The Weekly: Backlogs and Games as Art

I was talking with my brother about my latest blog endeavors, and we got to talking about our own personal blogging styles. Oh by the way, he’s joined the honored rolls of the Blogonauts and you can check out his work here. The main issue I run into with blogging is a large number of 80% complete posts, that are just missing the that special something that makes it worth reading. From there the conversation turned towards his art and he taught me something about how newspaper comic strip artists work. The majority of them try to get at least a couple of weeks ahead, so if any snags are hit, or they suffer a time crunch, they’ve built up a bit of a buffer. This is called the backlog.  I thought to myself, that would be a pretty useful thing. To sit down and go through my 14 drafts and separate the wheat from the chaff. Build up a bit of a backlog, take some of the self-imposed pressure off and get the creativity to flow more steadily.

In gaming, the word backlog has a different connotation. It represents all those buy two get one free used game sales over at Gamestop you couldn’t pass up, along with all those Winter and Summer Steam sales. As for me I probably have about 25 PS2 games that I haven’t finished and as of right now, my Steam account lists 296 games. There are websites (Backloggery for example) dedicated to tracking which games you have and haven’t played, complete with tools to help you pick your next game and a community to discuss them with.  Other communities exist that support each other in not buying any new games whatsoever until they clear their backlog – or the less hardcore version of two old games finished before you can buy a new one.

Buying books would be a good thing if one could also buy the time to read them in: but as a rule the purchase of books is mistaken for the appropriation of their contents.” –Arthur Schopenhauer

The common thread for me, surrounding all these examples is that a backlog is about the accumulation of events to affect time. Getting ahead on cartoons stretches time, allowing days lacking inspiration to be absorbed without consequence. Accumulating video games is a way of compressing time, you participate in the zeitgeist with your credit card rather than your time.  Any time enough pieces begin to aggregate effects on time begin to manifest.

The Librarian.  Just don't call him a monkey.

The Librarian.  Just don’t call him a monkey.
http://goo.gl/84R5l

“The truth is that even big collections of ordinary books distort space, as can readily be proved by anyone who has been around a really old-fashioned secondhand bookshop, one that looks as though they were designed by M. Escher on a bad day and has more stairways than storeys and those rows of shelves which end in little doors that are surely too small for a full-sized human to enter. The relevant equation is: Knowledge = power = energy = matter = mass; a good bookshop is just a genteel Black Hole that knows how to read.” –Terry Pratchett, Guards! Guards!

Sudbury Neutrino Observatory http://goo.gl/hhdf7

Sudbury Neutrino Observatory
http://goo.gl/hhdf7

All this kind of swirls around a little bit and goes into the whole “Are video games Art?” debate. Rather than argue whether or not this person or that person knew what they were talking about when they made certain claims, or go into the incredibly deep questions of “What is Art?” and “What is Game?”  Rather, I suggest we look at Art the way we look for black holes and neutrinos.  As black holes are so strong they can pull in light, they can’t be seen directly.  One of the ways that they’re detected is the “gravitational lensing” effect that bends light around a given black hole.  Neutrinos are cosmic particles that have weak interactions with matter that they pass through, so the only way they can be seen, is to observe the material around them.  Hopefully, we’re starting to notice a theme here.  Rather than look directly at art, why don’t we look at the effects surrounding then, their equivalent gravitational lensing.

I think for a thing to be considered art it is composed of  a space, a time, and a given point of view – kind of abstract I know, so hopefully I can flesh it out a bit.  Let’s start with a concrete example and see if we can extrapolate from there.  The easiest example of art to understand, at least by my definition, is sculpture.  Fixing a moment in position and time, sculpture allows the observer to view the subject from outside their traditional single point of reference.  This gives a good foundation for showing how things can be broken down, each of the three elements can either be fixed or variable and that gives you a class of art.  In my own mind, this is kind of like a line or a one-dimensional work of art, as there’s one variable element.

Margritti this is not a pipe

There’s additional treachery here.
This is zero-, not two-dimensional art.
The Treachery of Images – René Magritte (1928-29)

This isn’t to establish any sort of hierarchy, one class isn’t better than another other, it’s just to establish a classification system that will let us categorize various methods of expression.  By this logic architecture would also be one-dimensional.  Things like painting, photography, printing, with their fixed moments of time, space, and point of view, would be more like a point, or a zero-dimensional work of art.  Cinema and theater would be one-dimensional as well, with their fixed place and point of view but with a variable time.  So by flipping the variables we can see what does and doesn’t belong to a given class.

This is a computational representation of a 5-dimensional Rubik's Cube.  People do this for fun. http://www.gravitation3d.com/magiccube5d/

This is a computational representation of a 5-dimensional Rubik’s Cube. People do this for fun.
http://www.gravitation3d.com/magiccube5d/

And that works ok for a while, but then you start to think about it a little more and start to find little bits of wiggle room – the time used to fix a given moment is different between a painting and a photograph, or just how fixed the point of view is in a film.  So rather than the binary “fixed/variable” dynamic, things like “mostly fixed”, or “less fixed than that, but more fixed than the other.” To be frank, I was trying to figure out how things like Music, Fashion, and Cooking fit in to this framework, should there be another dimension for “sense”, and things just started to get a little out of hand.  And then you throw the dimension of “agency” into the mix when you consider video games and you get a real mess on your hands, you sketch things on paper, and then you need to go lie down for a bit.

Now with the new-found understanding that this is a really really hard question to answer, let’s go back to our indirect observation of art.  As I was alluding to in the first half of this post we’re looking at the effect of accumulating a lot of a given type of object and see if it has the same sort of magical properties.  Do building such as museums, libraries, and movie theaters share some of the same qualities of arcades, LAN parties, and online communities?  Is there some immeasurable quantity about seeing a live concert or eating at a restaurant that separates it from listening to your headphones and eating a sandwich over the sink?  I think that special quantity is integral to the definition of something as art, and that while not all video games have it, it’s undeniable that most at least have flashes, and as far as this indirect criteria is concerned, places video games as a whole well within the realm of art.


That’s it for this week, hopefully the transition to the new blog was fairly painless.  I’m going to have the lead-off post for Journal Club up tomorrow, as well as the next article for discussion.  And that should catch us up.  See you tomorrow.

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