Crispy Gamer

Games Are Not Art

Roger Ebert doesn't think games are art.

John Carmack doesn't think games are art.

John, meet Roger. Roger, meet John. John and Roger, meet Scribblenauts, a game that proves your point and shows why games are not art, or at the very least, don't need to be art. And at the very, very least, games would be better off if they stopped worrying about the whole art thing all together.

Call me a troll and tell my why I'll never have a girlfriend for daring to actually think about the subject of videogame aesthetics. But before you go after me the way you went after Roger, follow the line of thought:

  • Scribblenauts is not really about goals or meaning.
  • Our aesthetics-focused game criticism looks for beauty in a game, and that usually means some glorious visuals, thundering narrative sense, elegant game mechanics and certainly a pleasing conclusion, like the crashing conclusion of a symphony.
  • But games are about play, and play can just ramble along, surprising us and keeping us thinking.

    And that's why I'd call Scribblenauts "game of year" even though some critics are iffy on the game, and I know I have to play another 100 games before now and 2010. But it's OK, Scribblenauts is that good.

    Games are not Art
    Art or adventure!

    Before we go any further, I want to point something out about Scribblenauts that is sort of obvious, though no one has seemed to have bothered to spell it out.

    I am not sure how many objects there are in the 'nauts database, but 10,000 keeps coming up. I have heard 20,000, and I am assuming that is because there are a lot of words that conjure the same object. For example, Moby Dick and Herman Melville both produce a little dude that looks like Indiana Jones, but might be a famous 19th-century author, or perhaps is a sailor named Ishmael.

    So let's assume there are 10,000 objects in the game. Since you typically need combinations of objects to solve each level, you have this crazy combinatorial possibility of play. Assuming that it takes about three objects on average to solve a puzzle, that means there are 1 trillion possible ways to solve a single level! If you are like me, and play slow, sloppy and lazy, and generally conjure up five objects per level, then to figure out how to get that car started and drive it up the hill you have 100 quintrillion possible options.

    These mind-numbing, impossibly large numbers go lightspeed if you just toss in one more object. Take six objects to solve your little Scribblenauts dilemma and you have a septillion possible options -- that's a million billion billion. That's 1,000 times more Scribblenauts options than there are grains of sand on the earth. That's a universe of possibility shoved into a cheap chit of plastic you can pick up at Target for $30.

    That, my friends, is fun with math.

    And while I will admit that not every combination is helpful (Can you stop a rampaging bear with coconut, coconut, coconut, coconut, coconut? Maybe not), the simple fact that you have access to a practically infinite number of possible solutions tells you what you need to know about the game. This title isn't about winning; it's about trying stuff out.

    Games are not Art
    Is this art? No, it's fun!

    Or maybe we should put it this way:

    This is a game you play. And play. And play. And as a result, this is one of the purest forms of gameplay love that we've seen in a long time. In doing what it does, Scribblenauts breaks free of the growing tyranny of classical aesthetics that has slowly been choking the fun out of games.

    Let me explain.

    The whole idea that games are aesthetic objects, or art in any meaningful sense, is to simultaneously misunderstand art, aesthetics and games. The three get thrown together because our basic notion of art holds that a) you experience something, b) it makes you go "wow," and then c) someone puts it in an art museum. Since people experiencing games often go "wow," and every once in a while someone tries to put them in a museum, we assume that games are either art, or gosh darn it, they ought to be! As a special bonus, since artists can submerge crucifixes in human whiz and get the full protection of the First Amendment, then we really ought to consider games as art just to keep them out of the censors' glare.

    The trouble is, art is about beauty and some sort of unspeakable experience of the Other. Games just need to be fun. And while you have some art that is kind of fun -- like Duchamp putting toilets in galleries, doodling moustaches on famous portraits, and painting nudes walking down steps with all the panache he could muster in a picture that looks like so many pretzel sticks tossed in a pile -- art has no real business in the fun business. Likewise, as sublime as moments in Flower might be, or as achingly evocative as Braid is for some people, take away the fun and you get art games -- beautiful pieces of work like Passage which are plenty artistic, just not that much fun.

    This earnest pursuit of beauty in games has turned into a reverence for the art in the game -- the graphics, the music, the story, the elegance of the game system or the architectural wonder of the level design. And games have responded by becoming more and more a directed experience, a goal to reach, and less about just having fun. And by fun, I mean that silly state of delirium that comes from playing around with all the seriousness you can muster while pretending things are not what they really are. After all, it's only fun to survive a nuclear holocaust to find your dad MIA, or be left in a city overrun by zombies with a bunch of other knuckleheads, to the degree that that it's just sort of apocalyptic and horrific. Art's gotta be about something tangible or important; games have to constantly pretend they are not.

    So what does this have to do with Scribblenauts? Everything!

    But before that, one more detour.

    It's 1961. It's France and the avant-garde is in full swing. The tyranny of old Europe has eaten itself in a second World War, and birth-control pills have unlocked the sexual revolution. What's a groovy poet to do? If you are Raymond Queneau, you help form a crazy literary collective that invents puzzles, contests and comical systems to liberate literature along with everything else.

    Games are not Art
    Flower may be beautiful or even sublime, and that makes it art. But it's fun! And that's what makes it a game.

    You call yourself the Oulipo and you create crazy algorithmic literature that is equal parts Chose Your Own Adventure, Mad Libs and what, in historical retrospect, must have been crazy amounts of Beaujolais -- and call it literary performance art. Along the way, you make this timeless work of genius -- a poem-generation system built from cutting up stanzas and letting people flip bits to rewrite the poem, mix-and-match style. You call it "Hundred Thousand Billion Poems," because that's what it is, even though it sounds much cooler in the French: Cent mille milliards de poèmes.

    Maybe it's art. But mainly it's cool. And if it is art, it's way more fun than those Renaissance paintings hanging at the Louvre. For most people, the Oulipo is this wonderfully smart prank or some crazy game.

    And the funny thing is, close to 50 years later, a little game company in Seattle makes a goofy title that is only a billion times, literally, more combinatorially juicy than some old French poem system.

    That, in a nutshell (albeit one with a lot of zeros), is why Scribblenauts is amazing beyond simple calculation.

    In Scribblenautland, when I am trying to figure out how to get out of a jail populated by murderous robbers and no-nonsense cops, I might get a little frustrated if I think that I can figure out the level quickly and that this is somehow worthwhile. But after realizing God won't help me, snakes can't kill fast enough, and the monster I summon is as dangerous to me as everyone else, it is with great joy I discover that the Blob will happily eat everything in my way, clearing a path to the exit. But before I dash through, doesn't it seem worth seeing what a volcano or a string quartet might add to the proceedings?

    Games are not Art
    What do you get when artists play with videogames? Mary Flanagan's Giant Joystick!

    I am playing, not looking for deeper meaning. I laugh at clowns and hippies eaten by sharks and marvel at how zombies, following the timeless script, turn other living things into zombies. I watch God and the Devil wander around with guitars and don't have to consider for a moment if I am creating my own Beckett play. I'm not trying to rewrite "Finnegan's Wake" here.


    I've just been handed the world's biggest toy store, and I am having a blast trying stuff out and laughing at the absurdity of it. This is the kind of fun that games almost forgot on their way to begging Artforum for a little, quite unneeded, respect.

    When you stop trying to make Scribblenauts be something, a definitive piece of interactive art; and just monkey around with it, you start to have fun with an effortless glee that reminds us of the freedom that makes play so awesome.

    That, and gluing bombs to monkeys is just kind of funny. And on this point, I think John and Roger would also agree.

  • Comments

    This is a game you play. And play. And play. And as a result, this is one of the purest forms of gameplay love that we've seen in a long time. In doing what it does, Scribblenauts breaks free of the growing tyranny of classical aesthetics that has slowly been choking the fun out of games.
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    Games, to me, is all about fun and entertainment. We spend time for games, to relax and have some fun, so it should serve the purpose. - Casa Sandoval

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