[Smashy the Hammer] [An Aspiring Luddite]
I carry no phone
An aspiring Luddite
In a wired world.
[Jeff Berry]
Jeff Berry is an early adopter of the Internet and the Web, a late adopter of Twitter, and declines to adopt Facebook. With the death of Google+, he's experimenting with federated platforms. He admins a medievalist Mastodon instance, and can found on the PlusPora diaspora pod. He hates cell-phones.

But Is It Art?
11 March 2011

[Screen Capture from Dwarf Fortress] "You can't make art by committee," is an oft-repeated mantra and it's a great catch-phrase. Like most great catch-phrases it is demonstrably wrong - even a moment's consideration will provide many examples. Collaboration, co-operation, and many other words that not-coincidentally begin with `co-` are critical to producing art. The idea that Notre Dame de Paris was the creation of a single will is patently absurd given the enormous variety of craftsmen and artists who contributed to its construction. Led Zeppelin thought John Bonham so critical to the process they chose not to continue without him. To give all the credit for The Lion King on Broadway to Julie Taymor is to ignore the battalion of designers, engineers and crew who contributed to the project, to say nothing of the actors.

And yet ...

And yet ... there is something compelling in the idea, the narrative if you will, of the solitary artist with a burning vision. There's truth there, as well, even in theatre, that most collaborative of arts, someone (hopefully the director) has final say in what the final project will look like. There really should be a vision, although a shared vision is often better than a solitary one.

But ...

But ... idiosyncratic, personal visions are interesting. They are what spawn cult followings. Not everyone likes, oh, Frank Zappa, and his commercial success pales next to, oh, pick the disposable pop star you most like to rage against. Zappa's vision, however, was compelling. You might not like 200 Motels but you certainly feel like there's something going on in there.

Which brings us to Dwarf Fortress. Dwarf Fortress is an idiosyncratic, personal vision of what a computer game should be. It has a cult following who agonize over the details and write grand epics about the rise and fall of their fortresses, or deep analyses of the best way to arrange your dwarf's housing to maximize efficiency, or elaborate comic pieces about dwarf culture and humor. They do this about a game which does not have elaborate graphics, cut-scenes, complicated sound effects, or, indeed, many of the things that are de rigueur in a modern video game. The look is aggressively retro and the interface, to be fair, can be clunky.

The game play, however, is fantastic and reflects the ideas of the designers. At times one is baffled by the choices that are made - why have they implemented an egg-harvesting industry? Who is shaving the trolls to wave their hair into cloth? Sometimes something will appear which has no use in the game, for instance, when you butcher a critter, often hair appears as a by-product. For a long time, hair had no use, and you simply had to figure out a way to get rid of it. Then, in one release, spinning worked. Now you could spin that hair into thread.

Even that is not my favorite example of the vision that drives this game. My favorite example is the statues. First, I must explain a bit about the game, please bear with me. You begin with a small crew of dwarves, seven in number. Their task is to create a thriving community. There is no definition of "thriving" in the game itself, there is no way to win. You define your goals and then see if you can meet them. Your little dwarves, over whom you do not have direct control in most cases, can be assigned tasks and offices, which they will execute according to their own personal discretion. You can tell a dwarf that he should be a mason now, and that you'd like your masons to make some statues, but they'll get to it when they feel like it, taking breaks now and then, stopping to eat, drink and sleep and so on.

The game keeps track of all this. So when you make a statue, you get the following. First, on the screen, all statues look like Omega symbols, with a color dependant on the material of which they are made. You can look at them (through the clunky interface) and see something like this: "+chert statue of Ilral Soldiergem+" This tells you that the statue is made of chert, one of the many, many kinds of rock in the game. The "+" indicate that it is "finely-crafted" the third (of six) levels of quality. And it tells you what the statue represents, in this case, a dwarf named Ilral Soldiergem. You can drill deeper. On the next screen, you learn that it weighs 160 units, and has a value of 75 - a base of 25, multiplied by 3 for its quality. You can drill deeper. The next and final screen says this: "This is a finely-crafted chert statue of Ilral Soldiergem. The item is a finely-designed image of Ilral Soldiergem the dwarf and dwarves in chert by Cilob Zondishmab. Ilral Soldiergem is surrounded by the dwarves. The artwork relates to the appointment of the dwarf Ilral Soldiergem to the position of chief medical dwarf of The Long Spear in the late summer of 1051."

So the game maintains the information about which of my little ASCII-tile dwarves was appointed to an office and when. Then it decides that another little ASCII-dwarf wants to immortalize that in (imaginary) stone. But if you, the player, want to know that you have to negotiate down through three levels of the interface. The designers thought that is was worth doing this, even though it's very hard to get to the data and it has no effect on game-play.

So is it art? For that matter, can any game be art? I think the answer in both cases is yes. The game makes you think, it makes you wonder about what's going on inside the artifact and the minds of the creators. You can have an emotional response to it (and not just frustration if the game crashes). What else can we demand of art?

© 2011 Jeff Berry
The Aspiring Luddite