Why (and how) games are art

I sat down for an interview with the LA Times's Hero Complex to talk about my book In Real Life (I'm touring it now: Chicago tomorrow, then Vancouver, Seattle, Portland, Palo Alto, San Francisco, Warsaw, London…), and found myself giving a pretty good account of why games are art, and how the art of games works:

CD: The point of any art is to make you feel some irreducible, numinous, complicated emotion. The characters in a story are inconsequential, literally (Romeo and Juliet never lived, never died, and are less worthy of our sympathy and care than the bacterial culture in my yogurt this morning, because at least that was a real, living thing). Insofar as imaginary people matter, it's because their made-up, not-real adventures make you feel those complicated and interesting emotions. But it's a very roundabout way of getting people to feel stuff. Novels do it by tricking your limbic system into mistaking the adventures of not-real people for things happening to real people.

Games and comics do it differently — there's some of that "caring about not-real people" stuff, but there's also a lot more of the "here's a visual image that, because of its own formal characteristics, its colors and composition, makes you feel a thing just by looking at it." The relationship between words about made-up people and pictures is like the relationship between talk-therapy and SSRIs — the former is supposed to get your brain to generate interesting psychological effects, the latter just imposes the effects right on your brain by altering its chemical makeup.

Games have other mechanics, of course, that are inaccessible to comics. They make you physically engage with the art, using your body (or at least your fingers) to make the art-thing happen. I think that recruiting more senses and modes probably makes the effect more immediate and possibly more profound, inasmuch as there are more mechanisms at play with which to evoke that inchoate and irreducible etcetera. There's just stuff that you probably can't feel (or not as readily) by reading about stuff, that's accessible when you're moving your body. Psychologically, of course, but physiologically too: things that happen to your brain and your thought processes when you are directing movement, as opposed to when you're imagining it.

Games also engage a different kind of puzzle-solving mental apparatus; Raph Koster calls games something like, "NP-hard problems that can only be solved through the iterative application of heuristics." Which is fancy math talk, but it means that games are interesting in part because they present puzzles whose ideal solutions are indeterminate — for example, there are more possible games of chess than there are hydrogen atoms in the universe, so you can't "solve" chess the way you can tic-tac-toe, by mapping out every possible chess game and ensuring that you always play towards a non-losing outcome.

Because you can't solve these puzzles with pure logic, you have to apply heuristics — rules of thumb — that you develop through a combination of intuition and reasoned thinking, and that you refine by trying them and varying them, more or less systematically, in order to improve your performance in the game. This variation and retrying is what Koster means by "iteration."

This has a lot in common with "reality." There's no optimal way to be alive and human in the world, no Plato's Republic course of "right action" that will reliably produce a happy outcome for you. All you can do is try your best, developing theories of how to conduct your life and refining them as time goes by.

Games, then, are microcosmic versions of life. It's not surprising that they engage our attention and our fascination, because the reason our ancestors survived to have the children that we became is that they were reasonably good at this process. When processes like this emerge, they give us both satisfaction from mastery, and an almost irresistible urge to play on. They're rehearsal for the only "life skill" that matters — figuring out how to come up with rules of thumb for hard problems, and how to refine them or discard them if they don't work.

Cory Doctorow talks up 'In Real Life' and Wang, feels down over gamergate [Rodney Hoffman/LA Times]