Where Marcel Duchamp Meets Jonathan Blow

Video games are a young medium, and as such we’re still figuring out how to approach them. Do we treat them primarily as sites of social interaction, as Terra Nova so often does? Or do we treat them primarily as art-objects, as Chuck Klosterman has somewhat petulantly suggested?

The answer is neither, and also both, because that’s a bullshit distinction. The categories of “social spaces” and “art-objects” are only useful if we’re trying to decide what to study in a class on Sociology or Art. In actual practice, all art objects are also sites of social interaction. The meaning of the Mona Lisa, for example, has as much to do with its celebrity status–that we all recognize it, and that patrons of the Louvre will wait in line for hours to see it–as it does with the Italian Renaissance or the advent of oil painting. Marcel Duchamp understood this, which is why he was able to so effectively be such a jackass.

Duchamp said that “art is a game between all people of all periods,” a game that never ends and that is never decisively won or lost by anyone. Of course, artists did not think of their work as a game until comparatively recently, and many still do not. But in looking at the whole of human history, it is difficult to make sense of art’s myriad aims except by seeing art as a game, albeit one that sometimes had very high stakes.

But what precisely is a game? Jonathan Blow, the designer of Braid, provided an incredibly useful definition of games in his “Design Reboot” lecture. Blow says that games are “formal systems,” that are “biased toward producing truth (or at least consistency).”  A game, to Blow, is a “sub-domain that’s simpler than the real world, where there’s an explicit meaning of life.” He gave the very simple example of Super Mario Bros. The terms of the game dictate the player’s goal (to progress to the right, overcoming all obstacles), and teaches the player new, unnatural behaviors (that mushrooms will make you grow, that you can jump on your enemies’ heads, and so on).  “I learned a lot of specific, weird things by playing this game,” Blow observes.

Likewise, there were terms to the game of oil painting during the Italian Renaissance. One had to paint one’s patron, or else a subject from the Bible, or else a subject from Greco-Roman mythology; one had to use single-point perspective; one had to render images with a high degree of pictorial realism. All of these rules make sense in the context of the game (that context being Christianity, and the rise of powerful families such as the Medicis, and the physical characteristics of oil paint, and so on), but they are fairly arbitrary in the grand scheme of human interaction. The act of painting cherubim makes no more intrinsic sense than does the act of flattening a goomba underfoot.

What makes video games different from paintings, or books, or films, is that the terms of interaction are inextricably linked to the experience of interaction. One can look at an Italian Renaissance painting with no knowledge of pyramidal composition and still appreciate the painting’s sense of harmony. Given enough talent and enough time to observe and copy, one might even be able to create a Renaissance-style painting without really understanding how or why its forms work. But playing a game, to say nothing of creating one, requires investment in that game’s rules. Playing Super Mario Bros. will teach you about the psychology of level design, because understanding level design will allow you to play the game better. Games are more explicitly instructive than other media, insofar as the art and the art theory are necessarily both contained within the work.

Oil paintings were once seen as windows to some well-composed sub-domain of reality (hence terms such as picture-plane). But we do not experience the world as an image on the other side of a window. We experience the world, and art, far more like a game, with rules that we have to learn, and with consequences for how we react to those rules.  So, though it’s never exactly fun to admit this, Duchamp seems to have been right.  Art is a game, and games are where aesthetic discourse and social discourse become one and the same.

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