Project Obrigado Detour: Should Games Be More?

I’m about to stretch my liberal arts muscles a little bit, so this may be a bit dry and possibly pompous.  Bear with me and I promise to make some kind of lewd comment at the end, possibly followed by a shouty non-sequitur.  Good?  Alright.

This being the internet there is always debate on every topic, and consensus is rarely ever reached.  Further, topics that should be intelligently discussed are degraded by flame wars and troll-baiting.  I don’t think that means anyone should avoid an argument - I’m a lifetime believer in the power of conversational conflict to generate new thoughts.  What follows logically is that gratitude should happen when someone disagrees with you, not resentment and defensiveness.  Why would anyone be upset when presented with the opportunity to think about something?  And since an idea cannot survive without its first principles, I’m descending into the one I believe to be core to my project like Tyrion Lannister into a pile of whores.  Games can and should be more than entertainment without sacrificing their nature, which is art.  This'll be damn long without tackling the problem of gamification and addiction so that'll come later, because I appreciate the danger there.  Lets just say I've had some first-hand experience.  Also, I guess y’all don’t have to wait until the end for the lewdness.

This goes back to the age-old question about whether art exists for its own sake or whether it exists as a tool for another end.  Whether that end is something positive or negative the question remains the same.  I believe, like so many other things, the answer lies somewhere in the middle.  There’s no denying the fact that art can be used as a tool.  Its been used to pose moral questions, force important issues to the consciousness of society, and even to implant beliefs that on the outside appear repellent.  But should it?  I believe so, and further I believe a medium isn’t fully actualized until it is effectively used as such.  Because it’s also a relatively new medium, and because of my job I’m fairly familiar with it, I’ll use the example of television.  It wasn’t so long ago that TV was considered a completely useless pursuit - it was called the boob tube and “Kill Your Television” stickers were considered by some to be the mark of the true intellectual.  Also, television wasn’t “real art”.  But then came Sesame St., Schoolhouse Rock, Mythbusters, and others who were using the medium of television to teach as well as entertain.  In the educational system, finishing third grade with grade level or higher literacy is an important marker in whether or not a child will graduate high school.  In other words, if a child is reading well in third grade their chances of graduating high school increase dramatically.  And one of the biggest contributors to early school literacy?  Sesame St.  Slowly but inevitably people started to recognize television as something more than mindless entertainment, and in the process it has come into its own as a respected artistic medium.  Does that mean it wasn’t art before?  No, television has always been real art.  But once its capacity to inform and spark a sense of wonder was recognized, its power and depth increased.

But let’s think about the art itself for a moment - how exactly does it feel being forced to be useful and inspiring all the time?  In other words, shouldn’t art be able to exist for its own sake?  Beauty doesn’t have to be useful to inspire.  In fact, if utility is the primary focus and beauty - or in the case of games, play - the result is either bad art or no art at all.  I mentioned an article way back in my first blog on Project Obrigado that talked about games that were made to serve as mental health tools, and why they failed.  They failed because they were designed by shrinks with the utility of making someone better the prime focus instead of play.  They weren’t fun, and therefore defeated the purpose they were trying to accomplish.  You can’t twist art around and stuff it into a mold you create for it, you have to let it become what it truly is.  If that is something that only evokes emotion (or entertains), that’s just fine.  Games are art because (to paraphrase Aristotle) they are things that evoke emotion (fun, play, the heroic feeling or whatever) by using a particular medium (hardware and software).  Perhaps we should just leave them as they are.

Shiva the ice summon, right?  Bet those things are cold.  Moving on! Aristotle argues in his Ethics that true virtue lies somewhere in the middle between two extremes.  I happen to agree that finding the truest examples of things is somewhere in this blending, and whether or not you agree with me here depends on that statement.

Games, like any other art, can be taken down the line between emotion and thought to where they are evoking both.  And like any other art, if it goes too far it starts to become bad art (evoking thought more than emotion) and then not art at all.  Its not exact, I don’t think exactly the middle between thought and emotion is where designers should be aiming.  I don’t know where that line is, or even if there’s a line at all.  Like I said, I believe in the blending, and that extends into my views about human nature.  We are a mixture of thoughts and feelings, positives and negatives, material and metaphysical.  So I argue that in all our arts, such as literature and television and even music, this progression is inevitable and happens naturally.  It should be encouraged, not discouraged.

That does not mean that I think games that only entertain are worthless, but I do think games that evoke something beyond entertainment - whether that is thought, learning, a sense of wonder, or better well-being - create a response in us that is more powerful and complex.  Consider, for example, the Sweet Tart.  I frikkin love Sweet Tarts, and those chewy mini Sweet Tarts?  God help me, I have eaten an entire bag of those things in one day.  We’re talking the family sized bags you get from the supermarket here.  They are amazing little morsels of delight and I will never give them up.  But I can’t exactly live on them.  And if I’m really being honest, a plate of black cod with miso, some bok choy and noodles has more value to me than a roll of Sweet Tarts.

Food lust aside, mainly what I would like to say is that good games that are also tools are possible, as long as we let them be art and never forget the importance of play.  Perhaps this is already happening.  The artistry and technology needed to make those games more entertaining is also progressing naturally.  The importance of one doesn’t degrade the necessity of the other.

Right, I did promise random lewdness.  Well, there was the pile of whores up there.  And who doesn’t love a pile of whores?  Especially if there are boy whores because that’s just, you know, thoughtful.  Lip ferret rides for all!!

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Comments

It's not that games aren't art; games most certainly are art. There are games that appeal to abstraction like Flower and games that are more of a story like The Walking Dead. All mediums can teach... But that's not what you're trying to make.
Every medium touches on and can tell extraordinary stories dealing with mental illness. I think video games are the one medium where the depiction of mental illness is felt intrinsically through play. You cannot however make a teaching tool in any medium that helps people deal with mental illness.
In mental illness there is therapy, medication and in extreme circumstances incarceration. All three can be summed up in one way: learn to cope. That's all you really can do. You live with it.

This was really more of a side track into my own thoughts than practically relevant to what I want to do. I think its important to go back to your first principles every so often. I'm going to do a recap soon of all the stuff I've come up with so far, but I'm definitely not trying to create a teaching tool - more like an extra coping tool. The idea was based on some things that help me cope that I think might help others. Not really gonna go into too much detail here, but mental illness is something I have to live with and I've experienced that sometimes therapy and medication aren't enough - and that's when the hospitalization happens (twice). I'm definitely not trying to sell a replacement or speak as a doctor, but as a patient.

I've coped by finding entertainment with a tone that speaks to me. Usually it's as malign and anarchic as I feel. I think all you really can do is create art/entertainment that's genuinely you; that speaks the truth. I think everybody copes in a way through art/entertainment even if they're not mentally ill. Each perspective you could say was a way to cope. Beyond what you know there is no certainty.

To paraphrase a far wiser man than myself, perhaps your thesis could be summed up by saying: "Games are here with music and fun, but if you're not careful, you may learn something before you're done."
Purely educational games are usually seen as tools for children, but they demonstrate something that all educators should bear in mind: it is easier to learn something when the student associates the learning experience itself, as well as the specific lesson, with pleasure.
I know your post only focuses on asking the question of 'how can games be art?', so I'll point out that part of what makes great art great is its ability to hold a mirror up to oneself and reflect back truth. To qualify as art, therefore, one possible mechanism of making a great game is to somehow reveal an unexpected truth to the player about him- or herself. It's a little more difficult to do so with a game like "Super Mario Brothers" where the only real decisions necessary are those involving timing and sheer dexterity, but in games with stories and characters and actual developments involved, the very ending of the game can change based on player decisions. The most obvious example is "Star Wars: Dark Forces II: Jedi Knight", in which the player's actions through the course of the game up to a very specific point dictate how the protagonist either remains true to the Light Side of the Force or falls to the Dark Side (and playing the game through to the end gives two completely different cut-scene endings).
But there are other games with similar possible paths to the end, which may or may not result in anything that a given player would consider 'victory'.

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