Are Rules Art? 4

I was watch­ing Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia last week with my brother, an acknowl­edged film nerd, and it reignited an ongo­ing con­ver­sa­tion of ours. The film, if you haven’t seen it, and I rec­om­mend that you do, fol­lows the lives of a good dozen char­ac­ters, as their lives inter­weave and col­lide in Los Angeles. Near the end of the film, at the point each char­ac­ter reaches a moment of cri­sis, a tor­ren­tial rain of frogs sud­denly comes crash­ing down on L.A.

In my brother’s words, “You’re either a rain of frogs guy or you aren’t.” The scene has become famous more for its sheer strange­ness than any­thing else; there are sto­ries of peo­ple get­ting up and leav­ing the the­ater at that point. It’s not the only odd moment in Magnolia. Apart from the amphibi­ous del­uge, the film is over three hours long, and it also includes a mon­tage in its mid­dle where Julianne Moore, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Tom Cruise, William H. Macy and the rest of the cast are shown singing along to the film’s sound­track.

The point being, the movie is strange. It also works per­fectly. The rain of frogs and the sing-along mon­tage are pow­er­fully effec­tive within their con­text. They may not make log­i­cal sense, but that’s not ter­ri­bly rel­e­vant, I think. The point of films is not to tell a story; the point is to give view­ers a par­tic­u­lar expe­ri­ence using the mech­a­nisms of nar­ra­tive, and in the moment that they hap­pen, those scenes do exactly what they were intended to. To take out the sing-along scene because there’s no log­i­cal rea­son that all the char­ac­ters across the city would be singing it at the same time is to miss the point entirely, and would be to greatly harm the beauty and impact of the work as a whole. The rain of frogs scene is really weird, but it’s sup­posed to be weird. Its weird­ness has the strange effect of mak­ing the world of the film seem more real.

Nevertheless, many peo­ple can’t sit through the whole movie. The same goes for other mas­ter­pieces like Tree of Life, per­haps the most tran­scen­dent piece of film I’ve ever seen. People walk out because they get bored, some­thing I just can­not wrap my mind around. It’s frus­trat­ing for peo­ple like my brother, who spends more time than I do watch­ing and review­ing movies, that peo­ple are always call­ing out for more orig­i­nal­ity in movies. They say they’re tired of the explo­sions, the for­mu­las, the sequels. But when they get it, they get bored and walk out. Suddenly it’s “self-indulgent” or pompous. This same ten­dency is true in the world of videogames.

The prob­lem is that all art is an impo­si­tion. Art con­fronts its audi­ence with a per­sonal vision, some­thing the audi­ence might not have wanted or expected, but which the cre­ator believes that the audi­ence ought to see. This expe­ri­ence might be painful, or uncom­fort­able, or pos­si­bly even joy­ful as some­thing inex­press­ible is finally expressed, but what­ever it is, it’s never some­thing the audi­ence wanted going in. If they knew exactly what expe­ri­ence they wanted, then the art would not affect them. Great art is unex­pected and rev­e­la­tory. It reaches out­side of itself and alters the viewer’s uni­verse.

Ultimately, this is why the claim that videogames will have “made it” when they have bet­ter rules, bet­ter graph­ics, or bet­ter dia­logue is wrong­headed. Those things are the ele­ments used to build an expe­ri­ence, they aren’t the expe­ri­ence itself. A piece of great videogame art would give its play­ers some­thing that they haven’t demanded, and in fact could never demand at all, because for it to be effec­tive it would have to show them some­thing new.

Further, great art earns its name by doing in its medium what hasn’t been done in oth­ers. Since the hall­mark of games is their inter­ac­tiv­ity, the player’s actions should be the medium through which some­thing unex­pected is expressed. Common exam­ples of games as great art include BioShock and the more recent Spec Ops: The Line. While I don’t dis­agree that these games are a cut above the rest (the things that you do as a player are what mat­ters), they still fall short due to their inward-looking focus. Like the movie Funny Games, or, to a lesser extend Cabin in the Woods, they do offer a kind of rev­e­la­tion. However, it’s ulti­mately a rev­e­la­tion about the work itself and its genre, rather than any­thing that tran­scends itself.

But as dif­fi­cult as it is to make the mean­ing of the game rest in its play­ers’ actions, the great­est hur­dle is the prob­lem of author­ship in games. Movies, music, paint­ings, lit­er­a­ture and so on are sin­gle, uni­fied expe­ri­ences. They are care­fully defined, cir­cum­scribed, fin­ished. Games are not. Games are a mas­sive array of pos­si­ble expe­ri­ences, some pro­found, some banal, some frankly irri­tat­ing. Their rules are fixed but their events are not. They’re a uniquely mal­leable art form in which the player is a kind of co-author. The cre­ator of a game can never be cer­tain what expe­ri­ence the player will have, since the player is mak­ing up a great deal of that expe­ri­ence as he goes along. How can a game cre­ator make every one of an infi­nite num­ber of pos­si­ble plays a pro­found, trans­for­ma­tive expe­ri­ence? How can the player be star­tled and moved by the core of the game, when the core of the game is the player’s own activ­ity?

It’s a prob­lem that both­ers me, and one I don’t have a good answer to. Perhaps we are ask­ing games to be some­thing they weren’t meant to be. They are prac­ti­cal crea­tures, more mech­a­nisms of self-expression on the part of the player than an end in them­selves. Would it be so wrong to con­sider them tools for mak­ing works of art, rather than works of art in them­selves? Most of us have had a par­tic­u­lar gam­ing expe­ri­ence that has res­onated pow­er­fully with us. However, upon going back later and try­ing to recap­ture that feel­ing we find it elu­sive, since it was born out of a par­tic­u­lar set of cir­cum­stances that will never be repeated. Particularly in the case of mul­ti­player games, play seems to gen­er­ate spon­ta­neous dra­matic sto­ries that affect our lives out­side the games, because they affect our rela­tion­ships. Whereas works like Magnolia or Tree of Life present us with a fin­ished vision we could never have antic­i­pated, mas­ter­ful games allow us to expe­ri­ence the strange and star­tling con­se­quences of our actions, and per­haps it is those works, those unre­peat­able, finite, chains of inter­ac­tions we’ve built, that we ought to be cel­e­brat­ing, rather than the rules that build them.

Ben Milton

About Ben Milton

Ben Milton makes his home on a hill in Oregon with a wife and the lonesome ghosts of a dozen boardgame prototypes.

  • Movies, music, paint­ings, lit­er­a­ture and so on are sin­gle, uni­fied expe­ri­ences. They are care­fully defined, cir­cum­scribed, fin­ished. Games are not. Games are a mas­sive array of pos­si­ble expe­ri­ences, some pro­found, some banal, some frankly irri­tat­ing.” Nonsense! You lit­er­ally just wrote about how many peo­ple don’t bother to com­plete Magnolia!

    • Ben Milton

      Which part is non­sense? I don’t think I’m fol­low­ing your objec­tion.

  • Ben, this is a really inter­est­ing arti­cle — The inter­sec­tion between video games, rules and art is one that I’m really inter­ested in. Approaching it from the side of being a visual artist who is also a gamer, I’ve found that con­fu­sion about games and art is hardly new. For instance, I just fin­ished an amaz­ing book called “Marcel Duchamp: The Art Of Chess” which looks at the inter­sec­tion between Duchamp’s artis­tic pro­duc­tion and his life­long obses­sion with chess. The really cru­cial ele­ment that they bring up is that the kind of art pro­duced in rela­tion to games tends to be of a spe­cific vari­ety, which relies on what you might term men­tal mech­a­nisms — that is, in chess, the pieces them­selves are not the game. Instead, the rule set inside your head is the game. For instance, great chess play­ers can play with­out the board quite eas­ily and there is a whole set of nota­tion that can give you the aes­thet­ics and moves of a game with­out any board or pieces. The hypoth­e­sis is that this love of chess as a men­tal mech­a­nism is par­tially respon­si­ble for why he was one of the early devel­op­ers of what we now call “con­cep­tual art.” In the same way, much game crit­i­cism seems to be focused on the tangible/visual ele­ments of the game or the emo­tional responses. Instead of these two more “aes­thetic” and “expres­sion­is­tic” modes of think­ing about art (and games) — this notion that Duchamp devel­oped becomes a third stream of a way to expe­ri­ence and cri­tique art: by look­ing at the way the men­tal sys­tem inter­acts with itself your mind. The work of Duchamp is directly what you’re speak­ing about with the “mas­sive array of pos­si­ble expe­ri­ences.” (John Cage as well was very inter­ested in game sys­tems as well as gen­er­a­tive meth­ods for his works of art. After all, what could be more Dungeons & Dragons than rolling dice to deter­mine the way a song goes!) My point isn’t to belit­tle the con­tem­po­rary dia­log, but instead to show that the inter­face of games and art has been quite long and quite bumpy.

    • Ben Milton

      Thanks, Eron, that was fas­ci­nat­ing. I’m gonna have to read up about Marcel Duchamp, as those issues are exactly the kind of thing I’m inter­ested in. I’ve got­ten into argu­ments with friends over whether rules are art, and ended up defend­ing them on the basis that the sys­tem of rules that com­prise them can be a thing of beauty in itself. I’m not so sure now. While I def­i­nitely know of some rule sets I would describe as beau­ti­ful, such as Go, I haven’t encoun­tered a rule set that has ever struck me as great art in itself, per­haps due to their prac­ti­cal nature. I’ve begun look­ing at game design more as a craft than an art, in that it’s ordered to an end other then itself. And it seems to me that things made for their own sake rather than for a prac­ti­cal end tend to be the most good/true/beautiful. As I men­tioned above, it does seem that there is room for great art in games though, if you con­sider an actual instance of play rather than the rules. I’ve been struck how great chess or Go play­ers, when com­ment­ing on a master-level game, will say that a par­tic­u­lar move was pro­found, in much the same way that a critic would look at a great work of art. It’s those indi­vid­ual, incar­nated instances that peo­ple admire. I’m com­ing to believe that game design is the design of art forms, rather than art works.