What is Artful?
This afternoon I had the pleasure of discovering the site Arthouse Games where Jason Rohrer takes on the challenge of exploring the more indie, artistic aspects of gaming. I like his approach .. it’s thoughtful, and his interviews usually hint at some amount of depth in the way he thinks about what artful games can mean. So, why did I bring that up?
He had a worthwhile interview with designer/coder Rod Humble who recently released The Marriage – an abstract art game based on a few simple relational principles. I haven’t had time to articulate a response to his game yet (which I found intriguing, if not overminimalistic), but I did come across something surprising in the interview. Other than mentioning his obvious interest in Wittgenstein and “language games”, he was asked to provide a quick definition of what “works of art” are to him (I also noticed that mentisworks liked the broad definition too):
JR: Can you give us a one-sentence definition of art? In other words, how do you differentiate works of entertainment from works of art?
RH: Entertainment is giving enjoyment to the maximum number of people you can. Art is that which can make at least one person a better human being. Long may they both prosper.
Now that is an interesting choice for a definition. It’s not often that you find game developers well-versed in modern philosophy. At the very least, Rod Humble seems to think like a philsopher. Let’s break open his definition a bit, since he didn’t get the chance to in the interview…
There is a long tradition in philosophical thought can be historically traced through what Charles Taylor calls the “expressive-constitutive” tradition (through other philosophers like Herder, Heidegger, etc). I won’t go into Taylor’s philosophy much here, but suffice to say that the ways we use language (”expression”) somehow partially “constitutes” our being – the people we are. So, to put it glibly: we are what we do. But what does that have to do with art?
From part of the same tradition, ideas have been drawn out from philosophers such as Maurice Merleau-Ponty that “art” is somehow made of the same stuff. Somehow, art has a way of making us see the world in a different way. He argues in an essay called Cezanne’s Doubt that artists often perceive the world truly differently than others – and their artistic expressions (such as paintings, or I would argue some games) can allow other people to re-perceive their worlds in a different way. For this tradition, expressive art is ontic … it doesn’t just give us new ‘facts’ about the world, it changes us in what we are sensitive to – and who we are. This is where Rod Humble’s articulation of what ‘art’ is about is so crucial: he’s got a constructive sense of it. He sees art as not just changing the world in a very vague sense (ie. creating new genres, new art movements), but he sees art as acting in a far deeper and specific way… it changes us in our being.
Now, is there anything curious about Rod’s definition? Well, for one thing – he doesn’t want art to simply change us … he wants it to change us for the better. Art should, through its magic, give us the tools to become better human beings. This is something shared by the contemporary philosopher of psychology John Shotter as well as Charles Taylor – they both envision that “expression” (think ‘artistic expression’) gives us new tools for thinking about the world differently. And by virtue of having new tools – new ways of apprehending reality – we can make new choices about how we want to live and who we want to be. So in that way, what makes us “better people” isn’t that art makes us happier or more enjoyable people, it’s that art can give us the tools to re-imagine ourselves that weren’t possible previously. Artful games are generative. There’s a lot more to be said on this topic of course – and I certainly won’t attempt to summarize a millenium worth of thought on ‘art’ in one shot, but Rod’s answer really struck a key with me.
If this articulation of Rod’s idea resonates at all with you, I think this is a good place to start when it comes to writing about games and art. One of the unfortunate problems in game criticism and journalism is that we are far too caught up with if a game is “fun” or “enjoyable” – or whether we liked or disliked some of the game mechanics. This is not a deep interpretation of what is involved in a game – it is simply a reaction to it. What is necessary to really ‘pull out’ the more aesthetic and artistic values in certain games is a far deeper interpretation that might include the “generative” aspects of games – how they may have given us new psychological tools for re-imagining our realities. That’s just one aspect, but it’s an important one as Rod Humble pointed out.