Art! (And Games)

Fate has interesting ways of throwing you a curve ball, especially when you’re an unemployed university student whose program is finally getting up off the ground.  This weekend of mine – no doubt one I would have normally preferred to spend playing Spore on my new computer – was instead largely spent at TBA:08 – a Time-based media festival taking place in Portland, Oregon.

Admittedly, what I’ve seen and figured out during this time has been worth the trip.  Though I don’t think it’s justified to go far into the specific performances (of which I probably largely misinterpreted) I nonetheless am fond in speaking in generalizations.

Art is?

There was a point in my life – not too long ago, in fact, shortly before I started going to college full time – when I considered art to largely be a completely fruitless waste of time.  The trouble is that it does not seem to produce much in the way of material benefit.    Where is the benefit of taking perfectly good paint and placing it on perfectly good canvas?  Sure, you might create something that looks nice, but it’s just a pale imitation to life.

“I don’t know what art is,” I would say as the common philistine would, “but I know what I like.”  This is pretty, that’s nice, that’s evocative.  I still wouldn’t buy it, of course, it serves no purpose – but hey, good job.

That was before humanities class.  Before anthropology class.  Before music appreciation class.  Before my current university major, Digital Technology and Culture.  It was through my education that I came to realize that, in being a major appreciator of computer games, I had a certain appreciation of art to begin with.

Games Are Art… Once You Know What Art Is

The thing that fascinates me about computer games is that they are, more often than not, a creation of a new reality – a new meaning – where there previously was none.  The computer game developers utilize the computer and it’s interfaces – the programming language and content creation tools – to form a virtual environment in which the game takes place.  This applies to all games, not just virtual reality games: a chess game would require a visualization of a chessboard and the pieces as well as the underlying logic that runs the game, and viola, a new electronic reality of chess is created.

What I’ve come to realize about the purpose of art is that it is the same: It creates a new reality – a new meaning – where previously there was none.  There’s different ways of accomplishing this, and not all start from scratch, but the thing is that art fundamentally redefines reality.  Whether it evokes an emotion on behalf of the user is a very minor concern compared to the overall sweeping reality concept that is being framed and presented to the viewer to interpret.

So it is that, just like your average computer game, the main thing that stumps the artist is the implementation, which is a bitch.  You might start with a promising sounding concept and, regardless of whether you’re attempting to entertain or educate, there’s a fundamental challenge of how are you going to manifest this concept in a way the viewer can interpret?  This is made all the more difficult because the viewers bring their own mental baggage and expectations that will undoubtedly change the way they will interpret the stimuli that the artist delivers to them.


An interesting question posed to some artists speaking at the festival today is what is the worth or value of your art? This caused them to mentally bristle somewhat, of course – questioning the spoils of an artist’s work is a bit like questioning the worth of anyone’s job.  Had they reacted less defensively, the philosophical ramifications of the question placed are actually a bit easier to understand:

Worth, any worth, exists as a manifestation of the mind.  Worth cannot be found anywhere, but rather we find something and we assign worth to it.  Diamonds are but rocks, yet we assign worth to them and suddenly people are killing for them.  Money is an abstract concept, but (as good capitalists) we dance to its tune.  In the end, what worth you find in art is up to you, and the artist never had much control over that.

It’s ironic I had to pick up this lesson about art being the creation of meaning over an exhibit on absurdism, which is apparently an attempt to create art that demonstates the universe is without meaning.  In doing so, they inadverently(?) prove themselves wrong by attempting to create meaningful pieces about why there is no point to finding meaning.

Punching Out

So, that’s pretty much my current insight I’m picking up from classes right now.

Another good thing I’ll mention here is that I picked up a copy of The Art of Game Design by Jesse Schell. This is the same fellow who made Disney’s Toontown Online, an MMORPG that signifies success in an unusual manner: by being good enough that bored pundits like ourselves could not find adequate reason to criticize it.

The fundamental approach is not that hard to summarize:  As there’s no exact science to game design, the author offers an alternative method of finding structure.  100 different perspectives, or lenses, in which one’s game can be viewed to find new insight into how to make it entertaining.

I’m hoping that by reading this I can figure out how to make my BYOND game fun.  Currently, it’s a whole lot of sound and fury signifying nothing.  Specifically, a shared environment that uses the tragedy of the commons as an impetus for player conflict that, I’ve decided, I don’t want to turn out to be a total waste of time like similar games I’ve played that do this.  (For example: Planetside.)

What actually will happen, of course, is entirely up to my motivation to see this through.  Regardless, I think buying this book was $50 spent in the right direction, as apparently many of the lessons within are actually pretty good life lessons as well.

3 Responses

  1. Geldon-

    I really like how much you are thinking about this stuff! The issue of the purpose of art is something we may never understand. Lately, I’ve come to believe that art exists before we create it, and our job is just to bring it here … why? Because we need it to exist, and bringing it here changes us.

    I hope you like the book… Don’t forget to check out the deck of cards, too, at


  2. Hey, small Internet, thanks for dropping me a line. I’ve only had your book for about a day now, but I have to say I really am enjoying it. Brilliant stuff, I think I’ll learn a lot from it.

    What you’re mentioning here in regards to art reminds me of the story of the sculptor who claims that his task is not so much to build a statue out of the stone but rather to remove the stone from the statue that is already there.

    It’s a good point. I wonder that if, rather than a chicken or the egg scenario, perhaps it’s more of a two-way process.

    On one side, the art comes into existence because the attentive artist sees the need and brings it to be – or, as you put it it, it needs to exist – perhaps to complete one’s self – and your job is to bring it here.

    On the other side, we’ve the mad scientists among us (perhaps simply living in a different part of our minds) who seeks to transcend needs and brings art into existence because they’re simply tired of the old. They invent whole new realities not to complete themselves but rather to build an extension intended to bring radical change.

    (In this case, perhaps it’s understandable why many artists do not become well known until long after they’re dead.)

    Then, of course, there’s the middle ground. To bring radical change because it is needed. It’s still riskier than filling a visible niche, but less so than one who sends their imagination off to rape and pillage the countryside.

    In so doing, one both chips the stone from the statue and the statue from the stone. This is because they can see the stone (the need) and they can see the statue (the ideal). That seems like a more reasonable approach than just one or the other.

  3. Cool. Make sure you watch “A Bucket of Blood” sometime, if you haven’t.

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