Archive: April 19th, 2009

Jason Rohrer visits LCC!

[Talks] (04.19.09, 4:13 pm)

On Wednesday, esteemed game artist, agrarian lifestylist, and generally tall person, Jason Rohrer, came to visit and give a talk at LCC. The talk was titled “Beyond Single Player: Hunting for an Artistic Niche,” and was generally about the potential for games as art, and the relationship between expressive capacity and complexity, in degrees of single player versus multiplayer games. The following represents my notes from the talk, as well as some general observations. Following the talk, Jay Bolter and our very own Brian Schrank came up to have a conversation with Rohrer, but this basically came in the form of them challenging his definition of art. This was extremely insightful, and I have tried to take detailed notes of the important points that were raised.

To start with, Rohrer gave us a little anecdote about Chris Crawford’s Dragon Speech. During the last GDC, evidently, he had the opportunity of spending some time with Crawford, and asked him about how he actually gave the speech. The Dragon Speech is a sizeable 50 minute (or so) speech, which Crawford gave without any slides, notes, or aids whatsoever. The natural concern is how does one prepare and practice a speech like that, so as to give the entire thing without a hitch. When Rohrer asked Crawford about it, Crawford said that he couldn’t learn it by writing it out, because it is a speech, and is meant to be spoken. Similarly, he can’t practice by reading it for the same reason. If a talk is based on something that is written, then the audience may simply be better served by reading the original document. So, what he does is to go out into the woods, pace around, and just start speaking. He repeats this process until he has the thing learned by heart. This anecdote is important because it is about the relationship between medium and practice. A talk is speech, and is meant to be spoken. The presence of slides, or if the talk is based on a written document, simply serves as a distraction from the natural properties of the medium or format. Considering this also demands the question of what are the properties of the format of a talk, what are they good for, and why should they be used? We can think of these questions as setting the tone for thinking about games.

Games have suffered for a long time a feeling of inadequacy and illegitimacy, as though there has been a line in the sand drawn between games and other forms of artistic expression. Other media have comfortably found their own points of artistic stability, without looking to other media to imagine what they should be. Literature, drama, film, painting, and rock and roll all stand on their own. Games have tended to look to other media to imagine what they should be. Most commonly, games have sought to emulate film, and develop technology to support this in terms of cinematography and graphics. Some games reject cut scenes (and are better for it), but these are still stuck with an author-narrative model. There are pockets of interactivity woven around an on-rails experience. Instead of the narrative delivery being through cut scenes, it is through architecture. Mainstream big budget games like Bioshock, despite their lack of cut scenes, still want to be film, just where the player is both protagonist and cameraman.

The desire of games to emulate other media hurts their search for artistic legitimacy more than it helps. Rohrer put forth the question of “how do we grow games into a unique expressive medium?”

To examine this question, he showed some examples of art games, which tend to forsake cut scenes and linear structures. These use only mechanics as the vehicle for artistic expression. These types of works can exist only as games, they are not better served through other media. Examples of these are Bogost’s Honorarium, Benmergui’s I wish I were the Moon, all of Rohrer’s own works, among others. However, there is still a problem, because there is still a cultural line in the sand, dividing these between other media.

Rohrer gave an example of a particular type of criticism of games, and this was through invoking the figure of Roger Ebert. Ebert has been involved in some rather snippy debate regarding the status of games as art. There are a lot of holes that can be punched in both Ebert’s arguments and the pro-games arguments, both of which (in my opinion) are hugely flawed. Rohrer advises, though, to not disregard the arguments, but instead work with them. One of the elements of the argument is the role of authorial control, which is complicated in an interactive medium (though, I would argue that there are many answers to this, most of which come from the art world itself). And despite his flaws in grasping the essence of games as a medium, Ebert makes a great straw man. He also presents a rather simple challenge: show me a game that is art. It is in attempting to address this challenge that much of the talk flows.

So, a question is what is a type of game that might be considered art. Rohrer explains that a friend of his suggested the game Go, which, despite its extreme simplicity of rules produces extremely complex phenomena, and is also often said to be revealing of the nature of the universe. The variability and depth of the game can give a unique experience on each round of play. Rohrer compares this depth with the quality of revisitation that one might experience with art works, where the art speaks with one perspective when viewed for the first time, but when one matures as an individual, the artwork may reveal a more significant depth, and speak with a new perspective that was not realized before.

Rohrer suggests that we need to be making more games like Go, which have infinite replayability. Art games are often against replayability, they are often one-shot experiences that one plays once and then puts away. It is possible to quickly exhaust all the content and possibilities of the mechanics. Once the player completes a game, it is done. At this point, Rohrer’s concepts seem to become muddled, though. The idea of infinite replayability becomes exchanged for the concept of depth and revisitation, an exchange that I do not think is exactly warranted. Having depth of meaning is not the same as being infinitely playable or viewable, and is not the same thing as having a simple set of rules.

This is a point tying into something that I asked at the end, that depth of meaning and revisitation are different from replayability, and that the experience of replay is not necessarily the same as a shift in perspective.

Rohrer went on to explain that board games in general have a common trend of replayability. They also are different from almost all of the digital games discussed earlier because they are single player. There are very few pre-video single player games. The main example is solitaire, which is essentially a puzzle (or a puzzle generating system). Single player games tend to rely on three elements for replayability or variance: long multistep puzzles, randomization (hidden information), and reflex challenges. These lead to situations where it is possible to find optimal strategies, where the single player is acting as a rat pushing a lever.

In digital single player games, Rohrer explains that choice became a very popular desirable characteristic for enabling depth and replayability, but this was ultimately flawed as well. The idea with choice is that there are multiple ways of solving problems. Examples of advocates for this are Doug Church, Randy Smith, Harvey Smith, and Clint Hawking, (and, of course Peter Molyneux). Rohrer explains that choices are not as satisfying because 1) if there is an optimal choice, the players will gravitate to it, or 2) if all choices are equal, then the choice doesn’t really matter.

Some, suggest that it is helpful to layer mechanics on top of each other (as often happens in german board games), but, ultimately, these are often unsatisfying because players can find local maximal optimizations. Go does not use multiple layers, and does just fine.

This is actually another point where I disagree. The idea of success, failure, and outcomes are pervasive in Rohrer’s model. Optimality is only a concern when the outcome of a play is some sort of numeric value. Some art games do use scores, but often this is done in a sort of metaphorical sense, to explain what is valued within the particular game’s model of the world. But it seems that a much more troubling observation is the role of numeric outcome in the space of revisitation and replayability.

Rohrer’s conclusion is that multiplayer is “like a fertile soil where mechanics can blossom to their full potential.” Rules are a genotype, but play is a phenotype. Exactly what multiplayer means though involves a little analysis. He explains that it is not necessarily the human dimension that makes multiplayer interesting. A game of Chess or Go with an AI opponent still has a degree of variance and is interesting, much like a normal multiplayer game is. However, many other multiplayer games are not “really” multiplayer, as in, they do not provide the level of depth that board games tend to. So, for instance, as Rohrer explains, mechanics in multiplayer FPS games with other players are still generally single player mechanics, and similarly with most MMOGs. I can partially understand this criticism, but much of the multiplayer dimensions in these closely resemble sports, which are about skilled coordination and performing one’s part very well. While these may not provide a depth of experience, sports games as well as dungeon raids are subject to similar levels of combinatorial variety that board games are, so the argument seems flawed.

Taking a look though, at the works of art described earlier (film, sculpture, books, and so on), these are “single reader” or “single viewer,” they are generally works produced by an author, and viewers interact with the artifacts more or less individually. One can watch a film in a theatre surrounded by people, but the experience does not require the other audience members. However, there is a dimension to this that I take issue with, and that is that works exist within a cultural setting, and are interpreted socially. Supposing that one has a video of a great film, or has a great novel on a desert island, these works still require a cultural situation to be made sense of, and the core value of the experience usually comes in discussion. Even despite this, it is personal development that takes place within the social arena that enables one to change perspectives. This change of perspective is necessary to understand the work as something that has depth. Thus, at the very least, a social dimension is necessary for a work to have (or be understood to have) depth, at least indirectly.

Rohrer concluded by imagining the possibility of a multiplayer art game, which would involve a more complex relationship between play with multiple players and artistic intent. If the space of rules and play is deep and emergent, then it may be impossible to control all the emergent possibilities. If enough is emergent, then it may be possible for situations to occur that are against the original artistic intent.


Jay Bolter began the discussion phase, and started by looking at some recent art history and the dimensions of art criticism. The types of criticisms applied to art and games, where art is divided into different mediums has a particular history. In particular, this attitude, which also asserts that the “purpose” of art is to realize the medium, derives from Clement Greenberg. Greenberg is particularly notable for appreciating and defending Jackson Pollock when his work was originally disregarded or disparaged by other art critics at the time. There are other movements in art, and art criticism, especially that come from dada, which aimed for exploring, intermixing, and destroying the essence of media. Dadaists often performed in events, which were essentially “multiplayer” experiences. Bolter concluded by asking why Rohrer only uses the tradition of exploring the medium to look at games and art.

Rohrer reacted by explaining that the study of games as art needs to start somewhere, and that games have not really been even established as a medium to begin with. Dada only works because there was an existing history and theory of art to challenge and break down. Games have not yet had the opportunity to express the human condition or exploring sophisticated meaning in the first place. We may find things that are meaningful within games, but these are often simply immature, and tend to be unsatisfying in terms of expressing deeper artistic meaning and value.

Brian Schrank joined in and explained that the branch of art criticism that Rohrer is using, as well as the notion of art that comes from Ebert’s original criticisms of games, generally breaks art down into high/middle/and low brows. The idea of pure artistic intent tends to be a very romantic 19th century idealization. Conventionally “mature” topics, such as the death of a loved one, fall clearly into the middle-brow range. In terms of high-brow works, in a relatively recent academic survey (I have no idea what Brian was referring to here), many art historians described Duchamp’s fountain as the most important art object of all time. The idea with this is that by attempting to destroy or clash with art (as was the stated intent of the dadaists), this will ultimately lead to a revolutionizing and reinvention of the medium. Thus, if the definition and constraint of the medium of games is blinding, it may be necessay to move past it.

I don’t remember at all what Rohrer’s response was to this! Afterwards there was a general question session.

Michael Nistche asked about simulation games, which was actually a really important question for me, because my work is all about simulation games. Simulation games are single player, but tend to have a degree of depth and emergent phenomena that can be fairly rich. Rohrer countered by suggesting that these games get their depth from a dimension of randomness, but I disagree. Frequently, simulations are entirely deterministic, but there is simply a depth of complexity that enables diverse behavior. Conway’s Game of Life is a simulation, (not really a “game” in the traditional sense), but is deep and complex.

Celia Pearce brought up another art movement which was also focused around games, the Fluxus movement in the 1960s. This was a movement that revolved around the mingling of games and art. These were not video games, as they are understood, but it is still vitally important to understand that the movement was about games. The fact that the types of games were different, in the sense that they were often about poetry or music, and did not have tightly defined rules, should not be taken to mean that they are not relevant, so much as that they should be used to expand the understanding of what games are and what they are about.

Finally, I got the chance to ask a question, and I used this as an opportunity to aska bout the idea of revisitation. What follows is partially my question, but also my thinking through the idea as well.

Revisitation, I think, is all about perspective. So, for instance, in coming to an artifact once, I might have one perspective, but returning to it later, my perspective will have changed (because I have changed), and thus will get depth of meaning. This is multiplayer in a sense because it involves personal change. However, it does not necessarily have anything to do with authorial intent, nor does it necessarily have anything to do with infinite replayability. So, for instance, I can replay Tetris, and maybe reflect on my first experiences, but this does not give me a new dimension in terms of perspective. Furthermore, in the case of a game like Go, my change in perspective over time will have more to do with my cognitive learning and mastery over the rules of the system, rather than a depth of cultural experience. (Though, there could be some intersection.)

The most interesting quality about changing perspective, is actually that it involves the viewer (or player) bringing new things back to the artifact. Meaning and value is thus co created, and for meaning to exist at all requries participation and investment.