Last week, G. Christopher Williams wrote an article explaining that games may not be art because the interactivity of games mutates the relationship between audience and work. The essay speaks better for itself than I ever could but an interesting point that came up was that those arguing games are “just games” should not be so readily dismissed.
Here at Popmatters we spend a lot of time talking about how games can be considered art or at least the artistic merits of some noteworthy games. However, for all the articles discussing how the relationship between player and game works or how a title uses a certain trope, there are few essays about “just games.” If there’s a modern instance of “just a game,” it’s League of Legends.
First of all, I should lay my cards (and biases) on the table, I don’t believe that games are art; I believe that games can be art, which is an important distinction to make. Admittedly, there is no fixed criteria that separates “just games” from “games as art” (which is a big reason why I wrote this) and making the distinction probably deserves a column all its own. But for now, let’s summarize an “art game” as a game with a clear and meaningful ending and a “just a game” as a skill-based competition with regular and predictable rewards/punishments for playing by the rules. Yes, all games involve using skill within a set of rules to succeed in a competition, and, yes, any player can read or argue meaning into even the purest competitive game, but for simplicity’s sake, this can be our measuring stick for now.
Released in October of 2009, League of Legends is a free-to-play PC title heavily based on the Defense of the Ancients mod created on the Warcraft III map editor. Currently the game features over eighty characters, but more are being released every month. League of Legends embodies many traits of being “just a game.” League of Legends is a competitive multiplayer title with only one mode that has clear objectives, the few changes in play that it offers are only minor, and what limited lore that exists is completely divorced from the gameplay.
League of Legends isn’t really “about” anything. The game matches two teams of five, each player chooses a character, and then each team begins on opposite sides of a map where they must work together to destroy their opponents nexus at the center of each base. The team that loses its nexus loses the match. Each character has strengths and weaknesses the must be balanced using teamwork. It’s no different than a hockey game or a chess match. Each player controls pieces on a board rather than characters in a story. And while each “piece” may be open for some critical examination (all of the men are built like refrigerators, the women are clothed only in belts, and the only character with a brown skin tone is a spear-chucking wild woman that can turn into a cougar), the purpose for installing and running the game is to play against other players. It is a competition between teams, “just a game.”
Closely related to that is the idea that League of Legends never changes and has no end to it. For most games, there is a time when the credits roll, when the game ends. Obviously, without a story to experience a game, the story can never come to an end. But more than that, the entire game takes place in a very small area that is revisited in each match. The details are changed, but the field of play is always the same. There are always new characters to unlock, but they’re always used in the same place to achieve the same end in the same limited ways. There are no new experiences, essentially the entirety of the game is experienced in the first match. With no new plateaus to reach, the only reason to continue with it is in the game-like portions of the title. Like chess or a major sport, the rules are always the same and the experiences are only ever vary within those rules sets.
Finally, there is no story in League of Legends. Rather, there is a story, but it isn’t told in the game. Each character has a few blobs of text explaining their origins in the world—which is also explained via text blob—but during the time when the player is in control of the world, they never experience the game’s world or their character within it. Each character has a full background in a complex world that nobody cares about. Players (or non-players) have the option to read the lore, but it adds so little to the game that it may as well not be there. When a game divorces story from gameplay so much, it reduces the story to an extracurricular, but irrelevant detail (which is a big reason why I wrote this). For all it influences the game, any plot or setting or even characterization might as well not be there. Again, each of the selectable characters are pieces on a board with as much personality as the blocks in Tetris.
So League of Legends is “just a game.” It isn’t a work of art. Big deal. Beyond its popularity, it’s still a well designed game. And there’s no reason that it can’t exist beside L.A. Noire or Half-Life or any of the other games that are usually credited with being more or less “art games.” There’s a tendency to treat “just games” and “games as art” as mutually exclusive bodies that can’t exist in the same world together. It shouldn’t matter if it’s “just a game” or “just art.”
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// Moving Pixels
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