Give a computer the right set of outputs, the right tools, and a set of instructions precise enough, and it could create a reproduction of Cézanne’s The Card Players that would fool most observers. Yet, by the standard according to which we judge most art, the result would not be The Card Players.
Similarly, Jorge Luis Borges wrote a short story, “Pierre Menard, Author of Don Quixote,” in which the title character, a Frenchman of the 20th century, arranges the circumstances of his own life so as to enable him to write a text nearly identical to several chapters from Cervantes’ novel, not from memory but spontaneously. Part of the implication is that a work of art is the product of the unique circumstances of the artist’s life, but the narrator also suggests that we will tend to read identical texts differently based on our knowledge of their authorship. So, for example, he writes,
The archaic style of Menard—in the last analysis, a foreigner—suffers from a certain affectation. Not so that of his precursor, who handles easily the ordinary Spanish of his time.
The language itself is the same. Only the artist has changed.
The categorical integrity of the arts suggested by those examples do not hold for all the arts. A stage play, for example, is a variation on a script. The art of the theater is essentially responsive. It exists not solely in the written text, however sacred the players might hold it, but in performances that arise as the result of the manifold choices of actors, directors, set designers, and so on. Of course, theater may well be a special case—we do, after all, call them “plays,” which suggests a relation to games. But at the very least, we can say that, inasmuch as painting, literature and theater all belong to a class of activities we call art, then a work need not be reducible to a set of instruction in order to qualify as art. That, in part, is the basic form of the dilemma of art in the age of mechanical reproduction.
And what about games? One salient characteristic of the class may be that they can all be described by a set of instructions for creating a tolerable degree of indeterminacy. That’s not to say that games ought to be defined by that characteristic, but I do think it provides us with a powerful handhold on the topic.
By way of illustration, here is a set of instructions for playing a simple game:
- Draw a 3×3 grid;
- Assign X to one player, and O to another;
- Starting with X, alternate turns;
- Each turn a player may draw their sign in one unoccupied square on the grid;
- The first player to connect three of their own sign with a straight line running horizontally, vertically or diagonally wins;
- Play ends either when one player wins, or when there are no more open squares on the grid.
Presumably it should be possible to write a similar set of instructions for every game in existence. We could no doubt describe the game played in Cézanne’s painting with an only slightly more complex set of instructions, if we could only be sure what game it was they were playing. That we can’t shows that not just any description will do.
For some games, that description would grow incredibly complex—so complex, in fact, that most of us wouldn’t be able to play the game described, at least not without some help. Computers are quite good at carrying out instructions, provided that you can render those instructions in machine language. As a result, we happen to live in an era where it’s possible to play some of the most complicated games ever devised.
That complexity doesn’t change the basic transitivity of the game. In fact, if anything, it’s fair to say that, precisely because their underlying medium is the computer, most games devised in the last 40 years are intrinsically transitive. If they weren’t—if they couldn’t be translated into a series of instructions for play—then we’d have perhaps insurmountable difficulties trying to play them.
It’s interesting then that many of the most vocal proponents of the idea that games are (or can be) art seem to mean video games specifically. I mean that innocently. When I say it’s interesting, I mean that it’s just that—interesting—as opposed to say, ironic or paradoxical; interesting because the very fixture that makes it possible to suture the game to traditional art forms like music, narrative and animation, is a processor carrying out a series of instructions. Even as those games grow increasingly unlike their counterparts from before the invention of computers, that categorical feature grounds video games as games, whatever else they might be.