Ethan Ham is an Associate Professor and the Interactive Media Department Chairperson at Bradley University. Prior to entering academia, Ethan worked in the video game industry as a game designer, programmer, and producer. He is the author of Tabletop Game Design for Video Game Designers.
I have had three careers in my life: game developer, contemporary artist, and professor of both. Being a contemporary artist comes with the knowledge that a significant portion of society is hostile to what you are creating. When people outside of the insular art world view your work, there is a good chance that they think “that is not art,” even if they are polite enough not to utter it.
Lately, I have been hearing similar statements in the game world; that a given interactive fiction, or a role-playing game, or a massively multiplayer game is “not a game.” Sometimes the dismissal seems motivated by a desire to protect some cherished form of game, other times it comes from a more dryly academic desire to define and categorize.
An example of the latter can be seen in James Wallis’s argument that the experimental tabletop RPG Microscope (Robbins 2011) is a brilliant “exercise,” but not a game. In a personal communication (shared with Wallis’s kind permission), he explains:
Microscope is not a game. It’s Caillois-complete but then Caillois’s six conditions are a definition of play, not strictly of games. It’s an exercise of constrained creativity, it’s group storytelling with a structure—but not a structure that imposes anything gamey onto the experience. One player adds a bit to the story, then another player adds another bit to the story, and so on until you stop. Everything else is details. There are no winners and losers, no successes or failures, no competition or overt co-operation, no rules for resolution, no puzzles or conflict except in the very removed ‘scenes’, which none of my players have ever actually bothered with, and which contains the only thing that actually looks like a game mechanic. Microscope is a series of interesting choices, to use Sid Meier’s definition, but then so is a trip to the supermarket.
I’m not saying it isn’t fun. But after this week’s session three of my students separately made the point that it wasn’t a game. If it doesn’t look like a duck, doesn’t walk like a duck and doesn’t quack like a duck it may turn out to be a cygnet, but it’s certainly not a fucking duck.
Wallis later added, “I don’t think that the fact it’s not a game matters particularly, but I think we need to draw a line somewhere, and I think Microscope is on the far side of it.”
James Wallis makes a smart and compelling argument. But he is wrong about one thing—we don’t need to draw that line. We can allow anything to be a game, and we will have better games (and better conversations about games) for doing so. The idea that anything can be art sometimes provokes a response of “if anything can be art, then nothing is art.” If the idea that anything can be a game seems categorically wrong to you, please bear with me while I make the case.
In “The Game, the Player, the World” (Juul 2003), Jesper Juul provides a nice roundup of “game definitions before proposing a new definition of his own. Juul examines his definition by seeing how it categorizes three kinds of activities: those that are generally accepted to be games, borderline cases that might or might not be considered games, and activities that are generally not thought of as games. Juul writes:
To set up the test before the definition, I will assume that Quake III, EverQuest, checkers, chess, soccer, tennis, Hearts, Solitaire and pinball are games; that open-ended simulation games such as Sims and Sim City, gambling, and games of pure chance are borderline cases; and that traffic, war, hypertext fiction, free-form play and ring-a-ring-a-roses are not games. The definition should be able to tell what falls inside from what falls outside the set of games, but also to explain in detail why and how some things are on the border of the definition. The existence of borderline cases is not a problem for the definition as long as we are able to understand why a specific game is a borderline case.
Juul’s exercise points to something interesting. Any definition that does not reaffirm the existing colloquial understanding of game, indicates a failure in the definition, not a better understanding of what constitutes a game. It is only with the borderline cases that a definition is at liberty to establish any meaning. But that meaning is not definitive—it is just a temporary view into what might be considered a game, not what is considered a game. The definitions are useful for examining the fluid boundaries of games, not for fixing them in place. This is why when Wallis employs Caillois and Meier in his discussion of Microscope, he uses the definitions as rules of thumb, not laws of nature.
What is art?
In 1917 the New York Society of Independent Artists put on an exhibition. All submitted artwork would be shown, as long as the submission fee was paid. Marcel Duchamp (possibly in collaboration with Louise Norton) pseudonymously submitted Fountain, a signed urinal. Perhaps the intention was to tweak his fellow artists’ pretentions of rejecting curatorial authority. Perhaps it was just a scatological joke. Either way, the submission resulted a long debate in the Society about whether or not it was art. In the end, Fountain was rejected from the show and Duchamp resigned from the Society’s board.
Fountain has become a statement about art that carries on to this day. It says that anything can be art. Art does not need to be beautiful or skillfully crafted. Not only is it possible for a urinal to be turned into art simply by declaring it so, the anointed urinal might even be great art.
So what does this mean? Is saying that something is art the same sort of statement as saying that something is aluminum? When we say something is aluminum we are stating a fact that can be objectively evaluated and measured—we can determine to what degree an object is composed of aluminum atoms. Can we do the same with artwork? Can we determine the degree to which Duchamp’s Fountain is or is not art? Is this even the right question? When a justice of the peace pronounces that two people are married, it is an act of creation and not just description—prior to the ceremony the two people were single and after it they are wed. Likewise, when an artist says that something is an artwork, the pronouncement itself is part of the artwork’s creation. Saying that something is artwork is an invitation to engage with it in a certain way. If someone says that a glob of mud thrown against the wall is art, a dialogue about its artistic merits is possible. Otherwise, saying that the mud splatter’s composition is lousy makes no more sense than criticizing the marriage of two people who just met.
Dys4ia (Anthropy 2012) is an autobiographical game that explores the challenges of being a transgender woman and the trials of going through hormone therapy. The game consists of a series of short mini-games. The game mechanics are not designed to be challenging to play, but rather to serve as metaphors for various aspects of the developer’s experience. For example, one level presents the waiting room of a clinic. The player can do nothing but move around the room until a timer runs down, at which point the next mini-game automatically loads.
Game designer Raph Koster argued on his blog that many (but not all) of dys4ia’s mini-games are not actually games. In the main posting (which was about the cultural conflict between engineering-minded and artsy-minded game developers), Koster wrote:
I like Anna Anthropy’s work, but I also try to be clear-eyed about the fact that a lot of Dys4ia could be built in PowerPoint and isn’t a game. That’s not a value judgement. My value judgement of the piece as a work of expressive art is pretty high.
In the comment sections of posting, Koster expanded on why he says dys4ia is not a game:
Games have never in history been defined solely by interactivity. There is no definition of game, from any scholar, that is that reductive. Not all definitions agree, but they nonetheless share this trait.
The easiest way to sanity check this is to look at items that fit the proposed definition and see if you feel they are a game. I submit to you that many of the screens of Dys4ia have exactly the same functionality as a doorbell. My gut check is that a doorbell is not a game, and I suspect so is everyone else’s.
There are artistic doorbells. There are doorbells that play lovely music, that trigger complex narrative door opening sequences, doorbells that express unique qualities of their author/designer/architect. There are probably doorbells out there that are High Art.
This does not mean they are a game. It also does not mean that they are not deserving of respect, though, and at no moment am I implying they should be discounted of being great at what they are.
Raph Koster is correct that there is more to being a game than simply being interactive. Where he goes astray is in the idea that there is some functionality that needs to be added to interactivity in order to make a game. In fact, even interactivity is not necessarily fundamental to being a game—the interactivity in games of pure chance (Candy Land, Gewitter, etc.) is illusory.
What makes a game a game is not a certain set of functionalities. The functionality of riding a bicycle in a race, for pleasure, and for exercise are all very similar. The difference is in the mind of the rider (and the spectators and officials, if any). Similarly, what makes a game a game is not the fact it has fixed rules, or goals, or negotiable consequences, or attempts to provide fun, or any of the other traits that are typically incorporated into a definition of a game.
A game is a game when its creator or players say it is so. Koster observes that some of dys4ia’s best moments are the screens that are impossible games, such as the Tetris piece that does not fit. These screens, he argues, only work because they are not fomally a game. Yet, the interactive experience Koster describes only works when it is presented and experienced as a game—its intention is to subvert our expectations as game players.
Can a game be art? When something is described as art, one of three things is usually meant: 1) Anything involving a creative medium, 2) Creative work that aims to move its audience, or 3) Creative work that wants to push the boundaries of its medium.
In the first and most broad category, art is the outcome of any creative endeavor both high and low. In this sense, all games are art. So is the graphic on a box of Kleenex, a diagram in a calculus textbook, and the latest summer blockbuster.
The second, more ambitious meaning of art refers to creative works that strive to do more than more than entertain, decorate, or educate. This kind of art attempts to explore the human condition. It is what Mary Flanagan is pointing to when she talks about critical play. It is also what Roger Ebert is referring to when he argued that video games can never be art.
The last category involves the avant-garde. This is art that explores and pushes at definitional boundaries. When someone declares that an artwork is not art, it is usually an avant-garde work (such as John Cage’s 4’33”) that is being dismissed. And it is easy to see why. Someone who does not know much about classical music can still find pleasure listening to a traditional symphony and recognize the skill with which it is executed. 4’33” cannot be experienced in that way, and there is no skill and mastery to admire. The pleasure it offers is conceptual and intellectual, not aesthetic.
4 Minutes and 33 Seconds of Uniqueness (Purho, Kelley, & Söderström, 2009) was inspired by John Cage’s composition. It is a game that is won if the player is the only person in the world playing it for 4 minutes and 33 seconds. If a second person begins playing during that time, the game is lost.
In a comment thread about the game, one commenter wrote, “It is original, but I wouldn’t call it a game. Actually, I don’t think a game can be a work of art… Maybe posmodern art? But that’s not art either.” Why is 4 Minutes and 33 Seconds of Uniqueness not a game (and not art)? The objection is not about what the game lacks (e.g., player choice, meaningful competition, and fun). Plenty of games fall short in these areas without being excommunicated from the medium altogether. 4 Minutes and 33 Seconds of Uniqueness’s transgression is that its creators did not even try to provide those experiences.
Similarly, a dismissal of Gone Home (Gaynor 2013) as a game is not an objection about its quality; it is an objection to the creators’ goals and motivations. (In his Game Designer Conference talk, Steve Gaynor asks how can Gone Home can both be derided as “not a game” and also win numerous “Game of the Year” awards). What is striking about the attempts to gate keep the term “game” is where the battle line has been drawn. Gone Home falls into the second category of art; it is a game that attempts to address the human condition. The argument against it is not about the avant-garde, it is about a game that is not intended to entertain in a certain way. It is as if book lovers want the label of “literature” to refer to nothing but spy thrillers. Is it because after a lifetime of Ian Fleming books, readers simply do not know what to make of Jane Austen? Or does it come from a zero-sum view of life that believes with each Ian McEwan book that is published, one less John Le Carré novel can come into the world?
Wallis says that it does not particularly matter that Microscope is not a game. But it does matter because its creator wants it experienced as a game. To deny this is to disenfranchise him as a creator. Allowing that Anthropy has the right to declare that dys4ia is a game does not mean it cannot be criticized as a game—in fact, it enables it. Would dys4ia be better if the player had more choice? Or would the added choice undermine the experience the game is conveying? To deny that dys4ia is a game unmoors us from being able to have that discussion. Which would be a shame, because it is those kinds of discussions that lead to new kinds of games and to better games.
If Anthropy says it is a game, it is a game. If Duchamp says it is art, it is art. A blog commenter responded to 4 Minutes and 33 Seconds of Uniqueness by writing, “Cool concept, but to call this is a game is like shitting on a paper plate, signing it, and calling it art.” Yes, exactly.
Weird. (2012). Bashers <http://bashers.nl/wp-content/uploads/2012/04/Weird.jpg> Retrieved: 02/09/16