Monday 1 April 2013

Quizzical play #2: Optimising for Beauty

screenshot: Art Game, by Pippin Barr

'Quizzical Play' is a loose grouping of articles which explore what lies beyond the idea of winning and losing in videogames, and how players often subvert these ideas for themselves.


They say that inside every critic is a failed artist. It's true; he was delicious. But even I found it hard to resist when Pippin Barr's Art Game offered me a chance at virtual gallery stardom. Playing through it, I felt pride stirring within me, along with the urge to show off my artwork to everyone.  So what better way to analyse it than with a picture essay of my very own oeuvre?

Like so many of the games Barr makes, Art Game is set up like a joke. You pick your artist - a painter, a sculptor, or a performing duo - and try to conquer the art world with your works. The punchline is that you do so using the mechanics of classic games like Tetris, Spacewar and Snake. When you lose, your playthough so far becomes an artwork that you can title or simply trash. Soon a curator drops round and assesses your work for display in a gallery, sometimes often rejecting the best and ignorantly lauding the worst. It definitively answers Sophie Houlden's seminal question: can art be games?

a tale of two...things. line things. boxes?

Part of the humour comes from the ontological contortions its concept throws up. How, for example, does it make any sense at all that Spacewar can stand in for performance art (Barr's answer: put the artists in spaceship costumes)? And is all art in this world created using classic game mechanics because that's just how things are? Or are these the trademark methods of individual artists, like the spin paintings of Damien Hirst or the obsessive nets of Yayoi Kusama? Then there's the mediation between the game's world and the player's. If my arrow keys are sticking or my computer keeps overheating, is this analogous to the way whole artistic careers can be shaped by trembling hands and undiagnosed colour blindness? "It's said that John Brindle burned 9 out of 10 of his works," future critics might say. "But new evidence shows his famous perfectionism may have been due to a shitty keyboard..."

me neither, ma'am

Perhaps the main source of comedy, however is the mismatch between the mechanics and their high-falutin' artistic framing. A game which reconstitutes familiar, frivolous systems for serious artistic production will always border on a satire of the art world and its lingo. The totally random curator, with her vague, burbling praise, tends towards that kind of reading; some have seen it as claim that artistic valuation is arbitrary (although Barr has said he simply didn't want to make any procedural statements about what constitutes Good Art). But the game might serve equally well as a mockery of it's own medium's pretensions to art. Either 'lol, art is a bunch of meaningless cant', or 'lol, our traditional gaming mechanics are antithetical to artistic expression' (or, indeed, both).

And yet these mechanics do have a material influence on the kind of art you can produce. For one thing, technical skill enters the picture. It's as easy for your reach to exceed your grasp with these inherited challenges as it is with painting or sculpture, and conversely quite possible to exercise virtuosity. This piece, for instance, took many tries to get right, despite its ever-so-conventional genre:

Then again, Michelangelo's David wasn't making come-hither motions

You can judge its execution how you like, but you can legitimately judge it. The one below, meanwhile, happened almost accidentally. When I saw where it was going I was forced into a furious blaze of improvised twitch technique in order to keep it on track. I hope the learned reader can appreciate from its lines and angles how easily it could have gone wrong (or rather, been less interesting):

Finally, the curator displays some taste

Suddenly, we're also engaging with questions of literacy. If the viewer of one of these artworks understands how they were created - i.e. if they are familiar with Tetris and Snake - they can more easily appreciate what I went through to create them. Only with knowledge of the games can you understand these paintings as playthroughs - see where they began and ended - just as a person who knows about painting can see the technical process come out on the canvas.

Technical understanding also influences how we read each work. Through veteran eyes a huge block of Tetris with one narrow space down the side is suddenly a morality tale about hubris and failure. The piece below is called Tumour; blocked on top by chaotic crenelations which cover up that slim chance of redemption, it serves as a meditation on pride, self-sabotage, and the fury of humans when they understand what they have lost. Well, it tries, anyway.


All this means you can make a piece of Art Game art which assumes a literate viewer and engages productively with the material of the game that created it. The piece below is called Sound of Trains Passing because that's the noise the keyboard made when I did what was necessary to draw that line. You don't have to think much of its quality to acknowledge how it invites the viewer to look beyond the flat image on the screen and consider the tactile qualities of creation.

Was Brindle inspired by Ulrich Schnauss? We may never know

The piece below, meanwhile, is basically a one-joke painting (c.f. George Buckenham's list of one-joke games, which includes pretty much everything by Pippin Barr). It's not big or clever, but you can see how it happened: I was trying to create a loop whose origin and end were indistinguishable. Instead, I crashed and burned, so decided to name the painting with a pun on the worm that eats its own tail. If you want to be charitable, you can see this as an exasperated commentary on the tragicomedy of human failure. The oosuborro loop is a thwarted cycle, a failed infinity, and that's also what kind of makes it interesting.

okay almost there no wait wait fuck

It's clear from this painting that a more skillful or patient player could create a piece of of Art Game art which deliberately frustrates that literacy, whose ludic provenance, through technical skill and planning, is mysterious and opaque. Creating a perfect loop would just be one way of doing this; we can imagine artworks which are so complicated or odd they refuse definition. I tried to do something like that with the piece below; I clearly failed, but I think it's possible to look at it and wonder, for a moment, how it happened.

I think the curator's comments speak for themselves. Who am I to argue?

It turns out that any 'mismatch' between the mechanics and the subject matter is Adam-and-Steve-style nonsense. It depends on a surface impression of what videogames and art respectively signify in the public imagination: 'trivial, juvenile, primitive waste of time' against 'serious but pretentious and jargon-stuffed life's work'. Instead of confirming this commonsense divide, Art Game has submerged us in questions of literacy and expectation, convention and subversions, frustration and rebellion - of technical skill vs impressionism, readers vs creators, tactility vs image - the very stuff of capital-A Art.

But Art Game's most powerful aspect, for me, is its sustained interrogation of optimality. Optimality is a key part of videogames; for some critics, like Tadhg Kelly or Keith Burgun, games simply aren't games without it. Even beyond questions of winning and losing, what does the game reward? What does the game punish? What are the easiest and most difficult paths through the game, and what does their shape and difficulty imply? There is a 'play brain' - a mode of player behaviour which reduces everything to problems and solutions. As a merciless conqueror of strategy games and immersive sims as well as a simpering sniffer of art game aromas, I'm well aware that this button-mashing Hyde lurks within even the snobbiest cunnysewer. But I also know it isn't that simple; players optimise towards all kinds of things, sometimes under mistaken beliefs, and few victories are untainted by fiction, fancy or foible.

In one sense Art Game represents a typical challenge to this play brain thinking. It takes the mechanics of classic games which were soaked in optimality and liberates them from their win and lose conditions. They still have the same material qualities - their shape, their relationships, and their symbolic associations. But, unmoored from their original context, they're freed as an expressive rather than an optimal medium; pure tactile elements to be played with as we wish. Pointedly, each game ends when you trigger whatever conditions would originally have led you to 'lose' the optimal versions. Art Game turns losing into a neutral tool: you can trigger it deliberately when you think you're done.

Here, Barr engages with the challenge mounted against optimality by 'notgames' like Proteus, Kairo, and Every Game Ever Made by Tale of Tales. Look at this quote from Auriea Harvey & Michaƫl Samyn's 'Realtime Art Manifesto':
"Drop the requirement of making a game.
The game structure of rules and competition stands in the way of expressiveness.
Interactivity wants to be free.
Gaming stands in the way of playing."
Maybe we should call this kind of interaction 'incidentiality'. I don't believe there is a clear and simple distinction between optimality and incidentiality, but opposing factions in the tumultuous world of game development and criticism have effectively created them as rival models. Ironically, both accept each other's premises: notgamers confirm that optimality is a thing, and the neo-ludologists confirm that incidentiality is a thing, but both prefer their own method to that of the other. So in the language of the notgames notmovement, Art Game delves back into history for expressive and interesting mechanics and rescues them from the tyranny of mere gaming.

Except...the player of Art Game may still optimise her conduct and still game the system. A serious attempt to create art in Art Game involves playing within the constraints of the rules and will require skill and thought to achieve an intended result. So no sooner have these games been rescued from optimality than they are driven into a new system, given a goal and driven towards it by player skill; what's different is that the goals are defined by players on the fly, and subject to all the uncertainties and complexities that implies. The range of win schemes here are much wider and more opaque than most games can offer. Sometimes, you really will just be 'playing': dicking around, seeing what happens, and grinning when you accidentally make something cool. Sometimes you'll have a clear goal and you'll achieve it with a little patience and ingenuity. Sometimes, you won't even know what you're chasing: trying and trying again, dying and restarting again, you'll hiss with frustration as you trash yet another imperfect work, because you don't know what you're trying to achieve but you know that this just wasn't it. This is a familiar and stereotypical kind of artistic neurosis. In gaming terms, it's optimality fever: a fixation on optimising towards a goal whose boundaries cannot be defined. The artist is tragically striving to meet win conditions as inscrutable as they are pressing.

Like Epic Sax Game, Art Game proposes multiple schemes of ludic and exoludic assessment. The curator drops by and judges whether you've won or lost, the museumgoers comment on whether they like or dislike your art, and the game ends by quoting a review of your exhibition. But none of these are 'real' win conditions because they're simply random. By being so, they close down any recourse to external authority within the game. You can't decide that commercial success or critical adoration are the 'best' goals and simply game the system so as to meet them. Instead, you're forced to determine your own win conditions, and decide what you want to optimise towards. In Art Game, optimisation is not necessarily something we accept or reject but something which we apply towards all kinds of internal, external and imaginary victories. And while our desires will be determined by our social contexts and our own characters, we may choose, to a limited extent, what our goals should be. Maybe this is true for all games; maybe it's our choice whether we align our goals with their affordances, or counter-play them for whatever purpose we prefer.

So Art Game's real joke is that there is no joke. Its Barr-ian spiral of tailgating ironies actually constitute a pretty serious examination of both games and art. It's a serious look at what's involved in making and judging art and a serious exploration of some of art's more interesting alleyways and cul-de-sacs. It also seriously considers the ways in which a game can be artistic, and the ways in which games can dodge or subvert the mantle of their own medium. And it's a serious intervention in the debate which has replaced 'are games art' as the go-to dog-whistle of our time: the question of what really counts as a 'game'.

Art Game, then, does exactly what it says on the tin. It's definitely a game, and definitely art; it's a game about art, and it's art about games. More importantly, it so thoroughly demolishes the risible terms of what often passes for public debate on those subjects that I recommend it be given the highest honour that any piece of art can achieve in our society: everyone who writes about games and art should be forced to play it in high school.


  1. John, this is really an amazing discussion of the game - it includes pretty much everything I was thinking about while making it and totally obviates any need I might have had to do a thorough write-up of my own!

    It's exciting to be able to read such a terrific piece of writing in general, and to have it be about one of my games is just wonderful.

  2. Excellent discussion, John! I haven't checked out Art Game yet but now I want to. It kind of seems how I often wind up playing Starseed Pilgrim (can't achieve my alleged goal but I can make pretty patterns).

    but but but is Kairo really a notgame? I read Electron Dance's writeup of it and it sure sounds like a game where you solve puzzles and try to win.

    1. You may be right - I have not played it. My source for using it as an example of 'notgames' was this site:

      It's worth noting how often that games designated as 'notgames' actually do fulfil the ostensible requirements of 'games'. For instance, people will say that Dear Esther doesn't have a goal, mechanics, or meaningful interaction. But obviously there is a 'goal' and a 'challenge' in Dear Esther - simply getting to the end-point - and the fact that an experienced gamer may find this easy does not necessarily make it an objectively trivial challenge.

  3. In case no one has told you yet: All your thumbnail and image links are kaputt.