On That Games As Art Note
By Dwip December 17, 2010, 3:48 pm Comments (8) RSS Feed for this post

So, if you’ve been around gaming circles in the last age, you may remember that whole Rogert Ebert “video games aren’t art” debate, in which Ebert says games don’t count as an art form, and gamers unite to call him an idiot. And while I generally respect Ebert, I think you can guess which side of that debate I come down on – I don’t think you get to look at almost any given narrative-driven game and believe it’s not art on some level, especially if we accept literature and movies as art forms.

All that said, I’m not particularly interested in that line of commentary, and if you want, Shamus Young did it better than me.

After the jump, the actual thing I want to say.

So, there’s also a strain of this commentary that believes only really artsy experimental indie games can actually be art, as well typified here, and if you showed up when we discussed that same thing with literature a few years ago, you’ll figure out that I think that entire line of reasoning is pretentious bullshit.

But that’s pretty old news. However, Andrew Sullivan the other day kind of brought back that discussion, and did so by mentioning a game called Train by Brenda Brathwaite, who you may apparently know via the Wizardry series.

Via the Daily Beast profile, which ought to be read in the entirity:

In November, I watched three college students play Train at the Euphrat Museum of Art in Cupertino, California. As the game began, a man wandered over and looked at the pawns. “Are those people?” he asked, “in boxcars?”

“They’re traveling first-class,” a student named Jon replied.

At that point, Train had not formally revealed its subject, and Jon and the others played as though it were a normal board game, trying to outrace each other. When Rob was the first to move a boxcar to the end of the line, he followed the rules and drew a Terminus card. Train’s theme was no longer hidden. The card said “Dachau.”

And, via another article:

In 2006, she made her first board game to demonstrate the slave trade to her seven-year-old daughter, who had alarmingly described the middle passage as a cruise, failing to engage with the trauma of the event. Brathwaite hastily drafted rules and found some tokens to represent humans, which her daughter moved across the Atlantic. Tokens were killed, removed from their families and sold as slaves. When she finished playing, the child broke down in tears, and bombarded her half African American father with questions about slavery.

Several questions are raised here:

1. Is this art, particularly, or a fairly obnoxious form of emotional trolling disguising itself as art? Haven’t played either game, obviously, and don’t really have much desire to, but based on the quotes, it would seem to me to come down fairly heavily on the emotional trolling side of the fence. In particular, it would seem to me one thing to have a game discussing the horrors of deporting Jews to Auschwitz. One could imagine that sort of thing done in a Call of Duty game perhaps, much as I understand Modern Warfare 2 deals with aspects of terrorism via a mission. A game which tricks you into the thing by not revealing the subject until the end strikes me as a very different sort of thing – emotional trolling, as I say. You aren’t so much examining the event so much as stealthily provoking emotions. I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that the possible Call of Duty version of that scene is much more legitimate than my understanding of the Train version of things.

Or, as I was saying to Sarah on the subject:

[18:59] Dwip: And with the possible exception of the 7 year old daughter, you’re not really teaching anybody anything they didn’t already know, right. I mean, in the Train bit, they break down and cry because they just sent thousands of Jews to Dachau. They’re not learning anything they didn’t already know. They’re just getting their emotions trolled.

[19:01] Dwip: So yeah. What is she really accomplishing here, other than fucking with people’s heads under the illusion of accomplishment and art?

[19:02] serenadingwords: My guess would be making you think about what it’s like to be doing something wrong but ignoring it for other considerations.

[19:02] serenadingwords: What it feels like to be looking at the middle passage from a slaver’s perspective, from economics, from “does the food last,” not “are these souls in misery.”

[19:02] Dwip: Except if the article is correct, _they don’t know they’re doing anything wrong_

[19:03] Dwip: Like in Train, they’re just playing some game to get a bunch of people somewhere. You don’t learn it’s Dachau until it’s over. So you lose the moral implications of it except in hindsight.

2. As regards the whole making game to teach daughter about slavery thing, most of what I said applies, with an added teaching bonus question: Is it really the best way to go teaching, in school, 1st-2nd graders about the evils of slavery? I mean, hell, I was reading about it at that age, but perhaps not for everyone, and perhaps not for the daughter. Clearly a subject that ought to be taught, but. On a somewhat related note, having made that leap, is the game the best way to do that? Perhaps. Effective in the case. Perhaps not how I would have approached it.

3. And to return to our initial question, is stuff like this art? Probably. Is it the absolute best example games can present to the non-gaming world about the legitimacy of games as an art form? Thinking maybe no.

On a closing note, lest I leave you with the impression that Brathwaite is a complete monster, this article, which includes the following bit:

Because I asked my group of women, who are my age, “Would you guys be interested in doing a board game night?” They were like, “What?” They thought it was Monopoly, and I’m like, “It’s not ‘Monopoly.'” That game is based on luck. I want to do something like Risk or Axis and Allies. And they’re looking at me like, “Why? This is an evening-long event. This could go on for hours.” I’m like, “Yeah, isn’t that great? We’ll get food.”

And I think we can all get with that particular sentiment.


Computer Games - Uncategorized, Random and Ravings Comments (8) Trackback URL for this post RSS Feed for this post
Comments on On That Games As Art Note
avatar Comment by Conner #1
December 17, 2010 at 10:07 pm

All said and done, I’m inclined to agree that even these two cases you’ve cited still fall under the classification of art as much as any horror movie or macabre painting would. As to being the right approach to teaching 1st-2nd graders about slavery and The Holocaust, no, I don’t think so at all. Keep in mind that I’m not disputing that it may very well also be a form of emotional trolling, but it doesn’t lose it’s artistic ‘quality’ by that fact alone.

avatar Comment by Samson #2
December 17, 2010 at 11:46 pm

I’m not familiar with Train, but if it’s composed of visual elements and has characters, scenery, and a stylized depiction of something, it qualifies as art.

I do think that it was a pretty slimy thing to do though to not reveal what was going on until you got to the end of the game. So it’s art being used for the purpose of trolling people. Calling it emotional trolling is redundant, all trolling seeks to elicit an emotional response.

I can’t buy into the logic that it’s designed to gauge a moral reaction to the situation. If you’ve never played it and sat down for the first time to do so you have absolutely no way to know you’re about to haul a train full of Jews to the gas chambers. If people are told ahead of time, then yes, I could see it being useful for that. Or if someone sat down and knowingly played it a second time.

Oh, and that federal judge is a moron and should be kicked off the bench. How dare he insult us independent video artists!

avatar Comment by Conner #3
December 18, 2010 at 12:13 am

Actually, I’ll take the argument a step further than that, as a computer game, it’s art even without visual elements. The storyline and alterations to the historical aspects by themselves are enough to qualify it as art. (Not all art is good art…)

I will agree with both of these points. It is a pretty slimy thing to not reveal what’s going on in something this horrific until the end, thankfully I’d never heard of Train before this, but rest fully assured I’ll certainly never play it now. I also agree that “emotional trolling” is a bit redundant, but as a term it does convey nicely what I think Dwip’s trying to get across.

It’s designed to gauge a moral reaction to the situation… see, that only works if you’re, as Samson suggests, watching the trends of who’s buying the game knowingly or who’s playing it again once they do know or, one that Samson missed, if you’re somehow recording the reactions of those who complete the game so you can establish trending from that angle. But as it stands (as I understand it from the information Dwip’s provided), sorry, this is not gaging moral reaction, it’s just tricking people into horrific guilt/disgust.

I’ll leave the judicial qualification revocation to you independent graphic artist types… ;)

avatar Comment by Suzanne #4
December 30, 2010 at 12:18 am

If we get to call modern art ‘art’, then I think we all know that a thing can be considered art AND obnoxious emotional trolling at the same time.

That guy who tied up a stray dog up and let it starve to death in a gallery and called it ‘art’ is just an extreme example.

avatar Comment by Suzanne #5
December 30, 2010 at 12:22 am

Side note: I got Tom Settlers of Catan for Christmas. It is a good game. Like the Farm Game, but less depressing and with 100% more sheep.

avatar Comment by Conner #6
December 30, 2010 at 2:39 am

Well, yes, I would agree, even something that really just amounts to emotional trolling could certainly also still be considered art. Let’s face it, if something like this is considered amazing art, surely what Dwip described also qualifies as art… after all, not all art is good art either. ;)

Uh, I don’t think I even want to know what you’re talking about with someone tying up a stray dog to starve it to death in a gallery. I’d think that’d be really pushing the envelop of what I’d be willing to concede as art, and I’m fairly open minded when it comes to art…

The Farm Game?

avatar Comment by Dwip #7
December 30, 2010 at 1:16 pm

That guy who tied up a stray dog up and let it starve to death in a gallery and called it ‘art’ is just an extreme example.

You’d think that that sort of thing wouldn’t so much be art as it would be illegal.

The Farming Game is my family’s boardgame of choice. Build up a farm, survive disasters, that sort of thing.

Somehow I’ve never played Settlers. I am unsure as to how this has happened, and wish to fix this issue.

avatar Comment by Conner #8
December 30, 2010 at 8:51 pm

*nod* That really sounds much more like plain old animal abuse/neglect than art to me. :(

Huh, looks like a pretty cool game, though maybe just a little steep in price. Wish I could get away with inventing a game that could make a nice living for me and my family like that. Seems like every time I come up with neat ideas like that someone else has already done it though. :shrug:

I take it that this is the Settlers game in question. It sounds like a good family game, though I’ve no idea how expensive it might be, and given that there are apparently several PC versions of it floating around, including a free java based one, I may have to give it a try online to help decide if it’d be worth trying to find a way to buy a copy of the board game version for my family.

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