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.