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A Measured Response

The new issue of the Escapist has an essay by Jason Rohrer in which he outlines his hopes and dreams for the future of games. Though the piece is wide-ranging, the core of his argument is that the problem with the industry is actually that most developers put gameplay first, trumping whatever artistic visions the creators might have had. According to Rohrer, in order to elevate games to a form of ‘high art’ it’s going to take putting the gameplay, as defined by the mechanics of a game, in service of the expressive potential of games, instead of rehashing old genres and slapping on any theme that comes to mind.

I sympathize with this sentiment. However, in arguing his case Rohrer unfortunately makes several problematic statements. The worst of which comes at the end of the article:

What other medium places such high hurdles in the way of simple start-to-finish consumption?… In order to make games that everyone might appreciate as high art, we first need to figure out how to make games that are playable – start-to-finish – by everyone.

Jason Rohrer is an artist that I admire. I’ve even said that I think of Passage as “a perfect game”. My response¬† is that games are not a medium that we consume (they’re technically not even a ‘medium’). Though consumption might be part of their experience, they are really something that we perform. Games will never be placed beside The Godfather or Transverse Line, because they are a categorically different form of art.

Also, I believe that complexity definitely not what’s keeping games from being considered ‘high art’. For example:

Bach - Sonata II

In order to make [music] that everyone might appreciate as hight art, we first need to figure out how to make [music] that [is] playable – start-to-finish – by everyone.


  1. Nash wrote:

    I do respect what I think he means though.

    Part of the reason Portal was such a success for me was it’s length and relative simplicity – one could easily “consume it from beginning to end.” You can play the entire game in as much time as it takes to watch a long film. Portal succeeds because almost everyone who played it also fought Glados and saw the song at the end, and thus the entirety of it’s experience was felt by everyone. Fewer people reached the end of Bioshock, and how can you discuss it on any artistic level without seeing its final sequences? Even fewer people experienced the end of Shadow of the Colossus? Ico? Okami?

    If you see half a movie and someone asks if you’ve seen that movie, what is your response?

    Of course, to play devil’s advocate with myself, Portal is not simple at all, and to a less-literate gamer even the idea of dual-analog first-person controls is an enormous barrier.

    But – I think literacy also defines “art” in other mediums as well. Many people have trouble appreciating jazz or more complex orchestral music because they are not literate in the intricate harmonies and musical interplay, forming the same barriers created by deeply-learned control schemes or gaming conventions. They’d sooner listen to extremely simple pop music. They’d sooner play Wii Sports.

    Gaming kids will grow up. Gaming, in the collect consciousness of our culture, will attain the same status as movies and music. People will be barely-literate and love summer blockbusters – and “art” will sell fewer copies and be critically acclaimed. And yet, even that low level of literacy isn’t even achieved yet in gaming, and there is still a huge discrepancy between the extremely-game-literate and the not-literate-at-all people. That delta will go down in time, but art will still be relatively unconsumed to the idiotic thrill-seeking masses.

    Wednesday, June 25, 2008 at 4:40 pm | Permalink
  2. Bob wrote:

    “To say nothing of my own design efforts, these four games are the only works I know of that use their gameplay directly to make us more cultured, civilized, empathetic, complex, thoughtful, insightful, witty, intelligent, philosophical … and so on.”

    He had me until there. Sorry, but it’s a fairly self-serving statement, especially since he’s assuming his work goes without saying as games that make use of gameplay to make us more cultured, civilized, empathic etc. It doesn’t matter that his games probably are good examples of that. It doesn’t even matter that his definition of gameplay-as-art doesn’t really work as a definition of art, necessarily. If you’re going to write about thiss sort of thing, leave yourself out of the picture.

    As for making games that everyone can finish– isn’t that what an EASY MODE is for?

    Wednesday, June 25, 2008 at 6:14 pm | Permalink
  3. Charles Joseph wrote:

    Hmm, I see where you’re coming from Nash. As much as I love Portal though, I don’t think that it quite measures up to ‘high art’. To continue the music metaphor, Portal is a really great pop song. I would say that something like Starcraft is closer to Bach. Wii Sports though, is like Chopsticks.

    I guess what I was trying to say is that playing a game is more like learning a sonata than watching a movie. I hope that the day when everyone has a base understanding of how to approach and learn a game comes, but I’m not sure that we should waste our time lowering our standards in trying to bring that day about.

    Yeah, Bob, that part really stood out to me, too. Beyond being self-serving it overlooks the huge effect that games have had on human culture since the beginning of civilization. The idea that games are only now, with the invention of video games, make us better people is absurd.

    Wednesday, June 25, 2008 at 6:28 pm | Permalink

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