Let's Play

Fine Art

The Theory

This text is both an explanation of my reasons for this project, and an argument for the usefulness of video games as an object of aesthetic and critical study. 

I think that it is no exaggeration to say that most art writing is a little unapproachable to the un-inducted. At worst it can come across as offensively pretentious, although most of the time it can feel like using a lot of words to say very little. Personally, I feel a number of different attitudes vying for attention with regards to this issue. First I believe that the best way to engage with an art piece is to go at it unaccompanied by flavour text and let it speak to you on its own terms. Second is an awareness that writing is often published by those with some steak in the success of the artist, which undermines my trust in its opinions, in addition to the fact that it is usually the opinion of a single voice or narrative. Third is a dissonance between how the writing comes across when I compare it to how myself and my friends discuss art amongst ourselves: speculating; joking; tangegating; and most importantly debating about our differing interpretations. This way of informally engaging with art is something which I think I learned along with my friends at art school through mutual discussion, but it is something which I believe is lacking in public art discourse. 

I would now contrast this with the video game space which exists online. Games are a great medium to use as a lens for considering art as a whole because we can see the audience's actions within the game, and this can be used to infer things about their engagement with the experience. I am writing this with the assumption that the reader is not too familiar with gaming culture, and my reasons for this project should have some context.

Now, players are presented with a packaged art object (a game) and are expected to engage with it. The game itself comes with instructions and a set of rules, which represent the designer's intention for how the game is "meant" to be played. However, individuals will innovate their own ways of interacting with the game world and its mechanics, making up games within the game. Can we get through the "Call of Duty" campaign with just a knife? Can we pile up two jeeps, three quad bikes and a tank on the enemy's giant robot spider in "Halo"? Can we break the physics in "Spider Man 2" and fall out of the map? It goes deeper than these superficial examples though. Players will have differing personal interpretations of the meanings of the ambiguous elements of the game world and story which will then be betrayed when they make certain decisions. Is "Life is Strange" a story about friendship, or is it about death? The player's choice at the end of the game will make a statement about their reading of the game. Does the player fight tooth and nail to save all of the friendly marines or do they callously fire rockets into the melee, heedless of the distinction between friend and foe? Is "Team Fortress 2" a game about winning rounds, trading hats, or just mucking around? There is an immense potential for diversity of interpretation in the field of interactive experiences. (I speculate that the amount of potential for diversity in a piece of art is probably some function of ambiguity multiplied by complexity.) I would argue that this diversity is incredibly valuable, and that a flexibility in the available interpretations of a work makes the art better. This might be indexed in the aggregate by how many different people are able to enjoy the art. 

So, how is this diversity of interpretation of games packaged by commentators? By exposing the secondary audience not to the opinion about the game, but the interaction with the game its self. Let's Players and Streamers help introduce their audiences to the art by simply publishing their own engagement; recording themselves and perhaps their friends playing the game. This shares not only their ideas about the art but also their passion, and that intuitive level of engagement which I described before. Perhaps the best example of this is Minecraft where the variation in manners of engagement is so wide that you could play the game in one world for a year and never see even a fraction of what people have done with the game. This brings me to my last and more pragmatic point. Minecraft, I think, would not have become as successful as it has without its let's play community. This is more than simple publicity though advertising; I assert that there is also an educational dynamic. The let's players share their manner of engagement with their audience. 

The Project

I should probably define what a let's play is, for the benefit of anyone who does not spend hours a day on YouTube. A let's play is a video recording of an individual or group playing a game, with the game taking centre stage and the player having a voice over or windowed video feed in the corner.