[C Warren] Dale is a sailor, a computer programmer, a film buff, and an avant-garde gamer. He’s interested in story-driven, non-competitive, unloseable gameplay and the philosophy of art.
“Interactive fiction is not about the death of the author. It’s about choice as another communicative tool.”
When talking of a videogame, we might sometimes mean a certain playing of a videogame, analogous (loosely) to attending a performance of Swan Lake, and the videogame proper, meaning the artwork that encompasses all playings of a particular videogame by any player under any circumstances. A rigorous distinction between the two may seem somewhat elusive on close inspection, but for our purposes I will differentiate these throughout by analogy to a hedge maze. The maze itself is a specific object defined by boundaries and passages; a path through the maze is defined by an entrance, the passages traversed, and an exit. Most mazes have only one entrance and only one exit, and usually one correct path between them, but so that the analogy isn’t entirely misleading we will pretend mazes can have any number of entrances and exits, and possible valid paths, as determined by the maze’s architect. The analogy is quite plain: the maze is a “videogame proper”; a path through the maze is a playing of a videogame; and the maze’s architect is the designer. Just like a real videogame design team, of course, an architect can be in reality an entire firm, composed of many members with diverse creative impulses, but as meaning is not among the things we try to tackle in this paper (much to the relief of its readers), we can abstract away all these creative forces to one, perhaps very confused, amalgamated architect.
When writing about videogame aesthetics, there is no more contentious issue than the medium’s status as an artform. The arguments in favor are many, stressing commonalities between videogames and recognized artforms. Many arguments against games as art mirror objections that have always plagued mass art, from film and comics to novels—that their structure is too simple; that their subject matter is too base and populist; that they are produced for money and not for art’s sake (Lopes 120). However, at least one objection seems to be, at least in part, unique to videogames. In the late 2000s, film critic Roger Ebert expressed his belief that videogames could never be art. Clive Barker responded in this way:
“I think that Roger Ebert’s problem is that he thinks you can’t have art if there is that amount of malleability in the narrative. In other words, Shakespeare could not have written ‘Romeo and Juliet’ as a game because it could have had a happy ending, you know? If only she hadn’t taken the damn poison. If only he’d have gotten there quicker.”
Just so we’re sure that Mr. Barker did not put words in Mr. Ebert’s mouth, the latter responded “Well, yes, that is what I think.” This suggests that at least of one of the reasons Ebert believed that videogames could not be art is that the creator relinquishes artistic control of the final product. Ebert fears that Shakespeare’s manuscript has been replaced by a blank page.
There is little precedent in the art world by which to judge the conclusion that such “malleable” art could not be so; I am not aware of any “master” theories of art that have seen fit to address this concern. It seems that any attempt to “improve” these theories by explicitly including or excluding such art would almost certainly be motivated and decided by personal biases. However, whether this malleability disqualifies videogames from art status is a question that can only even be asked after making a seemingly unquestioned assumption: that videogames are, in fact and practice, malleable in the way described.
Surprisingly, the view that they are so malleable is not only espoused by the medium’s detractors, who, more often than not, are quite unfamiliar with the real experience of videogames, but also by its proponents. In The Art of Videogames, Grant Tavinor cites Shadow of Memories as a game that “cedes some amount of it authorial control to the player” (Tavinor, 126). As before, the assumption that this is so—or even can be so—is trotted out with nary a thought to the ideas that must necessarily underlie such a state of affairs.
The first question we must explore to determine if a player qua player is ever a co-author of a videogame is what exactly a videogame is. By this we do not mean what might make something a videogame or not a videogame, but rather where a videogame ends and something else begins—that is, not the definitional question of videogames, but the ontological question.
The ontological question of videogames is a sticky problem; barely moreso than any other traditional aesthetic ontological question, and these are still open questions. However, a compelling view of the ontology of videogames is suggested by Dominic Lopes in A Philosophy of Computer Art, which he describes as a superset of videogames. He conceptualizes a work of computer art as occupying a sort of explorational space, and the act of interacting with such a work as an exploration of this space (57). Thus the user of a work of computer art is separated from any potential audience members as the creator of the artwork’s various “displays,” or its visual or auditory or other features configured in a certain way that together describe the artwork’s state at any given time. However, the series of displays that create a certain “use” of a computer artwork do not, themselves, define, even partly, the artwork; rather they suggest the artwork’s true nature, which is a sort of amalgamation of all the possible displays. Through repeated interactions the user comes to understand the relationship between certain displays and certain modes of interaction. These relationships constitute a part of the work’s artistic value, though it is not the user who creates these relationships; they merely perceive them. They choose their path through maze, of course, but the set of possible paths has been predetermined by the structure of the maze. While it is asking too much to consider the ontological question of videogames definitively closed, it is this view we will espouse for the purposes of this discussion. A more rigorous defense of this view is to be found in Lopes, where it is, more or less, the primary topic of discussion.
All of this is not say that some playings do not create some works of art. In Art Game, the player is tasked to create fictional works of art by playing a simplistic version of a classic arcade game. Each mini-game has fairly simple mechanics. In usual circumstances, mastery of these mechanics is directed towards the goal of achieving a high score. In Art Game, there is no score. All the player receives at the end of their sessions are graphical representations of the final state of their game. An artistically-inclined player could bend their skill in the game not towards an arbitrary, gameplay-imposed goal, but towards ends they view as suitably artistic. Art Game repurposes gameplay so that a sculptor plays Tetris not with the intent of having the longest possible session, as one normally does when playing Tetris in a conventional context, but, instead, of creating a particular design with the blocks.
Thus, it provides a framework in which a practitioner can make genuine aesthetic decisions, use their skill in their medium to attempt to realize their vision, and even exercise artistic discretion in deciding not to submit a particular work for display. In short, Art Game allows the player to create fictional works of art—and in doing so, to make decisions we associate with non-fictional artists. It might be conceivable that the player is in fact creating real, if simplistic, artworks, of which they are at least part author. Though the broad structure—the medium—of every possible artwork was determined by the game’s designer (an artwork created by playing the sculptor can never resemble an artwork created by playing the video artists, thanks entirely to the decision of the designer to differentiate these two styles), the player can exercise clear agency in creating particular works, working within the constraints of the medium in a way similar to non-fictional artists. In doing so, the player is author of these fictional works, and whatever real works they might be said to represent. Their agency has resulted in these works just as they find their way through a maze. However, these works, fictional or real, are not themselves videogames. A path is not a maze.
We need not focus on games as esoteric and specialized as Art Game. A player with a sufficiently complex understanding of any game might make decisions the result of which could, in the right context, be viewed as art. Said famed conceptual artist Marcel Duchamp about the analog game of chess:
“The chess pieces are the block alphabet which shapes thoughts; and these thoughts, although making a visual design on the chess-board, express their beauty abstractly, like a poem. … I have come to the personal conclusion that while all artists are not chess players, all chess players are artists” (D’harnoncourt and McShine).
If one accepts this argument, which one well might, it seems that any gamer can be author of some artwork simply by playing their game of choice in an aesthetically satisfying way.
But this represents no cession of authorial control on the part of the game’s designer. Duchamp does not describe a chess player as creating the game of chess itself with their decisions, but creating artworks in the medium of chess. Each videogame designer, then, in this view, is creating a brand new medium of expression as well, that of the set of possibilities opened in their own specific game. Duchamp is not talking about making mazes, but making paths.
A videogame, recall, exists among the relationships that each possible player choice has in the entire possibility space that the game occupies. The player has in none of these instances been authoring those possibility spaces, not creating the corridors of the maze, but navigating them. The designer remains firmly the author of the player’s possible experiences, and the player can only react to these authorial decisions.
Thus it does not seem any conventional videogame has ceded any of its authorial control to the player. However, I shall make a stronger claim here. I shall state that is never possible to cede authorial control of the videogame proper to the player, even in part. Any attempt to do so would itself constitute an authorial decision that encompasses any possible enactment of that directive by the player.
Imagine a game that modifies its own running code as part of the game proper; a maze whose walls move at the command of its occupant.
Indeed, one need not imagine such a game. DoubleFine Productions’ experimental RPG Hack ‘n’ Slash is a game where the protagonist has items that allow her access to the underlying properties of the game. With her sword she can change the variables controlling an enemy’s health, disposition, attack speed, etc, at will and without limitation. Eventually the player even gains access to rooms procedurally generated to represent the compiled assembly code of a specific in-game functions (and, by the end of the game, the entire game’s source code), and interacting with these rooms will overwrite the game’s actually running code, modifying its behavior in real time. If any game could allow that its player be co-author, it would surely be this game.
There is an ambiguity in how we conceptualize the game, and it is this: what does our idea of the ontology of videogames have to say about Hack ‘n’ Slash? Is the game still the “same” game after its very source code, and therefore, its decision space, has been modified?
Rigorously demonstrating one way or the other is not necessary for our purposes, because it will become clear that under either understanding, the player is not co-author.
If the game is not the “same” game after its code has been modified through normal play, then playing the game creates a new game, in just the same way that a modder creates a new game from an existing one, in just the same way a player creates a work of chess-art by playing chess, and in just the same way we create a path behind us as we navigate a maze. Each of these games has been authored by the player according to the constraints defined by the designer, but none of them are equivalent to Hack ‘n’ Slash itself; therefore, the player is never the co-author of the original Hack ‘n’ Slash, by our very decision to allow those modifications to create ontologically new games.
On the other hand, it could be argued that changing the source code does not, for whatever reason, fundamentally alter the game from being the “same” as itself. In this view, the game’s ontology accounts for its variable processes as being a part of what defines the game itself. While this view sounds compellingly like it makes our player a co-author of the original Hack ‘n’ Slash, it is in fact this very decision that robs the player of that chance. By defining the changing code as a part of the game itself, this makes the set of all possible code changes–which, as Mr. Alan Turing would tell you, is quite a large set–part of the original designer’s authorial decision! Just as chess allows its players merely to navigate the decision space of chess’s possible moves, a decision space wholly predefined by the game’s rules, so does Hack ‘n’ Slash only allow the player to navigate the, albeit expansive, decision space of possible changes to the code.
In the comic strip Calvin and Hobbes, the title characters often play a game called Calvinball, the only rule of which is that it can never be played the same way twice. No doubt through the years they came up with many diverse and ingenious games simply by playing Calvinball—but they never changed the essence of Calvinball. Either they were creating and playing new games by playing Calvinball, or all of the games they played were contemplated in advance by their single, expansive rule. Just as any user of any interactive artwork, they are changing the game’s displays by interacting with it in the prescribed ways, and thereby navigating the decision space provided. The player is authoring nothing in the game itself, as what there was to be authored was, in effect, the decision to grant the player such power. The very decision on the part of the designer to grant authorial power to the player inherently robs the player of that power. It is an impossible power to grant, and an impossible power to exercise. The player can never be the part author of a videogame by virtue of playing it.
The idea that the designer of a videogame must cede, in part at least, authorial control to the player is a common one, and at times it can be detrimental to the reputation of the artform as it struggles to find acceptance in the academic treatment of the arts. However, it is not clear that this idea has been rigorously thought out. Ebert’s fear seems to be that the videogame allows a player to experience a story in a less aesthetically pleasing way – for instance, by averting the tragic ending of Romeo and Juliet. However, the player can’t force the game to have a happy ending if the designer hasn’t allowed that. Romeo and Juliet remains firmly under Shakespeare’s control, not because the player can’t choose how to experience it – but because Shakespeare gives them the options to choose from. Even if they use it in unexpected ways, the choices were out of their control. The author of a videogame hasn’t abandoned control and consigned it over of the player; they have simply created a maze through which a player traces a path and creates their own shapes. These shapes are as aesthetically discrete as any two artworks, but their possible forms are predetermined by the mazes through which they trace. Though the player exerts considerable control over how they experience a videogame, they can only make the choices provided them by the designer. The designer is the author of these choices and these choices are, in a very real sense, the videogame itself.
Lopes, Dominic. A Philosophy of Computer Art. London: Routledge, 2010. Print.
Tavinor, Grant. The Art of Videogames. Chicester: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009. Print.
D’harnoncourt, Anee and Kynaston McShine. Marcel Duchamp. New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1984. Print.