Games, the Newest Art Form

Hello everyone! Before I dive into today’s very big topic, I wanted to take a minute to introduce myself. My name is Teale Fristoe. I’m a game designer and the guy who runs Nothing Sacred Games. I’m extremely excited to be able to spend so much of my time and energy in creating and playing games, and I hope that you will find both pleasure and curiosity in my creations. For more information about the studio and website, check out the about page.

This blog is going to serve two purposes. The first is to keep people up to date with what I’m working on. My hope is to have a lot of interaction with my audience, because feedback is the best way to make great stuff that people love! So, if you ever have thoughts on the games I’m working on or topics I write about, positive or negative, definitely let me know.

The other purpose of the blog is to give me an outlet for the ideas I’m thinking about. Often times, this will tie closely with the games that I’m working on, but the field of games is so big and new that there’s a lot to discuss outside of the projects I’m working on. Today’s post is going to be one of those big picture posts, on a very large topic indeed: games as art. There’s a lot to discuss, so I’ll get right to it!

Most of you are probably familiar with Roger Ebert’s famous denouncement of games as art. I’m not going to worry too much about it. In fact, I’m just going to say that games are art, in the tradition of Scott McCloud in Understanding Comics. In a generation, when most people have had meaningful experiences with games, when almost everyone will be able to remember a time when a game changed the way he or she perceives the world, when everyone as old as Ebert is dead, the question won’t even be asked. Of course games are art. Why wouldn’t they be? You may experience them in a different way from traditional arts, but to say they cannot be art shows a serious lack of imagination.

Alright, with that out of the way, we can get to what’s really interesting about the topic of games and art: why did it take so long for people to realize games have the potential to be art? I know the title of this post is that games are the newest art form, but when you think about it, games are probably the oldest art form. You might be thinking of classics like chess or better yet go, but what about tag, peek-a-boo, or even fetch? Think about how you interact with babies or animals, or how they interact with each other. It is almost always some form of play. If you ask someone like Raph Koster, who wrote A Theory of Fun, play is an essential part of growing up, because it gives us a safe environment for taking risks and learning important life skills. It seems like play is baked into the mammalian brain, so even though it’s arguable that there are older forms of art, such as storytelling, it’s uncontroversial to say that games are an essential part of who we are.

Flash forward to 2012 and we now see many indications that games are a big deal. Globally, video game sales are greater than movie and music sales. Game studios of all sizes and types exist today, presenting their work as art, and critics also treat them as such. Schools around the world are scrambling to start game programs, such as those at UC Santa Cruz. What took so long for people to start noticing?

For one thing, while games in general are extremely ancient, digital games are very young. What is generally considered the first digital game, Spacewar!, was developed at MIT in 1962. That’s only 50 years ago. That may sound like a long time, but by that point films and television were already commonplace, well on their way to becoming widely accepted as art.

But why did it take digital games to change perceptions about games in general? I believe there are a number of reasons. First, the barrier to entry for digital games is significantly lower than many other games. Second, digital games are much easier to replicate and distribute, especially with modern communication systems. Thirdly, the authors of games became more prominent, and it became easier to create games. And finally, as games became more common, a literacy of games has begun to develop with allows people to understand games more deeply, as well as communicate more with less work.

Barrier to Entry

So, the first thing that digital games have over non-digital games is how challenging it can be to learn and play non-digital games. Almost all non-digital games require multiple people, making the barrier to entry higher. Non-digital games require that someone knows the rules and can accurately enact them, while a computer handles most of the rules for digital games. This is especially problematic because it means that a person must dedicate many resources to learning a new game before being able to play it, the satisfying part of the experience. While none of these problems are insurmountable, they mean that it is much more difficult to learn new games, more timely to play games, and therefore that fewer games can be experienced by the average person.

Distribution

Another major advantage for digital games is how easy it is to distribute them. Digital games can be easily copied by their very nature, and the modern internet infrastructure makes it frustratingly simple (from the perspective of large game companies) to transfer games from one place to another. Non-digital games, by contrast, often have many pieces which must be constructed individually and physically transported. Even games that do not require a lot of equipment (such as hide and seek) require that someone knows the rules, which has traditionally meant that one person must teach another, a very lengthy process.

Some might argue that a game like Train, a non-digital game by game designer Brenda Brathwaite, shows that distribution isn’t an issue. Train is a one of a kind game–there is only one copy in the world, and only one planned. Still, it has achieved a high level of success, is well known, and is often lauded as art. This may be true, but I don’t believe that a game like Train would have been possible before the widespread adoption and understanding of games as a backdrop. The rise of publications and conferences around games has allowed it to become widely known, even though few people have actually played it. It is digital games, easily copied and distributed, that gave gamers a common culture which allowed for the creation of these communities.

Authorship

Who invented chess? How about go? What about soccer or golf? These aren’t really fair questions, because the answer is no one did. These games evolved over time, with contributions by countless players tweaking the rules to make them better over time. For much of human history, games were all like this. Without authorial intent, how can something be art?

Honestly, many of the classic non-digital games, such as Monopoly, did have single inventors, but very few know who they are (Elizabeth Magie for those keeping track). There just wasn’t a culture of authorship, and therefore there wasn’t a voice to most games. They just were.

Digital games have changed that. The earliest games were created by individuals who credited themselves. While most commercial games are made by large teams, at least those team members get their names in the credits. Additionally, in today’s game industry, it is very possible to create successful games as an individual or small team. With people creating these artifacts, they now have visions behind them, and therefore meaning and significance.

Another factor in authorship comes from the potential for anyone to create games. So many young people today have been touched by games, they want to take a shot at creating meaningful experiences for others. Those new school programs I mentioned often cater to these people, and a whole literature on how to make games is emerging. For those interested in learning more about game design, I would recommend Tracy Fullerton’s Game Design Workshop and especially Jesse Schell’s The Art of Game Design.

Literacy

In the past, I taught middle school students how to program using an X-Box controller. I also had the opportunity to teach teachers. It’s amazing to see the difference between how these groups of people approach the controller. Even the students without experience are eager to pick it up and play with it, while the teachers are timid and hesitant. Part of it might come from a more adventurous and curious attitude in general on the part of the children, but a lot of it comes from a basic understanding of how controllers work. When I asked them which button meant “ok”, they told me the green one. When I asked which meant “cancel” or “back”, they said the red one. It didn’t matter which game they were playing… this is standard. It may not seem like a lot, but it really is. Previously, you had to learn a new mapping for each game, but now you know it for every game moving forward.

Perhaps more significantly, almost everyone knows the layout of the first level of Super Mario Bros. How do I know this? Because Nintendo reuses the layout in other games, such as Super Smash Bros. Similarly, the game Braid has many similarities to classic Mario games to both simplify the learning process as well as call attention to the central mechanics that make it unique. (Braid is an exceptionally good game you should play if you haven’t already.) This is the equivalent of an author using an allusion in a novel, calling back to a classic he or she knows every reader will recognize. That packs a lot more meaning for much less work than trying to create the feeling or ideas independent of the allusion.

Film has had about a hundred years to build up the literacy of its audience. Literature has had hundreds of years. Song, dance, and theater have had thousands. Games, on the other hand, have had very little time. The common language of games is only just emerging, and many people are still very ignorant about it. However, as more and more people play more and more games, that literacy is definitely forming, and as it does, it means every game has the potential to contain that much more meaning.

To make a long story short, digital games are much faster to create, learn, play, and distribute than traditional non-digital games. This faster feedback loop means that there are more games out there, and people are able to experience more of them. The net result is that games of all types are becoming more sophisticated, beautiful, and meaningful.

Games have been around for a long time, even though they’ve only recently begun to earn the respect as art pieces they deserve. While some people are still a little slow to acknowledge that times are changing, thankfully some people are taking notice, and not just because games make a lot of money. It’s a very exciting time to be involved in games, and I’m looking forward to sharing with you my thoughts on the emerging medium as well as my trials and tribulations as I try to build my own game studio!

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8 Comments

  1. Yabdar Ashollahian

     /  March 16, 2012

    Read this on the bbc this morning. Thought this was a pretty fitting article for your post!

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-17373879

    Reply
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