Posts Tagged ‘videogames’

This is just a quick announcement to let everyone know that you can now follow the Intelligently Artificial blog via Twitter.  Our Twitter handle, in a tip of the hat to McKenzie Wark’s influential book Gamer Theory, is @LucidlyLudic.  There may be some hiccuping and farting while we iron out any wrinkles with the WordPress posting mechanism but that probably won’t end up looking much different than most of the content on Twitter!

Given the impending shut down of Google Reader on July 1 blog aggregation is increasingly migrating into the Twittersphere so we hope that this will provide all of you with some additional convenience.

Today I would like to start a discussion on the artistic integrity of games with 3 topics in particular in mind: revised endings, HD upconverts, and extended editions.  When I say revised endings, I’m talking about the Bioware idea of trying to revise the ending after having already released the game.  HD upconverts and reboots refers things such as Age of Empires II’s new HD edition that was recently released on steam.  Extended Editions I find to be something of a misnomer because in this case my example is the extended edition of Anna which I would argue is not so much an extended edition as the developer releasing an entirely new version of their game and saying “Wait! Wait! Give us a second chance!”  I have very mixed feelings on each of these.  They have merits, but there is a question of whether the change is too much and thus irrevocably and sometimes even negatively affects the game.  Let’s go through each of these and then see what kind of discussion we can generate. (more…)

In the month or so since L.A. Noire has come out, I have read review after review proclaiming it to be a revolutionary game.  I have heard this before.  Reviewers call games genre-changers or “like nothing I’ve ever seen before” or innovative or even, if you’ll excuse the terrible pun, “game-changers”.  I hear this yet again and I am once again disappointed in its usage and game reviewing as a whole.  Let me be clear, L.A. Noire is not a bad game.  They accomplished what they set out to do, but having completed the game (+/- a few somewhat repetitive side missions) I have seen very little to justify such accolades as mentioned above.

L.A. Noire is a detective game.  The game is set in 1947 Los Angeles. The player starts as a patrol officer and progresses through several different crime desks and police stations.  The 40s have become an overused setting of late, but I find this forgivable because of their lesser used character choice.

The gameplay is befitting of the game though again not necessarily revolutionary.  The game employs an evidence system somewhat reminiscent of The Curse of Monkey Island in its simplicity.  Basically, music cues the player that he is near evidence.  Once selected, the player “examines” (rotates…) the evidence until the game informs him that this is relevant in some way.  The player then questions people of interest at the given location. These interrogations are new for Rockstar because, while this studio has been one of the principle proponents of open-world gameplay, they have a tendency to not have a karmic aspect and/or not allow speech decisions.  The player watches short cutscene introductions and must listen closely.  At the end of the cutscene, the player must decide whether he believes the last statement to be truth, doubtful, or a lie which the player must support with evidence collected throughout the case.  What results is a combination of Rockstar’s typical cinematic narrative style with a clue-based lie-detector minigame.  If anything, this is revolutionary for Rockstar.  I also do not consider a lie detector system to constitute real speech by itself.

I have heard one realistic claim to innovation that Rockstar could boast in this game.  I read a review explain Rockstar’s new methods of voice and facial expression capturing. I will admit that the detail in faces and facial expressions was very skillful and with such a star-studded cast including John Noble of Lord of the Rings and more recently Fringe, it was nice to look at in-game characters and see detailed representations of their real-life counterparts.  Character detail is nice.  It adds to immersion, but detail alone does not make a game.  I enjoyed L.A. Noire and I recommend trying it, but I ask that we all just take a moment to think about the real meanings of some of the words we use to describe games.

Game reviewing doesn’t really understand what it is or what it is supposed to be yet.  Reviews have a tendency to focus on consumer advice.  Pressure is added to this whenever the game is particularly hyped or coming out of certain studios. The problem with throwing around words like “revolutionary” and “innovative” is that they spread like wildfire.  If one review uses them, all the others have to or their reviews will be buried under the oncoming tidal wave of hype.  It is what it is, but, at the same time, it is bad policy especially for gamers that are on the fence looking for a real idea of what they would be buying into.  In any case, this has been a refreshing comeback from a long absence of game-related writing and I invite any and all to comment as you will.  I could use a good game discussion.

Book Burning

"Book Burning." CC Copyright by pcorreia

[This is for my cousin Victoria to whom I gave a completely facetious answer to this question and to whom I owe a better one.]

Making the World Safe for Puberty

I’ve seen an article making the Facelink rounds among a few of my friends recently.  Meghan Cox Gurdon’s “Darkness Too Visible” bemoans the fact that fiction for young adults is a cesspit filled with all manner of luridly described unpleasantness:

Profanity that would get a song or movie branded with a parental warning is, in young-adult novels, so commonplace that most reviewers do not even remark upon it.

If books show us the world, teen fiction can be like a hall of fun-house mirrors, constantly reflecting back hideously distorted portrayals of what life is. There are of course exceptions, but a careless young reader—or one who seeks out depravity—will find himself surrounded by images not of joy or beauty but of damage, brutality and losses of the most horrendous kinds.

You can go on and read the rest yourself if you want but you really don’t have to.  Because if you have been at all sentient during the last, oh, four centuries, you’ve already read this argument many, many times.  Often it is directed at specific titles or series (“Harry Potter is turning our kids into Satan-worshippers!); more often it is directed against entire genres (slasher films, sci-fi) or even wholesale forms of media (books, films, television, and video games in toto have all at one time or another been accused of corrupting the pure moral heart of our precious youth).

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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.

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.

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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.

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