2021-03-26 10:23:02 Voices

Late last year, Chinese tech giant Tencent unveiled a peculiar new feature for its wildly popular, somewhat ironically titled battle royale app, Game for Peace. Touted as “the first collaboration between a major global art institution and a top Chinese gaming IP,” the limited-time special event gave Game of Peace players access to a game mode set at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, with special appearances by some of the most renowned works of art in the Met’s collection.

The product of a partnership between Tencent and one of the United States’ most storied art institutions, the mode represents the latest example of what scholars are calling the “gamification” of the arts, and in particular, museums. The underlying idea is that games have the potential to foster public engagement in the arts. To hear gamification theorists tell it, game mechanics can be applied to effect behavioral or psychological changes in players for just about any purpose, such as teaching them new information or getting them to willingly increase their exposure to a given piece of content. In the case of Game for Peace’s involvement with the Met, the immersive experience would theoretically encourage players to explore the museum’s treasures.

The potential of gamification has generally been praised in the arts world — some might say uncritically so. Even notoriously conservative groups like my fellow fine arts scholars tend to see the gamification of the museum experience not as a distraction, but as way to enhance learning.

I remain unconvinced. The value of the arts lies in their capacity to help us understand the complexity of the world: A piece of art can open up a space of reflection, allowing us to ponder some of the deepest and often most tragic aspects of the human condition. That’s an experience that games, with their high level of first-person engagement and fast-paced, task-oriented structure, are not suited to providing.

A GIF shows the player wandering through the Metropolitan Museum of Art. From 和平精英 on WeChat

A GIF shows the player wandering through the Metropolitan Museum of Art. From 和平精英 on WeChat

I don’t wish to come off as a cultural snob. In principle, there is no reason why video games cannot themselves be considered art. I merely believe that gamified museum experiences of the sort being pioneered by Tencent and the Met are not conducive to helping us appreciate the true value of traditional art forms, a value that is ultimately grounded in the possibility of self-reflection. That’s a very different proposition from video games, which ask us to take on a fictional identity as part of an immersive experience. Doing so runs counter to how John Dewey once conceptualized the fine arts, introducing discontinuities between art and our “everyday events, doings, and sufferings.”

I’ve experienced the limits of artistic gamification firsthand. In 2013, when I was still a grad student in Philadelphia, I visited the “American Spirits: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition” exhibit at the National Constitution Center. Advertised as a window into the Roaring ’20s, a time the exhibit’s curators described as America’s most “colorful and complex constitutional hiccup,” it was an informative emotional journey through the difficulties and contradictions of that little-understood but oft-caricatured period.

In addition to the usual documents and art-like installations dedicated to the conflicts of the Prohibition era, the exhibit also featured a video game. I remember it drew my attention after I saw two children yelling and getting all excited as they tracked down virtual rum-runners. As an avid video game player in my youth, I was curious, and I waited in line until I could give it a try. But immediately after I booted it up, something felt off, if not outright wrong. The more I got hooked by the game’s fictional world, the more I realized that the only thing I wanted to do was to win. As a virtual federal agent, I wanted to catch those bootleggers. They became my enemies — the “bad guys” — in ways completely at odds with the far more nuanced portrait of their profession the rest of the exhibition had so painstakingly constructed. One minute of game time was enough to cancel out everything I had just learned.

One minute of game time was enough to cancel out everything I had just learned.

That experience reminded me of something which is as obvious as it is true: Not everything is a game. Games are inappropriate in many learning environments, and the motivation and excitement that they undeniably generate is not always useful. There is also great tension, if not outright contradiction, between games and what one could call the domain of negative emotions: experiences of tragedy, loss, trauma, and so on. How can the experience of suffering be gamified? Can the all-encompassing sadness of a terminal illness or death — some of the most common sources of inspiration for traditional artists — be an object of gamification? The only reasonable answer to both questions, at least as far as I’m concerned, is that it can’t.

We find proof of this in the tragic story of Ryan and Amy Green. After their son, Joel, was diagnosed at birth with a rare and aggressive form of brain cancer, Ryan, himself an indie game developer, started a project with his wife to try to tell their story of diagnosis, treatment, and, eventually, death. The outcome of that project was That Dragon, Cancer, a video game that shows the limits of gamification. In effect, it is not a game. Or, as the indie gaming community might put it, it is a “non-game.” Storyboard interactions are exceedingly limited, and the task-oriented system of rewards found in most games is completely absent. Users mostly experience it as a narrative that unfolds on their screens, more like a movie than a traditional video game. And, more importantly, players cannot win. There is no final monster that can be defeated: The “dragon,” cancer, inevitably triumphs. In this sense, the Greens made a video game that is actually capable of dealing with sadness and which offers space for depth and reflection, but only by negating the medium’s very nature and turning it into something else.

A still from the video game That Dragon, Cancer. From the game’s website

A still from the video game That Dragon, Cancer. From the game’s website

There is nothing like this in the collaboration between Game for Peace and the Met, which appears to be a rather cliché action game. In a clip showcasing the add-on, a character is shown looking at Katsushika Hokusai’s “The Great Wave.” The next shot is of a high-speed chase between two boats that takes place inside the iconic Japanese painting. Besides its rather unimaginative approach to gamifying the Japanese master’s work, the adaptation ironically fails to convey one of the painting’s most crucial elements: its stillness.

In the original, this stillness creates a tense moment where viewers can ponder, among other things, the unstoppable violence of nature. Absorbed in their chase, however, players experience Hokusai’s masterpiece as just another pretty background. Is that really all there is left for the arts? When it comes to gamification, we should be careful not to let innovation get in the way of contemplation.

Editors: Wu Haiyun and Kilian O’Donnell. 

(Header image: A promotional image for the collaboration between Game of Peace and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2021. From @大都会博物馆MET on Weibo)