How Interactive Are Videogames?

Reality?  Heresy?

Natalie here (turns out “Natalie” is already taken as a wordpress username … who knew?).

Let me start this post with an acknowledgment, followed by a confession.  The acknowledgment: I am bound by secret gamer law to hate Roger Ebert and all his works.  This is, of course, because Ebert once said (and to my knowledge continues to believe) that videogames can never be art—a statement that all gamers are honor-bound to abhor on principle.  In making this statement, Roger Ebert has made himself an enemy of the gamer state, and all true gamers are bound to deride him at every opportunity.

The confession: I admire Roger Ebert enormously, both as a writer and as a thinker.  And while I disagree with him that videogames, by nature, can never be art, I do think that he raises an interesting point.

Here and here, Ebert articulates why he thinks that videogames can never be art.  I’ll extract the two most interesting passages:

Video games by their nature require player choices, which is the opposite of the strategy of serious film and literature, which requires authorial control.

My notion is that it grows better the more it improves or alters nature through an passage through what we might call the artist’s soul, or vision.

Here’s the question I think these two passages raise: Are videogames artistically interactive?

Let us assume (as we are bound to do by gamer law) that videogames are, or at least contain, art.  Is that art interactive?  Do my “player choices” contribute to or change the art in a videogame?  Assuming (as we are) that nature is “improved or altered” through the passage of the soul of the artist of a videogame, am I part of that “artist?”  Is nature passing through my soul to be improved or altered?  When I play a game, am I in any meaningful sense the “artist” of that game?

Non-Interactive ArtLet me draw from two non-videogame examples that are not artistically interactive to better illustrate what I mean.  Suppose both you and I are observing a painting that is a piece of art (say the Mona Lisa, if you need a specific example).  You and I will be having different experiences—the way I react to the painting is different from the way you react to the painting.  In other words, the identity of the consumer changes the overall artistic experience, and in that sense, we might call viewing a painting an “interactive” experience.  But when I ask whether videogames are “artistically interactive,” I am referring to something more interactive than this.

Now suppose you and I are at an old penny arcade and we come across one of those coin-operated peep show machines where we can turn a crank to animate a little flip book animation.  Let’s further suppose that the animation in this particular machine is undeniably a work of art.  In order to view the entire work, you and I must put a penny in the slot and turn the crank.  In short, we must interact with the machine.  But that is all we are interacting with—the art itself (the animation) is essentially unchanged by our interaction, although it is our interaction that allows us to reveal or uncover the art that is hiding within the depths of the storage medium.  When I ask whether videogames are “artistically interactive,” I am asking not whether our interaction is necessary to uncover, unlock, or experience the art, but whether we interact with the art itself.

My suspicion, and I welcome disagreement on this point in the comments, is that videogames are not artistically interactive.  In fact, I submit that they are nothing more than really complicated peep show machines, whose cranks have become keyboards, mouses, and gamepads, and whose art can be viewed in more combinations than simply turning the crank forwards or backwards.

In short, I submit that while we interact with the game, the art is not meaningfully subject to player choice, and that however many souls there may be through which nature passes to be improved or altered by a videogame,  the soul of the end-user gamer is not one of them.  In a follow-up post I’ll offer some thoughts on why this might be significant, but in the meantime, let me pause here, and submit my heresy to the judgment of the gamer state.


15 thoughts on “How Interactive Are Videogames?

  1. So, by this thinking, in order to be interactive, the gamer would have to put together an experience that the creator of the game did not anticipate. Think of a video game as a really big and really complicated choose-your-own-adventure book. Because the author of the book has created all of the choices that are available to you, you can’t create a scenario that he/she did not create.

    Even in WOW, when you create your own character, you are assembling that character from pieces provided by Blizzard. So, I think, through their choices the gamer may arrange pieces in a myriad of ways, ibut if the pieces were created by the game designer, the gamer is not contributing new material to the game.

  2. This is increasingly how I think of it, yes. MMORPGs are sometimes raised as examples of artistically interactive when I’ve had this conversation offline, but I’m not sure.

    On the one hand, certainly we must admit that art can be created from manufactured parts. We would not say, for instance, that Leonardo was not the artist of the Mona Lisa because his paint, canvas, and brush manufacturers had already created the pieces from which he assembled the work.

    On the other hand, my intuition is to agree with you that “the gamer is not contributing new material to the game” even in MMORPGs (at least all the ones I’ve heard of or experienced). I’m not quite sure what the difference is between that and painting, but intuitively I feel like there is one.

    Or rather, I might agree that creating an avatar is original art in the same way that painting is (although I doubt the best avatar creations will ever compete with the best paintings in terms of artistic merit), but that feels like a very minor part of the art of the game. After all, an MMORPG isn’t really about creating an avatar. It’s about what you do with that avatar – the story she lives, the life she tells.

    And the parameters of that life are really quite constrained. Oh, you can roleplay any story you like in an MMO in text, sure, but I don’t know if WoW-as-glorified-chat-lobby really qualifies as adding artistic material to WoW. If you want the story you’re telling via text to mesh with the world your avatar can interact with … it’s at that point that you seem much more constrained by the design studio.

    Except, maybe, with EVE Online. Anybody who’s dug into that have any insight to offer?

  3. I’m inclined to sit on the fence with this one.
    I can see both sides of the arguement but don’t have enough experience with video games to really form an opinion

    1. Brian,

      That’s not quite it. The painting analogy isn’t perfect, because a painting is, if you will, first-generation art. That is, paints and brushes and canvas are not “art” in themselves. A videogame, on the other hand, can be (so we are assuming) art in itself, and the question is whether the game permits you to interact with that art specifically. Certainly the tools of a game can be used to create art – c.f. machinima (although like most of the art we’re discussing, machinima is not likely to take its place in the annals of historic human artistic achievements). But a machinima is using parts of the art of a game to create a different work of art. It is not contributing in any way to the work of art that is the game itself, or that the game itself contains. For example, I can use the assets that WoW provides me, along with some other tools, to create a machinima. But surely that is not the art of WoW itself. To me, the “art of WoW” is not just the artistic assets – it’s the web of storylines the game tells (albeit tells very slowly) and the pacing of the presentation of the artistic assets as you quest and raid and travel.

      Your third example raises an interesting question, though. What if the whole point of the game is to create something elegant (which is, surely, the designed goal of SimCity)? If you then create something elegant – but something uniquely yours – have you not created art not only using the tools of the game but playing the game as well? Is that not artistic interactivity?

      I’m tempted to say that it is … except that intuitively an elegant city does not strike me as a work of art, for the same reasons that, say, StarCraft’s multiplayer balance does not strike me as a work of art. It is an impressive achievement of mathematical elegance, yes, but I’m not sure it qualifies as art.

      Thought experiment: suppose somebody designed a Rock Band game that permitted but did not prescribe deviations from the notes of the master track, and was capable of scoring those deviations based on musicality. Would that not be the same as the SimCity example, but more clearly a work of art? I’m tempted to say yes.

  4. Here’s a question for you, Eric: Is tabletop role-playing artistically interactive?

    I think we can agree that the a sufficiently original role-playing campaign is certainly a work of art on the part of the DM. But would you say it’s artistically interactive for the players as well?

    IF you accept that as true, I would say that EVE Online is artistically interactive in the same sense. By doing so it’s a departure from most other games, but in this case it would be unmistakably true.

    1. I think that tabletop roleplaying can be artistically interactive, but I don’t think it always is by nature. Think of the classic munchkin dungeon crawl, where the DM provides all the content and all the flavor, and the players mechanically report the actions of their characters – “I hit him with my axe. [roll to hit]. I try to persuade him that we are guards of the fortress. [roll persuasion].” Although the players are interacting with the DM’s work of art (and certainly even a classic munchkin dungeon crawl can be through a work of art), they are merely responding to it – they aren’t adding to it or changing it or in any other way contributing artistic content.

      If the players were attempting to act their characters, that would start to add some artistic content to the overall work of art in my opinion. Now it’s more like the DM created the storyboard and the players help to put meat on those bones. If the players deviated from the DM’s planned course, and the DM let them do so, even moreso – now even the storyboard is inchoate until the moment of player interaction.

      Most MMOs have a certain amount of inchoateness, but it doesn’t really feel connected to the game as a whole to me. There are really only two ways I can interact with Onyxia in WoW, for instance: I can kill her, or I can not kill her. The only way for me to tell a story in which I talk to Onyxia is if I remove my avatar from her presence and type the story into chat (presumably with another player, whose avatar is not Onyxia, and who is playing her role for purposes of our story). That’s not playing the game. That’s playing a different game, in the context of the first – it would be like if two players at the tabletop suddenly turned aside and declared one of them to be the DM, and started playing a second game while sitting at the first DM’s table. And yes, you can go and kill Onyxia while telling a story about how you really aren’t killing Onyxia, but isn’t that like a tabletop player who insists, despite the DM’s objections, that he’s really raiding this house because he’s the avatar of the god of water and is trying to find a way home? I mean, you have to collaborate with the DM in order to have an artistically interactive tabletop roleplaying experience. Similarly, you have to be “collaborating” with the game in order to have an artistically interactive videogame experience, I think.

    2. I think you may be drawing a line in the sand that doesn’t exist, here. We’re talking about three levels of decision here:

      1. The decision to hit the orc with your axe, or with your sword.
      2. The decision to fight the orc or to try to convince him to leave without fighting.
      3. The decision to fight the orc or to join with orc society, work your way through the ranks, and become King of the Orcs.

      I think that you can most certainly say that option 1 is less artistic than option 2, which is less artistic than option 3. But does it necessarily follow that options 2 and 3 are art and option 1 is not? I certainly think there’s a quantitative difference, but I’m not necessarily convinced that there’s a qualitative difference.

      1. I definitely don’t think there’s a qualitative difference. I mean, heck, a large portion of the art of Kamiya games boils down to the decision to hit the proverbial orc with your axe or your sword, right?

        The line in the sand I’m drawing is not between art-as-combat and art-as-not-combat. It’s between whether the player’s choices create new artistic content. In a videogame, no matter whether I hit the orc with my axe or my sword, I try to convince the orc to leave without fighting, or I try to become King of the Orcs, the art that allows me to do so is already in the game. I didn’t create it, I just manipulated a machine in such a way as to present that content to me. From the moment the game went gold, that art was already in there.

        In a tabletop setting that’s not necessarily true. When the session begins, my DM doesn’t necessarily have it in his head that I can try to become King of the Orcs, and it might be that my choices as a player create that option. Brand new artistic content will get added as a result of my player choices. My contention is that videogames don’t work that way.

      2. A bunch of the games I’ve been looking at lately have revolved around the buzzword “emergent gameplay”. The basic definition is of the term is “when the users solve a problem in a way that the developers did not intent, but still approve of.”

        Many games simply aren’t interested in this sort of gameplay, including a number I would classify as works of art like Portal or Braid. But a few games are, and I think they’re worthy of consideration in this discussion. The examples that come to mind are all games where the developers made an attempt to create a set of tools that work in a certain way, and then present the user with puzzles to solve using these tools.

        Now a system like this doesn’t inherently mean art. After all, giving someone a toolbox and telling them “build me a set of shelves” isn’t “art”. But I do think there are games which make an effort to create art in this way.

        An ideal example is The Sims. Let me give you a specific example to illustrate my point.

        In The Sims 2, you have the option of sending your child to private school. In order to do so, you must invite the schoolmaster to your house, and if he has a good time and is suitably impressed by your house and your family, your child will receive an acceptance letter. In this case, Willie had just invited the schoolmaster over for dinner, and everything was going swimmingly. When dinnertime came around, he attempted to make the fanciest meal he knew how to make—Lobster Thermidor. Naturally, the meal catches fire as the father attempts to cook, and the fire department must be called to put out the flames in the kitchen while the two parents look on in terror. But while this is happening, the schoolmaster is in the living room wondering what’s taking so long. As he moves to enter the kitchen, the young child stops him outside the door and engages him in conversation. Amazingly, the child manages to keep the schoolmaster occupied long enough for the fire department to put out the kitchen fire, AND for pizza delivery to arrive with their “dinner”. The parents walked out of the kitchen as though nothing had happened, pizza in hand, and served dinner to a delighted schoolmaster. He got into the school.

        Now, all of these individual behaviors have to have been coded by the game designers. But it’s clear that these behaviors were not necessarily designed to mesh in this way—and more importantly, some of the behaviors (like the child’s seemingly intentional distraction of the schoolmaster) were invested with emotional significance by the viewer. I’m sure that the AI was not intelligent enough that the child was intentionally trying to distract the schoolmaster—it was pure coincidence that they had that conversation, and that it lasted long enough for the debacle in the kitchen to pass. But because of the context, and the way the other parts of the situation came together, the user invested it with a deeper emotional significance.

        The parallel, it seems to me, would be the way our group plays boardgames like Illuminati, NWO or A Game of Thrones. Another example would be when one player attacked to control one of my Liberal groups in Illuminati. I countered with a “Benefit Concert” card which adds power to Liberal groups. The opponent used a “Secrets Man Was Not Meant To Know” card to counter my Benefit Concert, and I countered by playing a second Benefit Concert. From this series of moves and counter-moves, we invented a series of events—we imagined the group playing a benefit concert to raise money for their cause, and then accidentally chanting the words to some ancient satanic ritual during some heavy metal song, and summoning a demonic figure from another dimension. After a brief pause, the demon whips out his own heavy metal guitar and plays a bitchin’ guitar solo.

        Now I’m certainly not going to contend that that was great art (though it was certainly great fun). But I DO think that I added something to the experience because of my own artistic contribution—something that the creators of the game hadn’t necessarily anticipated or thought of. This is emergent gameplay, and I contend that some videogames—not all, but some—include it.

  5. Here’s another question: Would the development and implimentation of advanced hueristic algorithms in games (such as seem to be behind the game Alpha Protocol, for example), change your mind about the nature of the imput the end user has on the art that is the game? To put it another way: does the user create art within the context of the game when the game is capable of acting and reacting in ways that neither the user nor the developer have any way of predicting?

    I ask the question because, what with the ever increasing focus on allowing the user to have a meaningful impact on the game-world, we seem to be reaching that point at least in certain kinds of games.

  6. I think the Sims example is a decent one. Yes, I was taking the tools that had been created by the game: Cooking, Fires, Private School, the Fire Department, Pizza, etc. And yes, the game is designed with the purpose of creating these stories, but this particular story is in no way a pre-existing part of the game, any more than the Mona Lisa is a pre-existing part of a bunch of paints and a canvas, or a boat sculpture is a part of a huge pile of K’nex.

    The problem here is that The Sims isn’t a *game*. It’s a toy, just like Legos or K’nex or clay.

    I’m not trying to drag this into a discussion of the difference between a game and play, and what exactly makes something a game, and how electronic something has to be to be a video game, but it seems worthwhile to point it out.

    I tend to agree that there’s only a quantitative difference between the interactivity of paintings and the interactivity of games currently, but honestly, I’m not even sure that if we produced an excellent example of something that is artistically interactive, it would be qualitatively different.

    Jonathan Blow (the guy behind Braid) was crystal clear that he had something in mind for the game to be “about”, but he would never go so far as to say that that was what the game itself was about in an objective sense. Disregarding his reputation in a lot of the corridors of the gaming community as an insufferable auteur, he had an interesting point: If you interpret the game as being “about” something else, who am I to say that you’re incorrect? If that’s what you take away from it, you’re welcome to be edified in any way you choose.

    This sounds fairly artistically interactive to me. Sure, the content of the game, in a sense, is immutable, but the meaning is fluid (provided you don’t buy too strongly into the importance of authorial intent). This seems pretty clear with a game like Braid, that’s meant to be “interpreted”, but how is it necessarily different with something like Dragon Age? Sure, it’s less open to interpretation, but you’d be hard pressed to say it’s not open to interpretation at all.

  7. To state that games isn’t art. Is hard for me to understand. Because of the progress game development goes through. Example is, for a movie, you go through lots of drawings, storyboards, static art peaces and such. The same goes for the gaming development.

    To make a game, you will have to make some static art, buildings, characters, models and so forward. That i pushes the “forward” button to make my character to move. Doesn’t manipulate the design/art itself. It will only present it to me, in other ways. Different views so to speak. So i would say as a conclusion. That game designs, are art itself.

    The debate goes for, if i have “translated the post correctly”. That an static media, such as painting and sculptures is art. But a dynamic/interactive environment, such as World of Warcraft ain’t. I would like to disagree on that fact. Since the player never alters the design itself. But only changes the view of that “static” art.

  8. Hey Daniel,

    Thanks for your comment – I don’t think you have translated the post correctly. I agree that videogames are, or at least can be, art. My argument is that videogames are not a different kind of art. As you say, when you design a game you include some (perhaps a lot) of “static art,” and playing the game presents different combinations of that art in various ways (you get different views of the art, as it were) – but you, the player, do not become an artist by virtue of playing the game. The artist of a videogame is the game designer, or the design team – not the game designer/design team + player.

    To the earlier posts about emergent gameplay – those are fair points, and I suppose we can extrapolate forward from emergent gameplay to emergent art, though I’m not sure anybody’s actually created such a game. I think William makes a good point that even the emergent gameplay we have is perhaps often better classified as video toys than videogames. But I’ll concede the conceptual possibility, certainly.

    Re: Braid … that actually doesn’t sound artistically interactive to me, or at any rate it doesn’t sound more artistically interactive than any other medium. I can interpret a piece of sculpture however I choose as well, and who can tell me I’m wrong? Yet, like a game, the “content” of the sculpture is immutable. What Blow is talking about is the level of interactivity inherent in all art of all kinds.

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