Extra Credits Addendum: Discussing the Role of the Player

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Extra Credits Addendum: Discussing the Role of the Player

James Portnow from Extra Credits discusses the role of the player with the lead designer of Amnesia: The Dark Descent.

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Have to say, as much as I like the Extra Punctuation guys, I think Thomas Grip is in the right on this one.

The term artist is essentially another word for 'creator'. When you make a piece of art, you are creating something for others to experience and (hopefully) enjoy, though in this era of 'modern-art', other reactions are also often sought by artists (anger, disgust, etc). Thus, the designers and writers of any given videogame are artists in that they create virtual worlds full of colour and sounds within which the player is invited to explore.

The role of the player, therefore, is fundamentally different. Even with the most non-linear, sandbox games, the player is never creating anything. They are simply experiencing the world within the confines that the developers have allowed. In a fantasy RPG, you may be able to turn your character into a stealthy ranger, a powerful mage, or a heroic warrior, but you're not creating anything new when you're doing so. You're simply experiencing and exploring the different possibilities that the developers have created and offered to you. Barring games that explicitly allow for player made content (Little BigPlanet and the like), the only things the player can play with are the things the developer has already created and included in the game.

Now, in more non-linear games, the absence of a cohesive character narrative can lead players to create their own imaginary backstories for the characters they've customised. That doesn't make them artists. As Mr Grip says in his blog, many people create imaginary backstories for secondary characters in films and books. That doesn't make book-readers and film-viewers artists. Creating an imaginary backstory for your character is not art as long as it simply remains in your head, just like hearing a great piece of music but not writing it down or playing it doesn't make you a musician. Being an artist is taking those moments of creativity and inspiration, and setting them down in a medium for others to observe and react to.

Tolkien would not have been an artist if he had simply kept his Middle-Earth mythos in his imagination. Same for George RR Martin with A Song Of Ice And Fire. Jimmy Page wouldn't have been an artist if Stairway To Heaven had only lived in his mind, and never progressed to his guitar. Being an artist is developing the skill of taking the abstract and immaterial ideas that form in your imagination, and making them material. Playing around with the various toys a developer has included in their virtual world is simply not the same process. Everything within any virtual world is only there because the developers intentionally put it there. Therefore, you the player are not discovering anything abstract or unknown, you're simply finding stuff the developer hid from you. Playing a videogame is no more artistic than playing a game of hide-and-seek.

That's not to say we shouldn't challenge the player role, or look at it in new ways. But trying to claim it as an artistic position is simply misguided, I believe. All art needs an audience in order to give it context. Videogames are no different in this regard.

I imagine the player like the reader and the video game like a 'Choose your own adventure' book. Sure, each reader gets a different plot experience each time depending on their choices, but there are a limited number of choices and it was the writer who laid out the map of possibilities.

A video game to me in the context of this discussion is similar to an extremely long and complicated 'Choose your own adventure'. There may be such a huge number of possible plots that no two people would ever have the same experience and it would still have been the writer who laid out the plot.

Of course, a developer would want a player to be so involved in their story, setting or characters that they begin imagining their own scenarios, but I don't believe that one can be considered an artist until they actually make the jump to expressing themselves creatively. In the context of being involved in a video game, the player is merely following guidelines set by the one who created the work. Should they go off and use those characters to write fan-fiction or make machinima for example, then i would consider them to be artists.

Insightful. This discussion here is bonafide insightful. I don't know who may be the most right or who may be the most wrong, but when you break it down, so far in the history of games, games have always been entertainment products, designed to sell or appeal to a fanbase. True there are artsy games, but people who invested in the game need to make their money back, therefore the designers and such need to create something engaging and fun, since video games are, as one of those two words implies, GAMES. Some have their merits, but when you get right down to it, I bet every game developer tries to make their games FUN, if for no other reason than that they might be out of a job a week after release.

It'll be interesting to see what form video games take in the next decades, and what lessons the people who invest, make, and indeed play, decide to learn.

I'm with Mr Grip on this one.

When playing a game, even a non-linear game like Dwarf Fortress or Minecraft, I do not feel like I am telling a story. Rather, I am experiencing one. Some games allow me to have varying degrees of influence on the outcome of that story, and that's great, but it's far removed from the process of actually creating a story.

I think that it is also important to consider that creativity, artistry, and storytelling might not be just a qualitative question and more of a quantitative question in this case. Consider two different games: Portal 2 and Sid Meier's Pirates! for example.

Portal 2 severely restricts the players action and delivers really tight, exciting, gameplay action, while at the same time telling you a great story. The designers created the entire narrative, as you guys defined it, except for maybe some of the pacing and deaths. It's really hard to call the the gamer artistic (except in the way mathematical proofs are artistic and beautiful).

In Pirates!, the designers lay out the framework and a very loose story, leaving the player to create a story. In this case, the argument that the player is a storyteller is much stronger. He is a pirate or a merchant. Some of the backstory the player creates is the same type that watchers of film get, but from that point on the player continues the story. The player makes the decisions that shape the story.

It seems as the more choices, (and not just arbitrary ones like do I act like Hitler or Jesus to get the ending I want) the more the player acts as a storyteller.

For a more extreme example of my point, consider FFXIII against Minecraft.

Personally I think it's says alot that games like The Sims 3 and Oblivion last well after their intended use through player creativity.

I agree with @BgRdMchne in that it is dependant on the type of game. I can use The Sims 3 to create a story and world around my characters but in Mario Galaxy the story is pretty much laid out. However, they are both excellent games. There are only a ceratin types of games that encourage EP's 'role of the player'. Curiously these tend to be the most long lived ones which I think is what developers need to take away from this discussion.

I'd just like to point something out. At one point, it's mentioned that 'nobody would make a game based on the real experience of farming' or something like that. There actually is a farming simulator called Farming Simulator 2011. Just wanted to point that out.

j-e-f-f-e-r-s:
Have to say, as much as I like the Extra Punctuation guys, I think Thomas Grip is in the right on this one.

The term artist is essentially another word for 'creator'. When you make a piece of art, you are creating something for others to experience and (hopefully) enjoy, though in this era of 'modern-art', other reactions are also often sought by artists (anger, disgust, etc). Thus, the designers and writers of any given video game are artists in that they create virtual worlds full of colour and sounds within which the player is invited to explore.

The role of the player, therefore, is fundamentally different. Even with the most non-linear, sandbox games, the player is never creating anything. They are simply experiencing the world within the confines that the developers have allowed. In a fantasy RPG, you may be able to turn your character into a stealthy ranger, a powerful mage, or a heroic warrior, but you're not creating anything new when you're doing so. You're simply experiencing and exploring the different possibilities that the developers have created and offered to you. Barring games that explicitly allow for player made content (Little BigPlanet and the like), the only things the player can play with are the things the developer has already created and included in the game.

Now, in more non-linear games, the absence of a cohesive character narrative can lead players to create their own imaginary backstories for the characters they've customised. That doesn't make them artists. As Mr Grip says in his blog, many people create imaginary backstories for secondary characters in films and books. That doesn't make book-readers and film-viewers artists. Creating an imaginary backstory for your character is not art as long as it simply remains in your head, just like hearing a great piece of music but not writing it down or playing it doesn't make you a musician. Being an artist is taking those moments of creativity and inspiration, and setting them down in a medium for others to observe and react to.

Tolkien would not have been an artist if he had simply kept his Middle-Earth mythos in his imagination. Same for George RR Martin with A Song Of Ice And Fire. Jimmy Page wouldn't have been an artist if Stairway To Heaven had only lived in his mind, and never progressed to his guitar. Being an artist is developing the skill of taking the abstract and immaterial ideas that form in your imagination, and making them material. Playing around with the various toys a developer has included in their virtual world is simply not the same process. Everything within any virtual world is only there because the developers intentionally put it there. Therefore, you the player are not discovering anything abstract or unknown, you're simply finding stuff the developer hid from you. Playing a videogame is no more artistic than playing a game of hide-and-seek.

That's not to say we shouldn't challenge the player role, or look at it in new ways. But trying to claim it as an artistic position is simply misguided, I believe. All art needs an audience in order to give it context. Videogames are no different in this regard.

Why is it that one needs to actually make their art visible to others to be considered an artist? You see, I disagree with you on that point. Every person who plays through any video game is bringing their experience to life. Most of the time, that experience is only experienced by them or a small group of people who may be watching, but that person is going through a unique experience and crafting the game world in their own mind whenever they play through a game. I think that's why people enjoy watching the 'Let's Play' type of videos. They allow people to view a person experiencing and building their own artistic experience with a game. That's also why the best are those that have some narration, as then you can get an idea of what the person playing it is experiencing.

While it's true that a person would make their work seen by others to be known as an artist, does that really make them less of an artist if they don't share it? Are they somehow less creative because they don't share their creativity with others? I'm sure there are plenty of creative stories that are not formed because the one who creates the doesn't have the knowledge or ability to craft it right.

I can understand both sides of the argument, but I do think that everyone is an artist in their own way. In the end, we create the world as we experience it, and while this might be the same for the outer world, each person can experience the same virtual world is radically different ways. It isn't about creating their own character's stories as much as creating their own story with the game based off the experiences and moments they have with it. That's my opinion at least.

I'm going to have to mainly agree with James here.

The way the player experiences a videogame is fundamentally different from how one experiences a book or a movie. Whether or not you want to go as far as putting the player at the same level as the developers, I suppose thats a judgement call - but its undeniable that a player is fundamentally different than a 'watcher' or a 'reader' and should be treated as such.

Videogames are engaging in ways that no other media can be.
If you forget that - you're losing sight of what videogames can really become, given the chance.

Oh God, James, I'm so sorry for you. Grip clobbered you in that one.

The argument that if you were to hook them up to a machine reading brainwaves a game player's experience would be more similar to a book writer's than a book reader's is, I'm sorry, completely idiotic without proof. All you're saying is, 'I believe this to be the case, and I believe that this is the case so clearly that science would prove it if it tried.' It's the exact same thing than if Ebert was saying 'I'm sure that if you hook the brains of people playing video games to a machine reading brainwaves it would not trigger the ART response that all other mediums would.' It tomorrow a study came out proving that what you said was right you'd still be in the wrong because it'd still be baseless speculation.

And in that point, if you argue that games are more engaging than books, I recommend you read better books. If I'm reading a book and it reads 'the dragon flew into the crevice', then I'm imagining the whole thing. I have to imagine the dragon, the crevice, the things that made the dragon do this, the background details that the book says exist in that area. If the dragon is near the Tower of Ultimate Wizardy I'm going to imagine that in the background. If the dragon is wounded I need to imagine that. And I need to imagine how a dragon flies, because there is no such thing in reality. Whereas if I'm playing a game, I'm alreadly seeing the crevice, the dragon, the ToUW in the background, the blood seeping from the dragon because it's at 45% health. Sure, I need to actually guide the dragon down into the crevice, but my focus is at dodging the obstacles in there; It's a clerical focus as opposed to a creative one.

The theory that you're just reading crappy books would probably explain why after the aforementioned video everyone in the comments was doing the closest thing you could do on the internet to holding you by the ears and shouting 'INTERTEXTUALITY, MOTHERFUCKER'. It's sad to see someone who strives to be an artist in one's field lacking such basic knowledge of such an important thing.

As for the Madden rules = paint, that's also a deceptive metaphor. Think of all the things one could do with paint. I could give it to a master painter and he would turn the paint into a masterpiece. I could give it to two master painters of different styles and they would turn the paint into two completely different masterpieces. Or I could give the paint to a six-year-old and he would turn it into a stick man and a smiling sun. Meanwhile, while the details of the Madden game narrative would differ depending on the game, it would always make sense, and it would always be a game of football. If I gave the controller to a pro gamer he would create a narrative about the Los Angeles Devastators crushing the opposition and scoring more points than have ever been scored in the history of the univerese, while if I gave the controller to a six-year-old it would create a narrative about the Los Angeles Devastators completely forgetting how to pass the ball and being clobbered in a shameful defeat; that is, two essentially idential narratives only from opposite points of view. Compare this to our theoretical paintings and you can see how much of the art lies in a bucket of paint compared to how much of the narrative lies in a game's code. If paint worked like games anyone picking it up would be able to do a masterpiece.

I can appreciate that your point is that games should strive to give more freedom to the player, be more Minecraft than, uh, Dragon's Lair. And while I agree with this sentiment, I believe that it's like saying that all books should have heavy subtext and be about the condition of humanity. Sure, books like that are great, but sometimes you just want to read some Agatha Christie, you know? I agree that the Half-Life/Modern Warfare school of games like movies only not quite is over represented these days, but to eschew it completely - or to denounce them as somehow being anathema to the very concept of games - is not the solution.

I personally don't feel games are any more unique in terms of story telling / participatory relationship than books or films, all three require the story teller and participant, and each would either not exist, or be meaningless without the other.
Also just because games let you physically explore the world [unless it's a JRPG Lulz satire] doesn't make it different to thinking about the bigger picture behind books or films, a perfect example of this would be the picture of Dorian Gray, we are given these large time gaps and little expansion on what happens in these times, so we are permitted to make them up by our own faculties. Does this make us an artist too? I personally think not, but I'm too sleepy to argue my point, maybe tomorrow. Anyways, what makes this different from say, Halo, where we can think more deeply into the backgrounds of the characters or setting that isn't developed on?

There's nothing in this regard more special about games than other mediums, well that's my view anyway.

BgRdMchne:
I think that it is also important to consider that creativity, artistry, and storytelling might not be just a qualitative question and more of a quantitative question in this case. Consider two different games: Portal 2 and Sid Meier's Pirates! for example.

Portal 2 severely restricts the players action and delivers really tight, exciting, gameplay action, while at the same time telling you a great story. The designers created the entire narrative, as you guys defined it, except for maybe some of the pacing and deaths. It's really hard to call the the gamer artistic (except in the way mathematical proofs are artistic and beautiful).

In Pirates!, the designers lay out the framework and a very loose story, leaving the player to create a story. In this case, the argument that the player is a storyteller is much stronger. He is a pirate or a merchant. Some of the backstory the player creates is the same type that watchers of film get, but from that point on the player continues the story. The player makes the decisions that shape the story.

It seems as the more choices, (and not just arbitrary ones like do I act like Hitler or Jesus to get the ending I want) the more the player acts as a storyteller.

For a more extreme example of my point, consider FFXIII against Minecraft.

Yeah, I'd agree with you there. It's not black/white, these kinds of things rarely are - but the way is see it is like this.

You have your primary choices. These are things like whether to harvest or save the little sisters in BioShock, choices that have been clearly implemented into the narrative by the developers to change the outcome of the story. Then we have the Secondary - taking your example of Portal 2, in that game there were tonnes of secrets that the player could find - the portrait, the Rattman dens, breaking the monitors, etc. These weren't obvious choices, but they definitely affected your experience of the game, albeit in a non story-changing way.

But then there's the Tertiary choices - the ones the player makes throughout the game. This can be anything from which weapon you choose to fight the final boss of DOOM, to whole experiences that only you would have - you must have hundreds of stories you could tell from the games you've played, from 'that time I walked into that flashy object and got blown up' to 'when that Hitmonlee was about to win the match with hi-jump kick... and it missed'. This places games in a very strange position.

Take, for example, Mass Effect, where you have primary choices at every corner. Is the gamer the artist in this? Maybe not, all of the possible plotlines have been pre-empted by the developers. They take center-stage, not the player. But then we look at Secondary and Tertiary choices, and things become a whole lot more interesting.

The game offers a LOT of sidequests for the player to go through. The player almost has more choice here than the straight Primary choices of the Main Quest - mathematically, think of all the different possibilities for which ones you do! Is the player the artist here? Well, probably still no, but we're getting closer.

Tertiary choices come into play during the gameplay itself, and they are the truly individual experiences. I like to think of this like a 'blind artist', the player truly is getting to apply his own paints. It may not affect the storyline (things like the gas grenades are more like Primary choices), but it definitely affects the experience. Is the player the artist here? I'm not sure. But it's very close to a 'yes'.

As an addendum, there are a lot of examples, usually involving individual experiences rather than the games themselves, where the gamer is clearly the artist. Roleplaying in an Elder Scrolls game, your own example of MineCraft - these are times when the player is creating their own art, mostly free from the constraints of the game. And while some might argue that these constraints are the reason that players are not the artist, doesn't every medium have restrictions? Filmmakers to their cast and SFX, Musicians to their instruments and recording equipment, Game Developers to their programming tools - all of them are restrictive. And that's about it.

Kapol:
I think that's why people enjoy watching the 'Let's Play' type of videos. They allow people to view a person experiencing and building their own artistic experience with a game. That's also why the best are those that have some narration, as then you can get an idea of what the person playing it is experiencing.

I don't think that quite qualifies as art, though. I was watching some videos this week of motorcyclists riding in traffic and giving tips. They were experiencing something unique within set parameters (roads, traffic, rules) but they weren't really creating anything. Playing through a game is similar. You experience the art within parameters set by the artists and designers, you don't create those parameters. Even the unique experiences in a game--the ones that differ from player to player--are a product of how the artists built the game.

A visitor to a unique building is not a co-architect, no matter how many nooks and crannies they try to explore. Future visitors are an essential consideration in the creative process, but they aren't participants in it.

I think my response to this is fairly simple.

I am writing a Mass Effect and Falliout 3 novelisation (actually I've finished ME1 and am working on ME2). I have read three other FO3 novelisations and two ME2 novelisations, and not one of them, including my own, tells the same story.

I guess you could argue that it only applies to Role Playing Games but I don't think that's true either. Even taking the most simply experience, say of Lara Croft fighting a boss, and ask a whole range of gamers how it happened.

If you read the Lara Croft comic book and asked a whole bunch of people how a fight happened, they would all basically tell it the same way, because the source is the same. 'Lara did this, then she did this, then the boss died, the end..' And no matter how many times they read the fight scene, or how many times you asked them to describe it, you'd always get the same sequence of events happening the same way.

Now ask someone to explain how they killed a boss in a Tomb Raider games. Some will describe a daring and terrifying drawn out firefight, with Lara hiding behind any cover she could find, bleeding and wounded and with no way to heal herself. Others will describe a boring long range pot-shot match where Lara covered herself in bandages whenever she got so much as a splinter. And the even better part is, if you asked the same gamer to play it twice and describe his experiences both times, you'd get an entirely different experience just from one person.

It kind of comes down to characterisation through the act of playing. Gamers went ballistic over the changes to Samus in Other M, and part of the argument was always 'just because she never had a voice didn't mean she wasn't characterised.' I think the Extra Credits guys even did a whole video on the things you know about Samus simply through gameplay. Well if everyone plays the game differently, everyone will have adifferent view of who and what Samus is, ie. They will have created their own character. Back to Lara Croft because I don't actually play Metroid.

I tend to play Tomb Raider very cautiously. I don't use healing items often and quite regularly find myself limping through really tough fights with nothing more than my pistols because I don't like wasting ammo either. My view of Lara is thus of a tough survivalist who understands that you save your insurance policies for when you need them. My Lara Croft is a very mobile fighter who trusts in speed and agility over a big gun and determination. She hoards everything, not just ancient relics. She plots her course through platforming sections before she begins, and dislikes when she is rushed into things.

Someone else playing Lara might have her as a reckless character who makes leaps of faith more often than plotting her course, who uses all her ammo for her biggest gun on a little bunny rabbit. Yahtzee made a point about how he views Lara as a remorseless career thief and apart from some dialogue during the cutscenes, or some backstory that gets revealed in the guidebooks etc there's nothing that says my interpretation of her as an altruist who doesn't like killing (a view I took from reading the comics) is any better or worse than his.

I guess to try and pull this back on point is to say that if you read a book, beyond speculating about a character's motivations if and only if they aren't spelled out, the character of a novel or film will always be exactly the same. It cannot be changed simply by force of will, once something has been set in stone about the character, it will always be that way. The Lone Wanderer, Samus, Lara, Shepard, any character you care to mention, their actions are informed by the way you play the game, and thus their personality is always partly under your control, because no one will ever play the game in the same way that you will. They won't, to compare to books again, read the same words as you do. They are creating through their actions.

SirBryghtside:
sniiip

quoted for the highest level of truth, I believe what James is trying to say is that what one does during a game (in madden, say, doing something ridiculous like getting an amazing touchdown (I'm not very good at football)) is what makes it art, not the actions given to you by the developer. Sure you can murder a puppy or save an orphan girl in a pre-rendered cinematic, but that isn't the art that James was talking about, because that's all predetermined. what he was talking about was when you have a free range of choices to make, like who you shoot first during the action sequences of the game, how, and with what. Those are choices that the developer couldn't possibly guide you to make. I think we can draw from this that limiting a player's creative freedom also limits their fun (enemies who are invincible anything except my rocket launcher? Fuck off, maybe I want to run through the whole game using only my pistol. Who are you to say I can't?)

Kapol:

Why is it that one needs to actually make their art visible to others to be considered an artist? You see, I disagree with you on that point. Every person who plays through any video game is bringing their experience to life. Most of the time, that experience is only experienced by them or a small group of people who may be watching, but that person is going through a unique experience and crafting the game world in their own mind whenever they play through a game. I think that's why people enjoy watching the 'Let's Play' type of videos. They allow people to view a person experiencing and building their own artistic experience with a game. That's also why the best are those that have some narration, as then you can get an idea of what the person playing it is experiencing.

See, here's the fundamental flaw with your argument as I see it. Creating art and experiencing art are two entirely separate things. No two people who've ever looked at the Mona Lisa are ever going to have exactly the same reaction or interpretation. Everyone looks at the picture and experiences it in their own way. That's what experiencing art is.

You seem to think games are unique in offering unique experiences to the audience when that simply isn't the case. The best example I can think of is books. When you're reading a book, your imagination constructs the world in your head using the text given in the story. And no two people are ever going to picture the same story identically in their heads. If we both read Brave New World, I will imagine the main character as looking one way, and you will picture them looking differently, probably radically so. Same with the other characters, the buildings and cities that make up the setting, the vehicles. Experiencing art is inherently a unique, personal thing. Just because you have a different experience to playing Mass Effect to your friend, that no more makes you an artist than having a different reaction to a Rembrandt painting makes you a painter.

While it's true that a person would make their work seen by others to be known as an artist, does that really make them less of an artist if they don't share it? Are they somehow less creative because they don't share their creativity with others? I'm sure there are plenty of creative stories that are not formed because the one who creates the doesn't have the knowledge or ability to craft it right.

And that's the point. Simply having a creative mind doesn't make you an artist. A creative mindis simply part of having an imagination: it's part of being human. The artist is the person who can take those creative ideas, and represent them in some medium or other. You cannot be an artist without having made some kind of art, just like you can't be a carpenter without having made some furniture. So therefore, I would say you do have to have something to show others if you wish to be an artist. Whether you choose to show others is a different matter, but you cannot be an artist without first having made a piece of art. Playing through a game is not making a piece of art.

I can understand both sides of the argument, but I do think that everyone is an artist in their own way. In the end, we create the world as we experience it, and while this might be the same for the outer world, each person can experience the same virtual world is radically different ways. It isn't about creating their own character's stories as much as creating their own story with the game based off the experiences and moments they have with it. That's my opinion at least.

And this brings me back to my original point: creating art and experiencing art are two completely different things. What you're saying is demonstratable of that. When two people experience the same virtual world in radically different ways, it's no different to two art lovers who react to the same painting in different ways, or two film-buffs who react to a film in different ways. You're experiencing the art, and in doing so you're proving yourself to be part of the audience (the ones who experience the art), not the artist (the one who creates the art).

MelasZepheos:

I am writing a Mass Effect and Falliout 3 novelisation (actually I've finished ME1 and am working on ME2). I have read three other FO3 novelisations and two ME2 novelisations, and not one of them, including my own, tells the same story.

Writing a novel is an act of artistry, but I wouldn't consider the experience that informs it art, per se. If you wrote a novel about a trip to India, it would be based on a unique experience, but going to India wasn't the art part. Writing the book is.

In the same way, playing a game isn't art. There may be creative elements to the experience, but you are not an artist when all you're doing is playing through a world and story that someone else created. Even when you create your own fun within the system, that's only scratching the surface of art. I should specify that while my definition of art is generous, it doesn't include actions like playing a game. A person reading a book does a lot of mental creation to build an internal image of the story's world, but they are not creating art as they do that. We can't let our definition of art get too broad, otherwise we end up lumping things like "author" and "reader" into the same category. Players are of course vital to any video game and I don't want to downplay their role in the experience, but to call them 'artists' in the same way that we call the devs and designers 'artists,' is an inexact way of expressing their importance.

jjhoho:

SirBryghtside:
sniiip

quoted for the highest level of truth, I believe what James is trying to say is that what one does during a game (in madden, say, doing something ridiculous like getting an amazing touchdown (I'm not very good at football)) is what makes it art, not the actions given to you by the developer. Sure you can murder a puppy or save an orphan girl in a pre-rendered cinematic, but that isn't the art that James was talking about, because that's all predetermined. what he was talking about was when you have a free range of choices to make, like who you shoot first during the action sequences of the game, how, and with what. Those are choices that the developer couldn't possibly guide you to make. I think we can draw from this that limiting a player's creative freedom also limits their fun (enemies who are invincible anything except my rocket launcher? Fuck off, maybe I want to run through the whole game using only my pistol. Who are you to say I can't?)

And if you read my whole post, that was almost exactly what I was saying :P

j-e-f-f-e-r-s:
[...]
The role of the player, therefore, is fundamentally different. Even with the most non-linear, sandbox games, the player is never creating anything. They are simply experiencing the world within the confines that the developers have allowed. In a fantasy RPG, you may be able to turn your character into a stealthy ranger, a powerful mage, or a heroic warrior, but you're not creating anything new when you're doing so. You're simply experiencing and exploring the different possibilities that the developers have created and offered to you. Barring games that explicitly allow for player made content (Little BigPlanet and the like), the only things the player can play with are the things the developer has already created and included in the game.

I completely agree.
The game that the developer (artist) creates has certain constraints (or "rules") that the player has to stay within. The creative process the player can experience is inherently limited, and this is a good thing. Putting all (or even most) of the act of creation in the hands of the player severely limits the new kind of experience and/or narrative the designers can present.

Art is about presenting a message, often in the form of an unconventional perspective in a familiar context (a new "point of view" on the matter at hand). Good art communicates this message well, which is the familiar context. If the artist does not create any context or "framework" (aka constraints/rules), then the receiver/audience will be completely lost. Absurdist works play with this because they want the alienation effect, but most works don't.

My point is this: Making the player the artist will a) Alienate the player (no sense of direction) and b) prevent the possibility of the developer creating a new perspective (aka creating something new and compelling).

I don't think we can think any longer about presenting our narrative to an audience, but rather about exploring a narrative with a player. No matter how constricted, we are laying out a space of possibility rather than a conventional narrative, and no matter how linear we make our games there are details that the player must fill in.

I would love to go into chaotic systems and procedural thinking here, but the point is still the same: The developers create a game with constraints wherein the player can act. No matter what the player does they will always live within the world the developers have created. It may be an extremely complicated nest of branching storylines, but the storylines don't diverge to infinity. All choices you make will inevitably take you to an ending the developer has created. And the ending is generally the final punchline in the message the developer/artist wants to convey, and taking that away will not improve storytelling in games.

The Random One:
Oh God, James, I'm so sorry for you. Grip clobbered you in that one.

Oh, sour!

The Random One:

I can appreciate that your point is that games should strive to give more freedom to the player, be more Minecraft than, uh, Dragon's Lair. And while I agree with this sentiment, I believe that it's like saying that all books should have heavy subtext and be about the condition of humanity. Sure, books like that are great, but sometimes you just want to read some Agatha Christie, you know? I agree that the Half-Life/Modern Warfare school of games like movies only not quite is over represented these days, but to eschew it completely - or to denounce them as somehow being anathema to the very concept of games - is not the solution.

This. So much this. I have no idea who you are but I think I like you.

Personally, I'm more into advocating more multiplayer and cooperation in games, because I think this is one of the things (computer/video) games have a good grip on. I would really like to see Extra Credits tackle videogames as a form of instant and intercontinental sport. (Sport in the broad definition that would also include chess/bridge etc.)

SirBryghtside:

jjhoho:

SirBryghtside:
sniiip

quoted for the highest level of truth, I believe what James is trying to say is that what one does during a game (in madden, say, doing something ridiculous like getting an amazing touchdown (I'm not very good at football)) is what makes it art, not the actions given to you by the developer. Sure you can murder a puppy or save an orphan girl in a pre-rendered cinematic, but that isn't the art that James was talking about, because that's all predetermined. what he was talking about was when you have a free range of choices to make, like who you shoot first during the action sequences of the game, how, and with what. Those are choices that the developer couldn't possibly guide you to make. I think we can draw from this that limiting a player's creative freedom also limits their fun (enemies who are invincible anything except my rocket launcher? Fuck off, maybe I want to run through the whole game using only my pistol. Who are you to say I can't?)

And if you read my whole post, that was almost exactly what I was saying :P

pfffft I read your whole post I just couldn't think of anything to say and didn't want to have my ass handed to me for a low-content post ;) plus my mind is like so off right now, it doesn't even bear thinking about

Well this topic brings out the wordy, insightful responses.

The player is an artist on a track. They have an experience plotted out and a road to follow, even a vehicle equipped to pop a wheelie occasionally. And yet the randomly generated clouds above him could look like a bunny and a dragon, without the intention of them being as such. A shortcut can be found by breaking a wall or two built weakly. And occasionally he pops a wheelie, riding backwards, on the back of a dragon he's supposed to be shooting at. He could just drive on the road, but that's not interesting enough.

A player throws at least a bit of the artistic mind, the literary mind at a situation even in mere interpretation. Simply how you interpret a scene relies on your own wit sometimes, regardless of whether you are filling in the blanks in your head. I agree that the gamer is not so much the primary "artist" of a game, but perhaps a highlighter, perhaps an editor. A good deal of the "art" a gamer can attempt to make are things the designers intended for them to do, so it becomes less the art of the player and more of just another experience the designer wrote for you. A skilled designer can do this alot I imagine. Its one thing to design a game so that the character takes certain paths, but something more when it is designed to craft a person's psyche as they play through.

Even in a less...story oriented segment, the player can craft strategies in situations that become their own take to a situation. But then, what if a sequence is made so that the player will develop certain strategies. Is the strategy something created from the player or another experience the designer crafted for you.

Long story short, I like the D&D player analogy. Yeah you didn't write the rules, you didn't write the setting, and you didn't write the setting (however many of which the DM may have), but you made a character. You made a person with a personality, wants and needs, strategies, backstories, and whatever else you may have put in. Much of it is within certain bounds, but it still becomes something that is yours as well.

On more set story levels, lets say...o...in a jrpg, you certainly are less of a creative entity. But it's still your choice which large eyed chick you want to keep in the party more. It's still your experience when the one annoying guy manages to be the last surviving member and crits the big boss just in time to win, thus making him awesome to you.

Somehow it's only videogames that I can write this much about spontaneously. =D

jjhoho:

quoted for the highest level of truth, I believe what James is trying to say is that what one does during a game (in madden, say, doing something ridiculous like getting an amazing touchdown (I'm not very good at football)) is what makes it art, not the actions given to you by the developer. Sure you can murder a puppy or save an orphan girl in a pre-rendered cinematic, but that isn't the art that James was talking about, because that's all predetermined. what he was talking about was when you have a free range of choices to make, like who you shoot first during the action sequences of the game, how, and with what. Those are choices that the developer couldn't possibly guide you to make. I think we can draw from this that limiting a player's creative freedom also limits their fun (enemies who are invincible anything except my rocket launcher? Fuck off, maybe I want to run through the whole game using only my pistol. Who are you to say I can't?)

But animators created that touchdown move, surfacers created the field, programmers wrote the code that dynamically determines how the characters act in various situations. Artists create the guns, the effects, the UI, the entire world is a product of intentional design on the part of the developers. These elements are not paints that the player creates with, they are intentionally placed parts of the experience, tools given at carefully planned points to serve the story or gameplay. Things like map creators are a different story, but we're talking about just playing a game as it is given to us.

So how bout this: Video game players are the artists of the game as much as Odysseus was the author of the Odyssey. His decisions shaped the story to be sure, but it was by no means out of artistic endeavors. Homer is the one that collected the story into one tale and put it to the format known today.

I'm taking a different stance here.

The player is neither an artist, nor an audience in a conventional sense (since the player isn't passive), but is actually a fundamental part of the art itelf, since the game's narrative requires the player to complete itself. And isn't the player himself/herself being manipulated by the creator of the game through the level designs, the laid out laws, the limitations? Why shouldn't the manipulation and the manipulated be a part of the artistic endeavor?

Last week's video was one of the few times I fundamentally disagreed with the EC creators, and man am I coming down hard on Grip's side for this.

First off, there are lots of interactive art projects that require a participant in order for them to be "complete", and if anything, that makes the participant part of the artwork, but certainly not the equivalent of an artist. I fail to see how that's fundamentally different for a video game.

Also, good luck convincing a lot of critics that the need for audience participation for a work to be complete (or that each audience member will, in fact, experience (and I do mean experience, not just interpret a work differently) is somehow unique to video games as opposed to being part of any form of communication media.

And I don't even know where to start with "Does football have a narrative? Indubitably so. But who creates this narrative? Because it's certainly not the people who originally wrote the rules to football..." Many games have more than the damned gameplay rules; they have an actual narrative accompanying them, and it's a narrative that's already in place and which the player has pretty much no control over. Portnow seems to have conveniently forgotten this for the entirety of the discussion. It's also pretty ridiculous to compare a football game to the entire video game medium with all its permutations (congrats! Madden developers can't tell you "what characters took part in what plot and in what setting the plot unfolded", but in a lot of other games, games with narratives, they can!).

Basically, Grip is right in saying "I do think that players are part in creating a story. So I agree there, but I disagree that the process is just like an artistic storyteller. I argue instead that it is quite unlike that and more like the activity of experiencing other media, just that it is much more powerful, because of interactivity." The difference between the experience of the video game medium and other media is one of degree, not type, and the player is only as much a "story teller" as the game wants them to be, same as with any other medium.

And geez, Portnow, enough with all the crappy analogies already.

Edit: Is anyone else getting a 404 on the "you might wanna read this" link? I really do wanna read it, but I can't!

I think, and you hit upon it in the original discussion, that the fundamental role of player/designed is much much closer to that of the player and gamemaster in a traditional pen-and-paper RPG than anything film, books, or painting could ever hope for. There is a structure and narrative intentions that are set out by the designer of the world, but the player should be at very least involved in the realization of the plot and story.

One thing I do as a DM on occasion is ask my players to tell me what has happened so far in a game. I think if that was asked of people playing GTA or Pirates!, then you'd likely get a similar response to what I usually get - the player is experiencing their own plots and their own choices, and your planned choices are in there, somewhere, but they are not necessarily where the players are going to go with it.

I feel the goal of electronic gaming, no matter the genre or playstyle, is ultimately to generate the same kind of collaborative storytelling that occurs at a good PnP RPG table. The developer certainly has a good say in what choices are available (setting, NPCs, areas you can go, etc), but the path of the story should ideally be in the hands of the players to succeed or fail at their own objectives in the game.

I certainly think this is the kind of thought process that Mr. Portnow is trying to make in his argument. The game itself is nothing without the player, just as a tabletop session is nothing until it is played and interacted with by the players.

I am reading this and thinking that James actually did a poor defense of an argument he explained way better in the past. The point I got from James, is that the player can be an artist in the sense that he can create his own narrative in his mind out of the events on the screen. It can be done with Fallout, or Oblivion, or Pirates as someone else here said, or Mount and Blade. Those would be the games, IMO, that allow for that extrapolation, that ability to dream up your own tale from the tools provided by the game creators.

Back in the game mechanics episode of EC, James created a whole story out of Missile command that few would have thought of by seeing those flashes and traces. In that sense he created art out of art, so to speak.

I think both situations happen, depending on the kind of game. On some occasions the gamer is an interactive participant of a story that's already told and predefined for them. On others, the game is a catalyst for the gamer, and, though that might not make the gamer an artist "within" the game, he can at the very least use it to create art and be inspired.

I think this gets down to the bottom line that in the end James is looking at the medium in terms of what it is, and all that it can be, where Tom is fundementally threatened by that point of view because of the potential threat it represents to the business end of things.

We saw something similar referanced here on The Escapist earlier:

http://www.escapistmagazine.com/forums/read/9.296043-Shigeru-Miyamoto-views-games-as-products-not-art

(Which is in Japanese, but part of it was translated as part of that post)

Basically a game creator/publisher wants to firmly hold all credit, and ownership of anything they produce. The end goal nowadays being to produce a product that will sell to a specific audience, rather than to really explore anything new, or inspire an audience to climb to it's level. It's all about "do the numbers show this will succeed" rather than "wow, that's a really awesome idea for a game, let's do that".

When you start acknowleging something as being art, or the nessecity of the end user as part of the creative process, well that starts to create some interesting philsophical issues, and if acknowleged could even lead to LEGAL difficulties down the road.

I say this because I think the analogy of sports is flawed. It's probably better to look at arthouse theater, the kinds of things done by improv groups. The structure of the play or performance already exists, but part of a lot of these productions is to get the spectators involved and pull them into the production where they become part of it. This can be as simple as a group of players picking people out of the crowd to do things, or as more abstract as a group of artists wandering around in costume, trying to get reactions from people based on how they dress and act.

There have been issues however when various groups of players doing things like this have wanted to try and sell recordings of their work. It can vary from place to place, but basically if you pull some guy up on your makeshift stage as a volunteer, record it, and then sell the recording, that guy can pretty much turn around and say "hey, where's my cut?" and in a lot of places they could make a valid case out of that if they didn't have to sign a waiver or anything beforehand. A lot more could be said about it, but you should get the gist of it.

The last thing the gaming industry wants is to acknowlege the user as anything but a cashbag to be treated with contempt and milked for profits. Indeed, general contempt for the user base and fans is one of the big reasons why we're seeing a rising amount of anger being direct against the gaming industry, leading to things like death threats being made against PR guys (which was also mentioned here on The Escapist).

On the surface the EULA would seem like it should cover the bases for a game, but in reality these things have never been properly challenged. Given enough time and provocation and it will eventually happen though, and I don't think the gaming industry will win. Most upholdings of the EULAs have happened due to the wrong avenues of attack being used (I've read some stuff on it), in part due to most of the lawyers who know anything about this area of law being paid by, or paid off by (to cause a conflict of interests by acting against) big gaming companies). Issues like how the EULA isn't even visible in most cases until you've already paid for a product (when technically you should sign it as your paying for it), and then a whole area of contract law comes down to length and wording. I'm no expert on it, but basically a contract that is too long, complicated, or difficult for "the everyman" to understand can be overturned fairly easily, "oh you should have read the fine print" doesn't work IRL like it does in the movies usually. This is why with most major contracts of extreme length and with a lot of details, you have notaries involved usually. Notaries being neutral parties that pretty much read the contract, listen to what is said, and then sign off or "notarize" the document. In case of dispute they are called up to verify that everyone was in agreement, and in many cases to explain their understanding of the contract in question.

In short, the bottom line is that your current game designers and publishers pretty much want games to be viewed as a straightforward product... well as straightforward as they can be given the current trend towards argueing that the person paying gets nothing but the right to use their work for as long as it amuses them. The "games as art" thing might carry a lot of legal weight against censorship, but the industry doesn't actually WANT games to be artistic, they want games to make money off of, and in the end could really care less about the medium itself other than it bringing in the paychecks and profits. The last thing they need is to feel like they should see their consumers as equally viable human beings, never mind as part of the process itself, and god forbid someone looks at a definition of gaming and say sends EA a bill for their participation in the art project... which in some places you might be able to do by James' definition. It might not stand up in court, but would probably go to court, and probably more than once.

This reminds me of a quote from George S. Patton. Something along the lines of "Tell your men what needs to be done, not how to do it, and see what they come up with." Perhaps that's the frame of mind developers should explore with their players.

I can attest that I've had richer gaming experiences from games that gave me an objective that allowed me to do whatever I pleased as long as the end result was the same as opposed to a lot of games these days, particularly in the action/FPS genre, that pigeon-hole all of my actions into what is essentially a stream of QTEs with no time limit.

Extracredits:

Thomas Grip:
I argue instead that it is quite unlike that and more like the activity of experiencing other media, just that it is much more powerful, because of interactivity.

This is the key.

The type of game Thomas is talking about would be, taken to the extreme, like Final Fantasy XIII, TF2 or CoD.

James' extreme would be more like Minecraft, EVE or Fallout.

This is essentially a debate about player license.

Gaming NEEDS to be split up into specific groupings that let the players (developers, publishers, investors) know exactly what the game is about and what it is trying to do.

I have got a say after reading the blog post and this i got way more interested in this then when i just watched the video. any-who i got to side with the Thomas Grip on this one.

i get what James is saying but i honestly think that only applies to certain games that allow true artistic creation (Little Big Planet, Minecraft, Level-editors in other games, etc). This is mainly because art should be something that is EXPRESSIVE as oppose to an internal experience of an individual. this is not to say someone HAS to share art with the world to qualify as art but by its nature something claiming to be art should be able to be viewed, watched, listen to or in a game's case experienced. What players experience playing a game is the same as them viewing a painting or reading a book, just a little more sophisticated.

Take an RPG like Dragon Age Origins for example...a game that has the player seemingly craft an experience for them and a potential example of players as artist? right? well lets see.

in DA:O you can decide what starting race, class and various appearance your character can take. When playing you have choices you can make in the narrative that can effect certain things, like deciding weather to save the mages or kill them because they may be corrupted will decide weather you gain the aid of the mages in the final battle or the Templar who police and guard the mages and care more about preventing the corruption then they do about the mage's lives.

there are many other branching paths to take but the major factor that prevents the play from being the artist is the fact that all these paths and choices are completely dependent on the developers (Bioware)

you can choose how your character looks but all of those options were put in by the developers. the player isn't so much creating their own experience as much as choosing which one of the 1000s and 1000s of possible combinations of character options and narrative choices leading to a vast but still limited number or slightly different game experiences that Bioware has created and not the player.

more linear games are not much different except they obviously have a lot less paths to choose from during play. at the end of the day the vast majority of player decisions on how they choose to play a game is decided and limited by the ones who make it and are still ultimately following the same narrative with the exception of the games i mentions above that DO follow what James argued.

I don't think of seen so many walls of text on the Escapist in quite awhile. So this is where all the intellectuals slunk off to...

I'm going to keep this short and say that I agreed much more with James, and wanted to bring in some key examples of narratives created almost entirely by the player of a game.

Veriax's Let's Play of Oblivion on Youtube is my best example of this.
He made his character, fleshed out some backstory, and he's played that character with his goals and attitudes and fears and quirks and he has made a wonderful narrative that someone is in fact novelizing for him as he goes along because it was good enough for them to want to.

The other examples are the Dwarf Fortress Let's Plays Boatmurdered, Headshoots, and Syrupleaf (with Syrupleaf being the best example of the bunch).
Each of these is a succession game where a group of players came together and tacked on their own story and narrative and characters to the game and came away with something so much more than what regular Dwarf Fortress is capable of.

I would advise everyone interested to go check those out, and if you have a Something Awful account go read up on other Dwarf Fortress LP's too.

Wow, this discussion is great. I'm so glad we decided to throw this up. I'm not going to defend or clarify because this conversation is so much more important than whether I'm right or wrong.

I have a thought, but I'm not sure how I'm going to phrase it, so bear with me. :) After reading what Thomas Grip wrote on his site as well as the discussion within the article, I feel I have come to a different conclusion(perhaps not the right word as thought is an ongoing process) than both Thomas and James, if you'll allow my informality. I would say that Thomas is right in that players do not exactly participate in "artistic creation". I say this because, in my opinion, artistic creation is not just idealization of art, but the sharing of art. I've had this annoying thought in my head, "is something art if nobody save the creator can appreciate it?" I feel that what differentiates something of artistic value from something of sentimental value is that people not involved with the creation can appreciate the feelings that the object expresses.

This next part may be a smidgen crazy sounding and presumptuous, but it is merely a thought. ;) That said, I would say that the people playing games can be(not are) artists. If throughout the game, you have envisioned the narrative, then it is no longer just the creator being an artist, but that the player is engaging in artistic thought and, in my opinion, being an artist. Some will see where I'm going with this already. XD Here it goes, I would say that an artist is someone that emotional interacts with a piece of art as opposed to the traditional view that the creator of art is an artist. In keeping with the football analogy, someone that does not make a living playing football can still be a football player. However, they are not a professional football player. Likewise, I would say that the creator of art is a professional artist. Does that make sense?

Ryengu:
So how bout this: Video game players are the artists of the game as much as Odysseus was the author of the Odyssey. His decisions shaped the story to be sure, but it was by no means out of artistic endeavors. Homer is the one that collected the story into one tale and put it to the format known today.

Funny thing is, there's actually a term that's been used to describe exactly that role. It's quite a universal term as well, recognised in every storytelling medium: protaganist. Or, in even simpler terms: the main character.

The main problem with your point is that it turns every act of storytelling into a piece of post-modern meta-fiction, simply because a main character has an adventure. Odysseus gets a pass because he spends half the story recounting what happened to him, but that places him in an explicit creator role: ie, the same role the developers are in when they make a game. The simpler explanation for your point is that Homer (here representative of storytellers in general) is the artist creating the story, Odysseus (representative of main characters in general) is the protaganist around whom the story centres, and we the readers are the audience, the ones who experience the story as a story.

OT: My main problem with seeing the gamer as 'an artist' is that art is an act of 'expression'. You create something in your mind, and then you express it, whether via paint, clay, music or digital rendering (among the many, many other art-forms). If you're playing Oblivion, you may well be creating a fictional backstory for your character, but until you express it, that backstory simply remains in your head and is therefore not a piece of art. We don't class Salvador Dali as an artist because of the countless hundreds of possible pictures that no doubt flew through his mind during his lifetime. We call him an artist because of the paintings he sat down and created. Creativity is only [i[half[/i] of being an artist, the other half being depicting and expressing that creativity.

Not to cover the obvious, but it seems to me that any discussion about developers/gamers as artists is going to run into trouble based on the old "what is art" question? There are those who think anything so much as a three-note sneeze is a piece of art, and therefore gamers are easily classified as artists, while others see art as being a more applied process.

As far as I see it, a true piece of art is not just a random or meaningless expression of creativity, but a work that offers something to the audience beyond the immediate context of itself. What is often seen as the 'message' or 'meaning' for the audience to take away with them. A true work of art doesn't just give the audience something pretty to look at, it gives them an insight, comment or question about the world we live in. A true work of art shouldn't be valued just on the piece itself, but on the insights it offers to anyone who should look/read/listen to it.

Under this definition, I would therefore say it isn't possible for a gamer to fulfil the artistic role simply by playing through a story based game, no matter how non-linear it is. Any messages given in the narrative are created by the developer, and thus reflect on them as artists. If a gamer wants to use their playthrough of a game to create a fan-fiction, a picture, or even just a Let's Play video, then the 'artist' label can theoretically start to be attached. Simply playing through the interactions the developers laid out, however, lacks the inherent creativity or meaning to be truly called 'artistic'.

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