Monday, May 08, 2006

Are Games Art? Part 2

This continues the discussion of games being, potentially at least, art. The first part of the discussion can be found here here.

But first, a little digression about ...

The non-definition definition

One of the three criteria I cited as required for something to be art was that it tackled an important theme, or a deep meaning. Not necessarily deliberately, but at least in the experience of the viewer or participant.

Chris Farrell in the comments posited that any issue is sufficiently meaningful, not only 'deep' issues, such as love, hope, faith, etc. It's true that I did not define what makes an issue "deep". And deliberately so.

That is because I would first like to find consensus about the framework before discussing the specifics. In my opinion, what is meaningful changes from society to society, and generation to generation. When someone argues that any issue is sufficiently meaningful, it argues that no meaning is required at all. It is not enough to say that expressing "something" is sufficient. This non-definition drops out of the equation, altogether.

I suspect, although I could be wrong, that when someone retreats to the "any meaning" argument, it is out of a sense of defeat. It is impossible to agree with all people at all times as to what is meaningful. Therefore, rather than argue that the concept of meaning still exists but is subjective, we tend to argue that the concept of meaning doesn't exist at all because it is subjective. I don't agree with that.

As an example, the concept of morality exists. Many diverse segments of the world population can agree or not agree on specific ideas as being moral or immoral. The consensus will never be 100%. Instead, we can say that unprovoked killing of a civilian with religious beliefs different from yours is considered immoral by 92% of the population. Killing an unwanted fetus may be considered immoral by only 60%, or 40%. As the questions become more specific, the numbers may change. What stage in pregnancy? What is the health of the mother? And so on.

Just because we can't agree 100% that a specific act is moral or immoral, doesn't eliminate the idea that all of us can agree on the idea that it is better to act morally rather than immorally. OK, all of us may not agree even about that, but frankly, that is where I draw my first line; I'm simply not talking to the people on the other side of that line. Those of us on this side of the line, which even includes suicide bombers most likely, may point at acts diametrically opposed to each other and call them moral, but we at least have one initial common framework for discussion.

In the same vein, although we may disagree about what is meaningful, I think that many of us would agree that we would like art to include the concept of meaning in it, rather than simply wave our hands and say that since we can't convince people what is meaningful, that art doesn't have to be.

No dialog can ever really succeed without an initial common framework. That is why I choose to draw it for art, perhaps more restrictively than others might. My minimum first line is that art must tackle one of the classic ideas, a deep meaning. The line is wide and gray, but the line does exist.

In a similar conversation on Alfred's blog, Alfred and I talked a bit at cross purposes. Alfred doesn't define art, since as a historian he is more concerned about what society chooses to identify as art. That may be, but I was discussing frameworks, not anthropology. Here are my comments from that discussion:

As I mentioned in my previous article, when anything can be X, then nothing is X. In order for there to be art, there must be non-art. Otherwise, you have simply discarded all definition. I don't give up that easily.

I know that the definition of "meaningful" is subjective. However, I deliberately did not give a definition of "meaningful" in that paragraph. I am fully aware that, following my definition, one item can be considered art by one person and not art by another, or art at one time, and not art in another.

My definition does not suffer as a result of this discrepancy. It is perfectly acceptable for people to debate specific items from now until doomsday, so long as they have a definition upon which to debate. If they have no definition, then there is nothing to discuss at all.

By discussing whether something is or isn't art, you discuss the value and meaning of an item. Without that to discuss, then you accept all items, even those without value or meaning.

My definition does not pin down a specific item and call it art. It only holds up an objective for items to be considered against.

Also missing from my definition is "what is meaningful"? Hope? Faith? Sadness? Shame? These can also be discussed. But whatever you choose to place, or not to place, within the definition of meaningful, so long as it doesn't include everything or nothing, it is still fits within this workable definition for art.

A definition that includes within art "anything called art" on the other hand means precisely nothing. Actually, it is much worse than nothing, because it equates equal value of meaning to meaningless. [Note that this is fine for a historian studying a culture, just not for a philosopher studying art.]

One person can't dictate to another what is meaningful or not, but unless we hold that something can have meaning, we lose a vital concept of civilization. Just because we don't agree on a specific item as valuable, doesn't mean that we can't agree that valuable is better than valueless, and that it should be our goal.

I believe that people can be educated to make moral choices about behavior, even when other people say that all morality is relative. And I think that people can make critical distinctions about art, despite when other people say that everything is art.

So much for that. Of course, there can be reasonable objection that if nothing specific can be identified as meaningful, than meaningful really doesn't exist. I would prefer to not address that for the moment.

One more word: I notice that I left a hole here that would let slip in childish games that are facile attempts to instill morals or teach ideas, such as an eco-themed Monopoly style game. Let me state that I wouldn't consider these to be of any artistic merit, owing firstly to them being highly unoriginal, and secondly to their messages being shallow, at best. Didactic teachings, even about meaningful subjects, are generally neither meaningful nor artistic, in my opinion.


On to specific games. Since we are now entering a discussion that deals with specific games, and in which we will be talking about whether specific issues are, or are not, meaningful according to my definition, I expect my first tentative choices to be wholly unsatisfying to many people. That is fair and fine; arguing about meaning and whether an item is or isn't art is as good a use of one's time as anything else.

In my previous article, I suggested that Go should be considered art. Chris added that some other games, such as Settlers of Catan, Modern Art, and Lord of the Rings could be considered art.

It should be noted in the following that there is no connection between my rating or enjoyment of a game and what I consider its inherent artistic value. However, it is likely that a very poor game is likely to have little in the way of artistic merit.


Go is an elegant, yet extremely complex abstract game. When you are first learning to play Go, you learn many of the simple concepts of Go tactics, such as ladders, liberties, connections, threats, and so on. However, as your depth of the game increases (and mine is not all that deep, by the way), you begin to see not only general patterns about the game, but the patterns in the game as they reflect ideas of the world.

It is a bit hard to explain, since the lessons are not so much difference from ideas touched on briefly during other games. In Go, however, they are not just ideas that you briefly experience, but ideas to which you gain insight. The art of a single stone placement can ripple to all corners of the board. The simplicity of an individual becomes not only a part of a whole, but more than a whole. Balance of power, wavelike movement within seemingly immovable pieces, and the perseverance of will can all be experienced. After mastering Go, one looks at life itself differently.

For most other games, a play simply nets more points or less points. In Go, there are honorable and dishonorable plays, violent and respectful plays. All of this is experienced as a result of the dialog between the authors of the game and the players and onlookers.

I suspect that it has a lot to do with the lack of random elements, other than your opponent's mind, as well as the sufficiently large board that allows for several different phases of the game to occur.

Other abstracts

There are other complex abstracts, such as Chinese and traditional chess, Shogi, and so on. I would say that many of these have elements of art in them, although to a less successful degree that Go does.

Simple abstracts, such as Othello or Checkers do not seem to reveal any deep meanings as they are being played, at least to me. Therefore, I wouldn't consider them art.


Let's start with Settlers of Catan. Basic important principles must be used in Settlers of Catan , like many other games, such as: trading promiscuously is beneficial, early investment results in increased profits, lying low can help you avoid becoming a target, changing paths can be profitable if one avenue to success dries up, and not to lose sight of the ultimate goal.

Furthermore, we can also note a reasonable simplicity and elegance in the design, marred perhaps by the development cards which are not so elegant.

Perhaps the strongest argument is the integration of all players at all points during the game, while many previous games followed a strict turn structure.

What seems to be lacking here is that while you may need to bring important ideas into the game, and while you may even learn some basic concepts of tactics as a result of the game, nevertheless I don't feel that the game really touches upon an elemental human theme. Perseverance, yes, but no more so than any other game. Patterns, yes, but nothing that would awaken a sense of awe or inspiration, or cause you to look at the world differently.

This is where my insistence on deeper meaning exacts a harsh cutoff. I can't really think of any Eurogames that would qualify as art under my definition.


Instantiations of roleplaying games would need to deal specifically with moral, artistic, or philosophical issues. However, the roleplaying game is more akin to a pack of paints. Probably most systems can be used to produce specific campaigns or sessions that are works of art. There are exceptions, of course.

I don't know much about war games, but I think that I know enough to disqualify ASL, as it appears to be heavily technical and not very deep for all of its massive, massive breadth. I would look more for games where a specific engagement would directly inspire deeper feelings in the players. Perhaps missions of mercy, rescue, or terror, engagements that teach about judgment and consequence beyond the descriptions in the rulebooks, or highly stylized journeys through new and interesting territory and worlds.

There you go. That's as subjective as it gets. Not much in the way of art in games at this point. Maybe next time I'll try to describe how games can be designed with more art in them.


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1 comment:

gnome said...

Once again excellent and very intresting... I wish I had the time to really discuss this thing... When my mind clears up, I'll be contributing to the discourse. Beware. :)