Friday, April 23, 2010

Combinatorial Games... Art?

I'm more than willing to grab on to any internet sensation that has fleeting relevance to combinatorial games. This post is proof of that. :)

Roger Ebert, a famous film critic, has recently sounded off on his webpage of some non-movie related items. Lately, his post on how video games are not art has stirred up a lot of frustration. Naturally, anything on the Internet seems to get people's blood boiling, and I only happen to know of this because I'm addicted to a few webcomics. As it is, I'm not very concerned about whether video games are considered art today. I barely understand what is considered art in the current sense, but figure that someday someone will ask whether some new-fangled form of entertainment is as artistic as the "classic" art of video games. That just seems to be the pattern. I've read some cool articles refuting Ebert's column, mostly because I thought they would be entertaining (they were) but the points don't resonate with me all that well, because I have a hard time understanding "what is art"?

But, then, I thought: What about board games? What about combinatorial games? Can this realm be considered art?

I don't know, but here are a couple of thoughts.

Yes-side: some board games have very artistic components. I have some beautiful boards for games that light up my eyes every time I open them up. Dragon Strike came with four sweet boards for adventures in different locations which are very nice. Alternatively, Hero Quest has a less impressive board by itself, but the design allows for a large number of very different scenarios that Dragon Strike can't match. Perhaps there is art in this configurable simplicity? Also, I have seen chess sets of varying levels of awesome figures, created either with expensive materials or just fashioned to look like the Looney Tunes characters.

Counter-argument: Board games may have nice pieces, but that does not necessary qualify the game itself as a piece of "artwork".

Another Yes-side: There is real elegance in the rules of games. Some games can take a simple, small amount of rules and be something very complex and beautiful. Very hard to understand, yet able to draw appreciation and analysis from onlookers (players). We can appreciate a game such as Kayles, not because it is a comment on society, but because it can evoke emotions in us.

Counter-argument: similar reasoning can be made for anything. We can appreciate nearly anything, but not everything is art. I can appreciate the way you do your job, but that does not make it art.

No-side: combinatorial games are a realm of scientific study. This is art in the same way that Chemistry is art. No one actually plays toppling dominoes as an artistic experience, so it is not a piece of art. A game is also not designed so that the study of it is an emotional experience.

Counter-argument: I don't really have one. Someone help me out! :)

In the end, though, I expect that if video games are considered art, then so must board games. As for straight-up combinatorial games, I'm not sure. Where do we draw the line between the idea and the implementation as far as artwork goes?


  1. During WAL’s “What is Art?” session, we discussed where the bounds of art should be drawn. A consensus was reached that it must be both an expression of an emotion by one or more people and that it must provoke an emotion in the audience. The emotion that is expressed or provoked can differ from the original intent and will likely differ due to different world perspectives. William Faulkner agreed with this view of art and stated, “The aim of every artist is to arrest motion, which is life, by artificial means and hold it fixed so that a hundred years later, when a stranger looks at it, it moves again since it is life.”

    By this definition, science is art. It is messy, logical, and emotional. When you write grant proposals, are you not impassioned about what you are seeking funds for? I would suspect that people who work in cancer drug research rarely feel nothing about what they are studying. The people in the treatment studies surely appreciate the work being done and so do their families. Is that not provoking an emotion in an audience? Is their work not produced with the desire to better the lives of the afflicted?

    Now by this same definition, board games and video games are also art. When devised, the creator thought critically about how each play should be made and the enjoyment the players should get out of it. The creator probably felt some sense of pride or enjoyment towards his or her creation. The designs on the board and pieces (or of players/interface/playable world) are meant to add to the overall game play and enhance the experience. As much or more thought goes into these elements as the backbone of the piece.

    In short: the creator(s) felt _____ when s/he or they created the game. When you, the audience, played it, you felt ______. By filling in those two blanks, you have proved the validity of the game as art.


    a longer response