[12 March 2008]
PopMatters Associate Multimedia Editor
The argument that games are not art has two basic foundations. First, as Roger Ebert aptly contends in his review of the film Hitman, “It’s the people we care about in movies, not how many dead bodies they can stack up.” Ebert’s point is that the world of high scores, competition, and high octane violence are always going to inhibit character development because people are too busy shooting and jumping around. The second foundation is outlined equally well by Steven Gaynor on his blog, where he points out that complex interfaces will always inhibit mass audiences or participation, whereas movies are much more accessible. Simply put, the argument is that memorizing all the moves or strategies of a game is more work than anyone besides a gamer is going to do, and art requires a much larger audience to achieve recognition.
Fortunately for all of us, someone already made a game that does away with scores, competition, or even difficulty, utilizing a simple interface for the sake of appealing to large groups. Jason Nelson, a lecturer at Griffith University in Australia, created the flash title game, game, game and again game which crosses the threshold of games and art nimbly by adapting to the deficiencies of both.
Rather than try to drag the behemoth of video game preconceptions into the realm of art, Nelson had the remarkable idea of pulling his art into the world of games. He explains, “My goal was: how can I transform my own crazy writings and ideas into an artwork that the public, your average 18 year old kid, could engage with. And a game format seemed like the most logical idea.” As a post, post, and again post-modernist poet and artist, Nelson was confronted with the simple fact that like complex video games, the general public does not necessarily interface well with his brand of art. Posting your stuff on the internet, as countless bloggers can verify, does not quite cut it. And even if you can get someone to look at your stuff, to facilitate an experience past a cursory glance and shrug is next to impossible. Not even the greatest poets and artists can always count on that. “Perhaps the most direct method…is to offer the user direct control of how the artwork itself is experienced. In this creation, that user inhabited space is contrasted with the creator’s personal journey,” says Nelson.
The game is divided into 13 brief levels traversed by an eccentric dot that represents the player and controls like Super Mario Brothers. Each level is a belief system, covering everything from Christianity to Capitalism as a perspective and the problems that come with each one. Various symbols and activation points on the map open bits of text or enhance the background art, allowing the player to change the original painting or poem as he progresses through the level. Yet coupled with these game designs are countless moments that insist on not being a game at all. You cannot “die”, you just go back to the start of the level. The score is a series of shifting arrows that have no true ranking value. Even the art itself is disorienting, leaving it up to the player if an object is going to kill him, open up text, or zap him to another part of the map.
“Most games have specific goals and consequences, competitions, and scores. But with my work, I might have consequences in the vein of responses to user actions, but I find the notions of competition and score to be largely societal conceptions, false premises for cultural conquest,” says Nelson. What the game ultimately opts for instead is to focus on the experience of playing itself. Not a rewarding experience like you’re the winner or you saved the princess, but just the experience of the game. Nelson comments:
For example, within the Chemist level, which examines drugs as worldview, the syringes open surreal texts and rave-like graphics, and the game play path is largely illogical and deceiving. On the Faith level, the user has to choose between the two sides of the cross, with one choice offering a deathless death and the other continuing the path. The poetics on this level are written as satirical and irreverent bible passages, with each stanza inspired by personal events/encounters with Christianity.
There are no stick measures to deter the player from losing and no carrot gimmicks to reward the player for winning. You just play and explore the experience.
In order to overcome Ebert’s criticism of games revolving around their challenges, their “body counts”, you have to do away with the reward aspect of video games and that is not something gamers are going to adopt lightly. Nor do they readily accept the emphasis being on the art and experience of the game rather than the obstacles and challenges. As has already been said, this isn’t so much a game trying to be art as it is a work of art borrowing from games. The reception of the game has been mixed and a quick perusal of chat boards leaves one a clear impression of the gamer reaction. User Itchy Acornz explains, “Way to ez and anoyying. Its not complex at all, just gotta ignore all the BS stuff.” Or there’s the more positive review of kayline: “woah, man. Dude, that’s trippy. The game really isn’t that great, but if there was a more clear message…woah.” But as one reviewer notes, although it’s ultimately a terrible game, if you’re willing to let yourself experience the game it leaves you “bouncing to the subconscious rhythms of thought-space.” Nelson muses, “Within all those ‘reviews/critiques’ there are 15 year-olds arguing about the nature of art, car enthusiasts wondering what ‘I was on’, gaming blogs suggesting I am both revolutionary and a pretentious jerk who can’t code, and few people who either ‘hate me forever’ or say I made their child cry.” Perhaps the biggest obstacle Nelson has encountered of all amidst these criticisms or approvals is the simple fact that so many people simply weren’t expecting to experience art when they started playing. That it seems to consistently bring out a reaction, whether positive or negative, is almost more a testament to the way the game interface sucked them in than anything else. After all, it beats a casual glance and a shrug.
To date, the game has gotten more than 5 million hits and that number is always rising. It takes about 15 minutes to play through, features great sound effects, quirky easter eggs, and will forever change how you think about video games. It isn’t entirely appropriate to call it a video game, it isn’t entirely appropriate to not call it one. It doesn’t really matter either way. For the creator of game, game, game, and again game, the goal of making a video game was never the idea anyways. Gaming was simply the mode of art that expressed the message most freely.