Making a game for ten friends and no one else ever

| Monday, October 22, 2012
The other day I talked about videogames as art (or not).  This led me to ask: what was different about the paths of development for videogames and art?

In the beginning there was charcoal and a cave wall.  It was art made for a few people.  Later we developed more advanced techniques, yet the distribution stayed the same: as a small, physical object, more art could only be seen be those in close proximity.  Given the high cost of trade and travel, few people would ever see a particular piece.  In this way, art originated as something for only a few people.

It grew, of course, with kings and popes commissioning larger pieces and architecture, the latter of which could be seen by many people and was intended to be.  Yet it was ultimately for the small, elite group.  It was not so much for mass consumption as for elite display to the masses.

Only relatively recently has art become something which could be sold on large scales and in large quantities to the masses.  Printing presses allowed books to spread further (though they still remained pretty expensive).  Eventually we worked out how to mass-produce reproductions of images, so that paintings could be spread, though not in painting form.  Lately it is music and movies which can spread everywhere.  Yet music was originated at the smallest scale of all: only in hearing range and only until the echos stopped.  Movies grew out of plays which carried a similar temporary nature.  The overall idea is that all previous forms of art developed at small scales and over a very long period of time.

Videogames have not had such time.  Computers are young.  Getting games onto them is even younger.  This difference in age will make videogames different as an art form.  Maybe they are thousands of years away from being art, just like those cave drawings.  Though I hope we can get there sooner (or are already).

Beside the time difference though, there is a matter of scale.  Videogames are hard to make.  This is true on both the low and high ends of the quality spectrum.  I could easily make terrible music, paintings, or plays.  Music and acting are merely sound and movement while painting requires some small amount of hand-eye coordination and a bit of money.  Making a game is far more difficult, requiring the ability to understand a foreign language written for another type of thought.  This only gets more difficult as you try to increase the quality and range of distribution.

You could make a song for ten friends.  For thousands of years people have and they still do.  Could you make a videogame for ten friends?  It's quite a lot of work for such a small audience.

This is the difficulty, that videogames are growing up in an age of mass distribution.  They are created for different reasons than any previous art.  Other art forms are under these same pressures as costs rise along with distribution, and I'm sure you can find plenty of people to complain about that (I won't in this post), but they grew and were defined long ago.  Videogames are growing and being defined now.


Rohan said...

This is a very interesting point. If you read older books, often when people gather in the evenings they would listen to some of the company play music or sing together.

That idea, that one entertains one's friends with art, has almost totally been replaced with the idea that your friends together form an audience for "professional" art.

Dàchéng said...

It's possible to entertain your friends with a video-game made for 10 people. Check out Scratch. What games like this lose in "gameplay", they gain in intimacy. For instance, you and your friends can decide to name characters in your game after each other, or take photos of your friends for character sprites, you can make sound effects from your own surroundings, you can change it on the fly and have fun with it, just like when you sing a song, you can change the words to refelect local interests.

Like Rohan says, we are in an age where we are not creating so much entertainment ourselves, and preferring to let professionals entertain us instead. It doesn't have to be that way.

Klepsacovic said...

@Rohan: My hazy memory of the book of Lord of the Rings has some amount of improptu song and dance. Then the book itself was split into three in order to sell it to a wider audience. Finally it was made into a series of films and the transition from interactive and spontaneous to passive and scripted was complete.

@Dàchéng: We may be in the first age when it is possible to have others do the entertaining. Finally enough people have the excess wealth needed to hire others to do so. It may be a natural, even smart thing to do, to have the singing done by trained singers, since I am certain that if I were frequently singing the world would be a worse place.

Maybe there will be a trend back toward personal goods, things which we make ourselves or to whose makers we have a connection. It is happening in other areas, but I have no idea how far the trend will spread or how long it will last.

Videogames are in a difficult position in this regard. Technical complexity encourages specialization. Since they are interactive, there may be even more to be gained from a personal attachment. I touched on this tangentially the other day with my post about modding. Maybe that's the future: games made by others which we can personalize. That would give the efficiency of specialists, a shared cultural experience, and the personal touch of oneself and friends.

Coreus said...

I think a lot of gamers take offense to the idea of someone telling them video games are not art; because art = good and video games = good, therefore video games = art. It's definitely not always the case.

To me the conversation is similar to the well-worn argument over narrative in games. Plenty of people insist it's the best thing ever, but I maintain that art is and should come secondary to the game itself. If the game is worse for the art all you have is art that forces people to play through a mediocre game to experience it. Though I guess to experience great art is probably still worth it in many cases.

flosch said...

I didn't comment on the whole "games and art" discussion, because it so much depends on the definition of art, and how it can wildly differ between people. It's surprisingly hard to define "art".

When it comes to this post, you already give an example in your post of what the creation of a game is most similar to: architecture. You say you can easily write a horrible song or paint a hideous picture, but you can't build even a sturdy shack without experience in how to build things that don't topple over. Of course, you can build (and slightly personalize) a wooden shack you bought as a kit at a DIY store, where all you have to do is follow the instructions to correctly set the walls and roof. That's similar to using one of the game toolboxes that work by clicking together your small game. As you want to create more complicated games or houses, you need to learn more and more about programming/statics. At the end of the spectrum, you have the large games and MMOs. I compared the effort that goes into them to the palaces and cathedrals of old at some point in my blog. In a way, those large games are on scale with a cathedral when it comes to working hours invested.

And while in theory, a church is the most exclusively owned building of them all (as "The House of the Lord"), especially the large city churches in the middle ages were much more lively and used by many people for much more than just praying. They were actually a place of scoializing, not too much different from some MMOs. Even palaces were not closed for the public in some cases: Versailles was pretty much open for every royal subject who could afford to spend a day or five there. But I digress...

Klepsacovic said...

@Coreus: I'd call the "narrative/art in games" debate as one of personal choice. If people want art in games, then they should buy games with art in them and hopefully there will be games with art in them. And the same pattern for those who do not.

For me, it's a matter of meeting expectations. If a game is advertised as X, it should deliver X, whether X is mindless entertainment, art, an experience, or something else, possibly a combination of many things. None of those are better than others, but some are what I want and some are not. Things should do what they intend to do, so if a company seeks to make a great game, then they should make a game, and not let art interfere. However, if they want to blend art and game, even if that comes at the expense of the game, then they should blend.

@flosch: I find your comment on architecture to be fascinating. Churches were designed much as many games are: to create an experience somehow greater than the mere location depicted, something which brings in other people who then add to it even more. The profit motive cannot be ruled out, though I wonder in which it is more influential.

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