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God in the Machine
Video Games as Spiritual Pursuit
By Liel Leibovitz
Templeton PressCopyright © 2013 Liel Leibovitz
All rights reserved.
Thinking inside the Box
GAME DESIGN, GLORY, AND THE SEARCH FOR GOD
In March 2013 the Museum of Modern Art in Manhattan debuted a new exhibit, titled Applied Design, featuring the newest acquisitions to MoMA's permanent collection: fourteen classic video games, including Pac-Man, Tetris, and The Sims. That the same hallowed halls reserved for Picasso now also displayed Pac-Man sparked yet another round of a now familiar debate: Are video games art?
Whatever the answer, whatever the position, the debate revolved around the same set of ethereal arguments that are called to earth whenever art is being discussed. Supporters of MoMA's canonization of digital entertainment pointed out that video games, like all great art, expand our horizons; opponents argued that lacking a single creator, and being primarily playthings, video games fall short of pure art's Olympian standards.
It's a fascinating debate, but the answer to the above question is, put bluntly, "no." Video games aren't art because they are, quite thoroughly, something else: code.
To understand the distinction, consider Pac-Man, which was at the heart of one of the most important—and most unheralded—lawsuits in the history of the medium. In 1982, with the Pac-Man craze peaking, an aspiring company named Artic International released its own series of video arcade games featuring more or less the same maze, the same pastel-hued ghosts, and the same ravenous big-mouthed circle. The color pattern was slightly different than the original, and the game's name was tweaked—it was called Puckman—but it was clearly a knockoff. Midway, Pac-Man's American manufacturer and distributor, sued.
Artic's defense was artful. According to Title 17 of the U.S. Code, Artic argued, copyright protection applied to "original works of authorship fixed in any tangible medium of expression." Unlike a page, which is a repository for printed words, or a film strip, which permanently stores images, the computer chips that made Pac-Man run held nothing fixed; like all code, they were merely a set of instructions that, when followed, allowed the machine to conjure the famous character and his world. As such, Artic argued, video games did not meet the requirement for fixation. The company even cited a congressional report from the mid-1970s, arguing that "the definition of 'fixation' would exclude from the concept purely evanescent or transient reproductions, such as those ... captured momentarily in the 'memory' of a computer." The judge, however, was unconvinced. Video games, he ruled, may be a set of instructions, but they're a very consistent set of instructions; Pac-Man looked exactly the same every time the machine was turned on. Artic was forced to cease production and pay damages.
Puckman lost the battle, but it ended up winning the war. Immediately after the case was decided, the U.S. Copyright Office announced that it was changing its approach to video games. Rather than allow game producers to register the images and sounds that appear on the screen as "audiovisual work" and the code itself as "literary work," they would now require applicants to choose between the two.
Most game producers chose to protect the way their games looked and sounded and felt, their iconic characters and memorable landscapes. This is unsurprising. We love Mario and Link and Master Chief, not the algorithms that govern their movements. But there's more to this strategy: game producers quickly realized that, unlike art, which is distinct and unique and exists for its own aesthetic purposes, code is practical and interchangeable and exists merely as a tool to make something work. Trying to copyright code, then, was a lot like trying to copyright a hammer—even if you succeeded in protecting one particular design, other people could still construct very similar methods of banging nails into walls.
With code largely unprotected, designers are not above the occasional bout of copying and pasting. Take a look, for example, at Crush the Castle, originally released in April 2009. You probably haven't heard of it, but you've almost certainly seen or played a nearly identical game that came out eight months later, used the same general premise—catapulting objects onto stacked structures—but replaced the warring knights with angry birds.
This isn't theft. It's how games work. Even though they were algorithmic twins, the two games couldn't have felt any more different: one was cool and steely and evoked the raw conflict of medieval times, and the other had those villainous green pigs and enough charm to become instantly iconic.
Which brings us back to the argument about video games as art. You could argue that Angry Birds succeeded where Crush the Castle fizzled because the former was more artfully done. But that would be only half true, as the game itself—specifically the playing experience, of swiping fingers to flick objects across the screen—is, for all intents and purposes, the same game. With art, borrowing and citing and paraphrasing images and themes and ideas is commonplace; it's how the craft is practiced. But a game incorporating another game's code isn't like Duchamp incorporating the Mona Lisa in his work. That's because a few lines of code aren't an artistic statement but rather an action-oriented script that performs a specific set of functions, and computers know how to do only so many functions. While art is bound only by its creator's imagination, code is bound by the limitations, more numerous than you'd imagine, of computer comprehension. Code can't, like Joyce's Finnegan's Wake, abandon logic and decide to imitate the sounds of nature instead. It can never be poetry, just a series of if/then statements. Code has more in common with the hinges that connect the museum's doors to their frames than it does with Nude Descending a Staircase.
This divide between code and image, between the algorithms responsible for the experience of play and the pixels representing its visual manifestation, is what makes games so complicated and compelling. MoMA, however, has chosen to largely ignore this question; a number of the games displayed in its exhibition are merely loops of video footage, allowing visitors to watch, as the museum put it, "guided tours of these alternate worlds," but not to play the games themselves.
The question, then, is not whether video games are art, but whether whatever is currently gracing MoMA's walls could even be called video games. Anyone who has ever been truly transformed by a game—that is, anyone who realizes that games, unlike paintings or movies or books, are made not to be observed but to be actively played, repeatedly and over long stretches of time—knows that the answer is no.
What, then, are they? If we find them worthy of eternal life in our museums, this question is pressing. The Dutch theorist Johan Huizinga provided an answer in his seminal study, Homo Ludens, which pertains to all forms of play. While many human undertakings, he argued, are structured similarly to play—trials have rules, wars have winners and losers—play is predicated on three overarching requirements: it must be voluntary, it must follow its own scripted logic, and it must stand apart in space and time from all other activities. Often, Huizinga's ideas are compressed even further and represented by his one key concept, that of the magic circle: to play, he wrote, is to bring perfection into an imperfect world, muting, for a short while, all of life's uncertainties and insisting instead on far simpler sequences. Think of yourself, at seven or eight, playing hide-and-seek: your eyes closed, you count to a hundred, and when you open them again the world has been reduced to a singular and comprehensible task. For a spell, life is about nothing more than looking behind trees or under the bed, trying to find your friends, your pulse quickening with each discovery.
But such sublime simplicity doesn't occur naturally. It depends on rules. Hide-and-seek appeals so greatly because its rules are so simple: we know how long we must count, where we may and may not hide, and how much time the seeker is allotted before the remaining players are permitted to pop out of their hiding spots and declare victory. When we disagree about the rules, contention ensues and the magic circle breaks. We are reminded that we are still in and of the world, and reminded, too, of all of the world's ambiguities and complexities. For play to sustain itself and thrive, then, the rules must be clear.
That, of course, is not too tall an order when all players are human; a few quibbles and quarrels later, most of us, when contemplating even the most complicated play settings, are likely to agree on a basic premise. But when play depends on the interaction between a human being and a machine, things grow endlessly more complicated. Machines have no use for magic circles. They make no distinction between their motivations. They have no motivations. They run series of algorithms, producing calculations. When it comes to playing, they're terrible, unimaginative bores. To bring down Joshua, the renegade computer on the brink of launching a nuclear war with the Soviet Union in the 1983 classic War Games, the boyish and brilliant hacker, Matthew Broderick, instructs the machine to play tic-tac-toe against itself. Joshua, frustrated by the inevitable string of draws, learns the concept of futility, which so overwhelms him—even supercomputers cringe when faced with philosophical abstractions—that he decides to stop playing. How are video game designers, then, to avoid the Joshua trap? How are they to devise a series of encounters between human beings and algorithms that would not reduce us to a heap of calculations or send our machines into fits of existential despair, unable to comprehend our complex emotional concepts?
These core questions at the heart of game design are staggeringly complex. Addressing them, game scholars sometimes argue that video games are a triumphant medium precisely because they've solved these conundrums, and the solution has to do with interactivity. Our technologies, goes the argument, have become so advanced that they now allow for a real dialogue between us and our computers. We have no more Joshuas, obdurate golems that must be subdued. Our machines are smart now. They have, to use a favorite buzzword of the era, artificial intelligence. They're capable of learning, and we've become adept at teaching them. And video games are at the fore of this revolution, because they allow us to engage harmoniously with machines not in some workaday production process but in the transcendent realm of play.
It's a very compelling theory. It's also completely false.
Of all the fallacies marring our understanding of video games, none, perhaps, is more vexing than the idea that video games represent the next evolutionary stage of technology because, unlike its anemic ancestors, it fosters a sort of conversation, however primitive, between humans and machine. Video games cannot do that, at least not yet. But understanding our desire for this sort of interaction is key, as we currently celebrate video games more for what they cannot do than for what they can.
What they cannot do is interact. The term is tricky: without being too persnickety, we must first understand what we mean by "interaction," a term too nebulous to do us any real good. For a solid beginning, we may turn to the old sociologists, like Ervin Goffman, who remind us that we all, being human, coexist in a social sphere and depend on a modicum of exchange or interplay with our fellow humans, an interplay guided by a specific set of rules, norms, myths, and symbols. Pursue this logic and you're likely to emerge with strong ideas about what the ideal interaction might be: two or more people, meeting face to face, unobtrusively observing each other's expressions, movements, and intonations. Our language, too, has internalized this bias: when we agree with someone, we see eye to eye, and when we express faith in another we take that person at face value. Physical proximity indicates an accord, a harmonious joining together of two bodies and two souls.
What, then, are machines to do? Most theorists suppose that they, poor eyeless and faceless and soulless automatons, should strive to imitate us humans, or, at least, aspire to engage us as much as possible. A perfect communications medium, wrote one observer, is therefore one in which "the sender and receiver use all their senses, the reply is immediate, the communication is usually close circuit, and the content is primarily informal," not too far a cry from two friends greeting each other in the street. A similar approach prevails even when the medium in question does something other than connect two human beings across space and time. Fantasizing on the possibilities of interactive life in Newsweek magazine in the early 1990s, for example, one writer imagined:
a huge amount of information available to anyone at the touch of a button, everything from airline schedules to esoteric scientific journals to video versions of off-off-off Broadway. Watching a movie won't be a passive experience. At various points, you'll click on alternative story lines and create your individualized version of "Terminator XII." Consumers will send as well as receive all kinds of data.... Video-camera owners could record news they see and put it on the universal network.... Viewers could select whatever they wanted just by pushing a button.... Instead of playing rented tapes on their VCRs, ... [the customers] may be able to call up a movie from a library of thousands through a menu displayed on the TV. Game fanatics may be able to do the same from another electronic library filled with realistic video versions of arcade shoot-'em-ups....
The paragraph's predictions are prescient, but their accuracy is hardly the issue: interactive technologies excite us because they carry a promise that transcends mere utility, the promise of communion with powers greater and unknown. Writing in the ninth century and reversing centuries of contempt for technical know-how as the domain of uneducated laborers, the philosopher Johannes Scotus Eriugena noted that the useful arts represented "man's links with the Divine, their cultivation a means to salvation." Media scholar Colin Cherry was channeling Eriugena when he claimed, somewhat more mutely, that any new technology must be measured based on whether it "has offered people new liberties of action."
But what might these liberties be? What new freedoms are on offer? Three decades or more after first inquiring into the nature of interactivity, we are left primarily with complications. "The common feeling," one observer summed it up neatly, "is that interactivity, like news, is something you know when you see it." Thinkers who have tried to be a touch more specific often failed to come up with anything drastically more instructive. "Part and parcel of a system is the notion of 'relationship.' ... Interactional systems then, shall be two or more communicants in the process of, or at the level of, defining the nature of their relationship," argued one thinker, while another claimed that "something is interactive when people can participate as agents within a representational context. (An agent is 'one who initiates actions.')." Taking a literal approach, one media scholar defined "interactivity" as "the ability to intervene in a meaningful way within the representation itself, not to read it differently. Thus interactivity in music would mean the ability to change the sound, interactivity in painting to change colors, or make marks, interactivity in film ... the ability to change the way the movie comes out." For another, it meant "a cyclical process in which two actors alternately listen, think, and speak. The quality of interaction depends on the quality of each of the subtasks (listening, thinking, and speaking)."
Such definitions can be intermittently instructive, but they offer little insight into the inherent nature of video games. Video games do something very different, which game design scholars Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman captured neatly in their seminal book on the subject, Rules of Play. "Game designers," they wrote, "do not directly design play. They only design the structures and contexts in which play takes place, indirectly shaping the actions of the players. We call the space of future action implied by a game design the space of possibility. It is the space of all possible actions that might take place in a game, the space of all possible meanings which can emerge from a game design."
Excerpted from God in the Machine by Liel Leibovitz. Copyright © 2013 Liel Leibovitz. Excerpted by permission of Templeton Press.
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