Art as Play, Imagination, and Creation: Corporate Clones and the Scratchware Manifesto

Jordan Magnuson's picture

Hans-Georg Gadamer in his seminal 1973 article “The Play of Art” says:

In human fabrication as well, the decisive moment of technical skill does not consist in the fact that something of extraordinary utility or superfluous beauty has emerged. It consists rather in the fact that human production of this kind can set itself various tasks and proceed according to plans that are characterized by an element of free variability. Human production encounters an enormous variety of ways of trying things out, rejecting them, succeeding, or failing. “Art” begins precisely there, where we are able to do otherwise (NR 77, emphasis added).

For Gadamer, art is about play, imagination, and creation: the ability to do otherwise. This is what sets art apart from everything else we do—from craft and routine, which are defined by the need for a blueprint and a limited range of possibilities. For the artist, there is no limited range: everything is a possibility, and every choice can be answered in a multitude of ways; what was done one way could have been done another way, and the product which results “is something that has emerged in an unrepeatable way and has manifested itself in a unique fashion” (Gadamer, NR 77).

Are video games art then? The answer is no.

No, because, as Gamer X notes in the “Scratchware Manifesto” (a sort of “call for revolution” compiled by numerous gamers and independent game developers), “The machinery of gaming has run amok. Instead of serving creative vision, it suppresses it.” Greg Costikyan of Manifesto Games embellishes:

As recently as 1992, the average budget for a PC game was $200,000. Today, a typical budget for an A-level title is $5m. And with the next generation, it will be more like $20m. As the cost ratchets upward, publishers are becoming increasingly conservative, and decreasingly willing to take a chance on anything other than the tired and true. So we get Driver 69. Grand Theft Auto San Infinitum. And licensed drivel after licensed drivel. Today, you cannot get an innovative title published, unless your last name is Wright, or Miyamoto (GDC address).

Sounds a lot like independent film makers ranting at Hollywood, does it not? Considering the business side of video games, it is little wonder that we see so much stagnation in the industry, but the fact that most video games are not creative, imaginative, original, or playful is not really the point: the point is that they have great potential to be all of those things. The Scratchware Manifesto speaks of the drudgery and imitation within the current games industry, but it also notes that that industry “was once the most innovative and exciting artistic field on the planet.”

Why?

Because as Derek Yu points out in his interview with me, “more so than a book, a painting, or a movie, a game is something where the creator has complete control over the rules.”

Because, like film before it, and photography before that, the video game medium is new and young, and full of unexplored potential.

Because, as stated at GamesAreArt.com, video games volunteer interactivity as a property of a creative medium for the very first time: “the 5th dimension [time being the 4th —already explored by film]… the dimension of probability and alternate realities.”

And though it may require “starving, begging, and borrowing,” as Costikyan notes, there have always been developers out there working against the unimaginative trend—generally people like Mare Sheppard and Raigan Burns of Metanet Software: those “crazy artistic types” who don’t know when to stop. And they have managed to create some crazy artistic video games.

An example from years past is Loom, a strange and beautiful adventure thathas players solving puzzles not with traditional objects and inventory, but with spells consisting of musical notes. More recently there are games like Façade, a “one act interactive drama” called the future of video games by The New York Times, that focuses on emotional interaction between the player and the game’s artificially intelligent characters in such an unprecedented way that it prompts the editors of Games Are Art to ask, “will a computer game ever make us cry?”

Facade screenshot
The graphically simple yet ground-breakingly intelligent game, Façade

Other worthy, innovative “Gadamer Game” mentions are Sega’s Rez, Word’s Sissy Fight, Cyan’s Myst, Morawe and Reiff’s Painstation, Will Wright’s SimCity, Amanita’s Samorost, Joosa Riekkine’s Liero, Eric Chachi’s Out of This World, Introversion’s Darwinia, Binary Zoo’s Mono and almost every genre-birthing game to date. Some of these games, like SimCity or Mono (which has you painting—yes painting—with explosions) are not only creative themselves, but are centered around the idea of letting the player be creative, leading Lui to ask, “Does something created in a videogame qualify as art?”

If art needs to be playful and imaginative you’ll be hard-pressed to find a better medium than video games, and it turns out that we have game designers who want to take advantage.

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