Posts Tagged ‘games’

The Origin of it All

It was the fall of `92.  We had just arrived in the country and needed to buy a PC for my grad school work.  We opted for a mighty 386 computer (and sprang for the 40Mhz rather than the 33) and after considerable soul-searching had a ridiculously excessive 1Mb video card installed (how good was this machine?  When I discovered Doom a couple of years later, much of the game played as a blinking, growling, slideshow accompanied by the occasional delayed weapon blast).  I don’t even remember how we found the particular machine, probably through the newspaper (we were young and stupid).  At any rate, it began having some issues pretty quickly.  So I took it back to the rent-a-box place where we’d bought it, somewhere in the anonymous light industrial depths of the city of Orange.  The sales person wasn’t at all happy to see me but quickly established, as I’d suspected, that the motherboard was defective and offered to replace it for me while I waited.  Then he sat me down in front of another PC with an attached joystick and started up a game called Wing Commander.

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One of the things that continues to fascinate me about videogames is that they are thoroughly mainstream. . .and yet they aren’t.  They are mainstream in the sense of being massively popular and the preferred leisure activity of a large and increasingly diverse segment of the population.  But they are not mainstream in the sense that our culture still doesn’t really “get” games.  This is not, I hasten to add, a woes-me complaint that mommy and daddy culture don’t really understand us (sniff).  Hell, most gamers I’ve met don’t really “get” games.  They do all the things that the non-gaming sections of our culture do, either through inclination or force of habit: they approach games in a pure consumerist frenzy, they see them as simple outgrowths of other media and activities or, alternately, as something supposedly so radically different that they can’t be compared to anything else and hence none of the rules apply.

A major reason why games are mainstream but not is because on the cultural stage the conversations are controlled by people who by and large are not videogame players: Concerned Parents, professional rabble-rousers, politicians, moral crusaders and, sadly, not a few opportunistic scholars (although the number of game studies “scholars” who have a limited experience with games has certainly diminished compared with when I entered the field).  Again, however, it is important not to let game players and the game industry off the hook.  All too many players and developers have taken themselves out of the conversation through their belief that games themselves are capable of saying little more than “play me and leave me.”

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The world of game design is particularly prone to seduction by dreams of a slick, technological future.   This, however, is simply part of a larger cultural dream where new technologies will in and of themselves transform our future for the better.  We often seem powerless to resist these seductions, despite the fact that these dreams are so consistently exposed as incomplete at best, or downright misleading at worst.  We are in the position of millenialists whose latest deadline for the Second Coming arrives and departs; instead of learning the obvious lesson we simply recalculate according to another arcane logic and set a new date.  It is useful, therefore, to look at some of the factors that corporations in particular use to help blind us to some of the obvious flaws in visions of technology-driven progress.  (more…)

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. IGN.com.

George Lucas

Really? Haven't you done enough? (Image courtesy of Wikipedia)

Or, Lucas, You Smug Self-Satisfied Bastard, Stop Ruining my Childhood

If you are like me you were probably plunged into the same bottomless black pit of intestines-extracted-through-the-nose despair at the recent announcement that George Lucas is going to be releasing the Star Wars trilogy (and three other marginally related movies) in 3D.  This is disturbing on a number of levels.

It is, first of all, further evidence that there is nothing Lucas will not do to wring the last shekel out of the Star Wars franchise.  In addition, he is still laboring under the delusion that there are more than three Star Wars movies.  Therefore the 3D(e)ification of the Star Wars franchise will begin with The Phantom Menace (which, by the way, I am going to copyright as the title for Lucas’s biography).  Releasing that movie in the first place was a bad idea.  Re-releasing it in any form is simply a terrible idea.  A turd in 3D is still a turd, only now it is disturbingly lifelike and sitting much too close to your face.

The aspect of this I find most distressing, however, is that it proves that even someone as apparently savvy about movie history as Lucas really doesn’t know jack about movie history.  When it comes to the potential of 3D for movies and electronic games–and it is a technology that I believe has great potential in both these areas–this is very bad news.  It indicates, in fact, that most people have missed the fundamental lesson of the juggernaut that kicked all of this off, James Cameron’s Avatar.

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Guild Wars 2

Image via Wikipedia

When the iPad was announced earlier this year I wrote a blog entry that was generally sceptical of the device’s overall potential to revolutionize anything; nevertheless, I was still interested in its possibilities as a gaming platform.  At the time, I wrote this:

Apple will in all likelihood need some breakthrough application that really takes advantage of the size and scale of the device (since no significant new functionality was demonstrated) to allow people to do something that they couldn’t do before.  Alternatively, it will need to allow people to do something they could do before but much more efficiently.  Note:  much more efficiently.  I have a hard time seeing how anyone will part with the amount of money needed to get the version with reasonable storage and connectivity if it only does some things a little better than is possible at the moment.

This breakout app that helps to redefine the iPad hasn’t happened yet as far as I’m aware.  No one who has showed me their iPad has yet done the “but what you really need to see is this” move that made me jealous of any number of people with iPods and then iPhones.  Of course, I did underestimate basic human nature.  In fact, lots of people will part with a lot of money to get something that only does things a little better than other devices (and in some cases a lot worse: seriously, have you used the “keyboard” on this thing?  Better yet, watch a proud iPad owner using it: they grin with that kind of “No, this may look painful but I’m really having a lot of fun” look that is vaguely reminiscent of the way elephants look when trying to have sex). . .simply so they can have what most other people don’t have. . .yet.  There is a word for these people.  Posers.

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Pirates of the Burning Sea

Image via Wikipedia

In an interesting development last week, the MMORPG Pirates of the Burning Sea announced that it was going to transition to a Free-to-Play model.  Appearing on the same day as the release of the Power and Prestige expansion (that, among other things, allows players to run for Governor of the various ports in the Caribbean,  to set taxes for other players, and adjust port expenditures on defense and economic infrastructure) the announcement took a lot of players by surprise.  There is currently no timeline for the change from a subscription-based business model to that of F2P but Flying Lab Software (FLS) has made it clear that they have been working on this for the better part of a year, that the infrastructure is in place, and they expect the change to take place quite soon.

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