Beyond Complete Freedom of Movement

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The title of this post refers to Henry Jenkins‘s “‘Complete Freedom of Movement': Video Games as Gendered Play Spaces,” which itself references the 1998 game Die by the Sword. The article, as well as the book in which it appears, is a valuable precursor to some of the recent discussions the ludodecahedron have engaged in regarding games as a virtual outdoors.

It’s been over two years since Roger Ebert enraged the hive, and despite the insistent hopping about from all corners that No One Damn Well Cares about the “are games art?” question, we still seem to keep trucking it out. The latest came from Guardian guy-with-a-blog Jonathan Jones, whose forays into the “but is it art?” arena are long documented, and about as neatly thought out as shoving stuff into a blender to see what happens.

He’s just a guy, though, and not a terribly interesting one at that. It’s the damned question itself that seems to take on a life of its own and clog up my reading agenda for TWIVGB every few weeks. As games blogging strawmen go, it’s probably right behind “can games tell stories?” and just before “are casual games games?” in terms of frequency on my RSS feed, and none of them are terribly fruitful lines of inquiry (if only because the obvious answers to the three are yes, yes and yes).

Given this, the last thing I should be doing is throwing my own two cents (more a haypenny) in here. But no matter how often this “are games art?” thing gets brought up, and no matter how many bloggers leap to defend the vidya, I always feel like the best argument is one they aren’t making. Where “but X is interactive, and it’s considered art” everyone is quick to mention participatory theatre, dance, and all the rest, and yet they neglect to mention the most glaring example of all:

Installation art.


[An] artistic genre of three-dimensional works that are often site-specific and designed to transform the perception of a space. [...] The genre incorporates a broad range of everyday and natural materials, which are often chosen for their “evocative” qualities, as well as new media such as video, sound, performance, immersive virtual reality and the internet.

-Wikipedia (yeah, sue me)

Photo credit: Molly Roberts, Smithsonian Mag

Photo credit: Molly Roberts, Smithsonian Mag

Installation art can be sculptural, architectural, participatory, and confrontational. One of my favorite installation artists is Felix Gonzalez-Torres, about whom I’ve written a bit before. Gonzalez-Torres made works out of everyday objects such as piles of wrapped candies, and the artwork is engaged with by taking candy from the pile and gradually diminishing its scale. Or as an art historian friend once put it to me, it is in the process of opening the wrapper, consuming the candy and experiencing the pocket of empty space in its wake that the art is enacted. This should resonate with anyone familiar with proceduralism in games studies: it is process as art; art that comes alive through participation.

There are other examples of installation art I could cite, like structural installations which create labyrinthine pathways out of simple rooms, or more blatantly interactive installations like “Interference” by Eric Zimmerman and Nathalie Pozzi (below).

Large-scale installation art often compels the visitor to think differently about the space they occupy. In some cases it’s as fundamental as completely altering spatial or auditory perception. It provokes cognition and emotion. To my mind, much of installation art also feeds into an overarching logic or tonality that I’m calling (for want of a better term) navigation design.

Navigation design incorporates a lot of disparate fields, and I don’t mean to suggest all these different disciplines mesh seamlessly with one another. They definitely do not. What they do share is a particular emphasis on human movement or understanding of space and logistical associations. Among many others I’d include in navigation design:

  • Installation art
  • Architecture
  • Landscaping
  • Interior design
  • Theme park design
  • Cartography
  • Affordance design
  • System architecture

Architecture and landscaping do get the occasional nod within games criticism. And I’ve seen at least a few pieces analyzing Disneyland or Ikea showroom layouts as level design. Overall, though, when people bring up “interactive art” they tend to stick to very conventional examples: movies with multiple endings (as though that is ever more than a gimmick), or books that are to be read out of order. And these provide us with some fodder for discussing non-linearity, sure, but can we go deeper than that?

Mente Abierta by Yoan Capote

Mente Abierta by Yoan Capote

And that’s where the latter two entries on that list figure into what I’m calling navigation design: affordance design and system architecture refer (broadly) to the means and nature by which users access, navigate, interact with, and modify systems. How a system is designed –the logic, assumptions, biases and omissions that go into it– affect how it can be engaged with by the end-user. Consider how often games systems are transactional, if not openly capitalist– or games that default to a kind of social mobility we would associate with being middle-class and white. And there are many other, more insidious ways in which the way we design these machines reinforce certain behaviors or provide barriers to alternative experiences. So it’s easy to see how the role of a designer, whether they’re implementing an invisible wall at the boundary of a game field or obstructing a room with a maze of glass panels, is one in which someone is determining where we go and how.

John Maeda gets the closest to what I’m talking about when he likens games to machinery, in the course of explaining why MoMA selected games based on their design characteristics:

Videogames are indeed design: They’re sophisticated virtual machines that echo the mechanical systems inside cars. Would anyone question a Ferrari or Model T or even a VW bug being acquired by MoMA?

Like well-designed cars, well-designed videogames are ways of taking your mind to different places. [...] I would argue that in some cases, games edge past being design to being art as well. Because unlike the mechanical function of a car, a narrative replaces the act of physically getting you from point A to point B. A narrative that you, the player, gets to drive and live through until it’s game over. This is where videogames become an art-like act of “personal imagination.”

Where I part ways Maeda’s argument (not that it’s a bad one) is that I think machines have the potential to provoke thought and/or feeling in their user on their own merits. Machines are conventionally understood as entirely pragmatic devices or tools–they exist to make life more efficient, and the trend toward more locked down, “user-friendly” design is presumably in the spirit of this, although it results more and more in an authoritarian design philosophy that discourages the cultures of modification and innovation that gave rise to these technologies in the first place. Nevertheless, inasmuch as magic box machines (like Apple’s entire catalog) are designed to expedite and smooth over, machines can also be designed as to disrupt and elucidate. To study a machine, especially a complex one, is to study an elaborate interaction of processes. And a thoughtfully designed machine, put in front of a savvy enough student of the mechanics involved, invites us to ask why something is or isn’t so; to confront our own expectations.

Fuck yo' spatial consistency,  says Adventure (1979)

Fuck yo’ spatial consistency, says Adventure (1979)

So when Matt Adams says in this article by Keith Stuart that “Games connoisseurs would know a Miyamoto from a Wright in a heartbeat,” yeah, we can recognize in part that he’s talking about characteristic aesthetics, tone, et cetera. But most significantly what I believe gamers are parsing in a moment like that is navigation design: the interactions of processes with one another, and the affordances for users to interact with their processes. It can be seamlessly unobtrusive, like a well-oiled machine, or it can be intentionally disruptive, like an art exhibit cut across with endless overlapping paths, but either approach (and any countless number in between) is an interaction with a designed system.

Another couple pieces in the most recent This Week in Videogame Blogging probably came closest to the heart of this idea, at least as far as I’ve read in recent days: Rainer Sigl’s bit likening game exploration to the wanderlust of our ancestors and Steven Poole’s ruminations on game design’s obsession with corridors. In the latter, Poole calls the game corridor flagrantly authoritarian, which, yes, reflects yet again the potential for navigation design to be inflected with the biases, oversights and deliberate omissions of its creator, but it also highlights the same damn thing all these art critics insist games do not, cannot have: an author.

This gets into cartography and map design as well. When I draw up the maps for a tabletop campaign, I’m making conscious design decisions in an attempt to balance guiding my players toward a certain path as well as accounting for other possible paths– and the tendency for players to be as contrarian as possible and test the limits of all things. Stats, encounter charts and environmental effects also influence their ability to navigate this fictional space I’ve set up. Apart from it taking place with pen and paper (and mostly within their imaginations), how is it effectively different than designing any physical space?

The most recent game I ran involved zero gravity, which was easier to map onto a 2D hex grid than you might expect.

The most recent game I ran involved zero gravity, which was easier to map onto a 2D hex grid than you might expect.

“Yeah, but that’s just for fun.”

A lot of art is just for fun. And a lot of fun serves many other purposes. “Sleep No More”, by many accounts, sounds like a combination theatre performance and haunted house, where the adoption of masks, the embrace of an unreal space, the deliberate misdirection and spatial confusion are all part of why it’s artful, but you can’t tell me there’s no fun involved with that as well.

Besides which, this article has never been intended to argue for games as art– merely that if yet another gatekeeping, pearl-clutching blogger makes it his thing-of-the-week to turn his nose up at games because they are participatory, or because they are navigational, or because they do all these supposedly disruptive non-art-y things, then please for all our sakes at least ask him to account for the huge chunk of the already established field of art that he’s excluding as well in the course of his earth-shattering proclamations. If you’re going to humor some guy-with-a-blog who flips out whenever games are included at a museum, at least use one of the more salient counter-examples in your arsenal.

Because I think this is what’s really lying beneath the surface of articles like Sigl’s and Poole’s, which allows one to praise games as this sort of digital great outdoors and the other to lament the tyranny of “jungly corridors.” They’re both impressions formed from experiencing authored spaces, and a design decision like how much freedom of movement is afforded the player is at least as powerful as other functionality provided or withheld. If that doesn’t qualify as authorship, hell, I don’t know what does.

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Final takeaway here– if you haven’t yet experienced Pippin Barr’s The Artist is Present (which itself is set at MoMA), I think you owe it to yourself to do so. Get there early, though.

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