Friday, October 10, 2014

Not just code - you can't prove games *aren't* art

at 6:00 PM
First let me assuage your fears that the following has anything to do with defining "art" or delving into whether games are "real art" - it doesn't. We're just going to assume that anything can be art ever because it can and who cares anyway. This is more on the subject of what is a medium and the creator/audience relationship (regardless of whether the providence is "art"). Also it's a protracted response to an 18-month old article on a politics site so whatever that means.

So it starts here:

Don't worry, it's short and there's a historical fact or two to learn. To summarize Leibovitz's argument, video games aren't art because they are code and code can be functionally duplicated without actual duplication. Essentially that the experience created by a video game is not one-to-one with the process of creation. 

While I could break that down on about a million levels, what I find downright captivating is the writer's complete ignorance to the distinction between engine and content. For one thing, the music, imagery, and script (story) that go into a game are produced the exact same way as any other artwork, they are not, like, made of code. Yes they are all stored electronically, but duplicating the sprite for Pac-Man is as plagiaristic as copying an .mp3 file and claiming it as your own work. 

Still, let's bring the argument to a more abstract level, as it could be said that the drawings and songs and dialogue are incidental. If we break a game down into component parts we can see that the Leibovitz's approach only applies to half of a work. Let's call the first component a rule set, what might also be designated mechanics or an engine. The rule set governs what elements can be present in the game - inputs, graphics, sounds, avatars, static or autonomous feedback, etc. - and how such things respond and interact. The second formative component is content, the actual realization of the rule set. Content includes the aesthetics mentioned in the previous paragraph and beyond that the actual compositional elements, from levels to characters to actions, all heavily dependent on what the rule set is. Typically it's stuff that falls under a "design" umbrella, be it art design, stage design, or whatever.

Let's look at the example from the article, Pac-Man. While enumerating the entire rule set isn't feasible in this format (that would amount to rewriting the game), we can list a few basic surface level concepts. Pac-Man and four ghosts are the graphically represented characters on the screen. Each character can face in one of the four cardinal directions. When a character is facing in a direction, they move at a constant speed. If the player moves the joystick in one of the cardinal directions, Pac-Man turns to face in that direction. Walls are a graphically represented element on screen. Walls do not move. When Pac-Man is facing against a wall and directly adjacent to it, he stops moving. You get the idea. This part of the game is indeed entirely embedded in code - code being what Leibovitz describes as an instructional set for a processor.

The second part of Pac-Man is the content, the constructs built upon these rules. The graphical representation of Pac-Man is a yellow Pac-Man-looking guy. Walls are blue lines. Most importantly, walls, pellets, and fruit are laid out in corridor mazes of fixed definition. These layouts, visuals, and sounds are immutable elements of the Pac-Man experience; Level 1 always has the same layout, and that layout is not generated by the processor. I have no idea how Pac-Man itself is written, but likely the graphics are stored as image files originally produced by hand in a drawing program and the layouts are stored as some kind of numerical coordinate databases, also generated by hand (or through a graphical editor).

The content stored in those files, though interpreted by code to present an interactive representation, is originally manually created, and a game without those same elements - the same level design - is not the same game. Not anymore so than basketball would be basketball if played with a raw turkey in the snow with 100 points awarded for each basket. Are we to understand that every film directed by John Carpenter and starring Kurt Russell is the same? Near equally incredible, sure, but not the same movie.

Compare it to the work of a composer: a note can be represented on the page by its name, by a black dot on a staff, or by a literal representation of the instrument (e.g. tablature), yet a performer (human or electronic) will always play it the same regardless. It's the choice and arrangement of the notes, not their representation, that constitutes composition. No one would argue that "Moonlight" is a different piece written as a guitar tab than on a staff, nor would they argue that it is not unique because of that multiplicity of documentation. Why? Because the sheets are just a set of instructions that explicate to a human how to reproduce a series of sounds. As an .mp3 file is a set of instructions that explicate to a machine how to reproduce a series of sounds. As code is a set of instructions that explicate to a machine how to reproduce a series of sounds, images, and interactions. Cool notes don't make good songs; cool arrangements of notes do. The same goes for games.

Sadly we are living in an age where the primary gaming audience doesn't realize that level design actually exists. See Leibovitz's invocation of Angry Bird - to him that game is expressly composed of flicking a finger and watching a bird eat pigs (or w/e happens in that game). Then again, most film audiences don't realize the difference between explosions and themes, so it's not like gaming is much worse off.

What's interesting in the case of code and games is the utterly abstract nature of the output. Sheet music is limited to producing music. A filmstrip is constricted to projecting a sequence of images. Yet the code of a game can go further to create responses, physics, random events, even intelligences - all those aforementioned elements of a rule set. Thus it's ultimately ironic that Leibovitz in his piece indicts games as constrained by computers, as if computers are mystical black boxes that can't be understood. While the technological prerequisite for video gaming is hypothetically troubling, exacting boundaries on the complexity of materials is an arbitrary science. Bring a filmstrip or vinyl recording 500 years in the past and try to explain it. Just as film has a more primitive form in drama and music in song, so does video gaming in... games. Unless you'd like to make a case that the only arts are the senses, expression takes different forms across cultures and accordingly adapts to technology - eternal persistence is a fallacy. 

Hell, forget history. Literature can't even make it across language borders. Leibovitz's example of Finnegan's Wake is self-defeating in its reliance on the grapheme/phoneme associations of the English language. Though it may transcend vocabulary, the work is still inaccessible to the illiterate and non-English-speakers, and needless to say it couldn't be produced by either categories any more deftly than a monkey could write Shakespeare. To that end a video game can be far more universal than a novel. Educational, technological, and cultural boundaries are inherent in, possibly even necessary to, our current art forms. Given that programming education and computers are so readily available in our culture, the point of accessibility and universality is moot unless we reframe the debate as "are video games art in tribal Maori society in 1783?".

Flawed though the article is, picking out the shortcomings set me thinking on the staged procedure of game development. What's interesting about the division of games into a rule set and content is that it results in two individuated creative processes - there's the rule design in which the tools are created, then the actual construction of the player experience. The first person in the process is essentially inventing the medium for the second, as if redefining the notes a composer has to work with or the colors for a painter. A single game is its own medium in which countless authors can experiment and create, each owning it in their own way. Taken thusly, video gaming as a whole becomes a sort of meta-medium in which diverse unique media - game rule sets - are collected under the principle of interactivity, and the creation of those media is itself a medium. Creating a strong rule set that facilitates expression and creativity is itself an artistic triumph, even if that canvas is only available to a select few. Public level creators, simulation games, and even franchise iteration expose the inspirational power a good set of mechanics can have.

The creative interaction between the development of rules and content is reflected in the relationship of the player and the game. Though the element of audience participation has been ingrained in art criticism for over a hundred years, games bring interactivity to the explicit, conscious level. The player takes progression into their own hands and is free to explore the experience in accordance with their own predilections. The degree to which a game facilitates this and the uniqueness of feedback is a discussion unto itself - the well-known subject of "depth" - but the presence of control at all puts the player into a creative role. Thus the chain of agency is completed and you know games become the greatest artistic super-medium ever conceived by mankind etc.

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