I recently wrote about how video games can be more than games, but art. That doesn’t mean all games are art, nor that games even need to be art. I know it’s something not every gamer values, but there’s a reason some of us are vocal about it. That being said, as much as I love MMOs, and even though there is an art exhibit about Eve Online as art, as a gamer, I have a hard time calling MMOs high art, MMOs aren’t art.
Games as Sublime Art
Although I’ve argued my point previously, allow me to try to summarize it: games can be a form of sublime art. In order to qualify as sublime art, they first need to be recognized as something above average within their own medium. As much as I love Asheron’s Call 2, the fact that it’s been shut down and reopened is really its main claim to fame. Eve Online, however, is basically the PvP MMO, since even general news outlets like BBC cover it.
Next, references in the game should not merely be copies but symbolic. That means World of Warcraft‘s “Thrall” certainly seems shallow when you look at the literal meaning of his name with him being literally a slave, even if he then merely becomes an inversion by becoming “free.” However, when he becomes a “slave” to his political position, the character and literal meaning of his name takes on new meaning, commenting on how even those in power are responsible to those they lead.
Finally, the game should cause the viewer to reflect on the story and themselves because of the way the art was crafted to evoke particular, positive feelings that lead to viewer to learn something of the human experience. Getting to level 50 or raiding for weeks to assemble the Sword of Ultimate Slaying may be intentionally designed to provide positive feelings, but really says nothing about the human condition. Hard mechanics that emphasize a win or a loss are there for the game to have goals, and often have no relation to commenting on humanity, though we may learn something about that when seeing the lengths people go through to get there. This is, in fact, why I would argue that MMOs cannot be sublime art.
Games are more than a set of rules and mechanics. While they do define a certain type of game, think about kids playing house, or dinosaurs, or princesses. Even the dictionary notes that games are more than a set of rules, they’re “physical or mental diversion,” and this isn’t a modern idea. Yes, Second Life may not seem like an MMO to some people, but it’s certainly a game, despite what some people would have you believe. What I won’t argue, though, is it’s a different kind of video game. If chess can’t be art because of its lack of humanity lessons, SL and most MMOs can’t be art because of their lack of intentional narration.
Now, that isn’t to say all games aren’t art because of narration issues. In fact, Nicholas “Nick” D. Bowman, in his chapter “Video Games as Co-Production” of an upcoming book, noted that in the 1960s, the roots of video games were first described in a set of guidelines, and in those guidelines, it was said that games were to be designed to “(a) demonstrate as many of the computer’s resources as possible, (b) generate a new and unique “run” each time, … and (c) involve the onlooker in a ‘pleasurable and active way.'” Like our definition of art, games, from their initial conception, were seen as a type of narration, but one in which the technology was to match the purpose of narration or “the run.” Unlike sublime art though, it doesn’t discuss any higher values. Just the same, the idea is that there should be intention within the game creation process to lead to a specific goal, though at this time, like with the sublime, that intention was viewed as needing to be pleasurable.
However, unlike other forms of art, games cannot be passive. As Bowman mentions, there needs to be choices made in order to access game narration. Mario can save the princess, but only if the correct goals are met. The game creator creates a series of choices, and it’s the players’ decision to follow them or not. This leads to branching narration, sometimes allowing for the same story to take different directions, which, in a sense, allows for the audience/player to create a specific story by mixing and matching allowable choices created by the game maker. While Bowman argues that this is a kind of co-production, the fact of the matter is that the player is limited by the game creator. Mario cannot choose to be satisfied with just saving Toad or join Bowser to rule the Mushroom Kingdom. While those may be fun or interesting choices, they’re not ones I can see Nintendo supporting within their games’ narratives. We are given a very narrow spectrum of options so as to follow Nintendo’s perspective of their game world. Though this may be more flexible than reading Romeo and Juliet, it still limits the audience in order to tell a specific (potential) story.
Even so, Mary Beth Oliver, (the same) Nick Bowman, Julia K. Wooley, Ryan Rogers, Brett I. Sherrick, and Mun-Young Chung together did a study on games as “meaningful” entertainment experiences that shows that games can provide more than just entertainment. Unlike the study on Self Determination Theory and games discussed elsewhere, this study looked at games’ ability to satisfy existential needs, not just “positive feelings.” While many games are seen by outsiders as fantasies that simply try to satisfy positive feelings in their audience, this study looked at an “appreciation of greater insight,” meaning it can include negative ideas, such as death and guilt. Tragedies were, after all, one of the classic types of Greek plays, and no one is going to say Oedipus isn’t art.
What’s key about this study, though, was it’s interest in meaningfulness when compared to “fun.” Subjects rated games based on several points, and while “fun” was valued more highly than meaningfulness in a statistically significant way, and “fun” games were recalled more often than meaningful games, meaningfulness was not only highly rated, but contributed to subjects appreciating games more. In particular, games that were ranked with high meaningfulness particularly had higher ratings for stories, and ranked higher in terms of fulfilling insight needs, which is exactly what we’d expect from art. Again, games can be fun, and those are generally seen as their main function, but they are not limited to that. Although people complained about some games being more “video” than “game,” the researchers noted that emotionally centered video games like Heavy Rain were not only popular with both critics and consumers, but were financially successful. However, it must be noted that “insight” is not limited to narration. Oliver and her fellow researchers note that one potential area that may effect this is social interaction.
Social Interaction: Reality vs. Simulation
Now we come to the crux of the argument: if games can be art based on narration, where does that leave MMOs? Certainly sandbox MMOs don’t seem to count, as they often have a more broad story that allows players to fill in the gaps, yet Eve Online is one of the only MMOs I know of that have a museum exhibition on something besides visual art. Lucas Film’s Habitat is the only other one that comes to mind, but it’s for historical reasons. I think that may be the best starting point for my argument, after casually reminding readers that games, from the start, were often simulations, from animals play fighting to Pong being a sort of table-tennis simulation.
While a theme-park MMO may have a narration, how much of that narration is part of the MMO? I would argue that most MMO stories can be ignored. Very few games require you to know the game story to enjoy their content. It’s like watching a movie without the pictures: you may be able to enjoy it, but if it works completely without the pictures, it may as well be a radio program, right? However, I played World of Warcraft for years, and many of the raiders I spent long hours with knew little to nothing about the game’s lore, even though we were getting server firsts. The two were not connected.
Star Wars: The Old Republic is slightly different, in that the game was conceived to focus on story, but most of the game content that involves story is single player content. The game’s “Flash points” do offer insight into possible MMO use of narration by allowing players to move the story into different directions, but this activity is largely disjointed from the rest of the game. One can play though their own story mode without ever entering a flash point, and the results of the flash points have no relationship with the main story or even other flashpoints. In fact, it is perfectly possible to play the game without investing in the game’s narration, which strongly hints that SWTOR (at least at the game’s launch) was more about the social systems that helped form the main part of the game’s end game.
No, narration in the traditional sense is not the strong point of an MMO. It’s socialization. The Museum of Modern Art may have an Eve exhibition, but it’s for applied design. That is, the game is an artfully crafted tool. The installation talks about statistics and events. In short, it’s a kind of history lesson, much like what The MADE proposed to do with Habitat.
Why is it that two museums are both tackling digital worlds for history instead of narration? Simple: the main draw of these games is social interaction. Although the world is crafted, most of the narration, even in a theme-park game, is tacked on. It’s second to mechanics. Just look at how World of Warcraft destroys its own lore by allowing a unique, legendary sword like Ashbringer to become not just a non-unique loot item, but a standard class item.
Former Blizzard developer Greg Street even mentioned how gameplay was more important than lore. While WoW is not the only MMO, it is the biggest and most well known, especially among theme parks, the MMO genre which restricts player options to construct more specific, linear content. With this comment, Street is one of the (at the time) most visible faces of the company pretty much ensuring that, without a doubt, no one can confuse this game with a work of art. With all the grind quests, dailies, and loot hunting at the center of most MMOs, we can see that, without a doubt, the narration, which is what would be used to elevate the mundane to the sublime, is an assistant at best. In fact, Blizzard’s first core value is “gameplay first,” assuring the outside world that, as a company, Blizzard is not in the business of making art. That doesn’t mean they make bad games, but if you’re looking for meaningful stories, Blizzard and their MMO giant should not be where you turn your eye.
But online multiplayer games can and do have higher values. I’ve even covered one that got government funding for education. While it’s not a true MMO, it does highlight something that’s strong about this genre: socialization and simulation. Eco is promising, not because it has strong mechanics, but how those mechanics (hopefully) work in a social environment. Alone, the multiple features and systems are worthless. Why have a debate section, in game data gathering tools, and voting options if the game is only about mechanics? These are tools made for socializing! At the same time though, remember that while game worlds are synthesized, the players aren’t. Unlike a pre-programmed Mario game, you can side with “evil.” You can blow up the world, hold people for ransom, and do basically anything you want that the mechanics allow for. While that may be more limited than reality, it’s certainly more open than any dialogue tree from an RPG.
Like history, MMOs are an experience. We can talk about the past and make a story about it, but that product is often viewed as something that is inspired by history. There’s too much reality in it to really call it art, even if “artistic license” can be used to make the story more meaningful. We may be starting to split hairs at this point, but what it comes down to is this: do real people in a fake world necessarily make for fake interactions? If we’ve learned one thing from the Standford prison experiment, it’s that roleplay can have a very real affect on not only the actors but the audience. It’s why Eve’s backstabbing and heists make headlines. It’s all pretend space ships and money, but people attribute real value to those relationships and in-game items. MMOs may not be art, but they’re certainly a safer environment than real life for carrying out interactions that, in real life, could be much more dangerous, while still providing insight, the latter of which is something art only shows us from a safe distance.
Oliver, M. B., Bowman, N. D., Woolley, J. K., Rogers, R., Sherrick, B. I., & Chung, M.-Y. (2015, April 6). Video Games as Meaningful Entertainment Experiences. Psychology of Popular Media Culture. Advance online publication. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/ppm0000066
Bowman, N. D. (2016). Video Gaming as Co-Production. In R. Lind (Ed.), Produsing 2.0: The intersection of audiences and production in a digital world (Vol. 2, pp. 107-123). New York: Peter Lang Publishing https://www.researchgate.net/publication/291693773_Video_Gaming_as_Co-ProductionRelated: EVE Online, MMO, MMORPG, Second Life, Star Wars The Old Republic, World of Warcraft