Series Info...Introduction to Raph Koster’s The Case For Art

by Jessica Mulligan
September 11, 2001

As one might imagine, the column Just Give Me A Game, Please caused something of a stir. To which I say, "Good." One of the purposes of this column is to get people talking about the issues because that’s one way change happens, and Lordy, do we need some change in this industry.

When discussing change, however, it is important to know all of the issues, and it is important that those directly experienced with them speak up and take a stand. As well as being my own vehicle for using Three Stooges Fu on the insanities of the online and computer game industries, I also consider BTH an industry forum. And that means occasionally giving up the podium (as tough as that can be for a limelight hound like me).

Hence this guest column, The Case For Art, written by Raph Koster. If you don’t know who Raph is, you’ve been obviously been in a coma for the past five years. He was a senior game designer on Origin Systems’ Ultima Online and is currently the Creative Director on Verant’s Star Wars: Galaxies. Raph is also not shy about making his opinion known, as I discovered when we were working at OSI together a couple years ago. He's not rude or even (generally) loud about it; he's more like an Aikido master, melding with the opponent and redirecting his energy to more useful purposes. Now I have this vision of him dressed in robes and saying to a junior designer, "When you can snatch the game mechanic from my hand, time for you to leave."

And he makes a pretty darn good case for art in this column. Read on, and if you want to know more about Raph’s work and interests, his personal Web site can be found at

The Case For Art

By Raph Koster

Henry James wrote, in "The Art of Fiction," that the first obligation of a story is to be interesting. And Jessica Mulligan, in her Biting the Hand column of a few weeks ago entitled "Just Give Me a Game, Please," made the case that the first obligation of an online game is to be fun.

Now, I wouldn’t know to draw the parallel unless I was an artsy type myself. There’s no hiding it, no denying it – I mean, Jesus, I’m quoting Henry James. I’ve spent time in the ivory towers of creative writing programs, I’ve waited nervously in anterooms for my turn to play piano in front of a critical groups of music profs, I’ve worried over the right shade of gray to use in a still life of well-polished bones and bottles, and I’ve even done poster artwork for theater productions. Many might say (well, why ignore it: they did say) that Jess’ article meant, well, me.

But when Jess asked if I’d write a rebuttal, I had to think about it, and ask other people’s opinions. You see, it’s sort of fashionable to put down being artsy, these days. After all, the public’s image of art is religious icons dipped in excrement, it’s tediously boring French films, it’s dumping cases of type on a page and calling it poetry. These days, you can read about Art (with a capital A, of course) and substitute in this phrase: "pretentious, incomprehensible, shallow, manipulative, boring crap." Why sign up to defend something that has that rep?

Well, it’s a valid rap. I have no tolerance for artsy crap. I find pretentious, overly craft-driven, self-referential, obscure, tangled, and weighty books to be garbage. Same for movies. I don’t like most foreign films. I think it’s the problem with poetry today. It’s why jazz lost its audience. Why nobody cares who is writing the Great American Novel. And this may be the shortest rebuttal in history, because I agree with the premise that the first obligation of an online game is to be fun.

Nonetheless, I’m here to make the case for art. Because unlike Jess, I think that it’s something that the game industry, and especially online games, need now more than ever.

Art or Entertainment?

First off, let me dispose of the false dichotomy that plagues all these debates. Art and Entertainment are not in opposition. Now, I’ve got a broad definition of "entertain" (and here you can substitute in any number of words that all mean roughly the same thing: captivate, intrigue, command attention) but I think most people do too. Art that does not entertain is bad art. Games that are not fun are bad games.

This does not mean that good entertainment is necessarily art. Entertainment is hard. Most people suck at entertaining others. It’s a goddamn hard skill to learn, and if it weren’t, we’d have many more stand-up comedians in the world, a heck of a lot more mimes, and we wouldn’t have 500 channels with nothing on, boring radio and lame movies every summer weekend. Entertainment is hard and there’s nothing wrong with trying to master just that.

But art offers more than just something that is compelling. Art can do many things: entertain, challenge, teach, explain, amuse, inspire… Art subsumes entertainment. Which is why we often preface "entertainment" with "mere." It’s a small part of art. A vitally important one, certainly, because frankly, art which doesn’t entertain is art which is going to spectacularly fail at accomplishing all the other things in that list.

So let’s definitely cheer on the notion of Entertainment. It’s a tough road to go down in the first place (how many crappy boring games were released last year?) and if all we manage is to entertain, then we should be justifiably proud of the work we’ve done.

But that doesn’t mean we scorn the desire to go further. To take the next step and say, "well, that’s hard enough, so I am going to settle for doing just that part, because then I know that I will please the audience…" – if that gets adopted as our national creed then we might end up with our media filled with emptyheaded blow-em-up movies, endless "reality" shows, and lots of bubblegum pop.

Oh wait, that already happened.

Art doesn’t just offer pretention. In fact, when you see a pretentious artist, you’re probably seeing one of three kinds of people: a poser who doesn’t know what being an artist is actually like; someone on a government grant; or an actual genius, in which case you should just avoid talking to them. (Most geniuses aren’t very civil.)

There’s a difference between being pompous and being an artist. I don’t know how many working artists (of whatever sort) you know, but most of the pompous ones can’t make a living. Artists have to speak to people. Otherwise, they can’t afford to do it again. And out in the real world, people who want to make a living at being artists know this (their other chance is to become snootily pretentious and live off of government grants, of course, but those are then the people you probably haven’t heard of). Real artists know that you can’t forget entertainment, because it’s what gives them their next meal. Heck, they even have a term for that lengthy period of learning they go through, when they learn their chops and learn how to entertain. It’s called "paying your dues."

So what does art offer?

The single biggest thing that art offers is an emphasis on craft.

All the arts are half science. When you go to learn to be a visual artist, a painter, say, don’t think you get handed a beret and a brush and told, "express yourself on this canvas." No, it’s more like you get handed some sheets of colored paper and some glue and told, "read these 40 pages on luminance, weight, and color theory, then create a visually balanced design using one big square and one little square." It means sitting and learning the difference between a major and a minor scale. And then between modal scales and the major and minor. And then about non-tempered scales. And then about Neapolitan sixths and false cadences. It means classifying clumps of words into trochees and iambs and knowing why it matters that a line ends in a spondee.

Art means you develop terminology and language. Class clowns entertain (well, mostly because at that age, our standards aren’t yet high enough). It’s done instinctively. People who are serious about a craft talk to others about their craft. They work hard at defining what it is they do, how they do it, and by formalizing and classifying their practices, they discover new ways to do things. And they respect their history (a favorite theme here at Biting the Hand).

Art brings perfectionism, because the goal of the entertainer is to do well enough, but the goal of the artist is to do better. I was once working on a drawing that was 2x2 feet in size, for three weeks. Midway through the third week, I was erasing a bit near the corner and the paper tore, just slightly. Not all the way through, just enough to make the surface perceptibly rougher than the rest of the sheet. My art professor’s reaction? "Oh, that’s a shame, now you’ll have to start over." Be nice to have those standards in our game launches, yes?

The other big thing that art brings is ethics. Yes, there is such a high-flown phrase as "the responsibility of the artist." Entertainment is notoriously irresponsible. My current poster boy for a lack of cognizance of the impact the arts can have on people is what happened at the Woodstock concert redux, when Limb Bizkit’s performance actually whipped the crowd into a greater frenzy. The responsible thing to do would be to calm the crowd down (in the 1960s an equally ugly concert ended with a death, at a place called Altamont. But Mick Jagger at least had the sense to try to persuade the audience to settle down).

OK, now you ARE getting artsy. Do we need that stuff?

Silly question. Of course we do. Badly, in fact. The last few columns here at Biting the Hand have been about the need for common terminology, the need to launch titles that are polished and not buggy, and the need to be honest and respectful of your customers.

Ragging on those developers who speak of "using storyline to encode ethical systems" and "teaching moral lessons through gameplay" in times when we are under fire (and in lawsuits!) over tragedies like Columbine seems foolhardy. And surely we’re not saying that games cannot aspire to the level of your average men-in-tights superhero comic book? Isn’t this why the Ultima series is revered by gamers? Isn’t this what popular novels do? Movies?

We’re making virtual places here, and there’s other people on the other end of the line. When we put in a feature, it’s there for player A to use on player B. And when we choose to ignore pretentious phrases like "encoding moral values" and thus abdicate our "responsibilities as artists" we’re not only doing a disservice to the players, but to the whole industry which is struggling for legitimacy.

When we criticize game developers for using phrases like "communicating an expression to the audience" or "artistic differences," surely we don’t mean that all RTS games have to have the same ruleset. There are people out there–many–who buy a game because a particular team, designer, or company made it. That’s what the above two things mean. Why are they "artsy?" Or is it just artsy to talk about it?

Then what’s the issue?

Forgetting that there are people out there. You see, the pretension and pomposity comes about when you let those things above get in the way, and you forget to entertain or even to respect the audience.

But that’s bad art.

All innovations in game design are going to be "experiments." And yes, when you play a game, you’re stuck playing it with the features that the programmers and designers put in there. And it isn’t necessarily the best way for the game to work. But you are playing the game they made, not the game that you wish were there. And yes, they have to decide what to put in, and yes, they are going to decide based on their own best judgment, make trade-offs, and yes, even have a "Vision." It wouldn’t get done if they didn’t. This issue is really about is features and decisions that don’t pan out. Or that players don’t like. Yes, these do happen, and sometimes a designer may choose to not have a feature known to be fun in favor of trying something new.

The choice is simple. Have the old, fun way. Or try something new. Sometimes the new thing turns out to be fun. Sometimes it doesn’t, and now we know. If we choose the door on the left every time, we’ll eventually end up with only one game. Yes, it is a bad thing when un-fun features are in a game. But that is the price of progress, and I am not afraid to say it.

So I say, hooray for Art. If it means that this medium we love might develop and grow, if it means that we’ll learn enough about it to have common practices, if it means that we will demand perfectionism and also depth of content and theme, manage to respect our audience along the way, and still always make things fun, absolutely heck yeah. I’m not going to be ashamed to be one of "those people" called out in Jessica’s article, and hopefully neither will you.

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