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November 2011

Stories and Games (1): Art

tree Can games be art, and should we care either way? Every culture respects some activities and objects as 'art', and grants to these a certain esteem that is entirely apart from their practical uses. Art, as Oscar Wilde suggested, is quite useless, but nonetheless great art, good art, and even interesting art attracts a lot of attention, a lot of praise and criticism, and a lot of money. The question of whether games can be art is usually treated in one of two ways – often by presuming either they must be art (Santiago) or they can't be art (Ebert). In my book Imaginary Games I take another path: the question of whether games can be art is misguided, because all art is a kind of game. To understand why this is so, there's no better place to start than looking at the relationship between games and stories.

Every game tells a story. It may not be a good story - Pac-man's eternal quest to eat all the pac-dots and avoid the ghosts except when hopped up on power pills is hardly a candidate for adaptation to a book or film, but it is still a story. Even Tetris is amenable to interpretation as a narrative of some kind, as Corvus Elrod and others have argued. There is, however, a powerful impression among many dedicated gamers that the story in a game is secondary to its function as a game system, and it's easy to find examples that support this concept – no Chess player is concerned about the narrative that could be derived from the Knight defeating a Castle, for instance. Nonetheless, every survey that asks about stories and games comes back with overwhelming support for them - my own work showed 93%of gamers wanted explicit stories with their games. There is a tension here between the widespread desire for games-with-stories, and the impression of games as something beyond – or more than – 'just' a story.

What confuses this issue is that many games, particularly big budget games, include story materials (principally animated cut scenes) that are entirely separate from the game itself, while being embedded inside it. These cut scenes can often be watched on their own as a an animated film, with only a slight disjunction created by the excising of the game itself. This leads to an impression that games don't need stories (Samyn) or that there are no good game stories (Kelly). There is an important issue to be recognised in this respect, namely that games are an inefficient medium for storytelling – if you wanted to tell a particular story, it would be more work, and hence more expense, to tell it as a game, and you would generally be better off writing a book or making a film instead. It is this inefficiency that gives rise to the animated film intercut with gameplay, since the film is a much more efficient narrative vehicle, so games that want a rich narrative often end up borrowing other mediums to get there.

There are, as Jesper Juul has asserted, two sides to games – their fiction and their rules – so every game (set of rules) has an associated story or set of stories (fiction). But the situation is more complicated than Juul suggests (and I certainly don't support Juul's suggestion that the rules are 'real' and the fiction is not) since if we look at other media, particular those which are accepted freely as art, we find that there are also fiction and rules. Consider paintings. It's not hard to see the fiction in paintings, since when we look at a typical painting in a gallery, we immediately perceive its story. Constable's Hay Wain shows a horse-drawn farm cart fording a river by a watermill, Seurat's A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jette depicts a number of well-to-do ladies and gentlemen, sat on the edge of an island, enjoying a pleasant day, and Van Gogh's Starry Night depicts a rural town beneath a blanket of stars.

Yet paintings also have rules to them – in the case of the Hay Wain it is a tacit rule of appreciating this and many other paintings that the paint on the canvas is a depiction of something, such that when we look at the Hay Wain we see a cart at the river, not a set of coloured paint splotches. This rule is even more important in the case of something like Starry Night since this does not even resemble a real star-strewn night sky at all, but is rather more like the impression of such a sky. Nonetheless, when we look at this painting we see a town beneath a night sky, not elaborate coloured swirls (although we can of course see it this way, if we choose). The philosopher of art, Kendall Walton, whose theory of representation Imaginary Games adapts to videogames and the like, has a way of describing the 'rule' that leads us to see paintings as depiction: the painting prescribes we imagine that it represents something.

All representative art (which is most of, although not quite all, the things we consider art) involves this prescription to imagine. When we watch an action movie we are prescribed to imagine that we are watching a car chase, and we do not usually allow ourselves to remember that we are actually watching stunt drivers or, as often as not, computer generated imagery. When a character dies in a TV show, we are prescribed to imagine that someone is dead – even though we know the actress in question is still very much alive. Representative art always has associated with it a fiction that we are supposed to imagine – this is the basic rule of representative art. Walton points out that this rule is continuous with children's game of make-believe, which also use this rule in various specific guises ("let's pretend we're doctors!") and in this sense all representative art is a kind of game, specifically a more sophisticated form of a child's make-believe game.

Since representative artworks prescribe we imagine something that is fictional (like the fictional cart in the Hay Wain) all such works of art have a story – although that story may be quite 'thin' (as it is with the Hay Wain) compared to the density of the narrative we get from a film or a book. But this scarcely matters because we don't appreciate different media the same way. We don't judge the story of a painting the same way we'd judge the story of a book. Indeed, in the case of the painting what interests us in terms of its fiction is often how it gets us to imagine things rather than what it gets us to imagine – Starry Night, for instance, is interesting precisely because it doesn't look at all like what we are clearly prescribed to imagine it represents.

There is a parallel with the stories of games: anyone interested in games as a medium must recognise that game stories need to be judged differently from the stories of other artworks. When someone like Tadhg Kelly says "there are no good game stories", I wonder if this is because he has not played many interesting games, or if he is trying to judge games by the critical standards of (say) film. Games make lousy films, just as paintings make lousy books, but this does not mean there are no good game stories. You need to judge game stories by the criteria that make sense for the medium - and this requires a very different perspective on the fiction connected to games.

What is interesting about the fiction of games is generally the relationship between the rules (which are richer and more interesting than the rules of other artworks) and the story of the game. I have suggested that a great game story is one in which the rules support the narrative, and similarly that a great game, artistically speaking, is when the rules and the fiction are closely aligned. This is not quite the same condition: Pac-man achieves the latter but not the former, for instance. I might call this a fiction aesthetic for games, since it makes an aesthetic judgement about games or game-stories based on the nature of the fiction that is entailed.

On the fiction aesthetic, those game franchises like Modern Warfare or Final Fantasy that tell much of their story in pre-scripted cut-scenes or equivalent sequences are not really candidates for good game stories (even though their story might be a perfectly good viewed in isolation), whereas something like Magnusson's The Killer has a tight relationship between the rules and the fiction – I consider this a good game story, even though if you adapted it to a short story ("I walked right" repeated over and over again) it simply wouldn't work. (Magnusson tellingly doesn't consider this a game, calling it a 'notgame' – but since I'm saying a painting is a game, then The Killer is certainly also a game). Similar arguments can be applied to other games – I would single out Silent Hill 2 and Majora's Mask as good game stories, for instance – indeed, the tree sequence from the end of the latter game (pictured above) is practically worthy of arthouse director Ingmar Bergman, yet it is interactive throughout.

This way of looking at games and other artworks as producing fiction from rules (which are, as it happens, also a kind of fiction) is vital to the question of games-as-art because when we look at books and films as artworks we judge their artistic merits to a great degree on the quality of the story they produce, and the techniques they use to evoke that story, and thinking in this way makes games look like a poor candidate for the esteem afforded to art. Yet if we look at paintings or sculpture we can see that the quality of the story is rather less important for these artworks – even though every representative painting and sculpture does have a story. When we judge games as artworks, we need a fresh perspective to understanding the accompanying fiction, one that is suitable to the medium we are considering. In the case of videogames, this means assessing the relationship between the rules and the fiction, and recognising that what makes a great game story is nothing like what makes a great film or book story.

Next week: The Emotions of Play

The inspiration for this short series of posts, my philosophy of games book ‘Imaginary Games’ is available from and all good booksellers now.

Imaginary Games - Out Now!

Imaginary Games.Final Cover It gives me great pleasure to announce that my philosophy of games book, Imaginary Games, is now available to buy both as a paperback ($19.67 on and as a Kindle ebook ($11.58 on – although those prices may have changed by the time you click on them, of course.

In a rather bizarre situation, there are apparently 8 used copies of the book for sale with prices ranging from $14.95 (+$3.99 shipping) to an astonishing $51.47 (+$3.99 shipping), and conditions varying from ‘Very Good’ to ‘Like New’. Since a quick look at the publisher’s stock records shows that as of writing the only copies in circulation are my author copies, these vendors must either be slightly underselling or radically overselling copies of a book they don’t actually possess. Wild.

I’d like to take this opportunity to reiterate my thanks to everyone who has supported this project over the years. Despite being impressed with my proposal, many reputable publishers turned me down on the grounds that they didn’t believe such an odd topic could sell even 500 copies (the exact figure quoted by one such publisher). I hope to prove that there are in fact gamers out in the world with an interest in philosophy – and philosophers with an interest in games – and that the question of whether games qualify for the cultural esteem denoted by the term ‘art’ is one that matters to a great many of us.

Imaginary Games is available from all good booksellers now.

Videogames are Doomed

Alderaan Within ten years, the videogames industry as you know it will be dead, and in its place will be something you hate.

In some respects, the developments in the videogames industry over the last few years have been positive. Download services for games consoles have created an unprecedentedly wide channel for the distribution of content, the iPhone has brought a gold rush for innovative game apps, social games have shown investors that digital entertainment can be profitable after all, and the power consoles have offered the most spectacular virtual worlds in the history of the planet. Yet despite all of these occurrences, the videogames industry as you and I know it is already in a death spiral that will bring it ultimately to its knees, and whatever survives it will not be videogames as we know it.

The beginning of the end happened, as it so often does, around the business tables of corporate suits. In this case, it was the media corporations who rang the panic bell. Previously excited about videogames as a potentially profitable medium, the big players in conventional entertainment like Disney and Viacom quickly realised that none of their experience in those traditional media channels was going to convert to success in games – and with the cost of console development skyrocketing and the number of successful titles plummeting, the smart money had to do what it always does: leave the risks to other companies who have no choice but to continue ploughing their traditional furrows.

But the exodus of conventional media corporations wasn’t a success story for the console game publishers, but rather a warning flag that the end of the gaming world was nigh. EA, once the unassailable king of videogames, has now been reduced to billion dollar gamble investments like their purchase of PopCap in a desperate attempt to cling onto their once impregnable fortress of revenue. Activision-Blizzard now laugh from their billion dollar cloisters about their rise to the top of the heap, unaware that both the franchises that secured their success – World of Warcraft and Modern Warfare – are standing on treacherous ground.

EA have had a bold attempt to take on Modern Warfare with Battlefield 3 but their competing title is slightly misjudged: too much of a gamer-pleasing title that doesn’t have enough of that mass market appeal that helped Call of Duty become the only franchise to seriously compete with Nintendo’s high watermark sales figures. But make no mistake, all Activision’s eggs are in two baskets. At any point, a freemium or other alternative payment model MMO could sneak in through the back door and steal away World of Warcraft’s loyal fanbase (more likely, a combination of MMO services would whittle them away). Similarly, while Modern Warfare is marketed as a boxed product, it is really a subscription package in disguise, and is just as vulnerable to service competition as WoW.

What about those social game services – surely a company like Zynga is safe? Well their billion dollar warchest will certainly help them cling onto the top of the hill for quite a while, but sooner or later fragmentation in the social games space will set in. Unlike World of Warcraft, which actually does offer some (virtual)-face-to-(virtual)-face sociality, there’s nothing in FarmVille or games of this ilk to make the communities stay where they are. With revenues in the social game spaces going through the roof, competition will explode over the next few years. It’s Nintendo’s worst nightmare – heavily funded imbeciles taking their successful designs and offering them for free (with just a little microtransaction gravy to make it worthwhile). No wonder they’re quaking in their Kyoto-based boots about the undermining of value that social games represent in the mass market for games.

Gamers are probably quite delighted at the idea that social games giants might run aground on competitive reefs, but it is they who have the most to lose at the moment. Those wonderfully detailed and absurdly expensive virtual worlds they are so in love with, whether it be Grand Theft Auto V, Batman: Arkham City or Elder Scrolls: Skyrim, are balanced on a knife edge of profitability. Tiny margins separate a successful title from disastrous losses. While the home consoles are selling to a broad mass market audience, the numbers are there – just – for titles like this to get into profit. But the ridiculous development costs now required, and the severe limits on the size of the market, create a bubble economy that must inevitably burst at some point.

The cloud, too, comes in as a threat: although cloud gaming will only work in metropolitan areas with decent internet connectivity, cloud gaming is a direct challenge to the concept of console ownership. Are mid-income families going to spring for big ticket electronics if they can satisfy their kids with identical content offered through the cloud? Without this market, Sony and Microsoft are vulnerable in the console space, and without Sony and Microsoft – and just as importantly, the retail channels they rely upon to create the marketing fever that turns a popular game into a hit – the mega-budget console game ceases to make any sense.

A collapse of the mega-developer space can only be headed off by an ingenious restructure of the publishing world. It’s not impossible, but neither is it very likely. It’s more probable that the old portfolio paradigm will persist – and with fewer titles responsible for more and more revenue, and (perhaps more dangerously) ever more revenue migrating to service models, the publishers risk losing their grip over production. We’ve already seen this happen: let’s not forget that Blizzard was a developer that merged with a publisher as a marriage of convenience.

Here, then, is the writing on the wall: if you are currently enjoying the high quality, high budget console titles delivered to Sony and Microsoft’s consoles, your problem is that fewer and fewer developers can afford to operate in this space, and fewer and fewer franchises are able to compete in this marketplace. Once the number of viable titles falls below a certain threshold, retail collapses, and with it the boxed product model that these platforms depend upon. Microsoft and Sony may be able to offer a future console that avoids this catastrophe by gearing hardware around cloud gaming or games-as-service – but either way, the incredibly high production value boxed product you have come to love is an endangered species, very much at risk of disappearing within the next two cycles of consoles. It’s not impossible, as Dave Perry has predicted, that the next generation of power consoles will be the last of their kind.

Meanwhile, in a nearby marketplace, Nintendo’s casual-friendly software faces incredible competition by the social games space – their boxed products face exactly the same problems as their competitors, and mass market content goes up against the profusion of internet-capable handheld or tablet devices capable of offering similar games on a free-to-play model. Nintendo will probably still be the best at what they do, but whether this is enough to make console manufacturing a viable business proposition for them remains to be seen. It’s quite possible their specialist hardware will be edged out by generalist computers able to offer everything Nintendo can along with standard PC fare. With social games copying their best ideas and offering them essentially for free, Nintendo’s margins will crash, and something will ultimately have to give.

Can this apocalyptic doomsday scenario be averted? Perhaps the better question is: who has anything to gain by avoiding this calamity, and do they have the influence necessary to prevent it? The dedicated gamer hobbyist, currently enjoying the outputs of drastically inflated development budgets, have the most to lose. It’s not that games of this standard won’t continue to be produced – it is rather that they must inevitably move to a service model the gamers don’t want to accept. As it happens, they are already paying on a service model of some kind – whether $10 a month for World of Warcraft or $5 a month for Modern Warfare, Assassin’s Creed or the like (admittedly paid $60 at a time) – so for those who enjoy the most obvious game content the future might look only a little different. However, anyone interested in innovation or creativity in big budget games might as well abandon hope now (if they haven’t already).

Conventional game publishers also have a great deal to lose – but most will either follow Activision-Blizzard into the games-as-service space, or burn up on re-entry during the attempt. Unlike the gamers, they don’t really care about the games anyway – only about making money off the sale of game content, and this process will continue indefinitely in one form or another. Some, like EA, might manage to straddle two marketplaces by keeping a foot in big budget games while striving to profit from the social games space via parallel divisions. It’s not impossible, however, that even a giant like EA will be brought down by specialist competitors running rings around their generalist strategy.

Within ten years, the videogames industry as you know it will be dead, and in its place will be something you hate. But it won’t matter that you loathe the new way games are offered to you, because in ten years time the producers of content will view you as nothing more than a secondary market, someone they’d like to pull into their fiscal nets but only if they can catch those younger, more easily influenced players as well. Ever wondered why they “don’t make ‘em like they used to?” – both in games, and in films, books, TV shows, music and anything else you’d care to mention? It’s because you’re getting older, and the corporate money that funds almost everything you adore is forever in love with younger audiences, those that are more susceptible to marketing, and less prudent with their money.

Perhaps it’s not videogames that are doomed, but just videogames as you have learned to love them. Prepare to meet the inherent obsolescence of the contemporary market economy head on in a game of chicken that you can only lose.