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Another cross-post from my Gamasutra blog – so again it’s about games, and assumes a certain baseline level of interest in/awareness of games. In response to Brian Moriarty’s apology for Ebert (also referenced in my previous post), Jason VandenBerghe makes a good point here that the art of games is present in the gameplay. The problem is he suggests that it’s ONLY in the gameplay, and not in the creation of the thing played. This was my response in his comments, posted here and on my personal blog so that people can respond separately at greater length if they choose.

What about music?

The performance is art.

The instrument is art.

The composition (the music-as-written) is art.

Even the sheet music might be art, especially if it’s handwritten and illuminated.

I agree with [VandenBerghe] that gameplay, especially where exceptional skill and or insight are freely at work, can be art. (And thank you for reinstating it as also expressive.) But that doesn’t mean nothing else in the equation is.

We don’t have the language to describe the poetry of system yet, and we’re not conscious enough of it as a form of poetry. [Poetry here is used in the way justice can be “poetic”; it comes from from the Ancient Greek for “making” and means anything artfully made.] It’s a chicken-and-egg situation; until we start talking about it in these terms (to see what makes sense as much as anything else) we can’t think about it in these terms, and vice versa.

But let’s be clear. If a movie is a more or less artistic arrangement of more or less meaningful images and sounds (and optionally but usually plot, character, narrative) – a game is a more or less artistic arrangement of more or less meaningful judgments and decisions and tests-of-skill and random inputs and consequences of all the above, possibly with one person playing it, and possibly as a meeting ground for more than one.

The point is:

although the elements being arranged are different, experienced differently, and appreciated fully only over a longer timescale and possibly in the context of multiple plays of the game,

the basic act is the creative act of arranging meaningful elements to produce an experience or sensation, and/or to express an emotion or idea,

and the basic act is therefore is fundamentally the same in designing and playing games as it is in composing or playing music, or any other artform.

Gameplay can be artful, and whether intended that way can certainly always be judged on that spectrum. Game design – or should we call it game composition? – is always artful. It may be crass art that deals with its subject matter only in the most superficial terms, and I would argue a great many games are; but so is a lot of music and a lot of cinema, and that doesn’t disqualify them from being art. They’re not great art, or what Moriarty calls capital-A “Art”; but they’re still art in exactly the same way movies are, and Ebert’s lack of systems literacy (while hardly blameworthy given the wider cultural context) doesn’t change that at all.

And therefore I’m with Moriarty:

games are art, but really, pretty much anything can be, so who cares about this?;

and games CAN be Art, and not enough are;

and (my corollary) we need to get better at talking about the unique forms of poetry offered by our medium as such, so we can get to the games that are truly, life-changingly great – and maybe even some that tell truths only games can.

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I’ve been reading some fabulous commentary on the near-total failure of war games to actually deal with the real experience of war, the way a good war movie does – among my picks:

Who Cheers For War?

Both are nuanced enough to recognise that war and other forms of conflict have a long history in games, and both offer intelligent thought as to why this might be so. But neither offers the most obvious explanation:

Real-time interaction with another human is the simplest source of intellectual challenge (and flow) around.

As for why they are drawn to metaphors of war, or at very least conflict:

Challenge and flow are both enhanced by surprises (and the need to adapt to them), which strongly suggest participants are not completely sharing information. In any human relationship, if information is being systematically withheld, common ground will tend to be eroded. And whenever admiration is available – which is always the case in witnessed challenges – it is very easy for one-upmanship to creep in and create competition where there was none. (Although, countervailingly, a long-standing relationship of competition can in fact form a surprisingly solid common ground itself, and generate mutual admiration.)

And of course the idea that the rules themselves might be something players must join forces to overcome, and win or lose together rather than separately, is a relatively recent realisation – and had to evolve through the pseudo-combat of the RPG, which sort-of-but-not-necessarily-really pitted players against the game master. This is somewhat similar to the idea that humanity might have more important threats in common (disease, the laws of nature in the context of our own ecological recklessness, et cetera… oh and eldritch horrors from beyond time) than each other, a notion which still doesn’t seem to have penetrated to the minds of our leaders (who, to be fair, have had to spend a lot of effort and attention on human enemies to get to that position, so you can see how the habit formed).

So that’s my take on why war is so commonly a theme of games. As for the current trend towards celebrating gore and violence, the previous post gives my thoughts on that.

Another post of something I wrote up (in my own time) for the library I was working in… posted in case it’s useful as a starting point for someone else trying to get games into libraries. It’s written as an infodump for specific people at that specific service and as a result the style is pretty dense, so it will need adapting; but maybe it’ll save someone some time and helps get games into a library somewhere. It worked for me, despite games and collection management being no part of my job description: the library now has both a “games books” lending collection (mainly RPGs) and a bunch of board and card games for use inside the library.

Notes for games collections at public libraries

Games:

  • are tests of skill (unless they are pure games of chance, which are usually regulated as gambling) and therefore improve abstract reasoning, hand-eye co-ordination and/or ability to “read” and anticipate other people. Many improve other skills, such as resource management, linguistic skills, vocabulary, etc. The only games without any such benefit are pure games of chance, such as roulette – which are almost always played for stakes and are therefore regulated as gambling.
  • have historically been important parts of our culture: an understanding of chess, for example, deepens an understanding of a wide range of texts.
  • are important parts of other cultures, and a great way into learning about those cultures and interacting with the people who live them.
  • are an increasing part of the leisure-activity market.
  • come in many varieties, not all of which are easily integrated into a traditional library collection – but some of which are.
  • linked to the above, may or may not come complete with everything you need to play. Some may only be rules.
  • are based on platforms of every level of technology from sticks and stones to advanced electronics.
  • are often expensive (but, arguably, cheap for the number of hours they occupy relative to traditional, non-participatory media).
  • can be free (or available for free download if you print them yourself).
  • like comic books/graphic novels, are breaking out of a “kids’ stuff” ghetto and are taking on more sophisticated thematic, aesthetic and cultural elements. Some are completely unsuitable for children. Also like comics, parents can get quite irate if their kids get hold of adult material in a “kiddie” medium.
  • are a growing source of jobs – games journalism/criticism, and especially game design, are booming (though highly competitive) areas of employment.
  • as with film, literature, and fine art, some games are highly controversial and are portrayed by some as inculcating violence or inhumanity. The same arguments about free speech are being made about games as have been made (and continue to be made) about other media. Games are therefore, again like other artforms, important politically as well as culturally.
  • are increasingly integrated into other media. Every major-release film now has a game released at the same time, and these are not always repetitions of the same story. The Matrix trilogy, for instance, had an accompanying computer game revolving around the actions of a couple of supporting characters in The Matrix: Reloaded, and the action of the game interwove with the action of the film, explaining a number of elements of the movie which were otherwise unexplained. (This was planned from the start by the movies’ creators.) It also featured around an hour of footage filmed on the same sets, with the same cast, and at the same time as the movie. It is probably fair to say that the game was the fourth part of the trilogy.
  • are increasingly being used not only for fun but for educational and/or polemic purposes. Examples include the UN Food Program’s game Food Force (simulates the real difficulties faced by UNFP personnel in the field); Real Lives (generates a random person of varying background and wealth anywhere in the world, lets you play out choices in the real context of their lives, based on actual statistics); various online games created in response to the Iraq war; America’s Army, a free game created and distributed by the US Army as a recruiting tool… the list goes on.

Probably the most important distinction between games from a collections point of view is whether they are electronic (played on a computer or console) or non-electronic.

Electronic games

For a library, the only major distinction within the category of electronic games is between the “platforms”, i.e., equipment required to run the games. The three types are computer games (games to be played on a general-purpose computer, i.e. Windows, Mac, Linux etc), console games (which require a dedicated games-playing machine which plugs into a standard TV), and handheld games (played on portable devices about the size of a PalmPilot which require no other equipment, except batteries/chargers).

The current consoles of note are the Microsoft XBox 360, Nintendo Wii, and Sony PlayStation 3 (the PlayStation 2 is also still a current platform, but new releases are limited). The usual interval between console updates being released is 5-10 years. This means that the life of a game (assuming the physical medium survives) is 5-10 years, with the peak of its use in the first 3 or so years. (Computer games have a similar lifespan, as hardware and operating systems become outdated too.)

The current handhelds of note are the Sony PSP (PlayStation Portable) and the Nintendo DS  (Double-Screen).

Electronic games, by and large, can be stored and treated exactly like other optical electronic media (CDs and DVDs). Physically, they are identical: optical discs with optional booklets of various lengths, though games tend to have thicker booklets. Not that it is strictly relevant to the library, as we are not responsible for patrons’ actions, but they can be pirated just like CDs and DVDs, and like such media they often include built-in copy protection.

The decisions to be made by any library considering including these games in its collection are:

  • Which platforms to buy for.
  • If lending console/handheld games, whether to have the appropriate devices available to borrow as well, so that patrons without the console can play the games. On the one hand, we do not lend out DVD players; on the other, libraries experimenting with eBooks often do lend out eBook reader devices.

You would also need to ask suppliers about copyright/licensing issues pertaining to electronic games.

Loan periods would want to be reasonably long; games can take some time to play through. Good games can contain upwards of 100 hours of gameplay, though 20 is more typical.

Peripheral fact: Many computer games now support “mods” – modifications to gameplay and in-game virtual environments made by the public. Console games currently do not. Mods are generally available for free and provide an opportunity to develop game design skills. Talented mod authors are often hired by commercial game companies. This is mentioned to highlight the fact that these media are as open to patron authorship as more traditional library media – perhaps not as readily as books, but certainly as readily as movies.

Non-electronic games

Non-electronic games have enormous variety. Setting aside sports, they include:

  • Nursery rhymes/schoolyard games
  • Card games
  • Board games
  • Dice games
  • War/strategy games
  • Role-playing games (tabletop and “live action”)
  • Jigsaw puzzles
  • Educational or training exercises

They may use some or all of the following elements:

  • Bodily gestures, words
  • Quasi-theatrical characterisation
  • Dice
  • Cards
  • Boards
  • Generic tokens representing players (Monopoly, Snakes & Ladders)
  • Specific tokens with particular abilities or effects within the game (Chess, Scrabble, war games)

Some or all of these things can reasonably be supplied by patrons. (Indeed a boardgame company called Cheapass Games makes a point of keeping its games cheap by NOT including dice, player tokens etc on the grounds that buyers probably have about 10 sets of these already and they are cheaply available elsewhere. They sell you only the rules, board and sometimes cards specific to the game. Presumably the next logical step has already been taken by having even these things available for download in PDF form.)

Some card cards, board games and war games (similar to board games except that the “terrain” – i.e. the board – changes) are collectible. That is to say, not all pieces are included in a newly purchased set, and new pieces are regularly released over several years, with new sets often carrying new rules to vary gameplay. Collectible games are not well suited to a library collection; they are more susceptible to theft, there is likely to be considerable inflationary pressure on the budget to “buy them all”, and keeping collections and collection information up-to-date is complex.

Collection issues also arise with games which include all the pieces but use specific tokens, such as Scrabble or chess. Losing a piece makes the game un- or less playable. This is more easily addressed, for example by not permitting the game to leave library premises, or having cheap, not-very-attractive, and/or distinctive pieces – such as Scrabble tiles with the library logo on the back, which would not blend with any other set. (For well-known games, custom pieces are commercially available at reasonable prices.) Above all, pieces should be easily and cheaply replaced.

The obvious point arising from the above is that the games which are most easily included in a library collection are those which exist primarily as a set of rules, and where any equipment needed to play is provided by players. These are nursery rhymes/schoolyard games; card games; dice games; role-playing games; and possibly educational games. This can be stretched to include board games which use only dice and non-specific player tokens, which are easily replaced, but as more tokens are involved in play (and especially if they are difficult to distinguish and/or count, such as cards or tiles) the game becomes more and more difficult to keep in one piece. Thus Ludo or Snakes and Ladders make good games for a library collection, but Monopoly and Trivial Pursuit do not.

Most library collections already include some coverage of nursery rhymes/schoolyard games in their children’s collections. Similarly, rulebooks for card games, and to a lesser extent dice games, are likely to already be present in a library collection.

Historically, role-playing games have not been included in library collections. This is partly because of controversy (reports of association with Satanism and/or mental illness) and partly because of discomfort with the performative aspect of such games as players “act” their characters – it has associations of childishness (the “let’s pretend” elements), kitsch fantasy, geekery and/or bad improv. Live action role-playing (where participants actually dress in character, swing padded “swords” in combat etc) in particular is seen as embarrassing. However, both “live” and table-top role-playing are becoming more popular.

Educational or polemic uses of games have rarely been the subject of books in their own right, but this is changing. The use of games to illustrate points about and to counter common assumptions, to develop mental faculties and ways of thinking, etc., is increasingly popular. War simulations, the military training tactic which pits troops against their own side to provide something like actual battlefield experience and to test new technologies and strategies, is beginning to be adopted on a smaller scale in the corporate world and even by some large NGOs.

Games as a field of study

Interest in game design is growing. This is particularly focused on computer game design, but is not limited to is. It is worth keeping an eye out for new books in this field; more and more people are interested in the analysis of game structures and design, games as cultural and aesthetic artefacts, and so on.

Game theory is a related, also very interesting, and often neglected area of study which touches on mathematics (especially probabilities), logical analysis, psychology and even ethics and politics. (Game theory is essentially about how people second-guess each other. Many famous ethical and political problems, such as The Prisoner’s Dilemma, are problems in game theory.)

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