© Jim Andrews, 2009

nne-Marie Boisvert asked me to write something about the role of games in my work. The relation of games to art is something I've thought about for several years, and I've produced a couple of games. There are some ideas I've had about computer art + game that I haven't written about, so I think I'll do that: I'll write about some of the relations between computer art and games and then, later on, about the relation of play to art and games. Rather than write at length about my own work and the role of games in it. Which I can't seem to do, at the moment, without boring myself.

I haven't been so much interested in creating games as in creating strong online interactive art works. The two things—interactive art and games—are secretly related. Good games involve us in entertaining, interesting, engaging decisions and actions. We interact with other people and/or computer programs, if it's online work. We engage in the game's rules that generate events that we bounce around in. And this is all true of interactive art works also. Only we don't have the rules of a game. Instead, we have the rules of the interactive processes. For example, if it's an interactive audio piece, the rules of the interactive process concern things like what we can do with the sounds. How we sequence them or layer them or synch them—or whatever we can do with them. And, perhaps more importantly, why does the piece support our doing these things?

Sometimes it's self-evident. Sometimes it's bound up in a complex view of the content that unfolds slowly as we explore the piece. In interactive art, the interactivity is often more intimate and subtle in form and function than in games. Because the authors may be exploring interactivity as a language, as a dialogical means of personal encounter with the player/wreader/viewer. Touch me do me feel my brain can we talk? Whereas in games the interactivity is usually more impersonally instrumental.

The artists, to some extent, usually subordinate game to art. Sometimes to the point where the 'game part' of the work is simply a 'literary device' within the art; other works do actually implement game play and attempt some sort of real synthesis of art and game. Still, the goals of the activities are often less about scoring points and winning as something less easily quantifiable. But while there are often these sorts of differences between interactive art and interactive games, I often feel, in experiencing interactive art, that I wish the artists understood the physical dimensions of interactivity as well as the game programmers so often do. And, similarly, when I play computer games, I often find myself wishing there was more of an art experience to it, something to flip my lid, really blow my mind, not just entertain me with demands on my eye-hand coordination and/or awkwardly develop conventional story lines.

Person-machine interactivity is one of the really exciting, intriguing—and genuinely new—things about computer art. Interactivity itself is not new—we can imagine actors reacting to audience input in theatre, for instance—but that sort of thing isn't the basis of a whole art form/practice, whereas interactive computer art is the basis of a new art practice/form. Also, person-machine interactivity is engaged in the whole issue of our relations with machines. Which we find troubling, intriguing, and relevant. Are they going to take over? Can we handle them? Can they really be smart? Can they play us like mice or the Ctrl character? But even if the artist does not plug into these issues, she can sort of 'be on the other end', or she can create a character that is on the other end of this 'telephone' where the character is more like a fictional character in a work of literature than a cyborg. Or the piece can set up some sort of communication between the wreader and the wreader. As in I Know What You're Thinking by Jason Lewis. It's a desktop piece. You download an executable file and run it from your desktop. It searches your computer for your email files and then presents little snippets of your old email. Things you barely recognize you even wrote. You see your past and your writing in a different way. It's eery. Very cool piece.

There is no proof, and probably never will be, that there exist thought processes of which humans are capable and computers are not. Which is to say computers possess a genuinely radical flexibility, as machines. Flexibility to the point of the fluidity of thought itself. It presumably doesn't get much more flexible than that. That sort of radical vitality should be part of computer art and computer games. And, god help us, it probably will be, more often, in the future. Mind you, the life of art is the vitality of lively expression, not 'artificial life' or 'artificial intelligence'. Still, it's clear that interactivity and, more generally, the radically flexible processing possible via computers, offer us new forms of art that will be on the edge of things for the foreseeable future and will attract the best and brightest minds to an art practice that synthesizes art and technology, art and science, art and games, and any number of other previously rather separate things.

It seems I'm straying from the theme of the relations of interactive art and games. Ah but I'm not! I said they were secretly related! Well, for one thing, it seems pretty obvious by now that interactive computer games are a species of interactive computer art. Some people say, no, they are entertainment, not art, usually. But I think that's a bad distinction. There's all sorts of entertaining art. It doesn't have to be Sophocles to be art. There's high art and low art and popular art and esoteric art and so on. As Dominic Lopes maintains in A Philosophy of Computer Art, computer games are simply the most popular form of computer art.

Computer games are so very popular because they take advantage of some of the special properties of computing media. The interactivity is challengingly sporty. The visual environments are colorful and inventive. The real-time communication with other people is seamlessly integrated into the world of the game. They're engrossing/immersive. They're often big-budget works created by teams of programmers over the course of several years—state of the art works of interactive computer art. They are the Hollywood-of-the-mind of computer art.

Another of the secret relations of interactive art and interactive games is that they're rule-based. A game has its rules that keep the game on the train tracks. Departures from the rules often result in the train ending up somewhere where the tracks aren't, which is rarely a happy event. Trains move from tie-to-tie and games move from game state to game state. Interactive art—and, more generally, any computer program—is quintessentially rule-based. Any computer program is an algorithm. An algorithm, Wikipedia tells us, "is a list of well-defined instructions for completing a task." Those instructions are rules. Follow the rules/instructions, and you play the game or engage in the task. Games are quintessentially programmable. If we jump forward 500 years and look at cyborg history, we might say that games are to the cyborg as stories/narratives are to humans. I'm guessing, of course. I have no time machine except the one between my ears, like you have yours. But you can sort of see it, right? To mangle an old Greek maxim, 'game is fate' in the rule-driven cosmogony of the cyborg.

An old writing teacher of mine once said to me that a story follows from its premises. Or as T. S. Eliot put it, relatedly, "In my beginning is my end." Games and interactive art—and, of course, life—can turn out differently each time they are played—or somewhat differently—but there are salient points, the reversals, the recognitions, that sort of thing, and zones of youth and age, and the particular types of joys and sorrows that accrue to us by virtue simply of the premises of our shared existence. We share these things. They happen commonly to many of us. Cut us and we all bleed. We all die. We all know joy and sorrow. Games and art share a concern with necessity. Art and game are both concerned with the cosmic rules. Heraclitus said "Time is a child playing at dice. The kingdom is a child's." We have the Greek notion of "enigma" to describe ineffable mysteries. Whereas what we normally have in games are "riddles" or "puzzles" or otherwise lesser mysteries that are often solvable. Part of the problem of art-game design is how to make sequences of riddles sum to enigma.

One of the ultimate games, to me, is mathematics. David Hilbert, one of the great mathematicians of the twentieth century, said "Mathematics is a game played according to certain simple rules with meaningless marks on paper." How is it a game? Well, you define your symbol set, rules of inference and axioms, and that gives you a formal system. Then you set about discovering the truths that follow from the axioms via your rules of inference. A formal system is a game world, as it were. It dwells in the realm of the forms. In the Platonic, Pythagorean Ur of the Timaeus. In the imaginary world of ideas. Among 'necessary fictions'. It's very interesting that it wasn't long after the view of mathematics-as-game came into prominence that computers were invented-by mathematicians, let it be noted. Computing is the prime exemplar, now, of applied mathematics. It used to be that Physics was. The development of symbolic logic—as Martin Davis traces in his brilliant book Engines of Logic—has led to the creation of the computer, the language+number machine.

Part of the big picture of computer art, I think, is about the growth of humanity and the individual. We need to put things together. We need to put logic and beauty together, science and art, reason and emotion, math and poetry, the different parts of us. We need this as individuals and as a collective. Computer art is partly about creating art that must almost perforce deal both with the intuitive and the analytic. The riddle and the enigma.

One of the great things about games is that they're usually OK for both kids and adults. Kids may not be able to connect with complex, abstract art, but they can play and enjoy games. And if those games are also complex, abstract art, then they will eventually connect with the games on those levels also. They'll put it all together over the course of their life. Games can have many cognitive levels of engagement. That's not necessarily the same as having many levels of play. It's closer to having many levels of playfulness.

The notion of 'play' is the primary connection between art and game; play is strongly involved in both. Play is important to every person. And to other animals. Dogs and cats play, for instance. They simulate combat except they don't bite hard, which allows them to learn how to fight without losing an ear; play is important to learning. Not only about combat but the other important life lessons of animals and people. We hypothesize and simulate. We pretend. And/or we engage. Sometimes with others, as when we play a part in a play. Sometimes we engage with an instrument or a notion of music, say, as when we play an instrument. Sometimes by ourselves; you fill in the blanks. Playing an instrument, as an activity, has its resemblances to playing a game: we're off on an adventure from moment to moment where the goal isn't so much to 'win' as to hit the sweet spots, the hot spots, the groovy spots, the gravy spots and to make the overall adventure meaningful and shapely. And fun. We have certain rules in mind that we usually follow and explore, though sometimes we bend them or break them.

Art often requires us to engage in pretending that requires a certain playfulness: a willingness to entertain hypothetical possibilities and their consequences. The word 'imagination' comes to mind concerning play and art. When we look at the etymology of 'imagination', we see it relates to the ability to see things—in the mind's eye—that aren't really there. Imagination and pretending are related, and they are often both involved in play and in art. We think of imagination and pretending as involved in both play and art but, to a lesser extent, games. The possibilities are usually sufficiently constricted, in games, that our imaginations would quickly place us outside of the game's possibilities. Instead, we are given a restricted number of possibilities at every turn that keep us within the game's possibilities.

Sometimes play doesn't really involve pretending so much as exciting interaction. Like when we play a sport. Athletes are not legendary for their imagination and inventive pretending, though it clearly helps in some games. People speak of Wayne Gretzky's ability to "see the game", to know where the other players are, without having to look where they are, and imagine where the play will be shortly. But although skillful pretending and imagination can be important to sports, we think of the sort of play that's involved differently. It's not so much about imagination and pretending as exciting interaction within the context of a set of rules (which we sometimes bend or break). The rules define the necessary and permissible moves that players can make. We can think of the playing of a certain style of music as being similar to following a certain set of playing rules. Not the same but similar. There's more to it than a set of rules, perhaps. There's often a world view that defines the sweet spots and the qualities of sadness and joy, for instance.

But, in any case, the sort of playing we associate with sport and other exciting interactions is something that works well in a computing environment. The programmability and speed of computers allows them to respond and respond swiftly, even after numerous decisions, to human input. Most of the really popular computer games exploit this capability of the computer to the max. Good eye-hand coordination is necessary to most popular computer games. Art isn't without relation to such things. Dance and music require rhythm and bodily funktisity. When we dance or tap, hum or harmonize, sing or swoon to music, we're following patterns and drawing into them, we're reading and writing the air. It's a kind of wreading. Artists of interactive computer art get it. And they use this outrageously exciting new technology to work the body and mind in old and new ways that really do constitute a new art form: interactive computer art.

Dominic Lopes begins his book A Philosophy of Computer Art with the observation that "Few generations in all of human history have been lucky enough to witness the birth of a new art form." He maintains-rightly, I think-that computer art is a new art form. And has some interesting things to say about the relation of computer games to computer art. His philosophy of computer art is actually a theory of interactive computer art, because his definition of computer art requires the work to be interactive with the audience. Interactivity is not unique to computer art, but the person-machine and/or person/person sort of interactivity supported by computers has its own unique character and is the basis of a type of computer art: interactive computer art. In any case, Lopes thinks of computer games as computer art and points out that computer games often deal with interactivity, which is certainly an important option available to computer artists, in artful ways that are not only entertaining but of some character.

Interactivity continues to be of great interest to me in my work. Not only in the few pieces that are explicitly games, but in much of my other work, most of which is interactive. My work is mostly available on the net—I'm mainly a net artist—so the interactivity is mainly via the mouse and keyboard and the visuals are experienced on the small screen in the den. One of the keys to successful interactivity is to make the actions the player/viewer/wreader is asked to perform meaningful, exciting, and stimulating. They're just clicking or moving a mouse or typing at a keyboard, but what are they really doing? Are they creating the universe or just clicking a mouse? The significance of their actions within the world of the piece should be dramatic, strong, emotionally compelling, just real hot stuff. And that's true whether it's a computer game or a non-gamey work of computer art. And it's true whether the interactivity is via the mouse and keyboard or via much more expensive means of user input. The game designer and programmer Sid Meier noted that "A game is a series of interesting choices". Well, certainly it should involve a series of interesting choices.

And there are just whole universes of possibility as to what the player/wreader is asked to do. And these actions can be of various types of interest. As activities in a game of eye-hand coordination where there's a winner and loser. Or as compositional activities in which the wreader reads and composes. Or as acts of communication with other people involved in some sort of collaboration. Or as explorations of an imaginative world created within the work of computer art. But, basically, the possibilities are much broader. They include anything people can do and all sorts of things they can't. If it's true—and it seems very likely—that there will never be any proof that there exist thought processes of which humans are capable and computers are not—then we may say that anything thinkable is a potential action in a computer game. That's a pretty dangerously flexible game. But then we like our games and our art a little dangerous, don't we. We like to play with fire, in both senses.


Online shoot-em-up poetry game. The battle of poetry against itself and the forces of dullness. 2001-2010.

There's game mode and play mode. In game mode, click through short loops of War Pigs by Black Sabbath. More flexible musicianship in play mode. 2007

This is an original puzzle design in collaboration with Dr Michael Fellows, a brilliant computer scientist and mathematician. I programmed this in Delphi in 1995. PC only.

This is a card game I used to play for money sometimes. I was curious to see if I could program the computer to play it well. This is the first game I programmed. This was done in Visual Basic and then, later, reprogrammed in Delphi. I did this around 1993 or 1994.

Selected Interactive Works

Aleph Null 1.0
Interactive, generative visual art. JavaScript. 2011.

Locative media. JavaScript. 2016.

Interactive poetry. Click "Wread" to begin. JavaScript. 2015.

Locative media. JavaScript. 2014.

Interactive audio. 2000.

Interactive audio. 2001-2009.

On Lionel Kearns
A contemporary wreading of some of the work of Vancouver's Lionel Kearns. Kearns is one of the only Canadian artists, besides bpNichol, who was thinking about computer art as far back as the sixties. 2004.

A Pen
A pen with four nibs. Each nib writes a visual poem. 2007.

Interactive audio in collaboration with Margareta Waterman. 2008.

Stir Fry Texts
Twitchy texts. In collaboration with Marko Niemi, Pauline Masurel, Brian Lennon, Kedrick James, and others. 1999-2006.

A philosophical poetry toy for poets and philosophers from the age of four up. 1998.

Enigma n2
The word 'meaning' thrice; once backwards, twice forward. Interactive audio. 2002.

Seattle Drift
Interactive poem of bad behaviour. 1997.

Oppen Do Down
Interactive audio. 2000

Writings About Games

Games, Po, Art, Play, and Arteroids

Arteroids, Poetry, and the Flaw

Language Explosion-Poetry and Entertainment in Arteroids
Part of an essay that appears in the book Gamers edited by Shanna Compton, published by Softskull. 2005.

Review of Doom 3

Videogames as Literary Devices

Game Design Docs
These are two original game design docs concerning puzzles that I never programmed. These are from conversations with Dr Mike Fellows, a mathematician/computer scientist who is very able at the popularization of the mathematics of computer science. I wrote these around 1995.

About This Essay

This essay was originally commissioned by and published on the CIAC site in Montréal in 2009.