: survival and reproduction.” Scott McCloud, Understanding Comics
“An application of human creativity that has some form of appreciative value, usually on the basis of aesthetic value or emotional impact.” Wikipedia

I feel like it’s a good idea to explicitly say the purpose of this two part blog rather than just try and convey it in a topic paragraph. The purpose is (inhale) to explore video games as a viable high art form and encourage their expressive potential. Why try to encourage games to be more expressive and artistic? Partly because I love video games, but honestly, video games have become repetitive. As technology grows ever more amazing I see it being used in games the same way it has been used in movies: to make existing ideas more sparkley. Video games, a medium defined entirely within technology, should advances exponentially as technology does. Now don’t get me wrong, it has changed in profound ways! Games have morphed so fast it’s hard to keep up sometimes. From Super Mario Brothers to World of Warcraft? That's petty amazing. But even still, I’m bored with a lot of the next generation games. I’m tired of shooters, RPG’s, platformers, fighters and virtually every established genre feeling like they really haven’t progressed significantly in any way besides their graphics. I still get more of a kick out of my SNES than I do out of my PS2. This is partially nostalgia of course, but is also due to the types of ideas and interfaces that exist in some older games. For example, my favorite shooter remains Doom II, despite playing Half Life, Quake II, Metroid Prime, Halo and Descent (remember Descent? Yea you do!) to name a few. I want to see what video games can really do.

The other reason sounds more pretentious, but I believe in it. Every art medium has something it is able to express about life, experience and humanity that no other can. There are things that can be said through song and sound that nobody can ever depict any other way. There are stories that, when told through a movie format, will be understood in a way a book could never express. There are written ideas that could never be expressed visually or sonically. There is something special about every mode of communication, and video games are capable of expression. This means that they have something special they are capable of saying, and I want to hear it. At this point in the history of video games, I think they’ve been able to show us a lot about ourselves, but I think they’ve been imitating other art forms too much. I remain convinced that they have not really plumbed the depths of their expressive potential.

This first discussion I am going limit to exploring the qualities of the video game medium and how those qualities relate to art in general. A second blog will follow discussing the artistic/expressive potential and achievements of video games.

Dissecting art into parts is a task often more difficult than defining what qualifies as art in the first place. Most definitions settle around Form vs. Function, or something along these lines. The problem becomes the fact form and functions often merge. Form usually entails the physical manifestation of artwork, and function defines the social impact of a piece, be it intended by the artist or not. Clearly these two get mixed up, since many forms of art explore aesthetics for aesthetics’ sake and form is heavily used to convey information and is integral in the function of an artwork. The two seem inseparable, but I’m going to separate them anyway. A good work of art is one that uses form effectively to achieve a functional goal. I don’t think it can be said that some art has no goal whatsoever, because someone did it for some reason. If it was entirely accidental, it was not presented, and therefore not art by my definition.

I see form in video games as having two major parts: narration and interaction. In point of fact, video games don’t need much in the way of narration, since many abstract video games exist, but I feel like it’s fair to include narration as a basic component of video gaming since so much of the medium’s expressive potential comes from narration. All games have some form of narration, even if it isn’t much. Tetris’s graphics are a form of narration I think, albeit an extremely simple one.

When I talk about narration, I mean anything that allows the game to convey information to the player about the game’s world. This includes setting, story elements, gameplay graphics and sound, extra-gameplay graphics and sound, visual prompts, anything that lets the player know about the imaginary game world. I think it’s fair to say that just about all games, video or not, have some element of narration when considering this definition. The lines of a football field communicate to the players the imaginary world of the game, where imaginary boundaries become meaningful. Board games represent imaginary worlds where one plays with the use of a plastic avatar. What is unique about video games is the vast scope of narrative possibilities. Especially with fourth and fifth generation consoles, the possibility of creating cinematic-quality narratives becomes easily achievable. It isn’t technology though that allows for this communicative ability. Some of the most amazing stories to come out of games have come from 16bit systems. Video games really do have the potential to have stories as complicated and lengthy as any novel or movie, and thanks to the booming market and technological investment, the look and sound of just about any movie as well. Of course, video games are not movies or books. They are separated from being “just games” by their narrative potential, and separated from simply being narratives by their interactive potential.

Interaction in gaming is represented by control schemes, game engines, button configurations, controller layouts, on-screen commands, and what sort of visual perspective the player is forced to take (this last one bleeds into narration a bit, but whatever). The interactive element of gaming is what sets it apart from any other art medium. Interactivity in gaming forces the player into a particular persona and a particular perspective. It also makes isolated aspects of the game particularly intimate to the player. By allowing control over certain aspects of the imaginary world and not others (as must be the case in any video game) game designers force the player to become more familiar with the things they have control over and interact with, and less familiar with elements which are completely beyond their influence or participation. This happens in all art media of course because we can only handle one perspective at a time. When watching a movie, you are forced into the perspective of the camera, and sometimes the person the camera is focused on. When viewing a painting or sculpture you are limited by the object's orientation in space. I think this is more palpable in video games because of the harsh contrast that is sometimes created between what the player can see, and what the player can control. It's important that the player be more focused on their character than on the background textures and the sound effects, else they are likely to make mistakes and fail in the game’s objectives. However, the case may be made that the more blurred the separation between what you can interact with and what you can’t becomes, the more immersive and effective a game becomes. Personally, I think this is a stylistic element of gaming that will not work all the time. Certain games are more effective when you are aware of the fact that you are playing a game, and some require the sense of loosing one’s self in the imaginary world in order to fulfill their function.

In the course of reading up on this subject, the issue was raised that a distinction should be made between interaction and participation. This actually has a lot to say about the nature of games as art. There seems to me to be a fundamental distinction between a situation in which there is a specific narrative which a player is able to have some degree of participation in, as in an RPG, and a situation in which there is some substantial amount of give and take between the established game narrative and the player. The few games that i can think of that are decent examples of this type of interaction are MMORPG's, The Sims (especially the later ones) and that-really-neato-game-Nico-showed-me-at-Warren's-house (TRNGNSMAWH). I’m actually going to leave this for the next blog since I think it has less to do with establishing the nature of video games, and more to do with the specifics of how expressive and valuable video games are and can be.

At the heart of the controversy surrounding video games and art is the next subject. The function of video games. First of all, some comments on my view of the function of any art. I’ve mentioned it before, but I think it bears repeating. Much of the purpose of art is the communication of information. Thoughts, feelings, stories, perspectives, and even objective reporting can sometimes be conveyed more effectively through artistic craft, and I think this is one of the most important reasons that we value art in culture. The words we speak to one another do not allow us to understand each other well enough. But through art, we often get a little closer to the truth hidden inside each person's head. Each art form allows for acute understanding of humanity in a way that the other art forms simply couldn't do. Video games must do this as well, and being such a unique art, must also tell us something special about ourselves that we would never know if they didn't exist. What is that special something?

Art may convey information because the artist intended it to do so, or it may do so without the artist even knowing that it’s happening. It is the case that anything that is consumed conveys to the consumer information. You can’t experience anything without having some impression left on you. So there is no such thing as art which conveys nothing to its audience. However, many many works of art are made with the express purpose of being beautiful. The pleasurable nature of art is for many people its only value, and probably the other reason it is so important to us. Despite the fact that I think this is limiting, it must be accepted that this is also an extremely important aspect of artwork. Unless a work of art is enjoyable on some level, it won't be experienced by anybody.

The function of nearly all video games is entertainment as far as i can see. This of course does not mean there is a purely lowest-common-denominator appeal in gaming. Games range from mind-numbing keg-drinking fuck-screaming frat house center pieces to very subtle and sophisticated imaginary explorations. Even so, the function is entertainment. This is, however, the point of most art that exists in any medium. The majority of art is created for its aesthetic appeal, hence the stereotype that art must be aesthetically appealing. And let's not forget that just because the function of a work of art is to be entertaining does not mean that it is necessarily low brow or shallow. Art may seek to entertain by being intellectually provocative, or may couple elements of hedonic enjoyment with more complicated messages. This does exist in the video game world, although examples are often few and far between. Often enough the most complicated alternative function of a video game besides entertainment is to tell a story, which arguably is the same thing. If the point of the gameplay is to be fun, and the point of the story is to be enjoyable, then the game really is only about entertainment. However, just as a very serious movie can use expensive camerawork and special effects to reach an audience, so can a video game have enjoyable gameplay and a very sober plot.

I think one of the reasons that video games become targets of the label "pure entertainment" is that often times there is too much effort going into making the gameplay, the interaction of the game, entertaining and not enough going into making the gameplay and story mesh. When the narration and the gameplay don't make enough sense together, or don't rely on one another enough, they seem like separate entities. Because of this, the gameplay can be viewed as pointless and meaningless. The fact that video games' best defense by the public is "it builds hand-eye coordination" is insulting. You might as well say that's the reason to let your kids try out for Little League. That and callouses. But when a game's narration and interaction are too disjoint or too undeveloped, the game looses the qualities that make video games so amazing and becomes simply objects moving through space at the commands of fingers. Either just a hand-eye exercise, or a hand-eye exercise interrupted by a cartoon. To be expressive and worthy of our time, games need to not only create interesting narratives and gameplay, but merge them together to create one complete work.

An example of a game which I think uses gameplay and story elements together well to serve its point (though that point is agian only entertainment) is Metal Gear Solid. The Playstation one, not the Game Cube version which I think beomes distracting and overly complicated. While it may be argued that the controls, perspective and engine are clunky and difficult to use, I think that this game utilizes different gameplay modes and puzzles to keep the player feeling like they are Solid Snake in the story that the FMV sequences illustrate. The game frequently tries to make all the rediculous little errands you have to run make sense and tries to remind you constantly why your character is doing all this crap. The way the gameplay is set up you really can't diverge much from how one would imagine the story playing out. When you are supposed to be stealthy, you are stealthy. It's not that you can't kill the enemies, but it's very hard to survive if you let people know that you're trying to kill them. Few of the different gameplay elements seem superfluous, and with the exception of battling gigantic robots on foot with a rocket launcher, the game is damn near plausible. Whereas many RPG's could probably be made into books or movies without losing too much of their appeal as stories, MGS's very interesting plot is reinforced by it's gameplay, and the gameplay would be very near unenjoyable were it not for the story. Few games manage to really merge gameplay and narration this way. It is almost more important to make the gameplay make sense with the plot in this case than it is to make the gameplay enjoyable by itself. I think this is a good example of a video game, who's function is still pure enjoyment, executed in such a way that it becomes art worthy of consideration by other art media. Other examples of games that are complete, successful examples of the video game art medium in my opinion are Super Mario Brothers, Doom, Final Fantasy 7, Starcraft, Katamari, The Sims, Riven and Shadow of the Colossus to name a few. I notice when I'm trying to think of examples that I don't include many games with a plot. The absence of plot and the extremely simple narration is one of the things that makes Super Mario Brothers and Doom work for me. Very few games have been able to create a well rounded work of art while maintaining a decent story. I think the reason for this is that a complicated, engaging story requires a level of complex interaction that is very difficult to design, and even more difficult to make enjoyable and appealing to a wide audience. It's much easier to make an exciting story, and pair it with somewhat unrelated but very exciting gameplay.

Where i find video games truly come up short is when I try to think of games who's function is not entertainment. A work can be entertaining without entertainment being it's function (at least as far as the creator's inentions are concerned). For anybody who enjoys abstract shapes and unconventional imagery, cubism and abstract painting are indeed entertaining. But this is not necessarily their function as presented by the artist. Jackson Pollock's work is not so much about showing how pretty and aesthetic abstraction can be as it is about exploring what art is and how art could/should be produced. The function of Pollock's work is to present questions about artistic aesthetics and the process of creating emotionally expressive paintings. For many, his art is downright ugly. Yet even some who don't care for the way his paintings look still have a certain respect and appreciation for what he is doing with paint and canvas. Pollock's work is an extremely well executed merging of form and function, each working together to reinforce the other, a true example of how to express ideas visually. Few games approach the design process with the intention of using the interactive and narrative capabilities of gaming to convey a message to an audience. games like Grand Theft Auto may contain insights about culture and gaming, but the purpose is still to entertain. The only problem with this approach is that it limits the sort of artistic repertoire that games are allowed to make use of. There are established formulas for what is going to excite people and what sorts of game genres are going to entertain a mass audience. Games usually are based in some sort of action or competition with the computer or other virtual beings. control schemes are limited to ones which are consistent, easy to understand and easy to commit to reflex. Again, this is not a bad thing, but games need not be limited to such conventions. Games could make more use of multiple or unpredictable control types, or more exploratory and constructive, less action based gameplay (Katamari, Myst). I wish I could make better suggestions, but honestly it's hard for me to think of how games could achieve a greater depth of expression. Still, I insist that they are limited by so little that they must be able to convey information in their own special way that is as valuable as a novel or a dance.

Before I shut up, I'll mention that I'm not oblivious to the fact that many works of art, video games definitely included, are valuable not because of what the artist intends, but what the artist's work unintentionally says about the world he or she is living in. Such is a value of World of Warcraft, Grand Theft Auto, Counter Strike and Miss. Packman among many others. By deciphering what it is about playing games that is enjoyable we learn about our own culture as well as what makes us people. A game's artistic function may be completely devoid of any intention, and simply be the impact that it's had upon society.

Video games are an complicated art form, complicated further by the politics of culture and technology. They've only been around for a little over thirty years (Pong was available in 1972). Many of us have been alive during their entire evolution. Only in the last five or so years have video games created such a social impact that the medium has become an issue for discussion and allowed them to contribute to the Art Debate. A hundred years ago music was defined in such terms that much of what we listen to now would not be considered music. The notion of listening to Merzbow would not even have been entertained, it would be valueless. Video games have undergone many evolutions, but like all art in it's adolescence, video games have only been experimented with for a short while. Video games may become different in the future in ways we don't imagine now (ahem, Wii). There's still a lot we haven't played.