Posts Tagged ‘Video Games as Art’

In 1954, a science fiction story by Tom Godwin entitled “The Cold Equations” appeared in an issue of Astounding Magazine. In the story, space travel is now possible but at a great expense. Humanity has begun to explore the stars, but things are calculated and precise. No space or fuel is wasted leaving little to no room for error.

The entirety of the story takes place within the confines of a rescue ship bound for a planetary expedition in need of medicine. The pilot, referred to only as Branton,  discovers a stowaway, Marilyn an an 18 year old girl, who hitched a ride to try and see her brother who is a scientist on the planet the ship is traveling to. The laws of space state “Any stowaway discovered in an EDS shall be jettisoned immediately following discovery” because the ship only carries enough fuel to make the trip with the weight it is scheduled to carry, but Branton is conflicted about carrying out the sentence because Marilyn is not the type of person the laws was designed for.

The rest of the story is spent trying to figure out a way to save the girl, who Branton feels remorseful for because she is the victim of law. Calls are made, ideas presented and discussed, but ultimately Marilyn is jettisoned from the ship.

The ending of “The Cold Equations” created waves in the world of 1954 science fiction. Never before had readers experienced a story where science and human ingenuity didn’t prevail. This wasn’t like the normal pulp they were use to reading and it marked a step away from the childish roots which science fiction was associated with.

In 2007, video games experienced their own version of “The Cold Equations” when Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare (Modern Warfare) was released by Activision. In an industry of power play fantasy and infinite retries its quite unusual for a character (especially a main character to truly die). Modern Warfare did just that when players took control of Sergeant Paul Jackson as he crawls out of the wreckage of a downed helicopter caught in a nuclear explosion. Where previously the player had been running and gunning through the streets of a Middle Eastern city with the ability to take multiple bullet wounds (which healed overtime) before dying, they are now forced to crawl along the ground on their stomach through flaming wreckage.

There is plenty of space to crawl through, but the player never gets to experience or explore it because after about a minute or so Jackson dies. The common reaction of most players was to reset and try again. Surely they had done something wrong; they aren’t suppose to die. No matter what they tried though, Jackson died and there was nothing they could do about it.

The nuke scene in Modern Warfare is one of many steps in the right direction if we want to create games that are more than entertainment. Creating experiences like these through interaction is an important part of legitimizing the medium of video games. We are still a ways to go, but we’ve taken a step in the right direction.


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Update: Apparently, pOnd stirred up enough traffic that it brought down the Peanut Gallery website. For the time being you can now play pOnd here.

Warning: Spoilers appear below the break. If you want to fully experience pOnd play the game before reading below the break.

IndieGames.com lead me to an intriguing game yesterday called pOnd. It’s a simple, one-button browser based game made by The Peanut Gallery in which you use the space bar to control a characters breathing as he walks through the woods towards a pond. The creators proclaim the game to be a very zen like experience and even suggest players breath in time with the game.

Over all, its a wonderful experience. The graphics are superb and the music and sound really pull you into the experience of walking though a forest in the early morning. Actions in the world are triggered by the passing of the player and their breathing  which sends wildlife scampering and prompts beams of light to cascade between tree branches.

By the time I reached the pond I was totally immersed in the experience and like the character stopped to admire the scenery taking in the pulsing spheres that prompt the player to breath in and out.

-Spoilers Ahead!-


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“It’s only a game” is a phrase that agrees with all of those who ever looked down their noses at the medium, who want to nutshell it as a child’s plaything, who want to promote the kind of prejudice that will keep games from ever achieving widespread respect for everything they are.

Leigh Alexander, source

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Game designers are artists and have advantages over non-creative jobs; think about what they are and exploit them. Your goal shouldn’t be to make tons of money. If it were, you would have gone to business school or become a doctor. This is a creative field and should be treated as such first and foremost. Financing your art comes later.

Edmund McMillen

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The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living by Damien Hirst

Artist intent is a touchy issue. Whether something is being interpreted as an artist intends seems to be a conversation more suited for an art gallery than a blog about video games, but I think that it is an important issue to bring up (especially if video games will be considered art one day). I also promise I’ll make this relevant to more than just art.

When it comes to artist intention there are two  forces: the artist (and his/her intent) and the audience (and their interpretation). Some people try to place precedence on one over the other, but really they are equally valid ways of viewing a work.

Personally, I think that if an artist cannot convey their intent to a majority of the audience they have failed in some regards while making their art.

That’s a pretty bold statement to be making, I’ll even admit to that. I feel safe in making that statement, however, because I feel that art can reach a point where its meaning becomes unaccessible to the common public. Modern and Contemporary art certainly hit that point. I remember as a child looking at a Jackson Pollock and thinking, “this is art?” because I did not have any knowledge of art history.

Piss Christ by Andres Serrano

It’s no surprise that someone without prior knowledge cannot get something like Piss Christ or conceptual work from artist’s like Damien Hirst. Art tends to get a bit incestuous after Marcel Duchamp called a urinal art because artists start making art in response to other artists who in turn make art in response to the response. Entire art movements rise and fall and rise again while the public goes to museums and looks at landscapes by impressionists.

So where does that leave games? Well, consider this: game designers are artists and players are an audience. This means that designer intent (and player experience) play a role in video games too. I like to view these two possible interpretations as states of a game. In a previous post I talked about a native state that games naturally posses. This is the game as the designer intends it and presents it to the public, the Native State. Rarely, a player will experience the entire game in its Native State, which leads to the second state of a game, the Player State. This is the state where the player begins to make their own interpretations based on events they encounter within the play experience.

When trying to find a definition of games, I use the Native State of an activity to define whether or not something is a game because it is less subjective than the Player State. Humans also have an amazing habit of placing their own rules on a system thereby creating a game where there previously wasn’t one or changing the one they are playing entirely. An examples of this include speed runs through video games or attempting to play through a game by placing constraints not normally within the system (beating a Zelda game without getting more than three hearts). I wanted to avoid creating a definition that would allow anything to be considered a game simply because someone could impose rules upon a system creating a game out something not otherwise considered a game.

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Luke Pluckett wrote an article yesterday on Kotaku entitled Why Can’t Video Games Make You Remember the Dead? where he attempts to discuss how video games “treat death as anything more than a hindrance or a multiplier.” He then goes on to discuss games like X-Com and other games that use mechanics that allow you create and upgrade teammates are the closest thing we have to experiencing the loss of life in war.

I disagree with his assumption that gamers grieve at the loss of a friend when they lose the squad mate they have spent time leveling up. Instead, I think gamers see it more as a loss of time and resources. If the loss is great enough they might even reach for the reset button which real life does not have. I have spent countless hours redoing missions in games like Fire Emblem or X-Com because one of my characters that I spent an equal amount of time raising stats and acquiring equipment for died because of something I did. No matter how much Pluckett wants us to think that the reset button doesn’t exist it does and gamers use it all the time when things go wrong.

There has only been one time where I have experienced the feeling Pluckett is referring to (the kind brought on by game play and not by story) and it did not come from a squad based first-person-shooter or tactical RPG, but from an action game, Shadow of the Colossus. As I played further and further into the game I began struggle with the idea that I was the stranger in a strange land. I was intruding upon these creatures, the colossi, and inevitably conquering them by killing them.

At first it was kind of fun. There was the thrill of approaching something so massive and clambering up its hairy body to find the “weak spots” and then the rather violent sprays of black blood that gushed from the colossi every time I thrust my sword into their heads. Around the fourth or fifth fight however, as Wander began to grow visibly tainted by his deeds, I began to wonder what I was doing here in this uninhabited land of giants. I started to think back upon the colossi I had killed and even became  somewhat remorseful of my actions.

The real zinger, however, came at the end of the game when Wander assumes the form of a colossi to fight off the soldiers bent on stopping him. At first, I had a moment of elation as I realized I now had the chance to stomp around swatting at the flies pelting me with arrows. This elation quickly faded as moved about slowly trying to rid myself of the nuances that were slowly killing me. This moment made me realize how the colossi must have felt as I clambered my way up their bodies in my quest to end their lives and made me very mournful of my actions.

Having that final moment gave me that link to the colossi that Pluckett is referring to when he talks about squad based mechanics. Without it, I was regretful for my actions. With it, I was regretful for the lost colossi.

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One question I consistently see popping up from opponents of video games as art is the question, “Why are gamers so intensely concerned, anyway, that games be defined as art?” I find that many times these critics write it off as adolescent self-esteem issues without getting to the heart of the matter.

I agree with many of the opponents that gamers do not need validation. They will continue to play the games whether or not someone else calls them art. They will continue to be moved by their experiences (some of which are unique to the medium) whether or not they play these games in a museum, art gallery or from the comfort of their home. Gamers don’t need validation so they can claim to be studying great art while playing games. Gamers need the medium validated as much as an art gallery patron needs validation. Regardless of what others say they are going to consume.

Instead, it is the game creators who are searching for validation of their art. Sure, we want to make an engaging experience that players will enjoy, but some of us are striving for something more and it certainly would be nice to have someone outside of our field recognize that.

I think validating video games as art is important because it will open up many exciting opportunities for video games.  It will give the medium a chance to broadening its audience and allow it to shrug off some of the juvenile appearances placed on it by the public. Validation would also attract many new faces to the medium with new, fresh ideas.

There is a fear among many gamers, however, that validation could bring about unwanted changes to the medium they love to engage, and admittedly, validation does have its negatives. Many fear that games will become too serious or that bad games will try and hide behind the guise of an “art game” (or are we already there?) or that, heaven forbid, we’ll stop making engaging games. While I can’t  guarantee this won’t happen to some extent, I hope I can offer some hope by pointing to the movie industry who has both a thriving entertainment sector along with a healthy art section.

Why can’t video games have this too?

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