My Final Argument for Games as Art

So I’ve been having an alarming number of nightmares recently. My nightmares don’t tend to be of the obvious pain-of-death variety; more of the slow, horrifying realization type. Last night’s was particularly crushing, and I would like to share it with you:

A different place, a different time. I lived in a house, with my wife, in a world overrun with vicious predators, who sought nothing more than to rend us limb from limb. For reasons not known to me, our house was not safe at night. So every night was spent running through the wilderness, not staying in one place for very long, leaving our scent with small groups of prey so the predators would consume them and not us. Every day was spent resting in the house; each day one of us would say to the other, “When we rest, we rest together,” and she would make a bottle for the baby. Every night, we’d run.

After a few nights, I realized there were no other humans.

And one day, weeks later, she was making the bottle, quietly sobbing, saying to me, “When we rest, we rest together,” and I realized there was no baby either.

 

Not exactly how I wanted to wake up, and it certainly kept me from sleeping for about the rest of the night. So I lay in bed, thinking about the dream, thinking about how I could communicate to someone just how crushing that realization was. There are obviously many ways that story could be communicated; I could write it, as I just did. I could turn it into a proper short story, with characters; I could illustrate it as a comic; I could do a short film. But all of these are viewing forms — even with a first person perspective, if you came to the realization, it wouldn’t be yours — you would be watching someone else come to the realization. You may feel for them, you may empathize, but it still isn’t your realization.

I realized the only way to fully communicate my experience to someone else would be to turn it into a game.

The reason, of course, is that there is a very specific set of criteria and stimuli you need to experience in order to grasp the full weight of the situation:

  • You need to be you, but as someone else. This strange dissociation isn’t a particularly difficult concept; we do it all the time in dreams, and we do it all the time in games.
  • You need to not know everything about yourself, but know enough to function in your new world. This strange not-amnesia isn’t really that weird; again, we do it all the time in dreams, and we do it all the time in games.
  • You need to be able to take in information at your own pace, information needs to be available to you at only the moments you look for them, and gaps need to be present to allow you draw your own conclusions. Movies try to do this, but they can only show you information; as clever as a director may be, he can’t truly allow you to discover information. But we do it all the time in dreams, and we certainly do it in games.

The realization that there was no baby, and hadn’t been for some time, only came at the moment I saw her crying, because every instance before that, after she made the bottle, we would sleep, and when we ran, she ran behind me. This allowed the assumption that she carried and cared for the baby. But when I had that realization, the rest of the dream came into the focus — I had never seen the baby, I had never heard the baby. The only evidence that the baby had ever existed was in my wife’s actions.

These sort of cognitions, realizations, and epiphanies are only possible in a medium where you are given a certain amount of author-provided information and a certain amount of autonomy of discovery. And so I discovered this truth about games:

Games can cause the participant to have author-guided realizations.

and even more importantly…

Games can cause the participant to have author-guided realizations that the participant owns.

I humbly submit that no other art form could as effectively communicate my dream, as I experienced it. And before you tell me it wouldn’t be a game because there are no goals, the goals are obvious: avoid getting killed by predators, for as many days as possible.

A game can be the strongest medium with which to express a dream. If that doesn’t qualify it as art, then you clearly don’t know how to dream.

11 replies
  1. Maic says:

    This realization can also happen very strongly around the capacities of this avatar or entity that is also yourself (within the game). The feeling can be specially profound when it comes as an unexpected side effect of an ability of said avatar.

    One instance that comes to my mind is Shadow of the Colossus, where you have a limited amount of time with which you can hang from ledges or walls. During the game you improve this capacity in order to make you better, only to find during the ending that this ability to hang for longer lengthens the hopelessness of the final moments of the game.

    The game environment turns something that improved you, and into which you devoted time and effort, into a dose of genuine despair. And since you devoted actual resources into it, it becomes truly yours, and there as you said it, transmits this idea to others, to the players.

    Reply
  2. life says:

    That is inspiring. The game (or the preview i played) reflects these believes, and in itself is a remarkable piece of development. Congrats

    Reply
  3. Rocky says:

    Both an arresting dream and a thoughtful linkage to games as an art form. Thanks for sharing both.

    When I first read your sentence: “Games can cause the participant to have author-guided realizations that the participant owns’, I thought to myself, that’s what good teaching is all about. Then again, good teaching is an art form too!

    Hopefully, you’ll be having good dreams soon and turning them into games too!

    Reply
  4. Whitelightlotus says:

    Love your games. Interesting Dream! I figured you left a comment section, because even though you mused on it. It’s a frightening concept, to you.

    It doesn’t have to be. Basically, what it comes down to is that “you” see yourself as limited, surrounded by adversarial situations. So you and You must protect what was created. So you hide it, and you keep it moving, from those who wish to steal away what it is that you have made…

    Generally, I tell people that all dreams are aspects of what we create, and if every character of the dream, was a smaller part of the the dreamer. What would the dream mean.

    Your Wife
    Your Child
    The Prey
    The Predators
    The Milk

    Or, another way to look at it, would be like this.

    In the game “Auditorium”, the gamer uses a “infinite source of energy” to fill vessels to get to the next levels. And uses various tools to do so.

    If for a moment you could believe that your creative genius, and intellect are gifts from a higher power. And such gifts can not be stolen, only given away. You could relax.

    Kevin Rudolf’s Great Escape says it another way
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mfw58zidtUo

    Namaste

    Reply
  5. Michael Richdale; Flensburg, Germany says:

    To play is as essential to mankind as it is to drink, eat and sleep and what not else. Playing offers the opportunity to try out things and fail without lethal consequences. It is important for education and moral (psychology).The history of playing is probably as unique as that of love and music. I believe that the first “toys” where used for communication before word was invented. I myself am stuck to classic games (f.e. chess) as well as to modern gaming ( f.e. World of Warcraft). I try out any game that crosses my life. My favorite play -beyond that which is
    required for love – is LARP (L ive A ction R ole P laying) which can include or exclude any other gaming, depending on the settings of the encountered universe. Have fun !

    Reply
  6. Joey says:

    I gotta say, I often try to stand by the fact that I see video games as art, but I’ve never quite found an argument as good as this one! it’s quite astute, and makes me smile to read it. Not only because there is an apparent and obvious depth to your words, but because all of my reasons for games and their status as an art form fail to compare to how perfect an example you give.

    Reply
  7. Johnny says:

    This is perfect. I’ve been thinking up designs for games that reflect my experiences and share my knowledge of them for years (even though I haven’t really made any of them). But I always find myself trying to explain my ideas and just trying to get across why I’m so interested in games, and I often struggle (probably because I haven’t made the fricken games). I thought your example of a dream was fantastic. I’m going to have to share this article with some people.

    Reply
  8. dain
    dain says:

    Hey guys, looks like our comment spam filter wasn’t activated, so these got held up in a moderation queue for months.

    Thanks for all the kind words! Thankfully, I’ve since stopped having nightmares, but it was an informative period nonetheless.

    @Maic: I never did finish Shadow of the Colossus, but I’m gonna have to now!

    @Colin, @Adam: I don’t foresee making the game any time soon, but we do have our monthly game jams here, so maybe it’ll come back up then!

    @Joey @Johnny: Glad to be able to put words to thoughts you were having 🙂

    Reply
  9. Mike McLane says:

    Please think about making and displaying your moving graphic art (such as Auditorium) at Pox Vopuli , ML Gallery and other galleries. It would compare favorably with what they display now !!! I think 3-4 minute dynamic that would loop continuously could be very effective !!?

    Reply

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