The speed run is the essential example of the player exerting her will over the game world, pushing against the limits that the game designers have set.
If someone were looking for an example of how games aren’t art, they might well point to the phenomenon of speed runs. You can see them on YouTube, and I’ve wiled away a few hours of my life watching people blitz through Quake and Mario levels, completing in seconds what I distinctly remember taking tens of minutes. It can be hypnotic, much in the way that watching someone solve a Rubik's Cube in a thirty second blur of twists and turns can be hypnotic. I’m left thinking, “Wow, crazy. I’d never spend the time it takes to get that good at that!” Juggling iss another good example: when I watch a talented performer juggle a half-dozen knives through the air, I always imagine all the times that she didn’t manage to catch them all before she got to the point where I’m watching her on stage. I’m impressed with, but not envious of, the dedication required for such feats of hand-eye coordination.
You never hear about people bragging about how they can speed read through Hamlet. Aside from certain French art house films, you don’t see races to determine who can blitz through the Louvre in the shortest time. There may be art that happens fast, but seldom do we focus on getting through the art as quickly as possible. Clock-watching is a phenomenon of sport and competition, a way to determine with absolute certainty who’s first and who is last, and thus seems to belong solely to the “game” side of video games, a slap in the face to any artistic ambitions my Xbox or PS3 might have.
Of course, it’s the same skill set that makes a speed run possible that gives games their unique artistic element: the user’s all important agency in events. The speed run is the essential example of the player exerting her will over the game world, pushing against the limits that the game designers have set. I’ve argued before that it is this agency that lies at the heart of true game artistry, a mixture of the creator’s vision and the player’s input. Speed runs in some way subvert this careful balance, but I think there’s an argument to made that they provide a useful challenge to the conception of games being art.
Perhaps we can view the speed run as a kind of exercise or practice, analogous to improvising as a theater exercise. From a certain point of view, playing a speed run is also like participating in some sped up artistic endeavor, like writing a whole novel during National Novel Writing Month, or giving yourself short time limits on sketching a subject or scene in art class. The speed forces the artist to shed self restraint and just dive right in and can sometimes provide wonderful breakthroughs (and sometimes a lot of crap).
But this analogy breaks down when we consider that the people doing the speed run are not the creators, and while the individual runs might happen in the blink of an eye, they actually represent hours and hours of practice and learning before they become possible. My friend, the poet MC Jabber does speed poetry, which is pretty close to what I’m talking about, but even I must admit that there’s not much art out there that puts a high value on speed. Scat singing, maybe?
So the speed run exists as a show of gaming prowess and as a test of skill and perseverance, but I can’t bring myself to say that it is artistic in any way that I can discern. That’s perfectly okay, of course. I’m the one with the quixotic obsession for proving to the whole world that video games are art. But maybe there’s some angle on all this that I’m not seeing. Is there any way anyone else out there can think of that the speed run might be artistic? Let me know in comments.