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Games as art

by Raph Koster

Recently I gave a talk at the Austin Museum of Art, supposedly on the topic of computer games as art. My friend Bruce Sterling came to the talk, and chatting beforehand urged me to tip over some applecarts, challenge preconceived notions, etc etc, all in that particularly Bruceian way he has--I felt vaguely disappointed that the talk ended up not really hitting on anything particularly controversial. It was hard to go there when I had to explain what an online world was in the first place. I didn't really get to touch on the real issues of computer games as art, because the talk turned out to be too short a time period for the depth I wanted to go into, but I promised myself that I would write an essay on it. I've found a surprisingly large number of players of games who prefer not to see game design as an artistic medium. But I don't see any way in which we can fail to consider it as one.
Austin Museum of Art

Austin Museum of Art.

To my mind, all arts are based around communicating something. They use a particular medium to communicate within the constraints of that medium, and often what is communicated is in fact thoughts about the medium itself (in other words, a formalist approach to arts--much modern art falls in this category). The medium shapes the nature of the message, of course, but the message can be representational, impressionistic, narrative, emotional, intellectual, or whatever else. Some art forms are solo, and some are collaborative (and they can all be made collaborative to an extent, I believe). And some media are actually the result of the collaboration of specialists in many different media, working together to present a work that is incomplete without the use of multiple media within it. Film is one such medium. And video games are another.

The video game requires the collaboration of a number of disciplines, some of them more technical than others. Yet to say that it is less of an art because it requires the engineering discipline of programming code is to also denigrate something like film, which has an enormously high level of technical competence required. (It's also to ignore the level of technical competence required for things like learning color theory or mixing paints, or constructing sentences or paragraphs, but that's another story).

One of the commonest points I hear about why video games are not an art form is that they are just for fun. They are just entertainment. But most music is also just entertainment, and most novels are read just for fun, and most movies are mere escapism, and yes, even most pretty pictures are just pretty pictures. The fact that most games are merely entertainment does not mean that this is all they are doomed to be.

Mere entertainment becomes art when the communicative element in the work is either novel or exceptionally well done. It really is that simple. It has the power to alter how people perceive the world around them. And it's hard to imagine a medium more powerful in that regard than video games, where you are presented with interactivity and a virtual world that reacts to your choices. This is a medium with amazing potential, though I must admit that it suffers on the abstract level in a way that simpler media do not (film has many of the same issues though).

Right now, the vast majority of games don't really have anything to say. Some do, though. It's worth wondering, I think, why so many of the games and game designers that are considered legends are those with something to say. Nobody can deny that there is a clear artistic vision behind the work of say, Will Wright, Shigeru Miyamoto, Sid Meier, Peter Molyneux, or Richard Garriott. And it's not just about entertainment. There are subtexts and implicit messages, and sometimes overt preaching, in these games. And yes, sometimes they might be artistic failures as a result. On the other hand, notice how much scorn gets heaped on games that are perceived as mere clones or knockoffs. The public already discusses and treats games as an art form, and uses the same standards of judgment for them as they do for films or novels or any other artistic medium. They just aren't used to considering them to be art.

The challenge for game designers, of course, is whether to decide to pursue the possibilities of the medium. I'm not worried about the relative lack of this right now--the medium is still very much in its infancy. One can hope that it can learn from the lessons of other artistic disciplines, but even if it doesn't, we're still basically in the Stone Age as far as designing interactive experiences goes. And the state of the art is not going to improve unless we have a decent means of evaluating what it is. Right now, many game developers themselves do not feel that video games are an art form, I'm sure, even though folks like Chris Crawford have been pushing this perspective for many years now.

Basically, video games aren't going to improve as art and fulfill their potential until more people recognize that they are art, and are willing to discuss them as art. And that means that eventually we must gain a critique of the form.

Game design is an art and a craft, and like all arts and crafts, it has techniques and approaches, and that implies that it can support a criticism; said criticism exists though it is not very sophisticated. Mud design is also an art and a craft, and it also has techniques and approaches, but there is no criticism, no self-evaluation, no standards defined, no study of what has gone before. And without self-critique, it cannot improve except in fits and starts. If this genre is to evolve into more than game design, which I firmly believe it has already begun to do, then it will have to support at least the critical apparatus of game design, and preferably the critical apparatus of many disciplines that most people do not bother to link: server design, and writing, and hypertextual theory, and art (for graphics are coming and will dominate, it's not worth fighting over), and psychology and sociology... Game designers today generally do not know even the short history of computer game design; we must as a community educate ourselves and each other if we want the community and its art and craft to grow.

I wrote the above quote maybe four years ago. Maybe five. I don't know. It's been a while. Since then, I have seen exactly two websites tackle the tough job of reviewing muds: the long-standing Mud Connector and the welcome new arrival Game Commandos. A lot of the reviews are fairly sycophantic affairs written by players of the mud in question that wish to boost the visibility and reputation of their favorite cyberspace. But it's a hell of a lot better than nothing. It is perhaps too much to expect that the reviews rise to the level of critique, rather than being merely largely unhelpful reviews.

To make clear the distinction: a review assesses the merits of something on a fairly simple level: good, bad, like dislike. A critique, however, goes deeper to analyze the item, to suggest its place in context with other things of its type, to elucidate relationships, uncover archetypes, assess impact on genres, judge how influential something may be. In the case of a game, a review boils down to just, "is it fun?" whereas a critique must consider things like "is it ambitious? is it important? is it derivative? is it innovative?" Reviews don't give you credit for trying something new and daring that falls flat on its face. Critiques do.

In addition, my personal belief is that reviews do diddly to advance the state of the art. They just help someone decide whether to buy a game. Developers may as well skip the reviews, honestly. They are frequently hurtful, occasionally ego-boosting, and they can affect sales. They may, sometimes, help the developer learn what must be done differently in their next venture, yes. But they are not written for the developer. They are written for the buyer. Critiques, on the other hand, are useful to the author as well as to the reader, they are useful to the developer as well as to the player, and they are, if well-done, useful to the industry and useful to the state of the art.

While I was at GDC this year, I attended a panel on the relationship between developers and the press. It was moderated by Bernie Yee, who is an avid player of Ultima Online, writes a periodic column on Ultima Online and other online games, and who as of recently, works in the online games industry at Sony Online Entertainment. During the panel, I sat huddled in the back, because I knew that much of the discussion was going to center around the reviews, awards, and raspberries given to Ultima Online upon its ship (And rest assured, that is not what I want to talk about!). During said panel, the point Bernie stressed was that there is a difference between a review and formal critique, and that the latter is perhaps non-existent in the industry today. The panel, which consisted of notable editors from major gaming magazines and notable developers such as Doug Church, largely agreed with him on that point. And I agree as well.

The reason why it prompts me to write, however, is because at least for the larger game industry, outside of online, there is enough of a history now and enough press and enough practitioners for there to emerge a shared vocabulary of sorts, with which certain writers with a broad enough perspective and sense of history can indeed venture towards the realm of critique, and thus have a chance to advance the field. It's not common, but it does happen. And those writers who have this perspective often become columnists and editors, and generally speaking, are popular fixtures in their various media. Steve Bauman of Computer Games Online/Strategy Plus described the role of the gaming press to me after that panel as being largely like Car and Driver magazine. Or in another comparison, it's like TV Guide. It's not truly critique, but there are gestures towards it, and someday perhaps we will see the emergence of a Cineaste for the gaming crowd. I don't doubt that plenty of the stalwart journalists working in the gaming press today eagerly await such a day as much as developers do.

So if we all agree on that point, what am I writing about? Well, about the fact that online gaming, despite a history that is as long as that of standalone video gaming, is largely lacking in said shared vocabulary in mainstream press. And as a result, even the slightest shading of critique is pretty much missing from mainstream coverage of online games. And this is all the more ironic because there's a much higher level of awareness of design patterns and issues among mud designers than there is among most commercial computer game designers.

This is the point at which cynics exclaim, "Ah, he's going to complain about Ultima Online reviews!" But you see, I am not. There's basically no reason to quarrel with a review's conclusions. Best to just take them all as being right, and don't try to reconcile the contradictions. Rather, the point I'd like to make is that until there is such a shared vocabulary, until there is a greater understanding of persistent world games, all the games released are being done a disservice simply because the reviews aren't necessarily going to focus on anything that matters. And as a case in point, I've been reading a lot of reviews of EverQuest recently, and couldn't help but notice that the positive reviews generally completely failed to single out the features of that game that to my mind are truly outstanding; and likewise, the negative parts tended not to single out the things I consider weak spots in the design.

Obviously, given that Ever Quest and Ultima Online are in competition, I shouldn't (and won't) go into any detail on this opinion of mine. It'd be bound to simply be taken the wrong way, as bashing of a competitor. Well, I've got friends over there at Verant, and have no intention of bashing their product. It's a good game, and enough said. Instead, here's the things that I would want to see in a review of online games, speaking as a longtime player of them.

In all of the above, I've barely touched on one other, even more controversial, aspect of regarding games as art, and that is the responsibility of the artist. Recently at the E3 convention someone in the press asked Warren Spector what he thought of the trend of dumbing down games to make them accessible to a wider market. Now, Warren's a pretty opinionated and blunt guy (he's also a pretty good guitar player) and his answer was, "I don't want to make games for stupid people." At the same time, Richard Garriott was demonstrating Ultima IX: Ascension, a game clearly intended in part to make the narrative Role Playing Game experience more accessible and immersive. Either way, each of them is living up to the artistic responsibility towards themselves: the responsibility to pursue their vision (and lucky them, they are at points in their careers where they are free to do so!).

These are what we call "artistic differences." They're common, and at some level, the audience will have to go where the audience wills. One designer might end up with a small, elite audience, but know that he is designing to the standards he sets and to his own satisfaction. Another might believe, as I do, that if art is communicative, then communicating only to an elite is a self-imposed limitation on your audience. (While I was in graduate school, I was crushed when my thesis advisor told me that she didn't think that my poetry was the sort that could cross over to wider audiences, probably because it was too densely allusive and too densely packed). And designers may choose to take different artistic tacks with different projects. Over the last year, there's been a lot of verbiage thrown around about how Ascension was doomed to be a failure--and it all boiled down to the audience stating that the designer had a responsibility to them to keep to the same type of expression. But with this medium, the only responsibility the artist has to the audience is that the game be an enjoyable experience.

This is not something the audience likes to hear, by the way. "Hey, you don't like the way this game is? Go pick up another one off the shelf." Then again, I didn't like it when Suzanne Vega added trip-hop into her folk music, and I didn't like it when the TV show Homicide dropped some of the camera work they had used in their early episodes in favor of a tamer, less jarring style. I complained a lot about the Suzanne Vega thing on a folk music board I participated in, in fact, and got slapped back by a wiser head than I who basically said, "I'm happy to just follow this artist's vision wherever they happen to go." And isn't that why we seek out particular people's songs, movies, paintings--or games?

There's another potential type of responsibility that merits much discussion. And that is the artists' responsibility to society at large. This is not an easy subject. Games are getting a lot of attention, as I write this, for their supposed influence. I am not going to say much on this subject, except to note that all artistic media have influence. And free will also has a say in what people say and do. Yes, games right now sure do seem to have a very narrow palette of expression. But let them grow. Don't do something stupid like the Comics Code, which stunted the development of the comics medium severely for decades (the artistic gap between the EC Comics of the fifties and Art Spiegelman's Maus is not that huge--the time gap that resulted from the imposition of the Comics Code arguably set the medium back by thirty years). Not all artists and critics agree that art has a social responsibility. If there was such agreement, there wouldn't be the debates about the ethics of locking up Ezra Pound, about the validity of propagandistic art, about whether one should respect artists who were scoundrels and scum in their private lives. It's not surprising that we wonder whether games or TV or movies have a social responsibility--once upon a time we asked the same thing about poetry. Nobody really ever agreed on an answer.

(For what it's worth, my answer is "yes, but." Make of that what you will.)

Raph Koster is the lead designer and programmer for Ultima Online.