I had the pleasure of attending a talk by the founders of Bioware at BAFTA. It was about whether games are an art and if so, how. Starting with a definition from Tolstoy, they explained that the ability to create key choices and moments within games to evoke emotion is what they consider art. They then invited members of the audience to share their own emotional play experiences.
However something bothered me about the definition and its application. Both speakers and audience were equating art with player emotion, beauty and experience and that’s not really what Tolstoy meant. It can’t be denied that many players of roleplaying games feel that their play experience should be regarded as art, but is it? Or are they actually searching for validation?
This is a post about definitions of art, emotional validation, the duality of play, Iain McGilchrist and whether roleplaying really is what its proponents think it is.
Here is the key Tolstoy quote that Ray Muzyka and Greg Zeschuk (of Bioware) used, from the book ‘What is Art?’:
To evoke in oneself a feeling one has once experienced, and having evoked it in oneself, then, by means of movements, lines, colours, sounds, or forms expressed in words, so to transmit that feeling that others may experience the same feeling - this is the activity of art.
Art is a human activity consisting in this, that one man consciously, by means of certain external signs, hands on to others feelings he has lived through, and that other people are infected by these feelings and also experience them.
The phrase that many game makers (and the BAFTA speakers and audience) hone in on here is the evoking of feelings. Often times games are thought of as a way for players to self-express and create their own stories, and so in a sense the game designer is the provider of possibility. By creating a world such as the universe of Mass Effect, he nudges the player toward interesting moments and emotional attachments. And since this is evoked emotion, it’s art.
At least that’s the idea, and one that I have previously discussed and largely dismissed. It hinges on the idea that a player is telling a story to himself, is the hero of his own tale and so forth, but it’s just not true.
The player is in the world, but as herself. She acts, but as herself. She frequently plays in an optimal fashion, and roleplaying games are full of functional asides like shops and looting and character optimisation for that purpose. She also tends to treat dialogue sections like a permutation exercise. In short, a lot of play is really about winning and being an agent of change, and while the game may be beautiful and the joy of winning is exuberant, that’s not what art is.
There’s another paragraph in the Tolstoy quote which pretty much says the same thing:
Art is not, as the metaphysicians say, the manifestation of some mysterious idea of beauty or God; it is not, as the aesthetical physiologists say, a game in which man lets off his excess of stored-up energy; it is not the expression of man's emotions by external signs; it is not the production of pleasing objects; and, above all, it is not pleasure; but it is a means of union among men, joining them together in the same feelings, and indispensable for the life and progress toward well-being of individuals and of humanity.
Just because it’s pretty does not make it art. Just because you feel success does not make it art. Just because you get to self-express does not make it art. He’s quite clear on this: Art is the use of tools to evoke the same feeling in an audience as a feeling that the artist felt. Not their own feelings. His.
That’s just Tolstoy’s view, and there have been many many others. Definitions can be as general as:
The use of skill and imagination in the creation of aesthetic objects, environments, or experiences that can be shared with others. (from Britannica Online according to Wikipedia)
The functionalist holds that there is some distinctive need met by art in our lives and that it is in terms of this need that art is to be defined. While art might meet many interests – for example it might be valued as a financial investment – such interests explain why artworks might be referred to and appreciated as investments and the like, but they do not explain why we have the concept of art and appreciate artworks qua art. The primary value of art is hedonic, rather than moral or pragmatic. (from Steven Davies)
Or the institutional (or procedural):
A work of art in the classificatory sense is 1) an artefact 2) upon which some person or persons acting on behalf of a certain social institution (the artworld) has conferred the status of candidate for appreciation. (from George Dickie)
To the aspirational:
Art is any human act that is created with the intention of having an impact and changing the world. It is a generous gift, and although you may sell a souvenir or recording of it, the idea of the art is a gift to the world. (paraphrased from Seth Godin)
And there are other ideas which posit that the question is itself redundant, that art is whatever we say it is, or that art is just an official stamp applied to certain parts of culture and so just another word for fashion.
Many ordinary people would probably say that art is really a mix of all of the above, or that you know it when you see it. They might say it’s paintings, poems and songs, or things that are meaningful. They might find Marcell Duchamp’s Fountain (which is a urinal) to be a ridiculous example of the art world eating its own tail, but say that the story of Rocky touched them on a deeper level. So they might say it’s all relative to who you are.
The attempted equation of emotion and art in the roleplaying game is one that some people have been trying to convince the world of for most of their adult lives. I first encountered it in tabletop gaming through White Wolf, but it’s at least as old as the text adventure.
Yet when you look at the games, what has really changed since the days of early Dungeons and Dragons adventures? It is still based around good economics, powers and spells, levels and classes, enemies and experience points. It’s still about main quests, side quests, redundant dialogue trees and boss fights. And it’s still heavily didactic at key moments, still trying to make the case that big choices like good or evil paths mean something.
I think there’s something to the idea that maybe what the assembled BAFTA collective are actually talking about is emotional validation. Games are big part of geek culture with significant characters, creators and a heritage. Players don’t want to feel as though they are wasting their time, embarrassed or shamed by those who don’t play. They want to feel that what they do with their time is valid.
The problem as I see it is that the gamer world buys into the institutional definition of art. Art in that sense is defined by an art world. Only the gamer world sees itself on the outside looking in. That means talk about art is actually talk about entitlement, validation and acceptance. Talks like the Bioware BAFTA session are about trying to prove legitimacy, prove Roger Ebert wrong and claim some sort of place in the cultural pantheon.
Perhaps it’s all just about overcoming feelings internalised as children, when we were told by society that we shouldn’t be wasting time on this games stuff. Go outside and play with a ball. Grow up.
A Dual Definition
I conceived of the split between the play brain and the art brain before encountering psychiatrist Iain McGilchrist’s concept of the divided brain, but they are amazingly similar. His concept is that the brain is capable of two kinds of attention at the same time, with a gating system (in the corpus callosum) that inhibits the function of one over the other.
It is not the old left-brain/right-brain reason/imagination model, which is long discredited, but rather a dual perspective which mostly resides in the left or right hemispheres (but not fully) and operates concurrently. Reason and imagination exist in both and are vital to both, and in humans (unlike animals) that focus is mediated by the frontal lobes. We can stand back from the world and regard it.
This interaction of dual focus and mediation means that the narrowly focused brain is task-driven and fascinated by functional logic. It’s about trying to figure out how to use what it sees to achieve goals (McGilchrist calls this “the Machiavellian”). It simplifies, models, quantifies and is precise. This is what I called the play brain.
The wide focus (“the Erasmian”) sees things contextually. It’s the seat of empathy, creativity, metaphor, implicit meaning and the reading of emotions. Unlike the narrow focus (which simplifies the world) it sees the world in an embodied fashion. In a previous post I attributed the word numina to describe how the player sometimes vests more in what he sees than is actually there, and this is very similar to McGilchrist’s idea of embodiment. In contrast to the play brain, the Erasmian is what I labelled the art brain.
Games are unique among all forms of culture because they engage both the Machiavellian and the Erasmian, the play and the art brains, at the same time. When playing, the player needs a game to be fairer than real life, simpler than real life, more empowering and fascinating than real life. It needs to enclose him in a world that all makes sense. This is what the play brain needs to have fun and so stay engaged.
However the art brain wants to see beyond that. So the world of the game, its audio-visual richness and character are a key tool of evoking those feelings that Tolstoy spoke of. Discoveries within it, things seen or heard, noticed momentarily during the passage of play are where the art brain lives for, and so an artistic game is one that confers feelings that its creator has to the art brain while the play brain plays.
This works especially well if the interactions within that context make sense. The most profoundly effective examples of artistic games are the ones that manage to marry both play brain and art brain together. So for example, the co-operative rules of Ico and Yorda have an art brain component because they are in context. The setting of Portal 2 within a gigantic lab explains its abstract play brain tests in context. When the two work together then the effect is almost a state of belief in the reality of the game world, which is what I call thauma.
Bioware may want the adventures of Shepherd to be heroic and full of significant choices against the backdrop of a complex universe, but much of the game of Mass Effect involves mercenary activity like looting. It may want the game world to feel rich, but even the city environments are often empty or replete with static characters waiting for the player to do something. This is pretty typical of the roleplaying game.
The roleplaying game profoundly struggles with its ambition toward art because its play is full of this sort of generalised mechanical play. It is pretty bad at evoking intended emotions within players (as Tolstoy would say it perhaps) because it’s so busy being a giant accounting exercise. So supposedly significant moments in the narrative and the actions of gameplay are in conflict with one another.
Even in the heyday of pen and paper, roleplaying games sat awkwardly between players searching for meaning and those wanted to build awesome characters through killing dragons in dungeons. And for the most part the digital age heavily favours the dragon killers.
This is not to imply that roleplaying games are bad games. Many millions of fans love them and they provide thousands of hours of gameplay. It’s also not to say that the emotions of playing these game are not valid. They absolutely are.
What I’m saying is that if roleplaying game makers want to get better at creating artistic games as Tolstoy would define them, then they need to change. They need to find ways of marrying play and art brain sides more closely, as some non-RPG games have done much more successfully. Getting away from looting and fake alignment tests would be a good start, but also concentrating the breadth of options and focus less on storytelling and drama and more on storysense and thauma.
That’s if that’s the goal. On the other hand, if players really want to fly around, explore, kill aliens and loot their bodies then feel no shame in the joy of creating just that. You don’t need to dress it up as art in order to feel legitimate.