Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Art, Life and Videogames

Awhile back I asked the question Are Videogames Art? In that post I talked about a few of the more common objections to the claim that videogames are art. Today I'll try to make the case that games can in fact be art.

Before we begin I need to clear something up. These days most videogames include stories, characters, dialog, 3-d models, animations, scenery, cut-scenes, etc. Any one of these things could potentially be considered art in its own right. That does not make the game itself a work of art. In order for a game to count as art, the gameplay itself must have some artistic merit.

So to begin, we need to consider the gameplay alone. What does a game look like when you take away the dialog, textures, cut-scenes and other art resources? What is it that makes a game a game?

I would aruge that what makes a game a game is the rules. Rules define the roles of any objects that are part of the game (whether those objects are physical objects, like dice or cards, or pieces of computer software). They also define the roles of the players; they control how the players interact with the game objects and how game objects interact with each other. These rules can be applied by the people playing the game, or by the computer. In either case, the rules define the game experience.

It may seem like I've painted myself into a corner here. How can anything as dry and uninteresting as a set of rules ever be considered a work of art? However, one does not play a game by reading the rules. One plays the game by putting those rules into action. It is in playing a game that we discover its artistic merit.

I would like to use Conway's Game of Life as an example. The game takes place on an infinite square grid. Each square can be either alive or dead. Each square interacts with its 8 neighbors (squares that are adjacent to it, either vertically, horizontally or diagonally). A live square stays alive if it has two or three live neighbors, otherwise it dies. Life appears in a dead square if it has three live neighbors, otherwise it stays dead.

The Game of Life is an interesting game. It is a zero player game. You just set the initial state (decide which squares are alive in the beginning) and the game plays itself.

The Game of Life is also a good test case. The rules are very simple, but the game is incredibly complex. It can be difficult to predict what will happen. Sometimes large, complex patterns die off within a few generations. At other times small, simple patterns, like the F Pentomino, expand and grow and change for more than a thousand generations.

Some patterns are stable. They either remain unchanged or they return to their original form after a few generations. Other patterns move as they change, allowing them to travel across the grid.

I might be reaching a little bit, but I would argue that the game of life qualifies as a work of art. The fact that such a simple set of rules allows for all of these possibilities is impressive. Watching the F Pentomino sprawl out over a thousand generations is quite beautiful.

Not only can the Game of Life be beautiful to watch, it also challenges us. It forces us to come to terms with the fact that we can't always know the end from the beginning, even under such simple conditions. Think about it: even with a small, simple, deterministic set of rules, predicting how a Game of Life will play out can be very hard. The fact that this simple game can be so surprising is a noteworthy achievement.

I don't think we'll see Conway's Game of Life running on computers in the Louvre anytime soon, but I think we can make the case that games deserve consideration as works of art. In the future I'll talk about how this argument applies to more traditional computer games.

In the meantime, please feel free to let me know what you think.

Edit: I realize this post is dense, and it might be hard to follow if you're not familiar with the game of life. If you want to actually see what I'm talking about, check out this video. It provides a good example of the kind of complexity the game is capable of.

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