Saturday, June 20, 2009

Ayn Rand on Video Game Art

A couple of weeks ago I came across this quote from Ayn Rand:
Art is a selective re-creation of reality according to an artist's metaphysical value-judgments.
I don't claim to be an expert on Ayn Rand's ideas, but I've liked a lot of the things I've heard from her, and this quote especially. As I am wont to do, I immediately started thinking about how this idea would apply to video games, and whether video games could qualify as art under such a definition.

At it's core, a video game is an abstraction, a simplified system that often emulates a real world system. The game designer selects aspects of reality to model within the game, and comes up with game mechanics to represent them. Then covers the whole system with narrative window dressing to show us how the various mechanics reflect real life elements.

On the whole, this works really well, and people seem to forget that the game is just an abstraction, a selective re-creation of reality, rather than reality itself. Running through an FPS gunning down monsters by clicking on them is pretty different from real life warfare. But the mechanical metaphors that we use are good enough that even our noble politicians have trouble remembering that games are in no way reality.

The point is, that games simulate portions of reality, and they do it in the way that the game designer chooses. There are many reasons for the choices they make, ranging from gameplay concerns, to interface device limitations, to hardware limitations, to development costs, to just plain old aesthetics. And it's that last one that is really interesting, some choices are made because that's how a game designer feels that reality works, or that's how he wants people to perceive that it works, or even a little of both.

Consider a game like Sim City, through game play abstractions it allows the player to run a virtual city. We accept that it’s a stylized representation of reality, but even so we expect it to mirror our experience in the real world. This is where the game designer has an opportunity to say something about reality, and how it works. Suppose that the game designer feels that cutting taxes to businesses and allowing the wealth to trickle down to the populace is the best way to build a strong economy. It is a simple matter for him to make his game world function this way. By tweaking the systems that underlie the game, he can force the player to adopt a fiscal policy in game that is similar to the designers idea of an optimal fiscal policy.

As the player plays the game, he will learn, whether consciously or not, that providing tax breaks and incentives to businesses is the best thing to stimulate an economy. This is a very powerful way of expressing an opinion. Not only is the designer presenting his own ideas in a positive light, but he is forcing the player to accept and act as though, at least in the game’s limited reproduction of reality, the designer’s ideas are correct.

The potential for these kinds of statements is present anywhere a game simulates an aspect of reality. The actions available to players, the problems they must solve, and the means by which they may solve the problems all give interesting insight into the world view of the game designer. This isn't to say that every element of a game's mechanics should be subjected to scrutiny, and taken as an implicit statement by the games author on the nature of reality, but that the potential is there, and messages are being communicated even if they aren't intended.

The really neat thing about this, is that this is just one of the many types of expression available to a video game designer. In addition to choices on how the nature of reality will be represented in a game, the designer can make statements through art direction, music selection, narrative and many other avenues. Video games are truly one of the most expressive mediums yet.

So after just a little bit of thought, it becomes pretty clear that any assertions that games are not art because they lack the ability to express anything, are pure garbage. Unfortunately there haven't been a lot of games yet that have started to use game mechanics to say anything meaningful, there are a few, but not many. It's a difficult thing, as I've been working on my game I've discovered that it's hard just to make something that's interesting to play with, let alone making it interesting, and meaningful. But it is something that I plan to explore in future projects, and hopefully this is something that we will continue to see more of.

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