Sunday, February 1, 2009

We make games, not art

Ian Bogost's Gamasutra article about proceduralism should generate a lot of conversation. It embodies, consciously or not, a manifesto of sorts. It is not a list of demands from the game consumer to the industry. Nor is it the ravings of a disenchanted developer, manifesting both a mainstream to rebel from and a general taste level to transcend (ie. Jaffe, Dyack, etc.). But Bogost's article verbalizes a new way to approach the form of games, to engage gamers in what the author believes to be the essential and unique aspect games bring to the "art" talent show. Of course, he is trying to shake games-as-art proponents from attempting to find that imaginary bar of artistry above which games have demonstrated some form of execution. Nevertheless, the article strives towards a similar goal: the angle to take on legitimacy. And because he culls from a very large pool of groundbreaking games to base his tenets of proceduralism on, Bogost is convincing, and perhaps necessarily imprecise.

To be sure, I don't need convincing. I have never considered games a lesser form of expression than film or literature for instance. But I also view the road to legitimacy as about two or three generations long. Once the original target audience for a specific form become the majority of tastemakers, then that form enjoys a higher esteem. Look at TV drama, or more recently graphic novels. In the case of graphic novels, its primary critics still haven't ironed out the parameters of the form, nor will anyone ever. The only individuals that value such an exercise are those that worry that if the brackets are set too wide, the essence of the form being defined will be twisted, contradicted or lost by its own newly-included tenants. Of course, this permeability is what progresses the dialogue between the creator and his audience via a chosen medium, but the formality of naming specifics remains a plague for fledgling "art forms."

The other problem with ascribing definition aside from its eventual futility is that it can easily be a process informed and co-opted from other art forms. Jim Sterling at Destructoid made the immensely helpful point that games can never be appropriately translated to film, can never announce their adapted arrival to the theater-going public because they will invariably lose that crucial element of interactivity in the transition. Certainly, there are cinematic games like Metal Gear Solid and the Final Fantasy series that have done their best impressions of movies, but their cinematic quality is a seductively simple one with which to legitimate games at large.

Bogost has crafted a vocabulary for games that refuses the temptation to define them on any other form's terms. He focuses on titles that the gamer community has deemed the most effective examples of the medium's capacity to challenge its own principles and generate unique relationships between the player and the game itself. He expounds on how proceduralist art games like The Marriage or Passage subvert the iconography of the form and force the player to develop (rather than be instructed of) meaning through input. Objective, a feature of nearly all games, then becomes a matter of the player's subjective conclusion. This is to me, the nugget of Bogost's article: how players are to determine the fullness of their interaction within the boundaries of the established system should be the aspect of games as a form that fuel its future iterations.

However, I do not think think this means we need to bestow games like The Graveyard any outright praise. Proceduralism does not need to be boring. Nor do I think, as Bogost does, that there needs to be "an ambiguity of both form and signification in these works." Form is very particular in a game like Braid, while its open-ended signification is largely choreographed by its form. I am also concerned that the article's clenching on to the hallowed art games of the past few years does little to expand a historical understanding of the form's development. It is not as if we have suddenly become aware of gaming's capacity for new and unique experiences. How did the player's progress through a extremely popular game like SimCity enable an more expansive sense of objective, for example?

I would like to write more but the Super Bowl is calling me. Please do give your opinions on the article before your hangover sets in.