"I had the pleasure of attending a talk by the founders of Bioware at BAFTA. It was about whether games are an art and if so, how. Starting with a definition from Tolstoy, they explained that the ability to create key choices and moments within games to evoke emotion is what they consider art. They then invited members of the audience to share their own emotional play experiences.
However something bothered me about the definition and its application. Both speakers and audience were equating art with player emotion, beauty and experience and that’s not really what Tolstoy meant. It can’t be denied that many players of roleplaying games feel that their play experience should be regarded as art, but is it? Or are they actually searching for validation?
This is a post about definitions of art, emotional validation, the duality of play, Iain McGilchrist and whether roleplaying really is what its proponents think it is.
Here is the key Tolstoy quote that Ray Muzyka and Greg Zeschuk (of Bioware) used, from the book ‘What is Art?’:
To evoke in oneself a feeling one has once experienced, and having evoked it in oneself, then, by means of movements, lines, colours, sounds, or forms expressed in words, so to transmit that feeling that others may experience the same feeling - this is the activity of art.
Art is a human activity consisting in this, that one man consciously, by means of certain external signs, hands on to others feelings he has lived through, and that other people are infected by these feelings and also experience them.
The phrase that many game makers (and the BAFTA speakers and audience) hone in on here is the evoking of feelings. Often times games are thought of as a way for players to self-express and create their own stories, and so in a sense the game designer is the provider of possibility. By creating a world such as the universe of Mass Effect, he nudges the player toward interesting moments and emotional attachments. And since this is evoked emotion, it’s art.
At least that’s the idea, and one that I have previously discussed and largely dismissed. It hinges on the idea that a player is telling a story to himself, is the hero of his own tale and so forth, but it’s just not true.
The player is in the world, but as herself. She acts, but as herself. She frequently plays in an optimal fashion, and roleplaying games are full of functional asides like shops and looting and character optimisation for that purpose. She also tends to treat dialogue sections like a permutation exercise. In short, a lot of play is really about winning and being an agent of change, and while the game may be beautiful and the joy of winning is exuberant, that’s not what art is...."
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