Friday, 16 March 2012

A Cognitivist-Subjectivist Theory of Art For Video Games (Pt. 2 of 2)

In part 1 (here) I suggested that "what is art?" boils down to how much we think human nature defines where we find beauty, and how universal that human nature is. I now suggest that it is universal enough for us to consider the validity of games in that scheme, but not enough for a true absolutist aesthetics.

My picture
I would want to argue that there exists no sound justification for an assumption of universal pre-programming in human subject's aesthetic taste, and that until there does we ought to take the simpler, less authoritative route of simply accepting that sometimes there will be no agreement between two persons on a particular subject. If I'm built in such a way that I prefer dark humour to light, and you the other, need there be a problem provided we are good enough judges to understand what is at the heart of the matter? Even cultural or personal differences, learnt biases of which one is aware but unable or unwilling to change, can be factored in and allowed for. Hume seems reluctant but committed to drawing much the same conclusion.

In this way we can account for common sense ideas like guilty pleasures. When I describe bad sci-fi as a guilty pleasure I don't mean that I enjoy it in the same way as someone who takes the pleasure at face value. I mean that as a reasonable judge I understand that the powers-to-produce of bad sci-fi are exaggerated on me thanks to my personal bias, and that my opinion will not necessarily be shared by other judges of a similar standard. This is not to say that I ought not enjoy bad sci-fi, only that I would be wrong to hold it up as great art.

What makes your taste superior to mine, then, is not the objects of your preference, but your understanding of the objective power-to-produce those objects hold. If a high art critic judges a smudge of paint on a wall to be beautiful, he is only correct if it he understands what about the paint has the power-to-produce such feelings in himself and in other subjects. Now, perhaps it turns out to be the case that the smudge of paint is pretentious. The critic was responding not to the work, but to external stimuli of which he wasn't aware (eg the reputation of the artist, the presentation of the work on the Turbine Floor of the Tate Modern, emperor's new clothes syndrome). In this case his judgement is wrong.

There's much more that could be written on how the good judge functions, but suffice to say I think there's sufficient evidence to suggest that we are capable of agreeing in a great many cases, and (at least in principle if not in practice) of understanding why we disagree in the rest.  For now, though, let's get back onto games. 

What does this mean for games?
Clearly, on my picture, video games are capable of being art. About this infamous detractor, Roger Ebert, does not disagree. In fact, he practically gives the entire game up when he writes:
One obvious difference between art and games is that you can win a game. It has rules, points, objectives, and an outcome. Santiago might cite a immersive game without points or rules, but I would say then it ceases to be a game and becomes a representation of a story, a novel, a play, dance, a film. Those are things you cannot win; you can only experience them.
I'm sure we'd be quite comfortable seeing the future of artistic video games as being at least in part in 'immersive games without points or rules'. But would we be right to do so?

Let's recap. In order to be considered art, games must have the objective power-to-produce feelings of beauty or 'aesthetic approbation' in human subjects who are good judges of art. A logical equation cannot reasonably be considered valid until it has been judged so by a good logician, and likewise with artistic value.

The good judge has to be a whole bunch of things we can probably guess for ourselves. He has to have good self-understanding, he has to have good knowledge of the medium (for a certain shorthand is developed, and the same trick will not work the same way the tenth time), and his practical capacities (intelligence, perception etc) have to be up to the task.

So what do good judges make of video games? Well, we know the field is split. Ebert is well respected in his field and drastically opposed to video games as art, but then he's quick to accept that his knowledge of the medium is next to zero, which rather eliminates him from the conversation. Of course, if it's true that games are art, and it's true that Ebert is an intelligent and perceptive judge, then it must be true that he could be persuaded (through careful critique of the games in question) that those games are in fact art. I don't know if this has been attempted in earnest, but it would make for a fascinating experiment.

On the other hand, plainly a whole bunch of us say games are art, but might we not be positively biased given our investment in the medium? When we garner what emotion we obviously do from video games, is it right that the powers-to-produce those emotions are in the physical construction of the game itself, or do they really lie in our perception of the medium as something new and exciting? Who would we hold out as a games critic on Ebert's level, and would they agree with us?

Perhaps the naysayers are right when they say we're not there yet. Part of what we need to really answer the question is perspective: we need to know what we're going to achieve in the future, and by what standards the Braids and the Wakos will be compared. The question: are today's efforts closer to cave paintings that perhaps should be considered of greater historical interest than of genuine artistic merit?

It's a cop out, but time will tell. This thing we do - of not just shaping something that will affect the audience, but creating something that the audience can go on to affect in meaningful ways - is unique and developing, and those held in the artistic spotlight are usually quick to point out as much. For all that I enjoy and appreciate the original Pong, there's no doubt in my mind that it is not (and never was) art (though not to say it is impossible to find beauty in its function). Perhaps we'll feel the same about Braid in another 40 years.

Let's ask these questions again when we're in a better position to answer them. In the meantime we need to carry on with what we're doing: seeking a better understanding of interaction and its unique powers-to-produce.


  1. One further thought. One distinguishing feature of art that appears in or at least is coherent with most aesthetic theory is some kind of cognitive shorthand. It's the idea that what makes art valuable is its unique ability to singularly represent a complex arrangement of world views and ideals. What makes, say, Sideways a great film is not the observation that men are flawed, two-sided, but ultimately capable of redemption - these are things I can explain in a sentence or an essay. What makes it valuable of itself is the ability to show us these things in practice; to conjure in our minds the complete picture and the subjective judgement that we assign it.

    If you're at all interested, a couple of good starting points would be Hume's 'Of the Standard of Taste' or Ayn Rand's 'Romantic Manifesto'.

  2. Isn't the definition of art linked to what you consider the point or goal of existence to be? If you take our existence to be ultimately meaningless is it possible to ascribe any meaning to art? On the other hand if your existence is framed by a god/purpose, presumably art must be a reflection of the character of that God/pantheon/force.

    Is it possible to meaningfully ask: "what is art?" without answering "what is life?"

    I guess, as you note in part 1, here too the relativist pulls the punch with the answer "life is what you make of it". However, that seems to be a good motto for the times.

    I guess your definition does seem to suggest either the possibility of a perfect ideal judge, who knows more than other judges - effectively a "god of art". Or otherwise, the possibility for good judges of art to disagree, in which case where equally good judges disagree, wouldn't you just wind up in a relativist position?

  3. For the most part, exactly.

    The idea behind the theory is that it ought to be applicable to anyone regardless of their take on existential purpose. Whether you think it was put there by god or by evolution, anyone can refer to powers-to-produce and to the sense that we all have had at certain times in our life of a thing that we find beautiful. Even if we take life to be meaningless, such is only true from some kind of view from nowhere - some omniscient, non-subjective perspective that realises there is no god and no higher order. A life still holds value for the subject leading it, as will certain works of art.

    The ideal judge is a central element of many absolutist neo-Humean theories. Basically:

    1. Judges are able to judge their own ability as judges and consider that ability worthy of improvement

    2. There must be, at least in theory, a point at which a judge can find no further improvement in their own ability

    3. This judge is therefore perfect

    4. If there is only one perfect judge, then their taste represents the taste of our objectively better selves; we would share their taste if only we were better judges ourselves

    5. There is only one perfect judge

    6. Therefore there is an abolute right and wrong in aesthetic judgement, and we ought do our best to comprehend it.

    Of course, I take premise 5 to be false. I believe that two perfect judges might still have different subjective responses to the same art work due to innocent variancies of taste in each. Importantly, this is only to say that their personal and internal responses would both be equally justified, not that any possible value statement they make about the work will be correct.

    Still, I expect that in a great many cases they would agree. We might say that what we tend to take as masterpieces have stood the test of time precisely for the reason that they appeal to something deeper and more universal than lesser works.

  4. As far as I'm concerned, rules and systems are the substance games are made of, as books are composed of word phrases. In a game, you can tell a story by the way things react to other events, you can create a system where things are a certain way, and a player has the ability to discover the effects of different conditions. This is vastly different than other mediums, where there is only one state that the narrative exists in -- games may not even [i]have[/i] a narrative, but they have a dynamic state.

    As a relatively simple example: A game designer can create a world in which the only way to succeed is to lie. If presented right, the player's discovery of this can be a process that communicates emotion very effectively. No other medium can do this -- a book can tell a story in which the liars succeed and all others fail, but this still remains an example, a singular story told.

    I don't know if I'm saying this well. I'm always looking for a better way to talk about these ideas.

  5. Been looking forward to you rounding this out TJ. (Aviation Anon).

    TJ said: I would want to argue that there exists no sound justification for an assumption of universal pre-programming in human subject's aesthetic taste...

    Unfortunately, I did not see an argument, just a position of an argument that you may take.

    Not that is of much consequence, but it is generally considered that human beings "do" appeal to symmetry as apposed to "asymmetry". Certainly this is true in facial recognition. Considering this is not "taught" then it necessarily appropriate to assume (though not particularly sufficient to assert) that the being, "came from the sender that way". If this axiom holds, then it is further safe to posit that symmetry, as an a priory, is a foundational element towards constructing a manifold for more complex aesthetics in a posteriori rational reflection.

    Perhaps you may assist me, but I find that Hume struggles for a foundation to posit that their is a "higher standard" (I presume based on experience of the medium), which is sufficient to judge a thing from. Though he does seem to play with an idea that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, that, that is not necessarily "enough" to qualify as a competent judge of an unfamiliar medium.

    I like that idea, but I find that there is a waffle in the epistemology of the position, which would further offer a habitability of an ongoing ontological discussion of "what is art", by what should it be judged, under what criteria... Maybe it is the lack of an epidemiological approach, as a self proclaimed empiricist, that I find my own troubles with Hume... and his somewhat "Platonic" dialectic of "as above...".

    Getting right down to it:

    video games = art, I suppose is an "ok" statement.

    Though I struggle when I say, art = video games... does it?

    Chemistry (and again propositional calculus) uses terms that suggest connotative "yields".

    Such as, art -> video games, and video games -> art.

    Like H2+O -> Water, as an exothermic reaction... and as such Water -> H2 + O as an endothermic reaction. The yields is a great way to show a process, without establishing an equivocation to the molecule to it's elements. Simply we reassert that there is in fact a "process" that takes place for these things to find equivocation. Thus, what is being judged is not the art, it is the skill in which that equivocation took place.

    On the subject of games, Feng Zhu to my knowledge was the designer of much of the Bioshock game. He himself stated that he does not consider himself an "artist", rather a designer, that if it is "artistic" it is an emergent property of good design elements and replication of simple concepts.

    From what I gather of your post, and I like it, don't get me wrong, is that a judge, must first and fore most be "capable" of grasping the thing that is being judged. Let me say "like" a master "martial artist" is one who "judges", practitioners of martial arts, and "gauges" if individual is ready to "move on" to the next stage of progression. At no time may a neophyte of the discipline have the license to judge those whom are significantly more advanced in the practice. Certainly "they do", but it is irrelevant in the context of "that" discipline.

    What is being judged here? The practitioners ability "to do" something. That what is produced, is an (art-form) is not in question, "how well it was done" is.

    2c don't spend em all in one place.

  6. I think I like you stance. Though I need to be careful saying that because I know from experience that sometimes I can become too easily convinced by an argument and fail to discern a flaw to an otherwise good argument unless that flaw is presented to me from someone else.

    But it makes sense to me. Everything just being subjective doesn't ring true to me in judging art. It is very rare for any medium though, that I come across a judge whose reasoning, knowledge and ability to communicate their analysis comes across in a way that is totally convincing and feels worthy of respect. Sometimes I've doubted the possibility to judge on that level but then I've come across a piece of writing/analysis of something artistic and it's blown me away and I become sold on this idea of the possibility of objective assessment of what you term "power to produce".

    I agree with Stephen that games seem to hold their greatest artistic promise in the fact that they are systems and rules and so can dynamically produce a message. It's not a static picture that is being observed, but something you can poke from different angles and it will respond to you in kind.

    The core behind Ebert's argument is intriguing. I do wonder whether the interactive experiences that will end up producing the more highly thought of artistic pieces will ascribe to the proper definition of 'game' which means things that have a specific goal or if there is a wide road to be explored that doesn't have goals but is nevertheless interactive. I guess very few films or books have no strong narrative spine that trys to pull the viewer along with a motivation of witnessing how something turns out though. So maybe the key artistic interactive experiences will maintain the same goal structure.