GDX 2009: Ian Schreiber, Duchamp, Pollock, Rohrer: Games as the Next Avant-Garde

by Darius Kazemi on April 16, 2009

in art,conferences,criticism,design,gdx2009,journalism,patronage,transcript

Here are my raw session notes for Ian Schreiber’s GDX talk, Duchamp, Pollock, Rohrer: Games as the Next Avant-Garde. This is my best attempt at a transcription of what he said. Any mistakes or misinterpretations are mine and mine alone. My comments are in square brackets.

Hi everyone. I’m a pro game designer who knows just enough about art history to be dangerous. This talk is about why art history knowledge is important for devs.
Can games be art? Very few people bring art history into this discussion. Many of our questions were resolved hundreds of years ago.
What I want you to take away from this is a new way of looking at games and game design from ana rtistic perspective.
I’m going to start with an example from Koster’s “A Theory of Fun”. Around turn of the 20th century, up until that point painters were trying to paint things realistically. Then the camera was invented at which point painters asked themselves: what do we do now? Impressionism was one reaction to that. Impressionism depicts repetition with variation (music and visual art). Impressionism suggested that there is an unknowable, that there are things you can’t see and you have to observe the negative space around things to understand them.
In his book, Koster asks if you can make an impressionist game, where the formal systems focus on negative space, where the rules have repetition with variation. Yes you can: it’s called minesweeper! Up until the camera, painting was thought of as a way of depicting the world or something real, your painting was a representation of something real. It was a matter of time before people started thinking about art that is its own object, non-representational, not a reflection, nothing to do with reality.
Let’s think about this in terms of games and game design. Most designers are thinking of their games as mechanics simulating reality. Some entire genres are “sims” — it’s about representing reality or a fictional reality. No one would say that Da Vinci was a great simulationist painter. But simulation is so embedded in games even things that aren’t sims are sims: football and chess are abstract simulations of war. Some game designers will research reality and document those systems from reality in their game (Civilization).
The point is we’re stuck thinking of games as simulations. Painters are capable of making completely abstract art. Can you make a game where the systems and mechanics are not representing anything? What would a game look like where you make the rules to just create systems you think are beautiful?
Pollock was famous for flinging and dripping paint instead of using brush strokes. His art is about something: it tells the story of its own creation. If you look at the canvas you can tell how he made it: what came last, first, whether it was dripped or flung. His paintings are self-documenting, you don’t need an artist’s statement to tell you how he made it.
As far as I know there’s no game like this. Supposr you had a game where you could tel by playing it how it was designed? [What about Robin's Wario Ware as design lesson?]
I’d like to take a step away and talk about game reviews and criticism. There was a critic in the 30s and 40s named Clement Greenberg who told people what was good or bad modern art. This was needed, the public didn’t know how to judge these things. Greenberg says that good paintings should provide the same experience for every viewer. Around the ’50s, modern->postmodern shift, Harold? Rosenberg disagreed with Greenburg. Art should be interactive, not passive, that it can have multiple interpretations and that’s okay. Lastly, he said it shouldn’t just give an aesthetic experience, it should carry meaning as well.
Now we have games that a lot of people are calling art (picture of Gravitation on the screen), but not a lot of game art criticism. Our reviewers are Greenberg-esque, judging games on formal elements, if it’s fun for the reviewer it’ll be fun for the player. Problem is games are interactive, everyone has a different experience, that experience carries highly personal meaning. In short, games are a postmodern artform. At the same time we review them as if they’re modern art. Ask yourself, if you write reviews, what would postmodern game crit look like? If we accept games as varied experience, how do we review and critique that? Maybe some of Rosenberg’s points can help.
In 2005, Ebert said that games were not art and could not be art. Art requires authorship, games abdicate authorship to player, and so they’re not art. To Greenberg art was about the artist and not the audience, so Ebert’s argument was about 70 yrs old. Many game devs responded, the most quoted was from Clint Hocking, who made Rosenberg’s rebuttal. Nobody called Ebert/Hocking on the fact that they were reconstructing an argument that had already been resolved in the 50s. [Really? RESOLVED?]
The argument over what is or isn’t art is much older than Greenberg/Rosenburg. We can look back in 1917 at Duchamp. He created “Fountain”, which is a urinal. He said that even though he didn’t make it, he removed it from context, signed it, named it, therefore it’s art. His contemporaries disagreed, others agreed. The art world had to figure out whether Duchamp was an artist: they decided, yes, he was. As far as artists and art historians are concerned, games are art.
Game devs think that fine artists have it in for them, but that’s actually not true. I did a literature search in contemporary art criticism journals, found that there were a lot of articles that framed games as an artistic medium. They didn’t even bother making the case for it, it was assumed as true! Found one article going back to 1995. Games have been on art crit radar for a while. Could not find an art critic who declared games to not be art. It’s in the heads of game developers. We should invite more art critics to our game design parties, eh.
I’d like to call out a few of my favorite artists and examine what their games might look like.
Salvador Dali and surrealism. Surrealism was a rejection of the rationalist movement. The world is not entirely rational or explainable, there are some thing we can never really know. If you listen carefully to my description of rationalism, it describes games: games have immutable absolute rules. It’s possible for players to understand and predict all the rules completely, and sometimes it’s necessary. Can you have a surrealist game where the rules cannot be understood by the players? Not absolute rules hidden by code, but a game with undefined or random in ways not described by the original designer. Surrealists used a bunch of game-like activities. Exquisite corpse: you draw a line on paper, someone else draws a line, round robin until you have a drawing. This isn’t technically a game, there’s no goal or end condition, more of a collaborative activity, but the  basic mecfhanincs of this we’ve seen in games before (collaborative storytelling games).
Rule system of collaborative storytelling games or exquisite corpse ar not systemically surrealist, though.
Pop art and Andy Warhol. Warhol decided to exploit the broken pop culture system, calling attention to the problem of mass media. His work resonated so well with our mass culture, it became a part of it even though it mocked it. Here we have an artist telling us how stupid we’re being. What if a game developer did this? Can you make a game that celebrates the stupidity of games? That points out the stupid things endemic to that genre? Not by making fun of them but by epitomizing them. 
Joseph (Boyes?) wanted to heal socity and offer spiritual guidance through his art. This is an interesting idea for game developers to explore. Can you make a game that offers spiritual guidance to its players? Well, yes, Ultima IV, over 20 years ago did this. What have we done SINCE then? What game has done as much for morality since then? 
Nother artist, Cheri Levine ? who appropriates other people’s art. Richard Prince also known for appropriation (magazine ads out of context). Can you express an original idea using materials that are not original? Can you use other people’s work to express your own creative thoughts? Could you make a completely new game using the tileset and mechanics of an older game? ROM CHECK FAIL is an example. Could there be others? [Anna Anthropy covers a lot of this]
Richard Cera ? makes large sculptures from bold steel, make you feel helpless and afraid just from their scale. Makes you feel insignificant. People have petitioned to have his sculptures destroyed. Can a game do this? Shadow of the Colossus? Not so much, because Shadow is a David and Goliath story — you feel insignificant at first, but you eventually do it. [I would say Dwarf Fortress, Adventure mode especially] This is the opposite of most games, acting against the power fantasy.
The last thing I’d like to talk about is making money. Making money is part of the artistic process. Large scale projects [like the Christos] require millions of dollars of financing. How would you get people to give you money to build huge art projects? Artists make drawings, blueprints, scale models, photographs, etc. Basically design documents for these projects. Then they sell the prototypes and use that money to finance the building of the actual project. How much can you sell your game design documents for? How much would you pay to source code for early prototypes? Or models that didn’t make it into the game? What if instead of selling it after the fact, what if you sell it during production to finance the rest of the project? [Mount and Blade did this.] How would that change the face of game development?
These large scale things often need government approval, and the Christos have to convince politicians often hostile towards artists, yet they often succeed because they involve the public in their work. At a hearing, Christo said, “Like it or not, you are part of this project and this hearing is a part of the artistic process.” What would our games be like if positive public image were part of the development process? Invite the media in during development and ask the public to contribute to the process. What if we were not so secretive? Would this help us get more accepted in mass culture and mass media?
What about the patronage model of funding? [I wrote a big article about this.] Instead of selling an indie game for $20 and hope to get 2500 copies sold, what if you sold the game, source and all, to one person for $50k? [Isn't that the dev/pub arrangement a lot, particularly in casual games?]
Artists have struggled with representing the human condition and making transformative works for a lot longer than game devs have. Art history has a lot to teach us. Petri Purho’s “4m33s of Uniqueness” was based on John Cage’s “4m33s of Silence”. The idea is to listen to sounds that you normally don’t listen to amplified by the silence. Is it music if someone is not playing notes? In 4m33s of Uniqueness, there are no controls, just starting and stopping the game. But it raises the same questions that Cage’s work does. Is it even a game if there’s no play? What activities are you doing in 4m33s when you’re doing nothing? You’re thinking about the game, staring at the screen, alt-tabbing to check your email, whatever. Does this game have meaningful choices? Is one choice whether to start the game in the first place? Do you restart it immediately? Do you write a program to make sure nobody can ever win?
You don’t have to copy Cage’s ideas, but copy someone else’s!
There are not a lot of games out there that are art games, because people don’t understand art history. Take Braid for example. The game *looks* impressionistic, but its story is inspired by surrealism [and Calvino], and the game mechanics are neither. The mechanics revolve around solving consistent puzzles with unique knowable solutions, so it’s really more rationalist than surrealist! The gameplay is about movement and understanding, so maybe Italian futurism. Braid combines three different art styles in three different ways, there’s a disconnect between the art style, the story, and the mechanics from an artistic sense. This probably wasn’t intentional. It seems like it was chosen to make the game look like art to someone who doesn’t know art history. A true art game would have unified art style across all its elements.
This is great news for everyone in this room. In this room is more collective knowledge of art history than probably all practicing game designers put together [we are at an art school]. Go out there and make some games!
Q: There is a difference between the subject matter of a game and the rules of the game. In surrealism, it’s about the subject matter being the rules, so what about Magic the Gathering, where the rules are the subject?
A: Yes, anything where the rules of the game write the rules, that seems surrealist. Is this the only possible surrealist game? In terms of Magic, the games rules are knowable: if you know all the cards you can map out the possibliity space.
Q: How would you critique Super Columbine Massacre RPG? 
A: How do you critique games in general due to the different reactions of people? Some people thought it was brilliant, others hated it. That’s an open question.
Q: Are game designers limited by needing to make things accessible to the greater public?
A: No. [basically]
Q: Your critique of games based on these old schools. But impressionism, futurism, surrealism are dead movements. Why look at these for inspiration? They were self-contained at the time they existed, but only via history. There are elements of past schools in later schools. [This was 
Jason Rohrer's question, btw.]
A: The original things that set off these movements may no longer be valid, but impressionists did express specific things in certain ways for specific reasons. I’m not saying don’t mix art movements, but I am saying that if you mix things they should be mixed meaningfully. Have a reason to mix these things. [Jason responds: "I think Jon chose those styles for a reason."]
Q: Do you think all games are art, or only some? Where do you draw the line?
A: Open question, you should read the original Greenberg/Rosenberg discussions.
[Okay my hand is falling off, I'm done taking notes!]


solipsistnation April 16, 2009 at 9:41 pm

Game what points out how stupid games are by epitomizing the stupidity: Serious Sam.

Game that makes you feel insignificant, helpless and afraid from the scale: STALKER, to some extent

Michel April 17, 2009 at 1:51 am

“That points out the stupid things endemic to that genre? Not by making fun of them but by epitomizing them.”

Metal Gear Solid series.

I agree with Jason. I’m not sure what Art HISTORY has to teach us about where to take this brand new medium.

Ian Schreiber April 19, 2009 at 12:49 am

I should have been clearer in my presentation about this, but my intent was not to ask a bunch of “how would you make a game like this” questions just to have them answered… but rather to get people to ask their own questions along the same lines. Look at the system that is driving me to ask these questions, and ask your own.

For the purposes of those of you who want to google some of these artists, here are the correct spellings:
Marcel Duchamp (creater of the urinal “Fountain”)
Clement Greenberg and Harold Rosenberg (art critics)
Joseph Beuys (shaman / spiritual guide / artist)
Sherry Levine and Richard Prince (appropriation artists)
Richard Serra (known for his huge, imposing sculptures in rolled steel)

@Michel: what does art history tell us? It gives us answers to some of the questions we’re struggling with. This may be a new artistic medium, but ART is old, and frankly we are so wrapped up in this whole mindset of “it’s all new” that we re-invent the wheel and try to solve artistic problems that have already been addressed centuries ago. Those who do not study their history are doomed to repeat it, and all that.

Today’s captcha word is ‘pecis’, which is so close to being dirty. Pecis.

Darren Torpey April 21, 2009 at 4:48 pm

“What if instead of selling it after the fact, what if you sell it during production to finance the rest of the project? [Mount and Blade did this.]“

I’ve become very interested in this idea as a growing trend for indies. Cortex Command has been doing this for quite a while, from what I understand.

We had a good chat with Nels Anderson and some folks from Stardock about this at gamerDNA’s Tweetup at GDC ’09…
I think people will be willing to “invest” in the niche titles that indies are making for them (people like them, specifically) because they can easily identify with a small company/production, because those companies/people can keep in touch more intimately (through media like email, Facebook, and Twitter), and because the “investors” have personal stake in it — after all, the games are probably niche precisely because they’re catering closely to the desires of their target audience.

Indies will be wise to experiment with this kind of relationship with their potential (or existing, “alpha”) players because it allows them to flex their competitive advantage over the AAA market and really capitalize on the power of making games more more strongly-targeted audiences (even if it’s only niche to begin with due to an initial exposure problem — see the history of Harmonix Music)

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