Monday, November 17, 2008

Comments on "Videogames and Art"

Two weeks to cover a book as varied in its viewpoints and topics as Videogames and Art has been quite a ride, especially since videogame aesthetics are a completely new field to me. The volume was an eye-opener and thought-provoker. But as a newcomer I feel more inclined to digest the introduction I've received rather than venture any aesthetic criticisms of my own.

Yet sometimes the thoughts of a newcomer, who brings new eyes and a clean slate, can be useful or at least interesting. Thus let me offer a few impressions from my readings.

First, I detected a tension about what should be labeled videogame art. One view is expressed by Brody Condon who states:

It's difficult to define [videogame art] as the line between interesting cultural artifacts and intentional artistic production is completely blurry at ths point, and projects influenced by or using contemporary gaming have taken on so many forms. Just within the artworld we have seen machinima, online performances, pervasive gaming, console hacks, mods, etc, as well as traditional media like painting and sculpture incorporating elements from games and game culture (p. 85).

In this view, the term "videogame art" can encompass not only the creation of original games but also riffs on existing games and game artifacts, as well as traditional artworks inspired by games and game culture.

Another view is argued by Martin who contends:

Several online artists use the element of videogames in their work, but this is not videogame art. This is art based on games and presented in separate mediums such as computer art (pp. 207-208).

In this contrasting view, the term "videogame art" should only be applied videogames themselves and not on artistic expressions that merely appropriate elements from games and game culture.

Second, if forced to choose between these two perspectives I would, at this point, opt for the latter, that "videogame art" must reside in videogames. In part, this preliminary conclusion is because I found two chapters in Videogames and Art to be the most helpful and persuasive: namely "Should Videogames be Viewed as Art?" (Martin) and "Will Computer Games Ever Be a Legitimate Art Form?" (Adams).

The Martin chapter helpfully provides background about the antecedent cases of photography and cinema, and the struggles of these media for acceptance as art forms. The Adams chapter just as helpfully offers some background about the philosophy of art. Both chapters make concrete suggestions about what videogame artists must do for their work to be regarded as art.

Third, both Martin and Adams point to interactivity as the defining difference for videogames as compared to existing art forms. In particular, Martin castigates the industry for trying to produce what amount to "interactive movies" and exhorts videogame artists to explore the unique properties of their medium.

This rings true since, in the two books I've published on broadcasting history, I made the point that both radio and television, in their turns, were not successful until they learned to tell stories and convey ideas according to the unique properties of each. Radio was invented as a wireless telegraph but had to move past its original narrowcasting paradigm into true broadcasting. TV shows were originally radio with pictures but eventually learned to exploit visuality.

The Martin and Adams chapters helped me envision a day when I might play a videogame to experience its artistry, just as I now watch a favorite movie such as High Noon. When I watch that movie, it gets me involved in the characters and the plot and the emotions and the ideas. Someday I might play a videogame that gets me involved in the same things. But the experience will be different because the game will use its interactivity to involve me in a different way.

Fourth, though, Adams asks a fundamental question that, I believe, he glosses over and does not really answer:

So why aren't most games art? One possibility is that interactivity precludes art; that art is a form of communication from the artist to viewer, and if the viewer starts to interfere, the message is lost. It is certainly true that interactivity operates in a tension with narrative: marrative lies in the control of the author, while interactivity is about the freedom of the player (p. 257).

After this statement Adams goes on with a paragraph about a San Francisco science museum whose exhibits are considered (by the museum) to also be aesthetically pleasing. I'm not sure what this has to do with the question above. But at least I didn't find this illustration to be a satisfying answer.

We ran into the same conundrum with Bogost and his thesis about "procedural rhetoric." Namely, how persuasive can a videogame be when audience involvement is proportional to the amount of gameplay freedom and control ceded to that audience? The most "persuasive" games cited by Bogost seemed to be the most heavy-handed, with little game value to involve users.

Fifth, while Bogost was about rhetoric, Martin and Adams are about art. And when it comes to art, I begin to see the glimmer of an answer about the interactivity issue: A rhetorician is trying to mount an argument, but an artist is creating an expression.

This impresses me as an important distinction. When I hear a campaign speech on television or read an opinion piece in the newspaper, I must hear out the argument before deliberating on and deciding about its proposition. But when I listen to great music or watch a great film, I can participate in the expression while it is occurring.

In the same way, I could imagine that interacting with a videogame might not preclude my participation in the artist's expression. But perhaps that may mean giving up the idea, described (but not endorsed) by Adams, that art is a "communication" with a "message."

Sixth, while Bogost suggests persuasive videogames are "communications" with "messages," Adams sees these elements as being too narrow for videogames to succeed as art. Are these two views in tension?

So to summarize the three questions that arise from my class readings these past two weeks:

> What should be considered "videogame art"? Either art in any medium that appropriates elements of games and game culture? Or only games themselves?

> Does interactivity preclude art since narrative control and interactive freedom are necessarily in tension? According to one view, art is a communication from the artist to the viewer. Does "interference" by the viewer cause the message to be lost?

> Is there a tension between "persuasive games" (and Bogost's view of games as vehicles of argumentation) and "videogame art" (and Adams' view of artworks as vehicles of expression)? Does one preclude the other?

Sunday, November 9, 2008

New Directions

In recent weeks as we've been wrapping up Bogost's Persuasive Games, I've also been doing a literature review of my own in anticipation of turning my energies toward completion of our final paper for the course.

Since our assigned reading has now turned to Clarke and Mitchell's Video Games and Art, we now shift from rhetoric to aesthetics. The latter is a field of which I know little but look forward to learning more (and have already learned more in this week's readings). So perhaps as I get my feet wet then, in upcoming posts, I may venture some thoughts about art and aesthetics.

But our blogs are, I presume, intended not only for reflections on assigned readings but also on our own explorations into game studies. Therefore I will be borrowing a page from last spring's RCID 804 and be sharing some scholarly resources I have found beneficial in my own lit review.

Some Background

First, though, let me give you the setup: Since I first heard that our second-year RCID cohort would be taking a class on Video Games, I was immediately drawn to the possibility of seeing MMOGs are cultures in microcosm (or maybe not even in microcosm, since World of Warcraft and Second Life have so many millions of registrants), providing virtual laboratories for seeing cultures at work.

Since my MA in Comm Studies, I've had an interest in how communication is used to cultural work such as negotiating and managing identities. But I had to actually participate in World of Warcraft and Second Life before I could fully appreciate how much, as a "newbie," I was stepping into new cultures.

In essence, my avatar is an "immigrant" in World of Warcraft and Second Life. And this thought put me in mind of how, only in recent years, have formal theories of immigrant adaptation and acculturation been developed within the corpus of intercultural communication studies. Nishida's (1999) schema theory, and Kim's (2005) integrative theory, of cross-cultural adaptation come to mind.

Both of these theories (and others) posit that immigrant acculturation is inherently a social process and therefore can only be worked out through communication. So with this in mind I set out to find whether the literature on game studies provides any indication whether this is so for newcomers to MMOGs cultures.

Four Schools of Thought

This forced me to look at the schools of thoughts within game studies. I was able to discern four such schools:

> Ludology, which focuses on the dynamics of play

> Narratology, which sees games as texts whose stories can be read and critiqued

> Media effects, which looks at the psychological and physiological effects of games

> Social science/sociology, which looks at the dynamics of gaming communities

Though ludology can (as Huizinga pointed out) plumb the connection between play and culture, I'm more interested not in games as cultural artifacts but as constituting cultures of their own.

Though narratology can tell us much about the culture that produces a game, once again I'm more interested in games as self-contained cultures rather than artifacts of real-world culture.

Though media effects research suggests that games can instantiate an effect called cultural consonance (the idea that people who are well adapted to a culture will experience a heightened sence of wellbeing), effects research is conducted from a behaviorist perspective and I'm more interested in gameworlds as social constructions.

So in writing my paper I'm focusing my lit review more on the sociological school. But as it turns out, the literature on games from the perspective is still fairly new. Only with the emergence of massively multiplayer games (and with increasing interest, generally, in computer-mediated communication) has this perspective begun to gain some ground.

New School on the Block

Let me offer some quotes. For example, Eastin (2007) points out:

Media theory has focused on individual reactions to mediated content; however, the expansion to multiuser environments suggests that researchers should consider group processes (p. 453).

Similarly, Pena and Hancock (2006) relate:

Although our understanding of mediated communication processes in instrumental and organizational contexts is substantial, we know much less about these processes in social and recreational contexts. . . . such as playing video games. A number of research communities have highlighted the need for more research examining communication in recreational and playful contexts. Some research has begun to examine recreational social interaction on the Internet. . . . Although these studies have begun the investigation of recreational CMC [computer-mediated communication] contexts, they have not yet addressed the nature of the communication processes that take place in these settings (p. 93).

An Interesting Study

The latter study by Pena and Hancock, entitled "An Analysis of Socioemotional and Task Communication in Online Multiplayer Video Games," is an article I recommend. Interestingly, they started out with two perspectives:

> The cues-filtered-out (CFO) theory which, in analyzing computer-mediated communication (CMC), focuses on the absence or diminution of nonverbal cues

> The Social Information Processing (SIP) theory which holds that interlocutors in CMC can test each other's reactions, develop cues and, given enough time, learn to conduct true interpersonal communication

Pena and Hancock hypothesized that CFO theory would predict that MMOG players (with their nonverbal cues filtered out) would conduct more task-oriented communication than socioemotional communication, and that any socioemotional communication would tend to be more negative than positive.

On the other hand, they hypothesized that SIP theory would predict that MMOG players (being able to develop new cues over time) would conduct more socioemotional communication than task-oriented communication, and their socioemotional communication would be more positive than negative.

After coding and analyzing more than 4,400 text chat messages from 59 players in the game Asheron's Call 2, Pena and Hancock confirmed the SIP predictions: Communications among players were more often, to a significant degree, more socioemotional than task-oriented. And socioemotional messages were much more often positive than negative.

Interestingly (for my proposal that newbies are "immigrants" in a new culture), the study found differences in the communications of experienced and inexperienced players. Experienced players used communicative conventions (e.g., game jargon, emoticons, abbreviations) about half of the time, while inexperienced players used them very little.

And while experienced players easily conveyed mostly positive messages, a large majority of negative messages came from inexperienced players. These negative messages were mostly about breaking social rules, impolite behavior, and frustrations about losing the game or getting lost in its geography.

This sounds a lot like intercultural communication theories of immigrant adaptation, which Kim (2005) describes as a dialectical trial-and-error process of stress-adaptation-growth.



Eastin, M. S. (2007). The influence of competitive and cooperative group game play on state
hostility. Human Communication Research, 33, 450-466.

Kim, Y. Y. (2005). Adapting to a new culture: An integrative communication theory. In W. B.
Gudykunst (Ed.), Theorizing about intercultural communication. Thousand Oaks, CA:

Nishida, H. (1999). A cognitive approach to intercultural communication based on schema
theory. International Journal of Intercultural Relations, 23, 753-777.

Peña, J., & Hancock , J. T. (2006). An analysis of socioemotional and task communication in
online multiplayer video games. Communication Research, 33(1), 92-109.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Comments on "Purposes of Persuasion"

With this blog we wrap up Bogost's Persuasive Game. Did his conclusion "save the best for last"? Happily (to my way of thinking) Bogost used his conclusion to pick up the thread of theory development that started with the first chapter.

I appreciated Bogost's "connect the dots" approach of using an existing body of literature in new applications. Specifically, I have a research interest in religious rhetoric and thought Bogost's link to this literature was interesting and useful.

How so? Religious homilies do not necessarily have a telos of inducing decision but, rather, of opening a space for reflection and eventual appropriation by listeners. This is an interesting dynamic to consider when pondering the rhetorical effects of videogames.

Perhaps I may engage the rhetoerical theory within Bogost's final chapter in more detail with a later post. But for now, having concluded Persuasive Games, let me arrive at my own general conclusions:

> Bogost's willingness to put his claims in public is admirable.

> I do not believe his claim that "procedural rhetoric" constitutes an entirely new domain is proven, but do believe this claim moves the conversation forward.

> Why forward? I agree with Bogost's contention that the literature on visual rhetoric privileges static and filmic images, and that on digital rhetoric privileges texts, so that neither adequately deals with videogames.

> However, I would rather see first whether the framework of (especially) visual rhetoric can be extended to account for videogames, before "throwing out the baby with the bath water" and claiming a new rhetorical domain of "procedurality" must be recognized.

> Nevertheless, Bogost has convinced me that videogames can mount rhetorical arguments (though admittedly, I did not doubt this) and that visual rhetoricians must address what games bring to the table (a topic of which I was less aware before reading Bogost).

> So while I continue to ask whether "procedural rhetoric" is a new domain or, instead, is "computer-aided rhetoric," I readily say that . . .

> I am glad to have read Persuasive Games for its describes phenomena which merit analysis, whether one endorses Bogost's solution or prefers another approach.