Letters to the editor
- Marian Griffith
Games as art
- Raph Koster
Problems with mudlists
- Adam Wozniak
- Nick Howe
Dynamic Room Descriptions
- Eli Stevens
Mud, a thing of the past?
- Matt Steed
Enter your email to be informed when this site is updated.
Games as art
by Raph Koster
Recently I gave a talk at the Austin Museum of Art, supposedly on the
topic of computer games as art. My friend Bruce Sterling came to the talk, and chatting beforehand urged me to
tip over some applecarts, challenge preconceived notions, etc etc, all in that particularly Bruceian way
he has--I felt vaguely disappointed that the talk ended up not really hitting on anything particularly
controversial. It was hard to go there when I had to explain what an online world was in the first place. I didn't really get to touch on the real issues of computer games as art,
because the talk turned out to be too short a time period for the depth I wanted to go into,
but I promised myself
that I would write an essay on it. I've found a surprisingly large number of players of games who prefer
not to see game design as an artistic medium. But I don't see any way in which we can fail to consider it as one.
Austin Museum of Art.
To my mind, all arts are based around communicating something. They use a particular medium to communicate
within the constraints of that medium, and often what is communicated is in fact thoughts about
the medium itself (in other words, a formalist approach to arts--much modern art falls in this category).
The medium shapes the nature of the message, of course, but the message can be representational,
impressionistic, narrative, emotional, intellectual, or whatever else. Some art forms are solo, and some
are collaborative (and they can all be made collaborative to an extent, I believe). And some media are
actually the result of the collaboration of specialists in many different media, working together to
present a work that is incomplete without the use of multiple media within it. Film is one such medium.
And video games are another.
The video game requires the collaboration of a number of disciplines, some of them more technical than
others. Yet to say that it is less of an art because it requires the engineering discipline of programming
code is to also denigrate something like film, which has an enormously high level of technical competence
required. (It's also to ignore the level of technical competence required for things like learning color theory or mixing paints,
or constructing sentences or paragraphs, but that's another story).
One of the commonest points I hear about why video games are not an art form is that they are just for fun.
They are just entertainment. But most music is also just entertainment,
and most novels are read just for fun, and most movies are mere escapism, and yes, even most pretty
pictures are just pretty pictures. The fact that most games are merely entertainment does not mean that this is all they are doomed to be.
Mere entertainment becomes art when the communicative element in the work is either novel or exceptionally
well done. It really is that simple. It has the power to alter how people perceive the world around them.
And it's hard to imagine a medium more powerful in that regard than video games, where you are presented
with interactivity and a virtual world that reacts to your choices. This is a medium with amazing potential,
though I must admit that it suffers on the abstract level in a way that simpler media do not (film has
many of the same issues though).
Right now, the vast majority of games don't really have anything to say. Some do, though. It's worth wondering, I think, why so many of the games and game designers that are considered legends are those with
something to say. Nobody can deny that there is a clear artistic vision behind the work of say, Will Wright,
Shigeru Miyamoto, Sid Meier, Peter Molyneux, or Richard Garriott. And it's not just about
entertainment. There are subtexts and implicit messages, and sometimes overt preaching, in these games.
And yes, sometimes they might be artistic failures as a result. On the other hand, notice how much scorn
gets heaped on games that are perceived as mere clones or knockoffs. The public already discusses and
treats games as an art form, and uses the same standards of judgment for them as they do for films or
novels or any other artistic medium. They just aren't used to considering them to be art.
The challenge for game designers, of course, is whether to decide to pursue the possibilities of the
medium. I'm not worried about the relative lack of this right now--the medium is still very much in its
infancy. One can hope that it can learn from the lessons of other artistic disciplines, but even if it
doesn't, we're still basically in the Stone Age as far as designing interactive experiences goes. And the
state of the art is not going to improve unless we have a decent means of evaluating what it is. Right now,
many game developers themselves do not feel that video games are an art form, I'm sure, even though folks like
Chris Crawford have been pushing this perspective for many years now.
Basically, video games aren't going to improve as art and fulfill their potential until more people
recognize that they are art, and are willing to discuss them as art. And that means that eventually
we must gain a critique of the form.
Game design is an art and a craft, and like all arts and crafts, it has techniques and approaches, and that implies that it can support a criticism; said criticism exists though it is not very sophisticated. Mud design is also an art and a craft, and it also has techniques and approaches, but there is no criticism, no self-evaluation, no standards defined, no study of what has gone before. And without self-critique, it cannot improve except in fits and starts. If this genre is to evolve into more than game design, which I firmly believe it has already begun to do, then it will have to support at least the critical apparatus of game design, and preferably the critical apparatus of many disciplines that most people do not bother to link: server design, and writing, and hypertextual theory, and art (for graphics are coming and will dominate, it's not worth fighting over), and psychology and sociology... Game designers today generally do not know even the short history of computer game design; we must as a community educate ourselves and each other if we want the community and its art and craft to grow.
I wrote the above quote maybe four years ago. Maybe five. I don't know. It's been a while. Since then, I
have seen exactly two websites tackle the tough job of reviewing muds: the long-standing
Mud Connector and the welcome new arrival Game Commandos. A lot of the reviews are fairly sycophantic affairs written
by players of the mud in question that wish to boost the visibility and reputation of their favorite
cyberspace. But it's a hell of a lot better than nothing. It is perhaps too much to expect that the
reviews rise to the level of critique, rather than being merely largely unhelpful reviews.
To make clear the distinction: a review assesses the merits of something on a fairly simple level:
good, bad, like dislike. A critique, however, goes deeper to analyze the item, to suggest its place
in context with other things of its type, to elucidate relationships, uncover archetypes, assess impact
on genres, judge how influential something may be. In the case of a game, a review boils down to just,
"is it fun?" whereas a critique must consider things like "is it ambitious? is it important? is it
derivative? is it innovative?" Reviews don't give you credit for trying something new and daring that falls flat on its face. Critiques do.
In addition, my personal belief is that reviews do diddly to advance the state of the art. They just
help someone decide whether to buy a game. Developers may as well skip the reviews, honestly. They are frequently hurtful, occasionally ego-boosting, and they can affect sales. They may, sometimes, help the developer
learn what must be done differently in their next venture, yes. But they are not written for the
developer. They are written for the buyer. Critiques, on the other hand, are useful to the author as
well as to the reader, they are useful to the developer as well as to the player, and they are, if
well-done, useful to the industry and useful to the state of the art.
While I was at GDC this year, I attended a panel on the relationship between developers and the press.
It was moderated by Bernie Yee, who is an avid player of Ultima Online, writes a periodic column
on Ultima Online and other online games, and who as of recently, works in the online games industry at Sony Online Entertainment. During
the panel, I sat huddled in the back, because I knew that much of the discussion was going to center
around the reviews, awards, and raspberries given to Ultima Online upon its ship (And rest assured, that is not
what I want to talk about!). During said panel, the point Bernie stressed was that there is a
difference between a review and formal critique, and that the latter is perhaps non-existent in the
industry today. The panel, which consisted of notable editors from major gaming magazines and notable
developers such as Doug Church, largely agreed with him on that point. And I agree as well.
The reason why it prompts me to write, however, is because at least for the larger game industry,
outside of online, there is enough of a history now and enough press and enough practitioners for there
to emerge a shared vocabulary of sorts, with which certain writers with a broad enough perspective
and sense of history can indeed venture towards the realm of critique, and thus have a chance to advance
the field. It's not common, but it does happen. And those writers who have this perspective often
become columnists and editors, and generally speaking, are popular fixtures in their various media.
Steve Bauman of Computer Games Online/Strategy Plus described the role of the gaming press to me after that
panel as being largely like Car and Driver magazine. Or in another comparison, it's like TV
Guide. It's not truly critique, but there are gestures towards it, and someday perhaps we will see
the emergence of a Cineaste for the gaming crowd. I don't doubt that plenty of the stalwart
journalists working in the gaming press today eagerly await such a day as much as developers do.
So if we all agree on that point, what am I writing about? Well, about the fact that online gaming,
despite a history that is as long as that of standalone video gaming, is largely lacking
in said shared vocabulary in mainstream press. And as a result, even the slightest shading of critique is pretty much missing from mainstream coverage of online games. And this is all the more ironic because
there's a much higher level of awareness of design patterns and issues among mud designers than
there is among most commercial computer game designers.
This is the point at which cynics exclaim, "Ah, he's going to complain about Ultima Online reviews!" But you see,
I am not. There's basically no reason to quarrel with a review's conclusions. Best to just take them
all as being right, and don't try to reconcile the contradictions. Rather, the point I'd like to
make is that until there is such a shared vocabulary, until there is a greater understanding of persistent
world games, all the games released are being done a disservice simply because the reviews aren't necessarily going to focus on anything that matters. And as a case in point, I've been reading a lot
of reviews of EverQuest recently, and couldn't help
but notice that the positive reviews generally completely failed to single out the features of that game
that to my mind are truly outstanding; and likewise, the negative parts tended not to single out the
things I consider weak spots in the design.
Obviously, given that Ever Quest and Ultima Online are in competition, I shouldn't (and won't) go into any detail on this
opinion of mine. It'd be bound to simply be taken the wrong way, as bashing of a competitor. Well, I've got
friends over there at Verant, and have no intention of bashing their product. It's a good game, and enough said. Instead, here's the things that I would want to see in a review of online games, speaking as a longtime player of them.
How many game mechanics are there?
Online games are not designed to be played for a month until completion. They are places to live in, not
games to play. Yet most reviews pay vanishingly little attention to this issue. What's more, the magic is
not in how many races, classes, skills, spells, miles of map, or purple foozles the game offers. It is
in how many different game mechanics it has. It does me no good to know that I can play a merchant
with fifteen merchant classes if they all have the same mechanics. It does me no good to know that there
are 1500 spells if 1400 of them are the first 100 with new graphics. If there's only one path to advancement, only one goal to the game, then the review must touch on that. Successful online games must offer more than one to sustain interest over a long term. All the currently operating commercial online Role Playing Games have this. It is why they are still operating, and a great thing to cover in a
review would be what these features are.
How easy is it to meet, make, stay in touch with, and remain friends?
In final analysis, the game part of an online game, which I covered in the above point, is still
going to pale. A very important question is how much the game supports community building. There are
countless tactics to do this, and it's nice to see the press fasten on the interesting system that
the upcoming Asheron's Call uses (and yes, those guys are friends of mine too, and I'm not going
to bash them either--just assume all of us working in this field know each other, OK?) but that system
is not the only thing going on in that game, and there are countless factors in other games that serve
much the same purpose yet rarely get discussed. The key here is not just examining the means of communication
provided with the game, but to look at the social structures provided by the game, the flexibility the
code offers for creating new ones, and the forms these structures can take (political? economic?
military? feudal? communal?).
How much is recycled from other designs?
This matters a lot. It's important because it can be a good thing. It's all too easy to fall into the
trap of thinking that old systems are bad ones (and many who criticize Ultima Online might argue quite plausibly
that this is a trap I myself have fallen into). It's also important because right now much of the online game playing community is familiar with the offerings of the past, and know what they liked and did not
like. Familiar features, or better yet (to get back to the critique thing) features which are emerging as
de rigueur, common consensus basic features that should be present in online gameplay, are something
very very worth talking about. One of my greatest pleasures has been seeing certain features present in
Ultima Online become these kinds of "standard features" in other games. It helps define, and thus advance, the state
of the art. Likewise, we knew perfectly well that Ultima Online would get criticized for its departure from certain
"standard ways of doing things in online games" such as Player Killer switches, avoidance of a class system, etc; but
sometimes you can only extend the boundaries of the art by reacting against what is considered to be the
In all of the above, I've barely touched on one other, even more controversial, aspect of regarding
games as art, and that is the responsibility of the artist. Recently at the E3 convention someone in
the press asked Warren Spector what he thought of the trend of dumbing down games to make them accessible
to a wider market. Now, Warren's a pretty opinionated and blunt guy (he's also a pretty good guitar player)
and his answer was, "I don't want to make games for stupid people." At the same time, Richard Garriott
was demonstrating Ultima IX: Ascension, a game clearly intended in part to make the narrative Role Playing Game
experience more accessible and immersive. Either way, each of them is living up to the artistic
responsibility towards themselves: the responsibility to pursue their vision (and lucky them, they are
at points in their careers where they are free to do so!).
These are what we call "artistic differences." They're common, and at some level, the audience will have
to go where the audience wills. One designer might end up with a small, elite audience, but know that he
is designing to the standards he sets and to his own satisfaction. Another might believe, as I do, that
if art is communicative, then communicating only to an elite is a self-imposed limitation on your audience.
(While I was in graduate school, I was crushed when my thesis advisor told me that she didn't think that
my poetry was the sort that could cross over to wider audiences, probably because it was too densely
allusive and too densely packed). And designers may choose to take different artistic tacks with different
projects. Over the last year, there's been a lot of verbiage thrown around about how Ascension
was doomed to be a failure--and it all boiled down to the audience stating that the designer had a
responsibility to them to keep to the same type of expression. But with this medium, the only responsibility
the artist has to the audience is that the game be an enjoyable experience.
This is not something the audience likes to hear, by the way. "Hey, you don't like the way this game is? Go pick up another one off the shelf." Then again, I didn't like it when Suzanne Vega added trip-hop into her folk music, and I didn't like it when the TV show Homicide dropped some of the camera work they had
used in their early episodes in favor of a tamer, less jarring style. I complained a lot about the
Suzanne Vega thing on a folk music board I participated in, in fact, and got slapped back by a wiser
head than I who basically said, "I'm happy to just follow this artist's vision wherever they happen
to go." And isn't that why we seek out particular people's songs, movies, paintings--or games?
There's another potential type of responsibility that merits much discussion. And that is the artists'
responsibility to society at large. This is not an easy subject. Games are getting a lot of attention, as I
write this, for their supposed influence. I am not going to say much on this subject, except to note that
all artistic media have influence. And free will also has a say in what people say and do. Yes, games
right now sure do seem to have a very narrow palette of expression. But let them grow. Don't do something
stupid like the Comics Code, which stunted the development of the comics medium severely for decades
(the artistic gap between the EC Comics of the fifties and Art Spiegelman's Maus is not that
huge--the time gap that resulted from the imposition of the Comics Code arguably set the medium back by
thirty years). Not all artists and critics agree that art has a social responsibility. If there was
such agreement, there wouldn't be the debates about the ethics of locking up
Ezra Pound, about the
validity of propagandistic art, about whether one should respect artists who were scoundrels and scum
in their private lives. It's not surprising that we wonder whether games or TV or movies have a social
responsibility--once upon a time we asked the same thing about poetry. Nobody really ever agreed on an answer.
(For what it's worth, my answer is "yes, but." Make of that what you will.)
June 1999 Imaginary Realities, the magazine of your mind.
© Copyright Information