Posts Tagged ‘game studies’

Art Deco Spandrel

Art Deco Spandrel. CC Copyright by Atelier Tee

In his article Broadpaw made an excellent point about the reluctance of many people to think of games as art or even that particular games might be a form of art; we are lightyears away from someone acknowledging that a specific game might be great art.  Broadpaw noted that the entire debate is structured around a series of false binaries.  And they are false  if we consider the way these things actually work in the world.  As I noted previously, the non-art/art binary doesn’t apply at all to our actual creative practices.  However, the important thing about false binaries is that they can nevertheless have real-world effects.  It is the reason why people use them, after all.  The concepts they describe and the words that give them life are the foundation of careers, schools of thought, forms of power.  All well and good, right?  The great wheel of capitalism turns to the benefit of all?  I want to spend a bit of time thinking about the downside, the real world negative effects of these false binaries on the present and future place of games in our culture.


Upon leaving a reply to “It may be art. . .but I really don’t care,” I soon realized that the reply was quickly becoming its own post. So here it is.

My good Twitchdoctor, I am pleased that you tackle the question of “Are games art?” in the way that you have – in that you’re engaging the question itself. Beyond inspiring us to seriously consider games as art (or as texts or as narratives or as heralding the downfall of all of humankind), I grow tired of these “grand debates,” ones that exist only within the framework of a false binary. For instance, I understand — although without question partially disagree — with Carmack’s claim (also appearing in the McNamara article) that “A gamer pays to play, not to admire.” Ultimately, what Carmack intends, I think, like many ludologists have done (especially more than five or so years ago), elevating the actual gaming aspect of games. Sure, that makes sense, given that a game is, well, a game. We should be emphasizing their ludic, game-like, qualities. But such binaries are also foolishly simplistic as many gamers/scholars/designers/developers doubtless realize.

I take to heart your comment in response to games-as-art that “there is no reason that games, like other art forms, shouldn’t do both, or neither” (I might reiterate that “neither” portion, as I have attempted to play games that are virtually unplayable; I have tried to see as art, objects of art for art’s sake that I cannot, no matter my mind’s openness, see any artistic value in and certainly no function; likewise, I have seen plenty of objects that are intended solely to be functional that simply aren’t, yet they without question are not art, either . . . take, for instance, pretty much anything labeled “As Seen On TV”). Our obsession with absolutes — “yes or no” and “all or nothing” as you accurately put it in your post — frustrate me thoroughly. And you’re right, it’s not whether games are art, but rather “whether” (I’d say “when”) specific game titles can be considered art, or, to put it another way, what artistic elements we see in specific game titles. “Art” versus “artistic” might provide a clearer lens through which to look at these objects, and one that might reveal another question that you pose regarding motivation.

It is motivation, to some extent (those of game authors, gamers, and critics). For instance, I wonder if part of Carmack’s problem, too, when he labels those who claim games-as-art are sophists, even on an unconscious level, is that the critics are elevating themselves, for if games are works of art, then game critics are contributing to cultural knowledge, revealing and making meaning, whereas if games are merely commodities, critics are simply writing product reviews. And there has long existed a tension between critics and artists, as much as their relationships can be symbiotic. [This may really not be the case, even if I find it plausible, though, as I should point out that Au, quoting Carmack, indicates that Carmack is implicating “fellow developers” and not game critics: “In an apparent slam at fellow developers who strive for something higher …” (Au). This pointing-the-finger-at game developers and not critics changes the game, slightly, but I’ll get back to that).

Motivation need not be singular, either, though — we might think about, in addition to motivation, a matter of motivational priority. In other words, while my instinct is to say definitively (and obviously) that a game is both art and commodity (it is, or at least can be), I am willing to instead (or also) ask the question, “To what extent is a game a work of art and to what extent is it a commodity?” (Which is NOT to ask for some silly percentage or numeric value, but merely to point out that we can investigate games in numerous ways simultaneously; to put it yet another way, might a game be a commodity first and a work of art second?) That’s potentially a more productive and accurate way to frame the question (especially in that we might generate some identifiable answer to the question or at least an arguable, plausible claim, rather than just perpetuating the debate itself ad nauseam). Furniture is art. Or can be. But largely, furniture is first functional, and only then is it artistic (or do we have to bring up the distinction, now, between the “fine” and “decorative” arts? … although perhaps I’ll reveal my barbarity when I comment that if a painting isn’t “decorative,” then I don’t know what is.) Automobiles are works of art. Or can be. Compare a Delahaye to a Ford, and the case is made. But largely, automobiles are first functional, and then artistic (although not incidentally, many of those beautiful 1930s coach-built shapes also aided in aerodynamics, and their designers intentionally were pursuing aerodynamic qualities — without the benefit of windtunnels — while still focusing on pleasing, beautiful shapes: the functional can be beautiful, the beautiful can be functional). Quilts are art. Or can be. But largely, they’re functional first – it’s a poor quilt that won’t keep out the shivers, but it’s not as nice a quilt whose stitching is all uneven. Anyway, I think we get the idea.

Also on the question of motivation, you mention that “‘True’ artists are not supposed to be motivated by money but by the purity of their creative drive. If this were true, however, the list of art works in our culture would be pathetically short.” Yep, Twitchdoctor, yep. There’s no inherent problem with being also motivated by economic gain, even if just to support one’s artistic (or other noble) endeavors. In fact, this is where Carmack’s comment about “sophistry” gets especially interesting to me (as much as I recognize that he’s likely just using the term to mean “mere rhetoric” as we do in the common parlance), for we might argue along the same lines for teachers (wait for it…). So Carmack says, “We’re doing entertainment. Saying it’s art is a kind of sophistry from people who want to aggrandize our industry.” Let’s unpack that. The “aggrandizing” the gaming industry that some of its developers pursue — the elevating of, the exaggeration of the importance of — is indicating that, what, an artwork is “higher” than a game? Or, another interpretation that takes your smart “Art versus Commerce” section into account: because the motivation to create art is supposed to be somehow “pure” (that is, not for monetary gain), Carmack and the game industry should go ahead and recognize that they’re in it for the money – that games are indeed a lucrative commodity (they certainly were for Carmack). Many games are (but not always). (Or perhaps we can be more generous, and say Carmack’s intention is that games should be about gaming and playing, not art, and not necessarily money?) At any rate, these are, let’s admit, nice, honest claims. But again, they’re overly simplistic. Games are money-makers, entertainment media, and art — but each one is only potentially any of these.

But what an odd reversal of “sophistry,” which is also linked to motivation. It is well known that the philosophers took serious issue with the sophists, for the sophists accepted student fees for teaching (and accepting payment versus not accepting payment was in part what made a sophist a sophist, and a philosopher a philosopher, respectively). Somehow that made the sophists’ motivations impure, like those artists who smartly realize that their work may have commercial value. What’s more, motivation was at the heart of philosophy versus sophistry: as Plato may have had it, philosophers seek truth (presumably for the common good), while sophists seek only to teach people to persuade (in other words, “mere rhetoric”) and for monetary gain. If we over-simplify, then, we may come up with the following. In Carmack’s statement,

game-developer-artists = sophists = aggrandizing (games or the gaming industry)

And in terms of the original use of the term “sophistry,”

money-making-teachers = sophists = belittling (truth or the philosophic “industry”)

Like you do of artists, Twitchdoctor, I can imagine how many teachers we’d have now (or philosophers, for that matter) if being paid was not part of the bargain (I’ll refrain from snide commentary about how teachers’ salaries make that condition pretty close to the truth anyway). It might be fun to brainstorm a list of teachers who would argue how heinous being paid for their work is (yet that activity won’t provide much fun for long). Seems to me, then, these false binaries may inspire us to think about them, as I mentioned, and that’s productive. But they also have the potential to cloud the truth, which is, whether you’re Carmack, a developer calling games art, a critic, a gamer, a teacher, a philosophy, that all of these objects rest comfortably in-between all of these absurd boundaries — it is we who don’t.

References (from “It may be art. . .but I really don’t care”)

Au, W. J. (2002, May 6). Playing games with free speech. Salon.
McNamara, T. (2004, March 26). GDC 2004: John Carmack talks game development.

Have you functioned in a dynamic online community under an avatar identity for multiple years?  Do/did you operate, or recognize the possibility that you could have operated differently in that community than you do in the physical world?  Have you ever consciously withheld information about your activity in that online community from the inhabitants of the physical world?

If you answered “yes” to those questions, like me, you may have also unknowingly experienced a strange phenomenon which I am about to describe.


Car mechanics and enthusiasts speak a complex language which the average driver doesn’t comprehend.  Computer developers can do incredible things with code—things most computer users don’t even begin to understand. And, perhaps most importantly for our purposes, gamers have their own complex languages—languages which can sound ridiculous to non-gamers.

Acquiring expertise in these languages requires being immersed in their respective environments.  In order to be a mechanic, one must understand the parts of cars and how they interact.  In order to be a developer, one must have mastered coding languages such as HTML, javascript, etc… and know how they interact.  In order to thrive in a game’s environment, players must learn it’s language.


Shameless Plug

Posted: October 31, 2009 by Twitchdoctor in Game Research
Tags: , , , ,

Eludamos just published my article, “Letter from the Wilderness.”  Given the dominance in game design of technical and engineering paradigms I wanted to provide a road map for the kinds of contributions that game researchers from the humanities and social sciences could make not just to the academic field of game studies, but the kind of impact such work could have on the process of game design itself.

Eludamos is peer reviewed but uses an open access model of submission and editing which took me a little while to adjust to.  I’m pretty happy with the end result (there’s only one major technical screw-up in the article, which isn’t bad).  I like the model also for the way in which it encourages contributors to be participants rather than people who simply submit work and then receive responses.

One of the things that getting involved with blogging has done is really made me aware of the lag in academic publishing practices.  I think I first submitted the article to Eludamos back in November of last year, received an acceptance in January with feedback, worked up a revised draft by July, and then it is published in October.  That is a pretty quick turnaround for a peer reviewed publication, in actual fact.  But in terms of getting your work and ideas out there it feels painfully slow compared with the blogosphere.

That is the point, however, and I can’t help feeling that it is a point that society at large and even academics are starting to lose sight of.  The blogosphere is a great place for first thoughts, breaking news.  Unfortunately, the first thoughts that we have about something are usually blindingly obvious or not woth the energy used to flip the pixels to display them.  I spent the better part of a year working on the article before I submitted it, and then received feedback from the reviewers (one of whom in particular was great) that pushed me to refine it even further.  Good thought takes time (not that I’m claiming that my article is a generation-defining piece or anything like that, but it will, I hope, be useful to someone).  But it is time that is increasingly short supply.  Is the blogosphere, like the 24 hour news cycle, shortening not so much our attention span, but our expectation for the amount of work and thought we expect someone to put in before releasing something that claims to be for our edification?