Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Winning as a Goal is Incompatible with Art

I'm not sure if this post is the third in my series on Art and Games (1, 2), or the fourth in my series on Alternatives to Winning (1, 2, 3, as well as some others).

Quick Overview: Art Implies Message

For the sake of argument, let's stick to the requirements for art that I set out in my first article, namely that art is a) deliberately arranged, b) original, and c) attempts to convey something meaningful to the viewer or participant. While there are other ideas as to what makes "art", suffice to assume that I am not talking about whatever they define.

If a paper falls on the ground, I don't consider it art. But if someone puts a paper on the ground and attempts to convey something meaningful by doing so then it's art, regardless of the effectiveness of the attempt. It may be poor art, but it's art. My definition for art is fairly liberal, encompassing flat arts, video, written, sculpture, modern, and, most importantly for this post, interactive arts.

As a comparison, if the artist does not attempt to convey something meaningful, but the viewer finds meaning nonetheless, I don't consider this art, any more than I would if someone were to find something meaningful in looking at the Grand Canyon. Unless we want to consider God as the artist.

Quick Overview: Game Implies Goals

Video game or board game, party game or sport, "breaking Google's pagerank" or "team-building exercise", games are subject to almost as many definitions as art is. So again, I need to focus on what I am referring to. Whether or not we agree on what a game is, is not relevant to this post. I only need to clarify what I am talking about. If you hold a different idea as to what a game is, that's fine, but suffice to assume that I am not talking about that type of activity in this post.

Game to me implies an agreed upon rule-set, one or more goals, and the ability to distinguish between being in the game, out of the game, neither, or both.

For the sake of discussion, my definition of game here does not require interactivity between the players, but does require some interactivity between a player and something in his or her environment, such as seeing something and thinking, moving, or progressing something along from a non-winning condition to a winning condition. This usually entails some sort of competition or challenge, but I don't require that for my purposes (so I am perforce including video games and puzzles).

Nor does it require there to be relative winners and losers; that is, that some participants lose while others win, or that a winning or losing label is assigned to any players upon game completion. This logic for this last exception - no requirement for relative winners and losers - is discussed in my Alternatives to Winning posts (2 and 3).

Game Implies Interactive Progression Using Given Rules Toward a Goal

The essence of the game is not its physical, visual, or auditory components, which of course may be art. A game's essence is the interactivity of the participant with his or her environment. The abstract possibility of a game is realized only through the participation of one or more players in playing it out. It is like a play, only the path through is vaguely guided by rules rather than scripted in total. In some games, the path is more constricted than others, to be sure.

Consider Chess. The goal is to checkmate your opponent, or to achieve a draw otherwise. The first step is limited to the movement of a certain number of pieces. Although limited in nature, the first move of a Chess game is still much freer than the opening moments of a typical movie or play, which can follow only one path.

Game Implies Learning

As Raph Koster notes in his book A Theory of Fun in Game Design, games are educational on a deep level, allowing us to master challenges, and then, after we have mastered these challenges, they bore us so that we can move on to new challenges. It is why game-based education is so successful and engaging, and why many people look to games for specific educational purposes, from augmenting physical therapy to increasing math and spacial reasoning abilities.

Outside of this pattern learning aspect, we can increase our mental or physical abilities in many different ways as a result of playing games, whether from sports, trivia games, or games that incorporate educational material such as environmentalism or health.

Games and Art Both Imply Message

But where games imply learning, so does art. Because isn't the essence of art a meaningful message? A communicates something that someone doesn't know or remember, at least on a conscious level.

If you take the Mona Lisa, for example, you may learn many things by viewing the painting. Maybe about the hidden strength of women, the notion of independence, techniques in brush-stokes, or many other things. Whatever the messages are, these are something that, by definition, you have either learned or remembered by viewing the art. If you have not learned anything after viewing art, you have not gotten the message. Either the art failed, or it's purpose was too mundane, or you were not receptive.

The same applies to games, whether we accept Raph's notions of pattern learning from games or simply the external thematic experiences that the games try to portray.

Every message conveys something new; that's learning. Learning is a series of messages.

Games Are Interactive, And Art Can Be Interactive, Too

If both art and games are, at their essence, vehicles for conveying messages, regardless of their entertainment value, then what is the difference between them?

You can't say interactivity, because I can point to many works of art that make the audience an inherent part of the participation process. For instance, a room to walk through, buttons to push, your voice echoing back purposely altered. All of these include interactivity to convey messages, messages that cannot be conveyed without the interactivity, or at least not as well.

The message of a piece of interactive art may be a new way to feel from the act of decapitating a little figure, or of the loneliness of a large space. Either way, the participation is inherent to the message of interactive art.

Games and Art Imply Goal

Imagine a vast room, deliberately created as an interactive art work in order to convey the feeling of diminutiveness relative to a universe. Now imagine the two experiences of a) walking through the room with the goal of experiencing the message of the art, and b) participating in a race that takes you through the room with the goal of winning the race, but that gives as a secondary experience the same message of diminutiveness while you are racing.

You could argue that by focusing on the goal of winning the race, we lessen the impact of the message from the art, because our attention is divided. Or, you could argue that the message will be conveyed even more greatly, because by not focusing on the message itself, we let in the message subconsciously, which results in a higher impact.

The Goal of a Game is Not the Artistic Goal

Regardless of your argument about the impact of the message via these two methods of interaction with the piece, you must admit that in the second case, the goal of the art is not the winning of the race. That is not the message of the piece.

The race is part of the material that was used to create the art. Just like the space is created to convey something, the activity with which you interact it created to convey something. But the goal of the art is the understanding, while the goal of the game is to achieve victory in the game. The goal of art is never "to win". It is to accept the message of the artist. There is no winner or loser in the message of art.

Some Examples

Example: let's say that two people are running toward a goal. The first person is in a race to get to the goal. The second is admiring the view.

The first person's body can continue to race toward the goal while his mind also admires the view. But in this case, his body is inside the game, while his mind is outside the game. Admiration of the view is not part of the goal of the game, although it may be something that he is simultaneously learning.

Example: Let's say that you are playing Where's Waldo on a beautiful picture. The first person to spot Waldo wins.

Here your brain is more tightly wrapped up in the goal of the game. It can't wander admiring the beauty or managing the message of the art while at the same time working toward the goal of finding Waldo. At least, not on a conscious level. Any time you spend learning about the message of the art detracts from the goal of the game, and vice versa.

Example: let's create an art installment where you race against a man with no legs, so that the outcome is always that you will win. Here we have a game where the goal of the game is to win. Here we have art, where the message is to experience the sympathy for the man with no legs while we function well with our two. Even in this case, the goal of winning is something you do in order to feel the message, but the goal of winning is not the message itself.

It is not the game element that is teaching, but the experience outside the "game".

Winning as a Goal is Incompatible with Art

So, are games art?

Games that involve winning cannot be art "in total", although they can include art in them (and not just visual or aural art). But this art can be absorbed only when the goal of the game is suspended, or if the art is meant to be absorbed unconsciously during the process of playing the game.

If we remove the element of winning from the game, the game can still involves goals. But without the singular goal of "winning", other aspects about the game become integrated into the game itself, rather than external to the game. Games are then simply a subset of art, and the art they contain is a reflection of the artistic skills and messages that their creator's wish to convey.


Update: Please see the comments for follow-up discussion and clarifications.


Anonymous said...

Games and Art both imply 'Performance'?... can the performance within a game be artful? ... can artful performance of a game be considered a goal? If so, is it compatible, or at odds with, the goal of winning. Is mere 'style' artful?

Yehuda Berlinger said...

Smite: Excellent point.

If you follow my definition of art, a stylistic performance can be excellent "craft", where I define craft as that which is aesthetic but not imbued with any particular meaning.

Art must convey a message, so unless the winning performance also portrayed some other message simultaneous with the win, it would not be art.

If it did, then in any case it would be an entirely different message simultaneously conveyed with the win, and it would be a message that was entirely independent of the win. In other words, the win in its own right can never be art. There is no message conveyed simply by winning.


Yehuda Berlinger said...

Smite: Let me partially take back that answer, in light of more thinking.

As simple example challenges my point: is the performance at a dance competition art?

Without belaboring, I think the answer to this is obviously yes. Ah, but then how can I say that winning and art are incompatible?

My answer is that it is not the dance or performance which is not art but the "game" itself which is not art. I.e. the simple competition of the game does not convey an artistic message, even if the performances do.

Ah, but you could say: partaking in the competition is long and arduous, and provides a meaningful experience to all participants, regardless of their competitive success or performance. So surely the game is art, in that it seeks to convey this experience. Just because the rules are elegant (the rules are: everyone create and execute a dance, to be judged on artistic merit by a panel), doesn't make the game any less artistic.

For that, my answer may be weak. It could be that yes, indeed, this, and all competition, is art inherently. But I think that this is more of the case where the lessons learned are independent of the actual competition. In other words, this is a mastery message that the game provides, and such mastery is inherent in any form of game. And the simple lesson of mastery is not in itself art, or at least not in the sense that I am defining it.

One could call messages and patterns that lead to self mastery "art", so that the message of Tic Tac Toe is art, but I am not convinced of that.


Anonymous said...

Well, I have to say that this is false. The reason is that gameplay itself is a vehicle for artistic expression. It is subtle and harder to understand than things like graphics or sound or story, which is why we haven't had very much exploitation of it yet, but we will; and that's a big part of how the medium will grow to be taken seriously.

For example, both of my current projects, Braid and an unannounced game, are obviously art (from my point of view anyway). They both involve winning by overcoming a set of puzzles / situations.

But the puzzles / situations themselves are "messages" (to use the terminology of this posting). I want to communicate to the audience the ramifications of what happens when you postulate certain rules or juxtapositions of gameplay elements. "See what happens when X?" the game says. "And then see when Y, which is almost the same but then surprisingly interestingly different?" The way the player understands the message is by seeing the ramifications and solving the puzzle... which is exactly the gameplay and exactly how to win.

This is just one specific example of a way that gameplay can be art; but there are many (for the time being, though, this one seems to be my area of specialization).

And I would say that this kind of gameplay (communication through challenges) is actually not rare in games currently. Unfortunately, though, it gets diluted because the focus of development is on something other than the artistic intent of gameplay; so it's hard to see. But once you get the concept clearly, you can look at games and see it all over.

Anonymous said...

I want to begin by saying I'm very tired right now (don't know why I'm awake) and didn't read a whole lot more than the section headings, so forgive if I say something that's blatantly addressed.


It seems to me that, say you were to take a picture of the winner of a race crossing the finish line. All the sweat and exhaustion rippling off his body, the triumph as he breaks through the tape, the grimace and disappointment of the few just steps behind... that seems to me to be art, and it seems to me to also be victory, or winning.

How then is winning not art?

Thinking through this further, I wonder if it's a distinction between art and beauty. The photograph is art; this much I think you will agree with me. But the act of winning itself may be beautiful, but not artistic, since it is not created.

Yet it is created, by the racers themselves.

Just some thoughts by an exhaustion-addled mind. =)

Yehuda Berlinger said...

Jonathan: Thanks for your comment.

As I noted in the comment above yours, an obvious challenge to my thought is a dance competition. It is accepted that a dance is art from one end to the other. They are even judges on their artistic performance.

However, the dance itself is not part of the rules of the game.

The game is merely: everyone dance, and the most artistic performance will win.

Without any actual art coming from the performers themselves, the game itself contains no art. The game, unlike a painting, presents no message.

The idea of winning the game also contains no message. Consider the following two scenarios:

In scenario A, five dancers perform artistic dances, at the end of which the audience goes home.

In scenario B, five dancers perform artistic dances, at the end of which one of them is announced the winner, and then the audience goes home.

My question is: is scenario B more artistic than scenario A? If not, and I think it isn't, then the competition itself is not art. Ergo, the winning is not art. Ergo, the game is not art.

So when we come to examine games and ask, is this game art?, the answer can't be in the artistic way that players play the game. It has to be in the game itself. That somehow, the game itself communicates something through the interactivity of the players to the game, not simply because the game provides a framework for them to be artistic.

Michael: in this situation, I would say that the photograph is artistic, but not the win.

If you were to say that the player is winning in an artistic manner, then I would say that that is certainly possible, but the artistic manner has nothing to do with the win. The artistic manner does not increase the win a whit, nor does the game require an artistic expression for the winner, nor does it uniquely communicate such an expression as a result of its rules.


Anonymous said...

<< In scenario B, five dancers perform artistic dances, at the end of which one of them is announced the winner, and then the audience goes home. My question is: is scenario B more artistic than scenario A? >>

Change 'dance' to 'skateboarding' and consider the X-games, a place where friendly exhibitions are held to delight the audience, in a manner similar to the actual competitions that also take place, but without the prizes. For the sake of their craft, this is their art.

Questions being, can you even hold a similar manner of exhibitive play with most board games and not have a score or win, to try and have an artful performance? Probably not, since all the rule structure of the game is about points and victory. Similarly, when ice skaters hold shows or exhibitions, they don't do the compulsuries, which exist only for the purpose of ranking and grading for victory. It implictly acknowledges the art of the long skate segment that it can be performed 'just for show', independent of victory conditions.

In a stretch, Magic the Gathering can be played this way - to perform an artful deck rather than fight for the win.

Anonymous said...

I think you're missing out on how the game goal and art goals can fundamentally align. They don't always align; as you said, in a race, the beautiful scenery is not related at all to the goal of winning a race, just like beautiful level design in Quake may not relate to the game play.

You can, however, have a game where the winning conditions and goals fundamentally shape the artistic message of the game. For instance, in Black & White (which I've never played, but have read about, so forgive me if I'm not correct about something), the system and rewards have a fundamental message to teach you about good & evil; that evil is frequently easier at first but leads to continuing corruption, while good is difficult to maintain but can pay off in the long run.

Other examples are the board games Nuclear War and War on Terror (again, I haven't played these, but only read about them). From what I've heard, they make it so that trying to achieve certain goals end up causing problems; causing nuclear war or funding terrorism. Thus, the message is transmitted through the goals of the game; you realize how trying to achieve certain goals leads to even large problems in the world.

A more subtle but in some senses equally powerful affect is seen in Zendo (finally, a game that I've actually played rather than just reading about). The goal of the game is to figure out the master's secret rule, and I would claim that part of the artistic goal is to realize that you need to shed assumptions on the quest for truth. The goal of the game supports this by giving you a hidden truth, and allowing you to experiment and question what that truth is on your way to enlightenment. As you play, you come up with theories, about what attributes matter (color, size, orientation), and frequently realize in a flash of insight that you were looking at the problem in completely the wrong way. The goal of the game (figuring out the rule) has thus supported the message (enlightenment can be obtained by discarding assumptions and opening your mind).

These are just a few examples of how the game goal can be in perfect (or even imperfect) harmony with the artistic goal. I could go on with many other examples of such games, which do it with varying degrees of success (Diplomacy, many role-playing games, heck, even Munchkin). This doesn't happen all the time; as you mention, it is frequently the case that the artistic portion of the game is just window-dressing, and the goals and mechanics of the game keep you from noticing it. I think this may be why I don't like Euro-games as much as some people do, because the theme is "pasted on" in many cases, and doesn't connect to the mechanics at all. This is definitely a case analogous to your race example, but not all games are created that way.

Yehuda Berlinger said...

Brian: You're entirely correct.

I am mulling it over.


Yehuda Berlinger said...

Brian: My answer, which I will try to clarify yet again on later posts, is that winning (assigning a 1-0-0 score at the end of the game) and goals are distinct concepts.

Trying to accomplish a goal, and trying to win, are distinct concepts.