Clint Hocking, Creative Director at LucasArts, gave a talk at UCSC last week about meaning, dynamics and games. He took a stance in asking HOW games mean (following Chris Hecker) rather than WHAT they mean. "When we know how they mean, maybe then we can speculate on what a specific game might mean."
Clint explained the Kuleshov effect to us, showing how the exact same image takes on different meanings depending on what context it is shown in.
He then went on to talk about Brathwaite's game Train, in the Mechanic is the Message series, where the train cars are destined to the camps of the Second World War. He asked us to close our eyes and play Tetris in our heads pretending that the boxes are train cars. He hummed the tetris music for us.
This was extremely powerful.
Different strategies are possible to obstruct the cars going to their destinations: leave one free spot in each Tetris-row would save as many as possible for example.
By this example he wanted to illustrate how the expression "only a skin" is a reduction when we talk about fictional themes for a game. Changing the fictional theme but not the mechanics of a game is more than a skin because it can change the dynamics of a game, that is, how it is played. (When saying 'dynamics' and 'mechanics' Clint used the terms as used in Hunicke's MDA model.)
Clint's next example was the novel "The Masters of Go" by Kawabata Yasunari that describes a Go match where the game play express the tension between modern and traditional Japan. We looked at the end-state of the game, which was extremely interesting. I think this is one of the best examples one can point at when arguing that not only creating a game can be art - playing games is also a form of art. In this case the art is created by two players together. I remember an anime series I watched when I spent a guest research period in Tokyo - Hikaru No Go - that anime series expressed a similar view on go-playing as art. The perfect game.
Clint argued that it can be difficult to say what the games Tetris or Go mean, but that it is possible to tell what a certain instance of playing the game can mean. Like in our combination of Tetris with train, and in the Go-game described in the Masters of go.
This was one of the best talks I've heard this year, it's up there at the top together with Brian Moriarity's talk at GDC this year. Thank you Clint :)