On octopus art.

On octopus art.

When we were in college, my roommate and I spent a train ride debating the merits of Andy Warhol’s art (she was a fan, I was not).  In the end, we not only failed to change each other’s opinions, but realized that we didn’t even agree what art was.  She double majored in Biomedical Engineering and Art Theory & Practice, and her view was much more expansive than my own.

In retrospect, I can admit that she was right.  My view of art was narrow-minded.  If I had to proffer a definition of “art” today, I might go with something like:

Art is an intentionally-created module that is designed to reshape the audience’s neural architecture.

By this standard, the big images of soup qualify.  So do the happenings.

Andy Warhol’s “Campbell’s Soup Cans,” 1962. Image by Wally Gobetz on Flickr.

I recently read a book that analyzed board games using the tools of art criticism and narratology.  Obviously, I now think that board games can be art.  They’re carefully designed; their creators often seem to have a goal for how each game should make players feel; the combined effects of text, visual components, and even rules can all work toward conveying those feelings.

One drawback to my newfound open-mindedness, though, is that I could probably be convinced that almost any designed object qualifies as art.

For a piece of art to “fail” to change your neural architecture, it would have to be mnemonically invisible – immediately after seeing it, you could look at it again and it would be as though it were the first time.  You’d never be able to recall its content or meaning.

Actually, I have read some esoteric, convoluted poetry like that.  Words that skimmed over my mind as though each synapse were coated with teflon. 

I wasn’t keen on the experience.  Minutes had passed, but, because I couldn’t remember anything that I’d read, I’d accomplished nothing.  I don’t need to actually understand a poem, I just want for it to make me feel somehow different after I’ve read it.  Like Will Alexander’s “The Optic Wraith,” which triggers a mysterious sense of unease even though its meaning squirms away from me:

The Optic Wraith

Her eyes

like a swarm of dense volcano spiders

woven from cold inferno spools

contradictory

consuming

clinging to my palette

like the code from a bleak inventive ruse

now

my understanding of her scent

is condoned as general waking insomnia

as void

as a cataleptic prairie

frayed at the core

by brushstrokes of vertigo

then mazes

As Alexander’s words lure me along, I lose my grasp.  But although I might not recall any specific lines, if you asked me at the end of its six pages, “So, what did you feel?”, I’d certain know that something inside my brain was different from who I’d been five minutes before.

When I was in college, I felt strongly that art needed to be beautiful.  I was wrong.  But I still believe that art works better when it’s aesthetically pleasing, because this allows it to more readily infiltrate someone’s mind.  If two paintings are both intended to convey the same ideas, but one is more pleasurable to look at, then we can assume that it will be looked at more, and thereby convey the idea more.  A charming form helps the piece achieve its function of spreading the creator’s intended message.

And, in terms of judging the quality of art, I obviously still think that the quality of message is important.

For instance, a chair.  Every chair you’ve ever sat in was designed by somebody.  If you wanted to argue that the chair is a piece of art, I suppose I’d agree with you.  And maybe it’s a very good chair: comfortable to sit in, perfectly balanced, pleasing to see when the rising sun illuminates it in the morning.  But that doesn’t mean it’s good art.

Joseph Kosuth’s “One and Three Chairs,” 1965. Photo by Kenneth Lu on Flickr.

Indeed, a chair that is bad at being a chair is more likely to be a good artwork.  A chair that’s too small or too large, conveying the discomfort of trying to make your way in a world that is primarily concerned with the comfort of bodies unlike your own.  Or a gigantic bronze throne that affords you the chance to perch in Baphomet’s lap; it would be an unpleasant place to sit, but perhaps you’d reflect more on Lucifer’s ethic of “speaking truth to power, even at great personal cost.

When we humans make art, we try to engage the emotions of our audience.  Emotionally-charged situations are more memorable; while feeling awe, or anger, or joy, human minds are most likely to change.

And human art is almost always made for a human audience.  Our brains evolved both from and for gossip; our prodigious intellect began as a tool to track convoluted social relationships.  We’re driven to seek narrative explanations, both because a coherent story makes gossip easier to understand, and because our consciousness spins stories to rationalize our actions after we perform them.

If we considered the world’s most intelligent animal species – like humans, dolphins, crows, elephants, chimpanzees – most have evolved to gossip.  Large brains gave our ancestors a selective advantage because they were able to track and manipulate their societies complex social relationships in a way that bolstered survival and breeding opportunities.  Indeed, the average elephant probably has more emotional intelligence than the average human, judging from neuron counts in the relevant areas of each species’ brains.

Elephants at a sanctuary. Image by Gilda on Flickr.

And so, if an elephant were given the freedom to paint (without a trainer tugging on her ears!), I imagine that she’d create art with the intention that another elephant would be the audience.  When a chimpanzee starts drumming, any aesthetic message is probably intended for other chimpanzees.

But what about octopus art?

Octopuses and humans haven’t had any ancestors in common for half a billion years.  Octopuses are extremely intelligent, but their intelligence arose through a very different pathway from most other animals.  Unlike the world’s brilliant birds and mammals, octopuses do not gossip.

Octopuses tend to be antisocial unless it’s mating season (or they’ve been dosed with ecstasy / MDMA).  Most of the time, they just use their prodigious intellect to solve puzzles, like how best to escape cages, or find food, or keep from being killed.

Octopus hiding in two shells. Image by Nick Hobgood on Wikipedia.

Humans have something termed “theory of mind”: we think a lot about what others are thinking.  Many types of animals do this.  For instance, if a crow knows that another crow watched it hide food, it will then come back and move the food to a new hiding spot as soon as the second crow isn’t looking.

When we make art, we’re indirectly demonstrating a theory of mind – if we want an audience to appreciate the things we make, we have to anticipate what they’ll think.

Octopuses also seem to have a “theory of mind,” but they’re not deeply invested in the thoughts of other octopuses.  They care more about the thoughts of animals that might eat them.  And they know how to be deceptive; that’s why an octopus might collect coconut shells and use one to cover itself as it slinks across the ocean floor.

A coconut octopus. Image by Christian Gloor on Wikimedia.

Human art is for humans, and bird art for birds, but octopus art is probably intended for a non-octopus audience.  Which might require even more intelligence to create; it’s easy for me to write something that a reader like me would enjoy.  Whereas an octopus artist would be empathizing with creatures radically different from itself.

If octopuses weren’t stuck with such short lifespans, living in the nightmarishly dangerous ocean depths, I bet their outward focus would lead them to become better people than we are.  The more we struggle to empathize with others different from ourselves, the better our world will be.

On storytelling in games.

On storytelling in games.

I recently read my friend Marco Arnaudo’s Storytelling in the Modern Board Game, a detailed history of the games that were designed to give players an interesting narrative experience.  These have ranged from Renaissance-era parlor games in which permutations of Tarot cards were used to inspire tall tales, to Dungeons & Dragons, in which a narrator ushers a group of friends through a fantasy quest that they collaboratively embellish, to the contemporary board games that, despite their meticulously-delineated rules and victory conditions, also include gorgeous art and fanciful text to evoke cinematic moments along the way.

Arnaudo’s expertise is unquestionable.  He produces a popular series of video reviews.  And I often join him for Friday night gaming, where we play surrounded by his mind-boggling collection.  I only wish that there had been space in his book to address the topic of precisely which types of narrative are better conveyed by board games than other forms of media.

I’ve written previously about the narrative potential of games, but not board games specifically.

Consider a story of moral complicity.  When presented through text, as in a newspaper article or novel (perhaps Donald Antrim’s Elect Mr. Robinson for a Better World, Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier, or J.M. Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians), it’s easy to think that we would do better than the characters described.  Even when a tale of depravity is written in the second person, like Jay McInerney’s  Bright Lights, Big City, it’s easy to maintain a sense of moral superiority, because the actions taken by McInerney’s “you” aren’t things that I would actually do.

But there’s no excuse within a game.  The actions taken by a game’s protagonist are things that you might do, because you were in control.

In “The Soldier’s Brief Epistle,” poet Bruce Weigl writes:

You think you’re better than me,

cleaner or more good

because I did what you may have only

imagined

When we learn that the soldiers in Vietnam murdered civilians, or that military guards at Abu Ghraib tortured prisoners, it’s easy to think that we would never sink to that level. 

In “Life on Mars,” U.S. Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith writes:

                                    The guards

Were under a tremendous amount of pleasure.

I mean pressure.  Pretty disgusting.  Not

What you’d expect from Americans.

Just kidding.  I’m only talking about people

Having a good time, blowing off steam.

Despite the fact that many Americans worship a deity who would torture prisoners, we feel that we would not sink to that level.  We can feel unmitigated disgust at our compatriots when we see horrific photographs like those presented in the (Not Safe For Work, nor emotionally safe for any other setting) Abu Ghraib article on Wikipedia.

And yet.  In Grand Theft Auto, players are asked to torture a prisoner.  And players did it.  Some people might have felt dismayed that they needed to, but they rationalized their action because there were sunk costs … after all, they’d purchased a copy of the game … and they’d spent so many hours progressing that far … and there was no possible way to move forward in the story without torturing the guy …

Screenshot from GTA 5.

You could say, “it’s just a game!,” but that should actually make it easier to walk away from.  Imagine, instead, that someone has made a career in the military.  Then it wouldn’t be about progressing to the next level – their family’s next meal might depend upon torturing someone if a superior demands it.

From Alex Hern’s report in The Guardian:

“Rockstar North has crossed a line by effectively forcing people to take on the role of a torturer and perform a series of unspeakable acts if they want to achieve success in the game,” said Freedom from Torture chief executive Keith Best.

There are some pieces of art that I personally don’t want to engage with – this game, Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of A Clockwork Orange, etc. – but I believe that they can succeed as art.

I would argue that Grand Theft Auto, as a piece of narrative art, teaches a valuable lesson about how to prevent torture.  It succeeds precisely because it is able to lure so many people into committing immoral acts.  We learn that torturers, or the soldiers in Vietnam, or Nazi prison guards, are not monsters – or perhaps that whatever monstrosity those people called upon lurks inside nearly all of us.

The volunteers who played the twisted role-playing games known as the “Stanford Prison Experiment,” in which players were assigned to be either captives or guards, or the “Milgram experiment,” in which players were instructed to shock an actor to death for making mistakes on a memory test, already understood this truth.  But by packaging the experience into a video game, Grand Theft Auto made this lesson widely accessible.

We are monsters.  That’s why social norms that constrain our worst impulses are so valuable.

And I don’t believe this message could be conveyed as powerfully by a novel, film, or painting as it was by a game.

Similarly, board game designers Max Temkin, Mike Boxleiter, and Tommy Maranges created Secret Hitler as an interactive form of art that could teach people how easily widespread confusion and distrust can lead to horrendous political outcomes.  The role-playing experience in Secret Hitler evokes the distress of trying to root out treachery in a world of non-overlapping information sets — and does so better than any text-based historical narrative.  Even my favorite films about uncertainty and information sets pale in comparison as ontological tools.

Picture of Secret Hitler by Nicole Lee on Flickr.

When I played Secret Hitler, I learned that I wasn’t clever enough to stop my nation’s descent into fascism.  I only wish Temkin, Boxleiter, and Maranges had made their game earlier.  It’s better to learn about moral failures from a game than to glance at the news and watch the worst unfolding around us.

Header image by Padaguan.

On cooperation in gaming.

On cooperation in gaming.

vowminiatureAt a buddy’s house recently, I played a cooperative board game.  In Vanguard of War, each player controls a character defending a church from an army of demons.  Many games of this ilk have been produced recently – Pandemic and Ghost Stories are among the most popular.

But my impression is that these games are best with a single player.  You’re attempting to solve a (typically randomized) puzzle created by the designer.  Maybe you’re the sort of person who enjoyed doing math homework with friends – if so, this type of game would probably be fun to play with a team.

Perhaps it’s a failure of my own education that I rarely worked through chemistry or physics problems in groups.  After all, few really big puzzles are solved alone.  To the best of my knowledge, no tech company of one is going to stop climate change or start a colony on Mars.

But something I look for in games – in any group project, really – is for the identity of the participants to matter.  There’s an increasing awareness that people from different backgrounds will often come up with different approaches to even highly technical problems.  A world in which only white males hold management positions at tech companies doesn’t just produce economic and social inequality – it also makes crappier technologies.

themindSome cooperative games have an element of this.  I played The Mind recently, in which players are dealt random cards from a numbered deck of a hundred, and without communicating (other than wait times) are supposed to dole out their cards in ascending order.  Any set of players should converge toward the game’s simple solution (waiting a constant duration per card number before tossing down your next), but it was still fun to play.  I imagine that a kid could enjoy ten or more games, especially with different teammates.  Will you reach a rhythm soon enough?

But in many of other cooperative games, the identities of the actual humans sitting around the table don’t matter.  If you’re talking through decisions with your teammates, each player’s personality is subsumed by the game.  In something like Vanguard of War, where each player is the primary controller of a single character, that game character’s personality matters more than your own.

And let’s say you play a game several times: with many cooperative board games, the way to maintain an interesting challenge as you improve is for your teammates to play worse.  Otherwise the game becomes easier precisely when you need it to be more difficult.  When a game is a pre-set puzzle, you and your friends can’t keep having fun by growing in experience together.

This is unfortunate, because I’d wanted to introduce cooperative games to my kids.  Isn’t that what all parents want?  For their kids to get along, to be the sort of friendly, helpful ally that people are happy to work with later on in life?

hiveBut then I realized that the best thing for me to do is simply change how I think about playing games.  A two-player “competitive” game like Go or chess (or Hive, a recent household favorite) doesn’t need to seem adversarial.

In chess, each person is given an objective, and, yes, those objectives are mutually exclusive.  But completing the objective isn’t really the point.  The purpose of the game is to have fun solving puzzles, and the person you’re playing with creates the puzzles for you.  The players in chess actually are cooperating, because they’re both setting aside reality in favor of an arbitrary set of rules that both follow for the duration of the game – and the game is only interesting if both players work together to create it.  If anyone doesn’t follow the expected rules, it wrecks the puzzle.

Go_boardPart of what makes “competitive” games interesting is that both players are striving to win – to capture the king, control the most territory, what have you.  A human consciousness is manipulating the puzzle that you’re trying to solve in real time.  Of course, this works best when both players have a fair chance of completing their objectives, which is a reason why I like Go better than chess.  There’s a built-in mechanism to accommodate less-experienced players.  And until the players have “solved” the game (like knowing the exact best strategy in tic-tac-toe or checkers), they’ll continue to have a fun challenge as they grow in experience together.

So I shouldn’t have been worried about introducing competitive games to my children.  I just needed to change the way I think about them.  If only I’d paid more attention to ecologist Mark Bekoff!

Bekoff has studied play for years.  In The Emotional Lives of Animals, he writes:

bekoffI was surprised to learn that [dogs’] bows are used not only right at the beginning of play to tell another dog “I want to play with you,” but also right before biting, accompanied by rapid side-to-side head shaking, as if to say, “I’m going to bite you hard but it’s still in play.”  Bows are also used right after vigorous biting, as if to say, “I’m sorry I just bit you so hard, but it was play.”  Bows serve as punctuation, an exclamation point, to call attention to what the dog wants. 

Infant dogs and their wild relatives learn how to play fairly using play markers such as the bow, and their response to play bows seems to be innate.  Pigs use play markers such as bouncy running and head twisting to communicate their intentions to play.  Jessica Flack and her colleagues discovered that juvenile chimpanzees will increase the use of signals to prevent the termination of play by the mothers of their younger play partners.  Researchers who study the activity always note that play is highly cooperative.  I can’t stress enough how important it is that play is carefully negotiated, that it is fine-tuned on the run so that the play mood is maintained.  There are social rules that must be followed.

Just the other day, my kid asked if we could play a game of “chest.”  I momentarily demurred.  But now that I’ve had time to reflect, I know – I don’t want to play against her, but I will happily play many games of chess with her.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
And probably with this guy, too.

On games, tinkering, and gratitude.

On games, tinkering, and gratitude.

I play board games with a local reviewer.  We often try two or three each week – and I’ve noticed that I’m happiest after playing really flawed games.

Consider, for example, the card game Boss Monster.  You portray a villain building a dungeon full of traps.  Each turn you expand your dungeon, making it more enticing and more dangerous.  Then adventurers appear and venture into one of the players’ dungeons; you win by causing their demise.

9289661691_2cb39c8cf0_z

My gaming buddy really dislikes this game: while playing, you make very few meaningful choices.  Sometimes no choices at all, honestly.

That’s not fun.

But I loved it!  Not just because I have a soft spot for games that portray humans as the enemy (in Ferretcraft, which my family designed, you play as a forest creature and the “orcs” are just green-tinted humans).  And not just because I’m a sucker for cute art (which makes me feel lucky that my favorite artist makes games with me).

warlock sticker.jpg
A warlock character from Ferretcraft.  See what I mean about her art?

Even in his negative review, my buddy stressed again and again how great Boss Monster looks.

I should admit, it wasn’t very fun to play.  Shuffling a deck of cards and sitting down to “play” doesn’t mean much if the game has only marginally more strategy than War.  But there are several really clever ideas behind the game – they’re just poorly executed.

For instance, players are competing to lure adventurers.  If your dungeon has less treasure than an opponent’s, no heroes will visit, and so you can’t get points for dooming them.  Unfortunately, the cards that are best at luring heroes are also the best at dispatching them.  There’s no strategy here – on each turn, you should play the most powerful card.  The design would’ve been much improved if there was a tension between attracting adventurers and harming them.

And the adventurers are each lured by a different type of treasure.  Wizards seek spellbooks, warriors seek weaponry, thieves seek gold.  If you happened to build a dungeon full of gold, and a thief happens to appear, you’ll get to slay that hero.  But the adventurers are drawn from a deck at random, which means there’s no strategy here either.  Most likely, each player in the game will be best at luring a certain type, and the random order that adventurers appear determines who wins.

With a few changes, though, this could be really fun.  A card that’s good at luring heroes shouldn’t hurt them much – then players would have to balance what their dungeons need.  The adventurers should be more difficult to dispatch if several voyage into a single dungeon at the same time, which would impose a cost on being too good at luring them.  And the adventurers should wait in town for a bit before entering the dungeons, which would allow players to plan ahead.  Perhaps the adventurers would spend time drinking ale and boasting in a tavern – each might need a different number of beers before feeling ready to tromp off to his or her doom.

(It’s not clear whether an extremely strong hero would need more beers – a higher alcohol tolerance – or fewer – more confidence.  I think either design has interesting gameplay implications.  If each hero in town drinks one beer per turn, and the powerful heroes can handle more liquor, then you have a long warning period in which to make your dungeon deadly enough to handle hardy adventurers.  Or if weaker heroes require more liquid courage, then players can vie to lure easy points away from their opponents.  We’d probably test both designs and then write lore justifying whichever was more fun.)

With those changes, you’d get to make meaningful choices every game instead of simply doling out cards and seeing who wins.

But even though Boss Monster wasn’t fun to play, it was a blast to think about.  Which made me feel grateful to the designers … and to my parents.

Growing up, there was always an expectation that we’d modify games.  Pieces from the board games we owned were used to make dozens of others.  My brother and I played Risk daily for several summers in a row … but I don’t think we ever played an entire game according to the rules printed on the box.

callandmarshall
My siblings, with a game they’d made.

And it’s not just while playing board games that I feel grateful.  Once we’d learned that we might have to modify games to have more fun, it was easy to view the rest of the world with an eye toward improvement.  More than just games are flawed, after all.  I might feel overwhelmingly depressed by everything that’s wrong with the world if I didn’t feel at least a little joy in tinkering, trying to make things better.

Because it is daunting.  Or at least it feels daunting when I look at the Pages to Prisoners mail queue, knowing that each envelop might be somebody else stuck in solitary with no one to talk to, nothing to read.  Or it might be somebody who’s getting out soon and wants to turn his life around (recently I sent books to somebody who wanted career guides and self help because he’s about to finish a seventeen year sentence).  Or it might be somebody who’d like to play games – our criminal justice system hoovers up all kinds.  But if we abandon people to our current dehumanizing, demoralizing system, we’ll mostly get one type back.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
Contents of a package we recently sent to someone in prison.

Header image for post: Tinkering studio at the Exploratorium.

On inspirational women … and board games.

Picture 5I’ve been thinking about role models for my daughter; specifically, one day last June I found myself wondering whether anybody is selling good inspirational posters of strong, intelligent women that’d look cool hung up in a bedroom.  One of the first poster-types I started searching the internet for was “Hedy Lamarr, Inventor.”  A poster of her with diagrams from her patent applications would look cool, I thought.  Well, I suppose I still think so.  But the idea that it’d look great is part of the problem.

The impression I got from reading Richard Rhodes’s Hedy’s Folly: The Life and Breakthrough Inventions of Hedy Lamarr, The Most Beautiful Woman in the World was that her inventions probably would not be as celebrated if not for the way she looks.  Indeed, as she aged, it seems she became increasingly reclusive, so making a poster of her as an inventor, i.e. further celebrating her appearance, even though it was my first reflex, seems like a bad idea.  But the invention itself was cute — maybe not “the” precursor to contemporary wireless technologies, as you might’ve heard on NPR, but still clever — the idea that a pair of communicating objects (in her case, submarine and torpedo) could plan out a pattern of frequencies to communicate over and then conduct a conversation while seamlessly rotating through them, akin to using matching player piano roll on each end to cycle through the frequencies in a seemingly random way.

Photograph_phillips-elizabeth-magie-1936Luckily, Mary Pilon’s The Monopolists: Obsession, Fury, and the Scandal Behind the World’s Favorite Board Game taught me about another woman who’d be a good fit for a series of inspirational feminist posters.  Pilon also wrote a nice article for the New York Times (the Sunday business section, oddly enough) wherein she presented Elizabeth Magie’s story, which to me was the most interesting part of Pilon’s book.  Which I suppose reveals foolish aspects of my own personality, the idea that I’d be excited while reading about Magie inventing a board game, but disinterested in the story of how a handful of (other) people became rich marketing it.

And, yes, the story of Ralph Anspach’s legal travails is interesting (he invented the game Anti-Monopoly, where players earn points for trust busting, then was sued by Parker Brothers, then uncovered the early history of Monopoly as part of his legal defense), but the main thing I learned from his story was that a marriage can easily dissolve if you focus too steadfastly on some outside thing.  Anspach won his case but lost a lot of his life.  Note to self: remember to be good husband / father / friend even while focused on writing.

exchange-saved-for-web
Art by the magnificent J.Dragon of Waffles in Flight.

But, right!  Happier topics!  In this case, Magie as an inspirational figure.  First off, obviously I like that she’s an artist who also happened to make a board game.  Not sure if I’ve mentioned this in a previous essay, but during a rare spell of free time last summer my brother, a close friend and I made a board game; unfortunately I then got busy again and haven’t had a chance to contact publishers about it yet, but you can see our WordPress site here.

So, sure, I’m prejudiced toward liking Magie, but, still: she sounds like a very cool lady.  And the game she made was both fun and educational (unlike ours, wherein players just battle using woodland creature avatars).  And she printed a classified ad touting herself as a high quality female slave, protesting the position of women in our society (this was in the early 1900s; luckily, women are treated better now than they were back then, even if we still have a long way to go).  Despite patenting her game, she never saw any of the profit from it.

But, thank you Pilon, for giving Magie some of the credit and exposure that she deserves.