Above us, Only Sky

Politics, Philosophy, Science, and Everything Else.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Games are Art

It is my contention that computer games, as they exist today and have for some years now, constitute not merely entertainment or an extension of some long extant art form, but are themselves the vanguard of a wholly new art, or, at the very least, are an entirely new way of conveying the older form of storytelling in a way that is fundamentally more powerful. Art I define as any means by which one human or group seeks to affect or manipulate the mental state of another human or group, or of themselves. An art form is any body of art which has in its tradition found a particularly effective means by which to achieve this goal. Computer games are a new art form because they have found an exploited a particular set of human needs and perceptions in a way that no previous art form has or could. This is possible because computer games allow, in a way that no prior human experience could, a human being to interact with agents that are non-human, whose existence is entirely predicated on their entertainment of the human and who have no ego or needs of their own to take priority away from the human ‘gamer’.
Art is the manipulation of human experience. It cannot be defined more narrowly than that. Manipulation because it must be something deliberately created by a human to affect other human minds. I do not mean manipulation in the pejorative sense that one human being is trying to cause another to believe something deceptively in order to benefit themselves at the expense of the other. It can just as easily be the manipulation of a person towards a true belief- the desire being to cause a person to abandon a false perception (in the eyes of the artist) or adopt a true one. Just as easily this manipulation can have nothing to do with facts or ideas about truth, or ideas at all. Much art exists only on the basis of emotion- purely instrumental music has a great deal of effect on the human mental state, but it does not argue for a point.
Most art does not have anything to do with truth at all. It is all about feeling. Often an artist can create a piece of work experimentally- to see what effect it will have upon herself, or her audience. Often intent is subverted- an attempt to make a serious piece can result in humour, or an attempt to be humours can be sad.
All art is fundamentally based in the nature of the human condition. We cannot appreciate music whose various tones are all above our perceptible range. Nor can we be moved by a story that does not engage us.
We are evolutionarily programmed to feel good when we do something that is good for our genes, and feel bad when we do something that is bad for them, but this programming is based on our evolutionary environment, and is also by necessity a matter of probability. It is always bad for our health to stick our hand in a fire, so this is a evolutionary no-brainer and we have an extreme physical aversion to it. It was, until evolutionarily recently, a very good idea to eat salt and animal fat whenever they were available to us, because their high value relative to scarcity made consuming them in the maximum available quantities a good survival strategy. Now doing so has become the leading cause of premature death in western society- because the environment we live it makes them abundantly available. We do not have an aversion to eating too much of these because until recently, this was not a danger with a high probability. This is one of very many cases where our evolutionary programming is, in a sense, maladapted. The environment has changed too recently for us to develop an aversion to fat and salt, and the many other things, such as alcohol, tobacco, other recreational drugs, moving at high speeds, ect ect that are killing us today. Had tobacco been available for smoking for the last hundred thousand years, we would have long since bred out our genes for susceptibility to the pleasant effect it creates, as those who were less prone to use it would have lived longer and had more successful offspring.
Art is the exploration of all the different ways which our physiology, adapted for an environment different from the one we exist in now, allows us to feel pleasure and other mental states. In some cases, such as music, the art form was probably extent and in widespread use throughout our evolution. It seems plausible that singing and dancing have probably existed for much of our recent evolutionary past, and serve important roles in family bonding and courtship today as they always have and thus as evolution ‘intended’. The art of both has gone beyond those uses, because it can with the technology of today, and so now we can often get the pleasure that we are programmed to from music without achieving the ends this pleasure was supposed to be a reward for.
Entertainment is a derivative form of art, and the line between them is not always clear. Entertainment is a form of art that has become so practiced and refined that it no longer carries any particular mystery or risk. The creators of entertainment know precisely what kind of reaction they are trying to solicit from the audience and follow a precise formula. Pornography is an example of this. The creator creates an image of a naked woman, or people engaged in sex, knowing that this image creates in the mind of its intended audience sexual arousal and the associated pleasure. This works because until very recently the only way a human being could get the image of a naked person would be for them to be in the presence of that naked person, a situation generally likely only to occur in situations where there was a high probability of sexual intercourse. Entertainment art is an important subset because it is now, and has likely always been, the most common and powerful form of art.
Art forms are different ways in which art can manipulate the human state. Music, storytelling, imagery, and cooking are some major art forms.
Music works because it can be communal, and so it is a means by which a group can self-identify and bond. It can combine with storytelling to create meaningful tribal identity stories and lessons. It has been exploited in the present day to directly manipulate emotions with synthetic music that would be impossible to create before very recently. It still serves it’s original role for group bonding and group identification- every culture and subculture has it’s own music, which is less appreciated by those outside the group.
Dance has much in common with music, but it is also a means by which a person can demonstrate fitness. It is probably the single art form which is most unchanged by modern technology. Yet our large societies allow extreme specialization, which inclines many of us to use this form of expression less than we might if we lived in a small group of other equally amateur individuals.
Storytelling has found the most new forms in out modern culture, one of which is ultimately computer games. We derive pleasure from stories because they are traditionally the best way we could learn about our world. Our vulnerability in the world means that the more we can learn about it without direct experience the better off we will tend to be. This is why we tend to enjoy stories that involve some element of our real lives, but also ones that explore areas of experience we do not run in to a great deal, and which are perilous, physically, emotionally, or socially.
Imagery is powerful because we live in a visual world, and an image is most readily the way one can recreate and experience or express an idea for another.
All these forms of art engage in crossover. Modern media has stripped away the division of imagery and storytelling, and often incorporates music as well. Dance is rarely observed without music, and could arguably be considered an extension of it. Much music today is accompanied by a narrative that tells a story. It is expected that the lines between art will blur, because all operate on the same organ- the human brain.
Sport is not art- but sport viewing can be entertainment. This is not a contradiction. Sport is competition between individuals or groups, and can exist without outside observers or a record being kept. When it is in an unobserved state, there is not art to it- it is a contest, an expression of another set of human needs and desires. The opposing sides strive not to create a narrative but to defeat the opponent. If, later, after the game, the sportsmen choose to tell stories, those stories are art. If the game is in a large stadium with cameras and announcers and music, it is that packaging that is the art. Just as a picture or painting of a sunrise can be art though the sunrise itself is not, the packaging and narration of a sports contest is art though the act of the contestants is not. The contestants are doing what they do in an effort to win, not to entertain. Perhaps the people who sponsor the event are seeking to create entertainment, but the contestants, if they are doing their jobs properly, will win in a completely boring way if that becomes possible. Of course many ‘sports’ are staged events with a set narrative, and in these cases the participants are indeed engaging in art, but these are not true contests.
Computer games are a new form of art because they exploit areas of human experience previously inaccessible to artistic manipulation. The human playing the game is not the artist- they are the audience. The medium mimics a competitive environment, because the computer ‘agents’ act sufficiently like a human opponent to trigger a sense of competition in the player. When the player defeats the opponent, they are rewarded with a feeling of accomplishment that has never before been possible to mass produce. This is because it is now possible to create a close enough simulation of a real contest that the player/audience is able to suspend their disbelief and enjoy the sensation. The player does not need to believe that the computer opponent(s) is a human or even an equal. Just as a person viewing a picture of a beautiful sunset doesn’t need to believe they are actually observing a sunset, or a person singing along to music in their car needs to believe they are engaged in a community sing-along- the simulation is enough to stimulate pleasure. So the computer game, while apparently following the same path as narrative to create pleasure, has actually found a way to simulate another aspect of human experience in a way that creates pleasure in an entirely new way.
It is notable that many of the most popular computer games included elements of direct human to human competition. The players in these competitions still constitute an audience for art- perhaps more purely art than the narrative structure of single-player games. The programmer creates the field, sets the rules, creates the tools and the objectives. The players then go in and create their own strategies and thus the outcomes, and the experiences, are in some cases entirely unpredictable and unexpected. The reason I see this as art more so than traditional competitions is that the environment is so totally under the control of the programmer, that it is possible for none of the traditional means by which some people dominate most sports (size, speed, physical confidence, agility) can be rendered completely meaningless. Even our sense of how a ‘win’ can be achieved is open to manipulation. In many of the very popular ‘first person shooter’ games, death is minor setback, and can often be seen as an acceptable price for even minor objectives. These games play with our sense of physics, morality, social acceptability, cause and effect- and these manipulations are in a sense very avant-guard, because they haven’t been going on long enough for a real development of ideas about how to use them most effectively, except in a fairly crude sense.
Games have already begun to branch out beyond the manipulation of our sense of victory. They now often include a moral element. Some have branched out into political themes. Some deal with romance and sexuality. They have, thus far, done so in a very linear, narrative style not much different from traditional storytelling. Inevitably they will go beyond this. Imagine the manipulative power of a game created with a subtle but strong political bias- choices made that align with that viewpoint are more successful than ones that go against it. Or a game that explores elements of cooperative work and play in more depth than working together to beat the opponent. All kinds of human endeavor might be simulated, and the psychological rewards explored and exploited. These are things that have only become possible with the advent of computer games, and so the games themselves are an entirely new form of art.


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