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History

Earlier this year I had the pleasure of participating in the Art History of Games conference, put together by Georgia Tech and SCAD. Recently they posted videos of the talks. You can see mine here.

One of the things that really stuck with me about this conference was the intersection of two different talks that spoke to each other in a surprising and powerful way.

The first talk was the one given by the (non)game designers Tale of Tales. ToT made a presentation which boldly and provocatively declared once and for all that Games Are Not Art. Games are games and they are fine as far as that goes, but they have no place engaging with the serious and important problems of art, to elevate the human soul, to struggle towards transcendence, to contemplate great truths, etc. Game technology might do that, but not games.

ToT’s statement was fine. It was expected, it was somewhat tongue in cheek and playful, but it was also intentionally aggressive and confrontational in a calculated way. It was rhetoric. And I enjoyed it. I consider them “worthy opposition” in the rhetorical sense. Smart people with an honestly different point of view arguing in good faith.

Then game designer Brenda Brathwaite talked. She talked about her design process and her goals, about how she thinks of her own work and how it fits into her life and how she does it and how she feels about it. And it was 100% clear to me and every person in that room that Brenda is a living, breathing, cussing counter-example to ToT’s claim. Regardless of your reaction to the games in her mechanics/message project, it is undeniable that she is using games to engage with the serious and important problems of art, trying to elevate the human soul, struggling towards transcendence, contemplating great truths etc. Through games. Not through software, not through interactive environments, not through procedural 3D storytelling. Through games. She puts the lie to ToT just by existing and doing her work. I mean, basically, they are saying that she doesn’t exist. But she sure as hell looks like she exists to me.

Then to top it off, at the end of her talk Brenda reached out to ToT and celebrated them for making the Path, in a very simple and personal and heartfelt way she told them that their work had touched her and she thanked them for it. Brenda’s gesture was respectful, loving, honest, impulsive, direct, and emotional. It was the opposite of calculated. It moved me. And with the authority of physics, it closed the door on that particular argument. Forever.

I was glad I was there. I remember thinking, this is what history looks like.

12 Comments

  1. The short version of this was every bit as strong, occurring as Brenda’s talk was happening:

    @flantz: “ToT tells @bbrathwaite she’s not an artist. @bbrathwaite responds by showing them love and respect. That’s rhetoric vs conversation #AHoG” 12:28 PM Feb 6th via TweetDeck

    Interestingly, Frank has now recast it as “talking versus doing.”

    Wednesday, September 1, 2010 at 3:43 am | Permalink
  2. We were as moved as you were by Ms Brathwaite’s presentation. I think anyone in the room was. But there is no opposition between her and us. Stop pretending there is!

    Not only do we respect and enjoy each other’s work. We also work in a very similar fashion. And this is unlike how most people in the games industry work. So stop using either of us as an excuse to justify your own agenda.

    Do something instead.

    Wednesday, September 1, 2010 at 6:52 am | Permalink
  3. Auriea wrote:

    The part you leave out as you manufacture an opposition between what we said and what Brenda spoke of is that most people wouldn’t consider her games as games when confronted with them. And that she’s had to deal with very similar static from the public, as we have, for making work that is controversial. The “rules” of TRAIN are more emotional and intuitive and the end game more instructional than most typical gaming scenarios. And some gamers have a problem with that.

    When you made that twitter post (half a year ago) I was perplexed because I had spent the day sitting next to Brenda and had spoken at length with her about her artistic and game making process. And of anyone I’ve met in the games industry I have strongest affinity and admiration for her work.

    So while you are making your so-called point and turning us into straw-men in the process I think you need to consider that rhetoric is one thing, but manufacturing some kind of conflict between three humans who actually have more in common than not, is not at all what that conference was about. Nor what our presentation was about.

    We didn’t say Brenda is not an artist and you know it. We are not one dimensional automatons without brains or hearts Frank.

    Wednesday, September 1, 2010 at 8:49 am | Permalink
  4. Frank Lantz wrote:

    Michael and Auriea,

    Your talk centered around a slide that said GAMES ARE NOT ART. You made it very clear that you were directly confronting and denying the premise that games can, or should try to, do the kinds of things art does.

    Brenda’s talk demonstrated that she she is trying to do those things with games. Not, like ToT, by making art that has game-like elements. Brenda is a game designer and a gamer and she is making games that do the things you say they can’t and shouldn’t try to do.

    Which part of this did I make up?

    Look, this isn’t a swipe at you guys. I respect and admire the work of ToT, I think it’s interesting and important, and I appreciate the statements you make to frame your work. I think you contribute a lot to the ongoing conversation about these issues. But you can’t possibly deny that your rhetoric is designed to be confrontational. You make grand declarations in the style of the 20th century avant garde. You may do so playfully, there may be many layers of self-aware complexity around your words, but you *are* saying something.

    What Brenda did that day was to simply ignore the argument, and somehow simultaneously, definitively win it. I thought there was something devastating and beautiful about it, that’s all.

    Wednesday, September 1, 2010 at 3:30 pm | Permalink
  5. Auriea wrote:

    Only problem i have with it is that you are setting up some imaginary opposition where there is none. (especially in that bullshit tweet. That may have been “metaphor” to you but becomes absolutely real when taken out of context.)

    You are right about Brenda and her talk being the answer. As Duchamp said “There is no solution because there is no problem.” And for that, she wins. And I readily agree with you while coming to a completely different conclusion. I’d say that what she pointed out was that by taking an artistic attitude towards game design she can make Art with games. And they remain games in design and intention. This is not at all in opposition with GAMES ARE NOT ART as I would argue she transcended the ‘game’ to make something that is ALSO Art. But that this would not have been possible without the way she approached it. That artist INTENTION. And I wish more than anything that more videogame designers could follow such an example!

    This is why we used her work in a presentation we gave months after AHoG:
    http://tale-of-tales.com/tales/ArtWithGames/index.html

    Y’know. We say things plain but we are not talking about the exceptions. Exceptions are exceptional, by design. Art is made with games. Games are made with Art. infinity. Still won’t make me say that Poker is a work of Art though.

    Wednesday, September 1, 2010 at 4:29 pm | Permalink
  6. Frank Lantz wrote:

    One of the things I like about the Tale of Tales firebrand polemic is that you aren’t afraid to take a bold position. You don’t dance around the issues, you come right out and state, even overstate, your claims. You say things that other people are thinking but never articulate. You make explicit what is implied, or lurking around the edges of a lot of “progressive” discourse about games.

    You are willing to come out and say that games are not, and will not become, a valid cultural medium. To say “Games are fun. Let them be fun. And let’s do something else, when we want to be serious.” To say that the qualities that make something more game-like are the very things that make it less like art. To admit that you find games kind of nasty, a little creepy, with their focus on competition and conflict, obsessive/compulsive behavior, narrow, abstract problem-solving and arbitrary goal-seeking. (That’s me paraphrasing, but I’m honestly trying to capture the gist of your feelings).

    And I admire this quality in your rhetoric. Moreover, I think there’s a lot of truth in it. I have a different view and a different opinion on a lot of this, but I recognize the truth in much of what you say. And you force me to really think about how and why I disagree so that ultimately I think there is also more truth in my own thinking as a result.

    I’m not like you guys, I tend to dance around. I’m an equivocator. I hedge. I hem and haw and second-guess. I say things like “You could say that, in some ways games are somewhat like…” I admire the ToT boldness.

    But there is a trade-off for this boldness. It’s great that you guys are friends with Brenda, and admire and support her work. But the things you said did not leave room for her and her work. Your arguments are clear, strong and declarative, and they unambiguously exclude exactly the kind of thing Brenda is doing. I know you’re mad at me for putting it the way I did – that you said she’s not an artist, or she doesn’t exist. But that’s what I meant, that’s what I’m trying to say.

    This clear, declarative, sweeping, unambigous quality of your words is part of what makes them bold and strong, they don’t leave slack, they don’t bend. But that’s the trade-off, do you really not see that at all?

    I wish I could offer you something better in return, something more than my hemming and hawing, but this is all I’ve got. The world is messy, filled with exceptions and misunderstandings and half-understood truths. Games, art, it’s a fucking mess. I’m sorry.

    Wednesday, September 1, 2010 at 11:51 pm | Permalink
  7. I think “We say things plain but we are not talking about the exceptions” is their way of saying that they don’t give a fuck about denotation, Frank. I don’t know why you’re bothering. You are literally not speaking the same language.

    Thursday, September 2, 2010 at 5:10 am | Permalink
  8. Dat zou kunnen kloppen. Misschien zou alles veel duidelijker zijn als ik gewoon in mijn eigen taal kon spreken. Ik denk dat jouw reactie, Frank, typisch is voor iemand die denkt als een speler. Alles moet volgens de regels verlopen. Alles is binair. Er is winnen en verliezen. En de rest is niet belangrijk. Het enige dat jou interesseert is het feit dat Brenda een conflict gewonnen heeft. Terwijl de nuances zoveel interessanter zijn. Ook voor ons. In onze wereld is er plaats voor dubbelzinnigheid, is er plaats voor tegenstrijdigheid. Kunst gaat niet over regeltjes. Het gaat over dingen die je op geen andere manier gezegd krijgt.

    Brenda’s werk verdient veel meer dan een mascotte te worden voor de “games zijn kunst” zaak. Het heeft specifieke eigenschappen die daar ver van af staan. Ongeacht wat ze zelf misschien zegt. Want wat een kunstenaar zegt en wat hij doet, zitten niet altijd op één lijn. Daarom maakt hij ook kunst. Om te zeggen wat hij niet kan zeggen binnen de regels van de taal.

    Wij waarderen jouw ideeën enorm, Frank. We zijn het er zelfs mee eens. Ons enige probleem is dat je een soort conflict uitvindt tussen ons en Brenda dat niet bestaat. Wat Brenda en wij gemeen hebben is vele malen interessanter. En oneindig verschillend van al dat pietepeuterige gedoe met games.

    Thursday, September 2, 2010 at 6:23 am | Permalink
  9. A vast improvement. Now if only post-mortem for The Path had been written this way, I’d have no beef at all.

    Thursday, September 2, 2010 at 2:29 pm | Permalink
  10. Craig B wrote:

    So.

    Games are not Art. Therefore Game designers don’t make Art. But Brenda does make Art. So, therefore, the conclusion is that she is not making games? I, uh, think you’re putting the cart before the horse there, Aurelia.

    I’ve heard the same thing said about pretty much any form of artistic expression that the commentator doesn’t like. Some people have said that Ray Bradbury “doesn’t write science fiction”, for example. Same reason’s given: Bradbury was clearly creating great literature, but horrible nasty science fiction can’t be great literature, so they say “he isn’t creating Science Fiction”. People laughed at them then. Why should we take you seriously now?

    Exceptions to theories aren’t “exceptional” at all. They happen all the time, because people create theories all the time, and it’s exceptions that disprove theories.

    SF can be “Literature”. Games can be “Art”. You can be wrong.

    Thursday, September 2, 2010 at 4:23 pm | Permalink
  11. First of all, I just want to say that I’m overjoyed to see the three of you fighting again.

    I mean that with all sincerity. This debate feels like a mini-sequel to the interview that was posted by ToT last year: http://tale-of-tales.com/blog/interviews/interview-with-frank-lantz/. I find the clash between your philosophies fascinating, and I hope that this discussion can continue without devolving into rancor.

    Michael, I don’t really find Frank’s response or his style of thinking to be as binary as you claim. He really does equivocate, and to me that’s not a binary approach at all. But as Craig points out above, Auriea and yourself are equivocating as well when you jump through hoops to frame Brenda’s work in a way that doesn’t force you to question your own stance.

    As for the complaint that Frank is manufacturing a conflict, I have to disagree there as well. I have read a lot of your rhetoric and encountered many of your responses to other people’s articles online, and you consistently come off as confrontational in your tone. Just to cite one of many examples, in the aforementioned interview you conducted with Frank (which seemed quite civil), the very first comment is Michael calling Frank blind. I might have chalked your harsh tone up to a translation issue had I not read your postmortem for The Path, where you essentially admit that it is all by design.

    Now, like Frank, I can admire your attempts at provocation and your willingness to stake your position without ambiguity. That requires courage and passion. But to then turn around and take umbrage when somebody interprets your message as being contradictory to your admiration of Brenda’s work strikes me as odd. For a group of people who hold so much disdain for the “game-like” notion of conflict, there is an awful lot of implicit conflict in how you choose to convey your message.

    Personally, I don’t mind conflict. The only reason I even mention your tone is because I don’t want this discussion to go off the rails because of it. I think that Frank has done the same thing here that ToT does frequently, which is not to manufacture a conflict, but rather to highlight an existing one for the purposes of opening up a dialog. I’m glad he did, because you are three of the most intelligent and articulate people currently thinking about games and art, and I have learned as much from following your arguments as I have from anything else I have read on either topic.

    Sunday, September 5, 2010 at 10:06 pm | Permalink
  12. I agree with every word Jamey wrote above, except for the bit about not devolving into rancor.

    Sunday, September 12, 2010 at 3:38 pm | Permalink

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