Thursday, October 09, 2008

Meaningful Play, Day One: Art without Beauty

The Meaningful Play conference promised to present a somewhat different paradigm from the instrumentalism and behaviorism that generally dominates the philosophy of the "serious games" movement. Nonetheless, it featured a number of familiar presenters from the circuit of events devoted to games to teach, train, raise consciousness, or facilitate personal, social, or political change. Like other conferences about games in "serious" genres, there were some of the same schisms between industry and academia and between institutional and indie content-creators, but perhaps the most interesting aspect of the conference was the way that most talks avoided the standard trade show-and-tell dynamic in which presenters merely showcase the bells and whistles in their own digital products and trumpet success in the name of an assumed social utility.

At this conference, even opening keynote speaker Richard Hilleman of Electronic Arts, who devoted much of his talk to describing corporate training exercises, was willing to admit during the question and answer period that the company's current flagship commercial product, Spore, had failed to prevent the problems created by bundling DRM software in with the game. Apparently he felt that he and others should take "personal responsibility" for their short-sightedness. Like many other speakers at the conference, Hilleman also legitimated the play practices around so-called "casual games" and pointed out that 1.5 million women between thirty and forty were playing Pogo games for an average of twenty hours a week.

SIGGRAPH Sandbox organizer Drew Davidson of the Carnegie Mellon Entertainment Technology Center followed up with an extended demo of World of Goo from 2DBoy and described how some in the independent games movement were also using brand-building strategies that include a recent partnership with Target to market hipster t-shirts that come with software. As someone always interested in games that encourage parents to "play with their children," I liked what I saw of the game and its use of a playfully consistent although undidactically nonrepresentative physics. (Eager consumers can check out Tower of Goo right now.)

In the next session, many at the conference were talking about the paper of Miguel Sicart, whose book on ethics and videogame play will be out soon from the MIT Press. Sicart describes himself as an Aristotelian, an information ethicist, and a (post)phenomenologist, so I'm looking forward to reading the book as soon as it is in press.

Unfortunately, as someone who writes about government-funded games, I felt required to attend the presentation by WILL Interactive, which was largely a demo of interactive video products with relatively simple decision trees that didn't take much advantage of the computer as a means for generating engaging and interactive simulations or even for processing any complex sets of data. The unintentional humor created by the terrible acting in Gator Six in what should have been a serious situation involving the disposition of the corpse of a soldier in a military unit was certainly regrettable, and the frequent comparisons of Gator Six to America’s Army seemed to assume that members of the audience wouldn't be familiar with the much more sophisticated game mechanic of AA and would therefore be unlikely to question the corporate promoter's claim of parity. Speaker David Versaw also showed a barfight sequence of The Home Game, which was funded by the NFL to promote better off-field player conduct, and Hate Comes Home, a multi-role interactive teen melodrama funded by the Anti-Defamation League that centers around inter-racial conflict and a shooting at a school homecoming dance. Perhaps the one interesting aspect of Versaw's presentation was his argument that wrong choices were important for players to make so that they could explore things that "didn't really happen" and therefore make the wrong choice in their virtual lives rather than their actual ones. In the question and answer session he also talked about a Health and Human Services project on research and researchers for following researchers and checking facts and an institutional practices game for hospitals called Anatomy of Care.

In many ways Versaw's presentation was an appropriate prelude to this slide in Ian Bogost's talk that illustrates the range of topics covered by serious games that are effectively emptied of any signification for the players who attempt to engage with the game. Instead, Bogost argues in "The Unknown Possibilities of Existence," which takes its title from a Star Trek episode called "All Good Things" that serious games should be paying more attention to the importance of achieving the goals of art.

Bogost opened his talk with his three main criticisms of the serious games movement, with which I would certainly concur:

1) the very name of the discipline turns "entertainment" and "seriousness" into opposed terms in a simple binary
2) the best-funded and most frequently profiled products in the field represent the goals of institutions and the uses of officialdom for PR purposes
3) the drive toward external standards and predictable measurement circumvents the possibility of play

As an alternative he suggested that it would be useful to define the term "Artgame," even if it meant "marrying" what may already be the two "most disputed terms in academia." He cautioned that too often artgames -- much like actual art -- pander to conceptualism or populism. Citing Joanna Drucker's book Sweet Dreams, he asserted that that art too frequently aims to be easily consumed and that artgames often follow this same pattern. Speaking as a theorist, Bogost observed that a "unified field theories of art impossible and yet we tried to do it in game studies" while the discipline was engrossed with the formalism of a few years ago. Bogost noted that critics "gave up on trying to define what a game is and isn’t" but didn't say why they gave up on the endeavor.

At this point he moved into the heart of his talk, which he described as between analysis and "manifesto." He began by affirming that he was "not a formalist." Although he would be asking "whether or not a game is art," he said his method focused on interpreting signals rather than plotting works against a rigid matrix.

Bogost listed the following possible indicators of an artgame:

Introspection – this category examines intention, interpretation, and player experience. As the critic of literature, in which he was trained, he also reminded his audience about avoiding the intentional fallacy.
Authorship – this category focuses on the "willing attribution of authorship," which Bogost described as a "necessity with these kinds of games," given the "nameless anonymity of corporate creation." Such games convey a particular truth regardless of sales potential or the share of the audience and are not merely optimized for the market.
Procedural Rhetoric – this category reminds readers of Bogost's now-canonical work in Persuasive Games on how an argument can be made by means of a computer model, which makes a claim about how something works by modeling its processes, although this notion of rhetoric may be larger than mere persuasion and includes "expression" and "identification." In asserting this, Bogost argued that "game art" that relied on performance, such as Velvet-Strike, should be distinguished from the process-intensity of genuine artgames. (Since I will be presenting on a panel with those who have created a number of such game art pieces about Iraq at the CAA Conference, including Joseph DeLappe and Wafaa Bilal, I was particularly interested in this part of Bogost's argument.)
Historicity – this category insists of the importance of historical situatedness, so that a work is presented as self-aware in the context of both ludic traditions and broader artistic traditions, which can be literary, painterly, or musical. Such work is aware of and oriented toward influences, so that creators may willingly steep in the "anxiety of influence" described by Harold Bloom.

Then Bogost presented a number of possible test cases including strong art games, such as Jason Rohrer's Passage, Jonathan Blow's Braid, Shadow of the Colossus, and Bill Viola and Tracy Fullerton's The Night Journey. He frequently paired games to argue, for example, that Go was less of an artgame than Monopoly, despite its appealing minimalist aesthetics. In another instance, he said that World Court Tennis deserved more attention as an artgame than real tennis itself. He was also interested in considering examples of interactive fiction as potential artgames, although he often felt that they were not strong contenders.

In concluding, he produced a list of "what artgames are not (necessarily)" and dismissed the following conventional markers of "art":
Beauty – he cautioned against romanticizing simplicity and emergence
Fine Art – he warned against fetishizing galleries and exhibitions
Independence – he insisted that an artgame could be commercial, particularly as auteurs develop in the field, such as BioShock's Ken Levine. He insisted that World of Goo, although independently produced, could not be considered an artgame.
Visual Aesthetics
Mechanical Innovation – he removed "innovation in mechanics" as a necessary condition and suggested that experimental games workshops devoted to new ways of play were not necessarily getting at "unresolved problems" involving our "short, arbitrary, unfair moment of life on earth."

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