Sunday, 2 March 2008

Prototype theory

I accidentally meandered while discussing why 'Games are not art' into a semantic argument about what is art (and by implication what are games). Now, I tend to not like getting in to semantic arguments as they inevitably devolve to either a) a position of we agree to disagree or b) tortuous logical arguments involving set theory. And as far as I am concerned, semantics are a relatively solved problem. And the solution is Prototype Theory.

(I'm just waiting for my former linguistic lecturers to cringe internally and leap to the defense of another theory of semantics).

Prototype theory basically says that you can grade the members of a category so that some members are more central than others. And you can distinguish central from less-central members of a category using real world testing of various kinds.

So a Prototype Theory version of what is art would involve ranking things that are more 'art-like' from things that are less 'art-like'. So paintings would be more 'art-like' than sculptures, which are more 'art-like' than music and so on. And then testing things like reaction time using a number of experiments outlined in the Wikipedia article I linked to above to verify the ranking.

So an argument about whether games are art would probably involve ranking various games as more 'art-like' and less 'art-like'.

Which is what most people intuitively do when talking about games as art. Well Ico is art, maybe Shadow of the Colossus, but not Postal or E.T.: The Extraterrestrial. At which point someone arguing from a logical position would try to argue for Postal or E.T. on exactly the same premises they were using to argue against either of these.

So no amount of reasoned logical argument will resolve the issue, no matter who weighs in or what arguments are used.

I'll leave you with Wittgenstein's famous arguments about what constitutes a game:

Consider for example the proceedings that we call `games'. I mean board games, card games, ball games, Olympic games, and so on. What is common to them all? Don't say, "There must be something common, or they would not be called `games' " - but look and see whether there is anything common to all. For if you look at them you will not see something common to all, but similarities, relationships, and a whole series of them at that. To repeat: don't think, but look! Look for example at board games, with their multifarious relationships. Now pass to card games; here you find many correspondences with the first group, but many common features drop out, and others appear. When we pass next to ball games, much that is common is retained, but much is lost. Are they all `amusing'? Compare chess with noughts and crosses. Or is there always winning and losing, or competition between players? Think of patience. In ball games there is winning and losing; but when a child throws his ball at the wall and catches it again, this feature has disappeared. Look at the parts played by skill and luck; and at the difference between skill in chess and skill in tennis. Think now of games like ring-a-ring-a-roses; here is the element of amusement, but how many other characteristic features have disappeared! And we can go through the many, many other groups of games in the same way; can see how similarities crop up and disappear. And the result of this examination is: we see a complicated network of similarities overlapping and criss-crossing: sometimes overall similarities, sometimes similarities of detail.


josh g. said...

This is kind of a long-old response that I didn't want to bother making before, but it's been annoying me when I think about this so I guess I should just get it out of my system.

This argument is so completely wrong and (worse) counter-productive that it boggles my mind. It completely ignores the possibility of recognizing the value in anything new or novel.

I mean, what the hell. By this argument you're not a game developer. Almost no one even knows what a roguelike is, never mind thinking of it first when someone asks them to define the category "game".

Andrew Doull said...

"It completely ignores the possibility of recognizing the value in anything new or novel."

How does it do that? You're making some fairly large extrapolations here from a fairly intuitive argument that happens to be backed up by a body of academic evidence. I think you're bringing some preconceptions to the table that you haven't stated in your comment.

Prototype theory suggests that people will attempt to place anything new or novel within their existing framework of meaning. It doesn't make judgements about whether or not something fits easily. The most likely reaction for something completely novel is going to be along the lines of 'Well it's not art, but I don't know what it is.'

One of the key points you're appearing to miss is that prototype theory doesn't value the gradients. It can say things like "its more art-like" or "less art-like" but doesn't offer anything about whether being art-like is a good thing in the first place.

josh g. said...

Ok, here's what I read your argument as saying. You start off by arguing that games are not art, and when we get to asking "What is art?" you fall back on Prototype Theory. Prototype Theory as you presented it seems to say that whatever first pops into people's heads when you mention 'art' is what art is. Therefore, paintings are art, sculpture less so, and computer-based new media artworks are even farther down the scale than Duchamp's urinal.

The problem is that almost every trained artist in the world would disagree with this definition.

My reaction would be that you can either follow up by saying that, well, okay, it's "art from an artist's perspective" but not "art from the public's perspective", setting up some kind of dual meaning and ultimately coming right back to both of us being right/wrong depending on which one you pick. Or, you can devalue the opinion of specialists in the field. If you go down the road of ignoring specialists, I'd love to see how you apply Prototype Theory to the definition of, say, any technical terminology such as that used in the I.T. industry on a daily basis.

However, if you do choose to value the specialists' perspective, well, you're wrong. Trained, educated artists understand that there is a huge landscape of art across many different mediums, including sculpture, paintings, drawing, 3D modeling, generative art, reverse graffiti, etc.

So I'm not really sure how this application of theory actually helps get us any closer to a sane discussion.

Max said...

I know how old this article is, but I found it interesting. I think we need to not look at what games or art have in common, because it's been shown there isn't a lot. What we instead need to look at is how the person reacts to a game, or to art. The things that games and art have in common is that they appeal to some form of core emotion. They make us happy, they make us sad, they make us think. And that's why we love them!

Andrew Doull said...

Max: That's a lot more sensible approach than arguing semantics.