Games, Art and Michael Stipe Laughing

There is a tendency in game designers (the very word designer implies it, I suppose), to think of games in an entirely mechanical way: as a set of parts, programmed to perform a certain task, with the purpose of the designer being to make them as efficient as possible at performing said task. As with all the really dangerous lies, there’s a kernel of truth to this. Of course games are machines, of course they are programs. But so are human beings. Homo sapiens sapiens is a machine designed to eat, drink, defecate and procreate. Yet that is not what we admire in humanity; we do not seek out our friends on the basis of who is the most vigorous defecator. We rarely admire people for how their anatomy allows them to drink more efficiently than others. There are few heroes and saints notable for their particularly excellent digestive tracts. A lover is admired for their passion and their ability at arousing pleasure, not for how quickly they can procreate.

We admire people for the same reasons they often annoy us: their habits, their beliefs, their obsessions, their flaws. These are the things that are specific, that are special – the things that make them individuals. A perfectly efficient abstract human being, no matter how ingenious the mechanisms by which it functions, is unspeakably dull. That is not to say that these mechanisms aren’t important, or that it is not pleasant when they function at maximum efficiency: if humans were designed to defecate through their mouths, I imagine we would be a lot less happy as a species. The current arrangement is certainly preferable – but it’s not what we love people for. It’s not what we love humanity for, either.

Music is another thing that is sometimes seen in such a mechanical way. And there is no question about it: music is closely related to mathematics. Some patterns work, others do not, and a musician must understand that aspect of the craft to write a great song. But the reason I love R.E.M.’s The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite is not the perfection of its music. It is the way Michael Stipe is obviously laughing when he sings the chorus after “or a reading from Dr. Seuss.” If the song was terrible the laugh wouldn’t matter, but without the laugh I wouldn’t love the song. I would think it good, even great, but I wouldn’t love it.

Art, as Oscar Wilde famously said, is quite useless. This is true of most things that make life worth living. Eating is necessary; enchiladas are not. Drinking is necessary; a glass of ice-cold coke on a hot day is not. Sex for procreation is necessary; oral sex for pleasure is not. It is the mark of small minds and tyrants that they seek to forbid that which is not necessary. That is why I often find it quite upsetting when people start arguing for how games can be useful. If they were useful, they would not be games. They are glorious, like oral sex and enchiladas and music, because their only purpose is themselves.

Those who think of games in this abstract, mechanical way will be able to produce good mechanisms, but they will not be able to produce art. I do not mean art in the pretentious, false sense of something heavy and ponderous. When I say art, I am referring to the equivalent of Michael Stipe’s laugh: that delightful and infinitely memorable moment of humanity. It’s not that games do not contain mechanisms – they do, in the same way that novels have sentence structures. But to think only of the structure of the sentences is to miss the point of writing a book. It is the personal, the specific, that makes art what it is. It is that turn of phrase, that image, that refrain. That’s what the artist brings to the work: not the craft, but the individual vision. The little laughs and the little flaws. Maybe the big flaws, too. Sometimes big flaws are necessary.

By all means, let us study and discuss the craft of making games. But let us not forget that what we are making is art, or our games will be clever, efficient and dull.

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