Grinding to Valhalla

Interviewing the gamer with a thousand faces

Reading the text: Grant Tavinor

Posted by Randolph Carter on September 24, 2009

art of vidogames2

Book information:

Wiley | Amazon

From the title of your book The Art of Videogames one might be a little mislead in thinking this is mostly about the visual art of videogames. What would you have to say to this?

The term “art” is used in a number of ways, including in a rather narrow sense to refer to the predominantly visual fine arts. In the philosophy of the arts, the discipline in which I do my research, “art” is almost always used in the more inclusive sense in which one might refer to “the arts.” The category includes, but is not limited to, painting, sculpture, music, literature, drama, architecture and film. A key argument in my book is that at least some videogames deserve to be included in that group on the basis of sharing a large proportion of the conditions that are thought to be characteristic of the arts. Videogames, I argue, extend the category of the arts in a new and largely unprecedented way.

This is not to say the visual aspects of videogames are unimportant, or irrelevant to their nature as art. There is a certain opinion of games, I think, that holds their gameplay or formal features are more important from a functional and critical perspective than their visual aspects. I agree that the visual success of a game is no guarantee to its qualities as a game: a game with stunning graphics can fail to provide good gameplay. But nevertheless I think that the qualities of the visuals of a game—their design, style, implementation, and technical qualities—do add to the qualities we should find desirable in games. Of two games with otherwise identical formal properties, I think we should prefer that which presents the more aesthetically successful artefact.

Also, it is surely their simply visual beauty that is one of the foremost reasons that we are so tempted to see computer games as a form of art (though of course this is not the only reason). That Grand Theft Auto IV depicts Liberty City in such a subtle and beautiful manner is surely a reason to find comparisons to art entirely natural.

So why did you decide to write this book?

The book came about because two different aspects of my life collided at some time during my graduate studies in philosophy. I had always played videogames, but not seriously. When I began my PhD I bought my first personal computer, ostensibly for study purposes, but I pretty soon began to play games like Age of Empires and System Shock 2. For a while I was pretty obsessed with Age of Empires. Anyway, I had a nice scholarship, and this afforded me some spare time in which to play lots of videogames while I was studying for my PhD!

At the same time, my doctoral studies were on the nature of our emotional involvement in fictions. I was looking into the question of what it is to become emotional involved in a fictional scenario, especially when we are aware that the situations depicted in fictions do not exist. This is sometimes called “the paradox of fictional emotions,” and it is a problem that has generated a large literature in the philosophy of the arts. My specific approach was to incorporate into my ideas on the issues recent philosophical and scientific studies into the emotions.

Somewhere along the line it became obvious to me that the consideration of videogames was a natural next step in terms of the ideas I was developing. In my thesis I spent only one or two paragraphs on gaming, because it was already clear to me that there was a whole other manuscript to be written on the topic of videogames. I subsequently wrote the first draft of a book on videogames in the final year of my PhD.

Jumping ahead several years, and I was lucky enough to have found a job teaching philosophy at Lincoln University, and the book had gone through several more drafts. I was also writing research papers on the topic, even though I had never envisaged or intended to research videogames when I started out in philosophy of the arts. I subsequently had a paper published in Philosophy and Literature, which it seems that several people read and liked.

What was the process like in getting it published?

Getting the book published seemed rather easier than it should have been. I originally submitted a proposal to one academic press, and they agreed to publish a book on the topic of videogames and aesthetics. At precisely the same time I was approached by the New Directions in Aesthetics series editor Berys Gaut at a conference in Los Angeles with an expression of interest in seeing a proposal, which they eventually also accepted. So at this stage I had two contracts before me, which was a nice choice to have! I went with Wiley-Blackwell mostly because they are a prestigious press in philosophy.

I already had the manuscript that I had been working on since my PhD, but at this stage I decided to start from scratch, so almost all of that first manuscript was discarded. What was eventually published was written over the course of several very intense but enjoyable months in 2008.

What kinds of research went into writing the book?

Generally the research was of three kinds. First, I read a lot of literature, both philosophical and non-philosophical, that pertained to the topic. There is very little literature in philosophy directly about computer games, so there was not a lot to respond to or build on. Most of the philosophical literature I refer to is principally about forms of art other than videogames, with my own work adapting or revising those ideas to the facts particular to videogames. This was also a real attraction of the topic because it allowed me to some extent to go my own way and define the issues as I wanted. As a result, much of the book is taken up by framing the philosophical issues with videogames, rather than responding to other approaches, as is more usually the case in philosophical works.

Second, I played a lot of games. No one would think of writing about the aesthetics of music without a significant first-hand experience of music. The same surely applies to the aesthetics of videogames. I made a point of playing a wide range of games, and playing them thoroughly. Mostly I played on my Playstation 3, and as a result my focus in the book is often on console games, though I try to note how the theory applies, or needs modifications, in the case of other formats of kinds of gaming. Fortunately, I also received a research fund from Lincoln University that I was able to spend on my gaming!

Lastly, being a philosopher, I philosophised. Thinking about videogames has dominated my life most of the last two years, which has not always been a positive thing.

How much of your research would you say dealt with MMOs?

I played World of Warcraft in the preparation of the book because I wanted to be able to write with some assurance about that game. This was about the extent of my direct concern with MMOs. But much of the content of the book, aimed at explaining computer games and videogames in a more general way, is eminently applicable to MMOs. Indeed, they provide some of the best examples of the issues that I focus in the book because of the extensive nature of their fictional worlds.

A basic claim in the book that the virtual worlds of videogames are robustly represented and interactive fictional worlds. The interactivity of these games comes about because computers are able to provide fictional props that respond to the interaction of the player, which means that unlike films or novels, the fiction can acknowledge the presence of the player in what is depicted by the work. In multiplayer games, unlike almost all other works of fiction, players may simultaneously experience and interact with a fictional world. What is happening in a game like World of Warcraft, then, is that multiple appreciators are engaging with a fiction for the purposes of playing a game, and having a social interaction. This is interesting in terms of the philosophical literature about fictions, in that it seems to connect such computer games quite strongly with the games of pretence or make-believe from which all fictions may ultimately derive. MMOs may thus reconnect fiction and social interaction, something that is missing from other largely solitary fictive experiences such as reading a novel or watching a film.

As such, there is no doubt a great deal more philosophical work to be done on MMOs specifically, especially concerning the ontological status of some of the objects and events seen in such games. To take just one example, the puzzling nature of virtual currencies has frequently been noted. Is World of Warcraft gold real or fictional gold? How could one really trade a fictional substance? Answering these questions will demand some pretty close attention to the philosophy of fiction. And arguably, previous analyses of such issues are often confused because they have not taken such a careful philosophical approach.

Stepping back a bit, would you mind describing what your own gaming background was like (board games, pen & paper RPGs, console & computer games, etc.)?

I grew up in the 1980s, and as a smart kid at that time was pretty hard to avoid being drawn into Dungeons and Dragons, even in New Zealand. So I played a fair bit of that as a kid. More than playing it, however, I was interested in creating and documenting fictional worlds using the rules and conventions of Dungeons and Dragons. I put a lot of effort into the detail and history of these fictional places. This of course is another sense of the word “game”: games of make-believe. Computer games are not only called games because they have rules and objectives in a way chess does, but because they present compelling imaginary worlds in which you can lose yourself. I think that’s what mostly attracts me to videogames these days, and I’ve always basically been interested in the imagination, as a kid in terms of the activities I engaged in, and as an adult in terms of my philosophical studies.

I also played videogames as a kid. I was gifted a Nintendo handheld parachute game. I also occasionally visited games arcades, though I never had any money to play, so I mostly just had to watch. The famous early Star Wars 3D game was around at this time, and that made a big impression on me. I also occasionally played on the Sega consoles in the early 1990s. But for the most part I forgot games when I went to university. As I noted, I was reintroduced to gaming in my graduate studies, and I’ve played regularly since.

Would you say your gaming experience has had any effect on you as a writer?

In as much as gaming has given me an exciting and rich topic to write about I think it has. I’m not sure that it has substantively changed my writing though; most of my influences there come from reading other writers. I admire writers like Richard Dawkins and the philosopher Daniel Dennett, who manage to address interesting and sometimes complex ideas in an approachable and engaging ways. I’ve tried to write in that way myself.

Would you say there is grind involved in the writing process?

For me, writing has certain predictable stages, which have different degrees of pleasure associated with them. I always struggle to get going, and this can often be an unpleasant experience, especially when something has a deadline. Once I’m into the subject, things tend to flow and I can write pretty quickly; this period is far from a grind, but can be quite exhausting. I spend a lot of time subsequently reworking and revising a piece of writing, which I also find a pleasurable experience. Eventually, though, this can become a grind, which is probably a good time to take a break form the work!

By contrast, what would you say is one of the most rewarding things about being a writer?

Apart from the being in a state of flow, as noted above, I find just getting ideas down on paper and constructing arguments to be an enormously rewarding experience. Writing this book was a lot of fun, largely because I was sure I had something interesting to say, and that I was lucky enough to get the chance to say it. I’m looking forward to writing another book.

When do you find time to write?

Research and writing is a key part of my job as a philosophy lecturer, so luckily I get to assign large stretches of time to the activity. Most of my best writing is done between eight and noon, fuelled by lots of coffee. We’re also lucky to get some long breaks in summer, which can also be a productive time. During term time though, it is often quite difficult to maintain enough concentration to be productive.

How do you tend to escape these days?

I like to go wandering in the Capital Wastleland, shooting super-mutants, which I still find is a nice escape even though in some sense videogames have become work for me. In the real world I occasionally ride my mountain bike or go walking in the bush, both of which are nice ways to escape, especially in New Zealand where we have beautiful areas to pursue both activities. A glass or two of pinot noir is also a nice distraction!

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