Works of Game Provides a Map of How to Talk About Games

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Works of Game by John Sharp is the fourth book in the MIT Press Playful Thinking series. Sharp, Associate Professor of Games and Learning at Parsons the New School, aims this book at the intersections of games and art, trying to keep those terms grounded in some specific examples.

An acknowledgement of the slipperiness of terms like art and game and medium always predisposes me to be more sympathetic to a work like this. That Sharp ends his introduction by mentioning “semantic shifts” between his terminology and the way the same words are different words when used by his subjects was welcome.

The core of the book presents three groups of three case studies: Game Art, Artgames, and Artists’ Games. Sharp provides each approach with historical and aesthetic context. The categories arise from the case studies’ materials and practice. Game Art works slot somewhat neatly into Contemporary Art; they use games to create within that conversation, its history and its concern.

Artgames presents the work of three designers whose work is expressive in a…well…a kind of uninteresting way? It may be my background and my biases that made me feel this was the weakest section: here I understood both the context and the works being discussed and so had less to learn.

As powerful experiences as Passage or Train or Braid can be for some of their players, their working toward legibility and the kind of “aha!” Moment when you understand the rules and their meaning is…well, that there is One Meaning is probably why they don’t hold my interest.

I take the blame for this reading because Sharp articulates these attributes, presents an explanation that doesn’t dismiss as much as contextualize and predicts their falling short of standards of an Art of Ideas. I mean, what is my notion that “One Decodable Meaning makes a less valuable work” if not a Conceptual Art inflection?

Sharp points out that, as these works often come from someone without a background in art, their concerns tend to be things that Art As It Is Practiced In Galleries Etc have moved beyond (universal communication or “a functionalist ideal whereby play of an artgame was intended to have some social, intellectual, moral, or humanistic impact on the player”). In anticipating Contemporary Art criticisms of these works, he offloads the judgment onto a particular lens. And he does point out at the same time that from within games, much of the Game Art work of Oliver, Arcangel and JODI could seem superficial.

And while a part of me is pretty into the populist approach that the validity of one’s work doesn’t depend on them having years of training and the right cultural touchstones, Sharp’s descriptions of Rod Humble’s The Marriage and most of Rohrer’s work especially highlight artgames’ tendency to be progressive mostly in their attempt to use systems to work with Big Themes. Big Themes here being “It’s Hard to Be a Husband”, “It’s Hard to Be a Father”, “It’s Hard to Be a Man”, “It’s Hard to Have A Dick and Not Be a Dick”.

Artgames, at least as Sharp categorizes them, do make sense in their being an intentional reaction against a medium that has been almost constantly commercial from its inception, that has worked to wear away as much of the personal as possible in it – see the American film industry, specifically the post-Hollywood Studio System 1970s for This Exact Same Thing (complete with a bonus “here’s how the industry can co-opt and resell this kind of work” manual).

Works of Game thankfully is less interested in bland questions of the artness of games (or their overdetermined inverse, the gameness of art). That lack of concern strengthens the book, frees it to bounce around a bit, to throw out ideas without necessarily carving them in stone. Description and categorization are always acts of dismemberment, cutting away what you deem unnecessary to whatever you are making with the descriptions and categories.
Sharp’s third category (Artist’s Games, if you forgot) is, I expect, where he sees the most potential for new thoughts. They’re more complex works that include both the complexity of production and rigor of Game Art and the awareness of systemic meaning-making of Artgames without dismissing or over-privileging either. Or, taken another way, they can’t be easily understood by one of these others’ worlds and easily dismissed by the other.

The order of the case studies is no accident, and they lead toward the final section, a discussion of games as a medium. Remember those slippery meanings from earlier? Here’s where Sharp really takes advantage of it. Rather than using “medium” in the sense of television or film or McLuhan’s message, his is a different analogy: games:play::oil:pigment.

This final section is a bit more contemporary. Sharp knows that even as he was working on the book, the sections on Game Art and Artgames “became art history”. That’s another one of the strengths of this book: it contains nearly five years of time between its pages. And rather than rewrite the earlier parts with a contemporary perspective, they’re left alone. It pushes back against the idea that print is too slow for and history too irrelevant to games. An idea that I think comes at least in part from our mental trails blazed by an industry whose interest is in selling the game that isn’t out yet. Internalized or intentional, that industry’s influence makes it a lot harder to write about That Which is Not New (or Retro, an approach that deals in equal parts nostalgia and monetizing decades-old intellectual property).

The book is short. Less than 150 pages from intro to index, it does not ask for much of your time. It provides those of us who talk too much about games with another map, one other than the interesting but inward-spiraling (and, arguably, overly-design-obsessed) “mechanics as ultimate meaning”.

Sharp’s work, like any and all, is limited in who and what it talks about. Artists like molleindustria (whose recently posted keynote from the Digital Games Research Association’s 2013 “Art History of Games” conference covers much of the same thought as this book, specifically aimed at an academic audience) and Anna Anthropy aren’t set apart in case studies but are presented as ways forward. Though Sharp does a thing that I myself have been guilty of: only talking about Anthropy’s dys4ia and none of her other games work (her wonderful book, Rise of the Videogame Scenesters, gets an endnote). But the map he provides can be a useful one, especially alongside the variety of approaches that continue to find publishers, be they self-funded or crowd-funded or university-funded.

Brian Taylor spent a lot of undergraduate time in classes on film and architecture and literature. Over a decade ago.