A couple of years back, when Minecraft had yet to become the gaming mega-giant it is now, a friend of mine showed me an article on io9 depicting something incredible. A team of friends had taken on the arduous task of building a scale replica of the U.S.S Enterprise in Minecraft. Its height took up almost the entirety of the game space, and its length cast a shadow across the landscape that brought to mind flashbacks of the Star Destroyer from the opening scene of A New Hope.
They’d taken pains to find incredibly detailed schematics of where everything was located inside the ship. Every room, every deck, every elevator replicated with slavish detail. “Pfft. There’s someone with WAAAAAAAY too much time on their hands.” came the response from across the table.
Here stands this digital testament to artistic commitment, not to mention architectural ambition, and the first thought that comes to this heckler’s mind (as well as many others) is that this individual couldn’t have picked a more profoundly useless waste of time. Why? What separates this guy from any other digital artist, , or even more conventional painters, sculptors, or artists? Why do player-creators deserve our scorn, when artists get our praise?
A Tale As Old As Time
The scorn that is applied to Minecraft’s fanbase has been equally heaped onto gaming communities from any title with a map editor, the only difference being that none of those communities has quite reached the level of cultural penetration that Minecraft has. True, Bungie’s juggernaut Halo franchise is one of the highest-selling video games of all time, but it is not culturally identified as being a “building game.” It is marketed as a shooter, first and foremost. Despite this, hop onto YouTube and search “Best Halo Forge Maps” and you’ll see a community overflowing with creative expression, with players utilizing the franchise’s Forge mode to create original maps that rival those developed by Bungie themselves in terms of quality. On top of that, players consistently find new ways to manipulate the elements one can port into the creative suite to create cool twists on the conventional. One of my favorites from back in Halo 3 was a map where someone used an ingenious pattern of explosions to form a bunch of vehicles into the Halo version of a Megazord.
Player creation on a similarly massive scale can be found on LittleBigPlanet, the Warcraft series, and even going back as far as the Worms PC games, but the underlying issue that causes geeks and non-geeks alike to turn their noses up at those who sink dozens of hours into their creation is far, far older.
No, even older. Older than that. Think centuries old.
This discussion boils down to the old debate of what counts as art, but to make that nebulous topic a bit more manageable, we’ll bracket our conversation to the idea of “high art vs. low art.” Many different thinkers have different criteria for the distinction, but in essence, the implication is that “high art” is in some way, shape or form more valuable, and to be placed higher up on a hypothetical hierarchy of worthiness than low art. That isn’t to say that “low art” isn’t art at all, but that (theoretically) it lacks some aesthetic or conceptual characteristic that helps make high art so esteemed. Some make the suggestion that it’s the ability of art to provoke thought or emotion, its originality, or its demonstration of technical prowess (or lack thereof) that creates the distinction.
However, all of these criteria create problems, largely due to the large variance in personal tastes among those who enjoy art, whether it be movies, video games, TV, or anything else. One man’s trash is another man’s treasure, as they say, and though different groups may band together in vehement arguments that their favorite thing is objectively a masterpiece, we lack any kind of definitive measure to say that these arguments constitute anything more than well-constructed opinions.
I’m personally opposed to the idea of high-low distinctions in art for precisely this reason, as well as the fact that the other arguments for art’s objective worth are woefully inadequate. Monetary value? Van Gogh couldn’t GIVE his paintings away until he died. Does that mean until ol’ Vinny one-ear kicked the bucket that his art was crap, only to be magically transformed into a masterpiece by his departure from this mortal coil? Of course not. Furthermore, critical sneers at eminently profitable Hollywood blockbusters would suggest that the relationship between financial success and artistic integrity is far from clear cut.
So if it’s not something wrong with the piece itself, maybe it’s something irksome about the artist.
…And The Controller You Rode In On
As we mentioned at the outset, one of the oft-utilized jabs against player creation is the sheer amount of time invested into it is seen as a waste, and a sign of a person with an otherwise empty life. This alone is insufficient to explain the stigma though, as any skill of any kind requires the investment of time and effort (if you’re Malcolm Gladwell, somewhere in the range of 10,000 hours) to develop, and longer to run through the dozens of unsuccessful iterations before hitting upon something that the creator can be satisfied with.
Established artists couldn’t dream of tracking the amount of time they’d spent hunched over sketchpads, notebooks, or word processors, but critics might respond that at least these people had created something of worth with their time. This again runs into the problem of how we define worthiness in art, and again gets caught in the trap of subjectivity. The best we can do is to suggest the difference is in terms of “publicly recognized” worth. Still subjective, but it introduces a bit more intellectual grissol into the discussion for us to gnaw on in the form of cultural values.
You’re One of A Kind. Just Like Everyone Else.
The one cultural value that I’m targeting here is originality. Those who typically consider themselves connoisseurs of art forms put an elevated importance on something bringing something “new” to the table, as opposed to stitching elements of other artists’ creations into the conceptual equivalent of Frankenstein’s monster. A parallel for critics of player creation might be that the levels and sculptures made in editing modes are lacking in any “true” creative originality, being built using the mechanical platform set out by the programmers who made the game world itself.
The argument goes that building anything in this world would essentially be like stealing another person’s art, doing a superficial amount of work to differentiate it from the original, claiming it as your own, and then expecting praise for your artistic talent.
This argument has quite a few flaws. First, given the initial jibe that spending hours on a Minecraft creation is a waste of time carries with it the (correct) presumption that this person has put a whole TON of time and effort into making whatever it is they’ve made.
Second, the premise that the value of the art hinges on its originality is vague and well realized. Particularly, the difference between a piece’s “conceptual originality”, and the originality of the means the artist used to make it is significant, but ill acknowledged here. The former refers to the original ideas that the artist as a creative agent contributes to a new piece. The latter refers to the fact that the artist didn’t make their piece “from scratch”, and used tools created by other hands in order to bring life to their creation.
There’s a good chance that many of you are looking at the “originality of means” definition and thinking it doesn’t really hold much water as far as determining the final worth of an art piece, and there’s a good reason for that. If it did, every painter who ever lived would have to pluck the horsehair and whittle her own paintbrush, use their own dye to create their own paint, and harvest their own pulp for canvas before they could create anything worthy to be deemed art.
The special problem this poses for video games is that game design (the creation of the “paintbrush” in this scenario) is only now being recognized as an art form in itself. Game creation is typically not seen as the creation of tools/platforms for players to take and expand upon with their own unique contributions, partially because only some games serve that function. Games like Bioshock Infinite and The Last of Us are meant as immersive, structured stories that we are experiencing firsthand (rather than making) as the game progresses. Designers who make the decision to integrate editing applications into their games fundamentally alter this relationship, and invite the player to become a creator along with them.
People like the Enterprising individual at the beginning of this article take the ball and run with it, acknowledging this shift; but the change in the programmer/player relationship often doesn’t translate for those who have not engaged with it. To them, player-creators are standing on the shoulders of giants and proclaiming to have built the mountain from the ground up, despite this clearly not being the case.
What Notch (and designers like him) have done is provide a whole new toolbox for players to express themselves freely in the same way that Twitter creators did when they made the decision to made their code open-source. It flings open the doors to creativity and innovation on a massive scale, using a fixed set of tools in unprecedented ways. This lateral expansion on the initial purpose of artistic tools to create massive murals, sculptures, and yes, a full-scale Enterprise, go far beyond what the initial creators could have dreamed.
And really, how else would you define art?