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Playing Ball

Wednesday, July 7, 2010 Leave a Comment

OK, so this is one's REALLY long, but I've been away awhile.

The recent conversation regarding whether or not video games are art got me thinking, not so much about the question itself - they obviously are - but about why that should seem so obvious to me, and so strange to others.

I think it's partly because video games reveal the overlap between sports and the arts; they may not mingle in the high school cafeteria, but both are human activities that celebrate our capacity to create patterns of meaning. And that got me wondering if there was even a real difference between them, especially as I've been increasingly uneasy with the reasons we give for the exceptionalism of the arts.

Because all of the different arts and sports, for all their seeming differences, emerge from a single input moving through a system of five parts.

That input is:


Meaning our own will, our capacity to affect the system through our actions (for the purposes of this post, I'm imagining our roles as audience/spectators, not as direct participants).

And the five parts are:


From the process of this input moving through this system, Meaning is created.

And from Botticelli to baseball, every art and sport processes the input of our Will through these five parts, and each uses them differently.

Let's start with Time: how much control do you have over the experience of Time in the work? For books, movies, television, some video games, and most visual art; our control is primary. We pause, we put in the bookmark, we rewind, reset, and read the last page first.

For theatre, dance, spectator sports, and any other live art form, we surrender control completely. As in life, we have no control over the passage of Time.

Some multiplayer online games are a unique hybrid: we may hit pause and leave the game, but Time will have passed while we're away.

On to space: how much control do you have over the world of the work? In other words, how does our Will govern the physical rules? In almost all arts and sports, we have very little control over Space. From poems to sitcoms, the work's creator the determines the Space of the world and the rules of the game completely.

The exceptions are improvisational art, especially long form improv, where the audience is directly solicited for the materials of the work; and video games, where the fullness of the world is only manifested through the player's Actions.

Now action: how much control do you have over the Action of the work?

In video games, control over Action is primary. If we don't have control over the action, it means we either haven't reached a certain level of expertise, or we're attempting something not permissible in that Space and Time. But almost everything that happens is a result of our choices.

In the live arts and spectator sports, our control is secondary. Through our responses to the work, we alter how the performers move through the action. However, only in interactive theatre does our control over the Action approach anything primary.

In art as object, we have no control over the Action: in the book, Elizabeth will not change the way she delivers her refusal to Mr. Collins, no matter how we laugh or gasp. We might as well hope The Thinker will move just because we are moved by him.

How about Symbol: A statue of a man is not a man; the White Sword of Zelda can't cut you; Superman only flies with a blue screen behind him. We understand that every work of art is a shadow on the cave; a representation of the thing, not the thing itself.

So how much control do you have over the Symbol? Can it only mean one thing, or is it complex enough to allow your Will room to move?

Spectator sports offer the simplest Symbol: the Boston Red Sox aren't a bunch of overpaid athletes, but the Symbol of the polis of Boston! We aren't asked to imagine anything else.

Film and video games offer little symbolic control in the moment, with the thing represented almost always standing for a single thing: Han Solo's Millennium Falcon is not meant to be a bird, nor the passage of time, but simply a modified YT-1300 light freighter. Cumulatively, however, the narrative acquires its own symbolic meaning, more so in film than video games (more on this later).

The printed word, on the other hand, gives greater control to our wills to incarnate the Symbol. It lives primarily in our imagination, and even when a book is nothing but car chases, we have complete control over the shape of the crashes.

The visual arts give us complete control, however, because the physical presence of the Symbol and the thing it represents are one and the same, and the movement of its meaning is entirely through Space, and not at all through Time; it lives entirely in our symbolic perception.

The live arts, on the other hand, manifest a fascinating tension between the physical presence of the Symbol and the thing it represents. Unlike the written word or data in a video game consul, which only acquire meaning in their use; the stuff that makes up the live arts is already fraught with meaning. The human body and the things it carries on stage are more than just whatever Symbolic use they are put to; and the tension between the meaning we see and the meaning we imagine is one of the profound pleasures of the live arts.

Finally, Chance: Sports have little need of Symbol because they fulfill their Meaning through Chance. The game may be dreadfully dull or unforgettable, but we won't know how it ends until it does, and that process is the Meaning. We create a pattern through the rules of the games Space and Time, and cheer as our team attempts to shape the Action, and for many, that process is more beautiful than any art. It is also more passive: spectator sports have almost no strong manifestation of audience Will. We have almost no impact on the meaning of Space, Time, Action, or Symbol. Why then do we like them so much?

I think it's because by relying so much on Chance to create meaning, sports come closer to the frightening, patternless world than any art while keeping us protected - the rules of the game keep us from complete chaos.

The arts mostly discard Chance in favor of the cumulative power of Symbol evolving through Action in Space and Time. And for good reason: a single Symbol is powerful enough, but when a series of Symbols change together, the potential for Meaning is not only deep for the creative artist; but widened through the perception of the audience. And the more control art gives the audience to choose the meaning of a work, the more satisfying and enduring the work becomes. (It's important to note that giving too many choices - playing too loose with Symbols - actually reduces the Will's power in choosing meaning - if anything goes, nothing stays).

Video games unfold on the ground between these two poles while improv theatre tries to harness the best of both; and experiments in all art forms blur further what are already overlapping terrains.

And of course, these systems have economic repercussions. Because spectator sports require very little from the Will of the watcher, you can stuff the watcher's face with hot dogs and beer and stick them far away from the action in the bleachers.

And because the symbolic tensions of the live arts are flattened on screen, theatre never quite works on film, and so can't be easily commodified.

So the question of whether video games can be art is like asking whether theatre can be a sport; they are all fingers of the same outstretched hand; they all create a pattern of meaning from a bewildering world; they are all agents of beauty. And in our increasingly mashed-up, remixed, borderless culture, the heat may lie in crossing over.

Still here? I'd love to hear what you think. Maybe it seems foolish to reduce these complex things to such simple parts, but I was inspired to try by this great TED talk from Benoit Mandelbrot, who ends it by saying, "Bottomless wonders spring from simple rules".


  • Ian David Moss said:  

    I'm with you...though I am not sure the conceptual framework you've outlined is all that helpful to me. But to your overarching point: yes, I am increasingly of the opinion that we need to be considering not only sports, but also cooking, religion, gardening, and hobbyists' clubs as at the very least close cousins of the arts, if not actually part of the immediate family.

  • August Schulenburg said:  

    Thanks, Ian!

    I am uncertain about the framework, as well, but am looking at it as a starting point.

    I'm particularly interested in questions that arise from shifting a single aspect of the system and seeing what changes it creates.

    For example:

    If you staged the exact sequences of a sports event that had previously happened, would it become theatre?

    If you allowed a theatre actor a specific range of actions, and then allowed members of an audience to control those actions through some kind of signaling, would it be a live video game?

    If dancers engaged each other in a set of predetermined rules with an uncertain outcome but a specific goal that, if reached, means victory; does that dance become a sport?

    If an e-book sensed its readers' reactions, and changed the delivery or content of the story as a result, would that be video game literature?

    In each of these cases, a tweak of how an audience member's will interacts with the an aspect of the system creates a potential hybridity that interests me, and reveals the unexpected connections that underlie all human activities involving pattern and play.

    And what would emerge from a successful system (which I don't claim this to be) is a language that is more flexible and inspiring than the categorical divisions we currently use. Rather than saying, this is art, this is sport, and never the twain shall meet; we'd move from talking about what it is to how it works, which is always more interesting to me.

    When you add in things like gardening, and consider the purely participatory pleasures of arts and sports sans an audience, you're adding, I think, a sixth part to the system, which is the role of an observer. In theatre, that role is primary; in gardening, secondary (though I'm not a gardener, so perhaps I'm wrong?)

  • Steven said:  

    Interesting discussion! I think there's more to the difference between sports and art though than just chance. Improv has chance. Any audience interaction has chance. What art doesn't have is a distinct winner and a loser. The story may have a winner and loser but the entire experience doesn't. And I do think that if you had actors stage a basketball game exactly as it happened that would be theatre, not a basketball game.

    That's where video games come in. Video games bring in a kind of winner/loser aspect and combine it with a narrative. You die. You lose. You try again. But not all video games use narrative or they use it to varrying degrees. what about sports video games? Art? Sport? What about Tetris? To me, the most artistic aspect of video games is that they attempt to represent some other "real" object or event. Madden football attempts to recreate a real football game the same way theatre attempts to recreate the conflict between a married couple, for example. Then there are puzzle games like Tetris and I'm just not sure if those can fit into that category. I wouldn't really say that a video game version of monopoly is art. It's just another format for the board game. Unless you're willing to say that Monopoly is art.

    Anyway, just thinking about it. I agree that some video games are art. Anybody play Braid? Art with a capital "A". But if you say that Monopoly is art then you pretty much have to say that everything is art and the word starts to lose meaning.

  • Steven said:  

    Oh, and by the way, if you want to see a unique combination of a video game and art (theatre) check out the upcoming play The Dudleys! at Theatre for the New City. playthedudleys.com or http://www.facebook.com/playthedudleys

    The brick theatre is doing a whole series of video game plays right now. check those out as well.

  • Will said:  

    Why is pornography without a spectator prostitution?