CGD Podcast Episode 21: The “Classics” Problem

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What does it mean when something is a “classic”? I think there’s actually a huge problem here that needs to be explored. New work is created using new cultural and scientific understandings, and it’s universally better in almost every case. We need to understand and appreciate this fact, and stop glorifying things just because they’re old.

In this episode, you’ll also hear me talk about classic games like Go and Chess, as well as talk about a better distinction between art and entertainment. Enjoy, and let me know what you think below.

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  • Jake Forbes

    Fascinating podcast. I enjoy when you stray from talking strictly about games. I bristle a bit when you speak of objectivity and art, but you makes some strong points about knocking classics of pedestals, especially chess and go. Two reasons we keep coming back to classics, maybe more now than ever, is because 1) they’re old enough that their creators are anonymous or mythologized and therefore above politics and trends, and 2) As content output increases, even as it becomes easier to access past works, the concept of literacy can’t keep up. While it’s not too controversial to say that craftsmanship and author sophistication trend upward over time, try getting any group to agree about what art or games of the moment are essential and objectively better than their peers and predecessors and you’ll get nowhere. It’s harder to take the subjectivity out of art than science because you can’t deny another person the experience they have engaging with art the way you can invalidate an old hypothesis with evidence (If I say I prefer Barbara Stanwyck to Amy Schumer, or Sonic the Hedgehog to Spelunky, who are you to say I’m wrong?) For that reason, classics are valuable for facilitating communication as sort of lowest common denominator of quality or cultural mythology. (Unless you’d rather stick to chasing the platonic ideal forms of art instead of the flickering shadows of actual culture, but what do those bronze age sages know about philosophy?) But the concepts of classics and canon are shackles, so kudos for challenging them.

  • Jereshroom

    A basically agree with everything you say in the episode, but to sort of play devil’s advocate, I think that classics can sometimes have value due to negative cultural shifts.
    For instance, one might enjoy how Pac-Man is very minimalist and “fair” — no randomness, no excess content, no unlocking content or grinding, etc. Obviously Pac-Man has problems of repetitiveness, opaque A.I, non-binary scoring (unless you consider winning to be beating level 255), and more. But for some people the pros of Pac-Man may outweigh the cons.

  • Marko Sovljanski

    Been listening from the beginning of the podcast. Good ride. Out of all of the things you mentioned, one intrigued me the most, that games today don’t look great, usually because of the bad art directing. This is not discuses nearly enough is it should be. It would be great if you would talk more about that…

  • Rob Seater

    A common use of the term ‘classic’ is what you describe — something we feel we should like because it was historically important, but which the general public does not get value out of. I agree that over-honoring that notion of classic can be a hindrance.

    A more useful definition that I’ve heard used for literature and movies is this: a classic something that continue to have value to different generations and which has value when re-experienced by the same person. So, it needs to be in some way timeless and in some way worth exploring deeply, but judged empirically from how people actually respond to the thing. I find that a much more useful notion, and that notion of classic is worth revering.

    Many so-called classic video games fail on both fronts, and those games are merely historically important but shouldn’t be enshrined as classics. So, games like Super Mario Brothers, Galaga, Doom, Myst, or Final Fantasy don’t qualify as classics. They either didn’t hold up over time or people don’t play them multiple times to explore their depth. They were influential and may have nostalgic value, but they aren’t proving to be classics. In contrast, Pong seems to qualify (at least on the time scale video games have existed on); it continues to entertain people 40ish years later and many people enjoy spending time mastering it. League of Legends and Minecraft appear to qualify too, although perhaps it is too early to tell.

    Aside: Note that this definition make the phrase “instant classic” meaningless.

  • Matthew Munoz

    The
    thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done
    is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun.

  • franklantz

    I’m the person you incorrectly paraphrase as saying that cave paintings are as good or better than the best paintings made today.

    What I actually said was that there are some cave paintings that are extraordinarily beautiful and surprisingly sophisticated – better than *much* of the images made today, and far from the primitive scrawls that people frequently invoke to illustrate the familiar story of steady, predictable progress in art and culture.

    See for yourself: http://legermj.typepad.com/.a/6a0147e057d826970b017d41012933970c-pi

    My point is NOT to claim that there is no progress in art. Instead, I’m trying to challenge the simplistic story that progressives sometimes tell ourselves – the story that culture steadily evolves upwards one Popular Mechanics project at a time. The truth is more complicated and the actual path of progress is more convoluted. This is true of science and engineering and it is doubly true of art. There is no simple formula that can substitute for observation and judgment – not older is better, not newer is better, not “what the king likes” nor “amount of information conveyed per time unit”.

    If you want to convince me that you have something insightful to say about painting, or poetry, or indeed games, you need to demonstrate the ability to make careful observations and judgments, to distinguish between works using keen sensibility informed by broad knowledge, to reflect light from some common pool of shared truth between us to illuminate something I (or better yet both of us) hadn’t previously been able to see clearly. You can’t just wave the second law of thermodynamics in my face and declare that something sucks. Especially if it’s something I love, and something you know I love.

    You claim to have figured out that there is some property Q underlying everything good about art and culture, some poorly-defined quality having to do with maximally-accessible information transfer. But you haven’t bothered to indicate from whence you derived it, you’ve never bothered to show how great works X, Y, Z demonstrate it, in fact you don’t seem to care much about any works at all, preferring Q in every respect to the shabby reality of any actual existing works. You seem to think that at some point in the future the undeniable power of Q will result in the creation of works worthy of our time and attention but until then we can do little but lay the groundwork for that splendid era.

    But why? How? Why should I believe in Q? Not only have you not convinced me that you know enough about painting and poetry to making sweeping generalizations about them, you also haven’t made any effort to convince me that Chess and Go are obviously bad in some way that you seem to find self-evident. Honestly, you haven’t even convinced me you’ve bothered to learn enough about information theory to define Q clearly or begin to unpack its consequences. Why are you so confident? Why aren’t you more curious?

    How sure are you of Q? Is it an actual idea or one of those things where it’s not possible for it to be wrong? If it’s possible you are wrong how certain are you and why?

    In my view one should be far more cautious and circumspect in these matters. Not because progress isn’t possible, or because the truth is unknowable, but because progress is difficult, because truth is subtle and elusive, and the battlegrounds of culture are littered with the corpses of people who boldly declared that they had discovered the secret formula, and were wrong.

    In my view it is precisely the job of art and culture to be, not the consistent application of any one single value, but the process by which we articulate and debate different values and navigate between them. Art is not just the realm in which we appreciate the beautiful and the meaningful, it is the realm in which we choose together what *constitutes* beauty and meaning. We can’t simply apply criteria that we bring in from outside because art is the realm in which such criteria are forged.

    The process from X, Y, Z to Q and back again is a messy and unpredictable loop. Should we prefer novelty to tradition? Value duty over pleasure? Reject surface for structure? Should we value principles or measure outcomes? Rely on calculations or heuristics? Logic or intuition? How should we think about luck, skill, and knowledge? Are our values timeless or do they, themselves evolve? Should we reject the conventions and institutions that we inherit from our ancestors because we can see their flaws or preserve them because they contain deep knowledge in the form of emergent solutions we cannot fully understand? How confident should we be in our own values and beliefs when they conflict with those of others, and how should we negotiate between them?

    The work of art and culture is the process of asking and answering questions like this. And this process goes from works to values and back again. Starting with values and declaring all existing works insufficient to them is as much of a mistake as starting with existing works and never bothering to wonder about the values they express.

    Sure, classics are overrated. That classics are overrated is a truism, only slightly more useful than saying that classics are great. Neither one gets us that much closer to a deeper understanding of what games we should want to make and play.

    Meanwhile, I’ve been watching chessnetwork play blitz games https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2MrjVtQuLBE and straight up reveling in his ability to articulate his thought process *while playing*, it’s like getting a window into the raw material of strategic thought and it’s pitched at the perfect frequency for someone like me to feel like I’m constantly drawn to the edge of my ability to comprehend. Is Chess overrated? Who cares? This is the good stuff, and if you can’t appreciate it I feel sorry for you.

  • Big question: is your problem with my theory, or with theory itself? You act as if I had just spent more time explaining and justifying what I’m saying you’d be more accepting of it. My feeling is that that may not be the case. I think you’d still reject it on the grounds that it is theory.

    As to my “degree of certainty” – I’m confident enough to put these ideas out into the world, but to me it goes without saying that I might be wrong about any or all of them. All it would require is someone explaining what’s wrong with them to me. Currently, these are my best explanations of art and value and how it works.

    What it seems you’re doing is rejecting the idea of any kind of theory, though, instead of processing what I am actually saying and rejecting that, specifically.

    Here is an olive branch that maybe you could agree to: perhaps a big
    part of this kind of exploration is having a good balance of wanting
    “answers” and “questions”. Perhaps I am a little too far in the
    direction of “answers” – I could accept that. I have a similarly violent
    reaction to the books that are nothing but questions (see: all game
    design books) as you probably do when you read my work,
    which is, I will admit, mostly full of answers.

    >>In my view one should be far more cautious and circumspect in these matters.

    My interpretation of your message here is that one should not put forward any constructive theory, ever.

    Some other notes:

    I agree that progress isn’t “steady” upward. I’m just saying the trendline is upward.

    >You seem to think that at some point in the future the undeniable power
    of Q will result in the creation of works worthy of our time and
    attention

    To clarify, I think the undeniable power of Q already
    HAS resulted in the creation of works worthy of our time and attention.
    Not so much in interactive entertainment, yet, but absolutely in other
    fields.

    I enjoy watching this Blitz Chess commentary too. I mean, that demonstrates that Chess does indeed have some value. I never tried to argue that it has none, only that we’re capable of much, much better.

    With all that said – I appreciate you listening.

  • franklantz

    > is your problem with my theory, or with theory itself?

    Your theory.

    > What it seems you’re doing is rejecting the idea of any kind of theory, though, instead of processing what I am actually saying and rejecting that, specifically.

    No, I’m criticizing your specific claims and methods.

    > books that are nothing but questions (see: all game design books)

    Huh? Game design books are full of concrete suggestions, advice, rules, best practices, etc.

    >> one should be far more cautious and circumspect in these matters.
    > My interpretation of your message here is that one should not put forward any constructive theory, ever.

    A better interpretation of my message would be “you should be more cautious and circumspect.”

    In my opinion, your work falls into a very consistent pattern. You have some insight, eg “classics are overrated & there’s an element of classist signaling in traditional ‘fine art’ models of museum culture” and you immediately dial it up to 11 – everybody who likes old stuff is dishonest or deluded, poetry is a hamster-wheel of self-indulgent noise, etc. etc. In my opinion, any value in the original insight is lost in the ridiculous, over-the-top exaggeration.

    You have identified one aspect of museum culture. You are not the first person to make this observation, although you seem totally disinterested in understanding how your work relates to the history of aesthetic theory, the critique of museums as institutions, taste and class politics, or any of this well-trodden territory. Again, why aren’t you more curious about this?

    So, based on your one insight, you blithely assume you now know everything there is to know about museums and how they work. But you’re wrong. It’s simply not the case that museums and fine art are *merely* secret clubs for wealthy elites. It is possible to visit a museum, in a critical and skeptical frame of mind, and encounter a work of culture from thousands of years ago and get a deeply valuable aesthetic experience from it, an experience that is valuable, in part, not despite but also *because* of the thousands of years that separate you from the original context of the work you are engaging with.

    That this is true is, in my opinion, beyond question.

    So a good theory needs to explain this, the actual world, in all of its contradictory details, not some cartoon version of the world that conveniently fits the simplest version of your theory.

  • It’s good feedback to hear that you thought I was saying that museums are “merely secret clubs for wealthy elites”, that poetry is just a hamster wheel of self-indulgent noise, that EVERYBODY who likes old stuff is dishonest or deluded. Apparently, at least to you, I came off as saying those things but I didn’t mean to, and those aren’t my positions. I’ll keep in mind that that’s how I came across, though.

  • Van

    I don’t think there’s anyone who hasn’t appreciated Chess or Go, but to call it “the good stuff” is just funny. Those two games are exhibitions of board game flaws. I can’t pretend to feel sorry for someone with a limited capacity to enjoy games which immediately devolve into doing rote logic problems ad nauseam.

  • Isaac Shalev

    That’s what I heard too…

  • Isaac Shalev

    When you describe the challenges of Go and say that a game designer would never be so crazy as to attempt it, you ignore so much. Most importantly, you ignore the role of the game within its culture. Sure, Go has an accessibility problem… in a world of short attention spans, many other games to play, and lower returns to the skills Go tests. But in its original context, Go makes a lot more sense. It’s pretty dismissive of you to rip these games out of where they came from, evaluate them based on your moment, your fleeting contemporary standard, and then suggest that this qualifies as improvement. Your opinions on the classics are basically invalidated by the shallowness of your engagement with them.

  • >Most importantly, you ignore the role of the game within its culture

    I *intentionally* ignore that information, because that has no bearing on Go’s relevance/effectiveness today. You say we have a “world of short attention spans” – what I see is a world of people who have higher expectations of efficiency and brevity.

    I agree that if I were living in the 19th century, Go would be pretty amazing. But context matters. Contemporary standards for culture are no more “fleeting” than contemporary standards for medicine. Contemporary standards are *better* standards – the best standards we’ve yet discovered.

  • Isaac Shalev

    I think it’s interesting that you believe that Go would be pretty amazing in the 1800s, but it stinks in 2016. So Go was amazing for perhaps 3500 years, but it just recently stopped being amazing? Put another way, can you articulate why Go’s inaccessibility (for example) is an objective flaw, rather than a subjective preference? Similarly, can you argue cogently that what Go manages to achieve could be achieved or surpassed today without also suffering from whatever it is you don’t like about Go? Are you certain that what you don’t like about Go will also bother someone 200 years from now?

    Your argument might be worth closer examination if you could articulate these “better standards.” It might also help if you could explain why their is only one standard that should be applied. You can critique a movie or a book or a game for how entertaining it is, but you could also consider how moving it, or how well-executed it is, etc. To suggest that, for example, we are superior at exploring the human condition through drama today than Shakespeare or Euripides is a bit head-scratching to me. Over time, old things may become less accessible for a variety of reasons, but that doesn’t reduce their quality – that’s a measurement of our antennas, not the strength of their signal. It’s certainly possible that there is some standard that you choose to apply, by which ‘the classics’ fall short. But you have to show why your standard should be applied by everyone, or frankly, anyone other than you.

  • Cannons also seemed pretty amazing in the 1800s, but stink in 2016. Same with medicine. Same with physics. Everything improves.

    Go wasn’t amazing for 3500 years – it actually was gradually improved many times during that time. But as you’ll recall, progress in general has been very, very slow for most of the history of civilization. Only in the last quarter-century or so would I say that Go has been left in the dust.

    Go’s inaccessibility has a lot to do with what you pointed to – the modern standards for accessibility. Go’s rules are pretty ridiculous. You have to play for some time before it even becomes clear who has won a match (which requires decently advanced understand of life/death, etc). The games take too long, the opening moves give the player far too many options, etc.

    I do think that one can build a system that is deeper than go and far more accessible. This will certainly start happening in our lifetimes. What I can *not* tell you is that that system will survive 200 years, because the rate of general human cultural advancement is now fast (which is a good thing!)

    >To suggest that, for example, we are superior at exploring the human
    condition through drama today than Shakespeare or Euripides is a bit
    head-scratching to me.

    You don’t think we’ve advanced as a civilization since Euripides?! Of course we should be superior at exploring the human condition – we’re building on what Euripides explored, as well as countless other generations of writers who also built upon his work.

  • Isaac Shalev

    I’m not sure the Go~Cannons analogy holds up. Most critically, there is an objective standard for cannons, because they are created for a concrete purpose – most critically, that they can do lots of damage from far away. Add some second-order concerns, like accuracy, ease of movement, ease of maintenance, mechanical reliability, etc. and we have pretty unanimous agreement about what it means to make a good cannon, what it means to improve on an existing cannon, and what kinds of improvements would be considered a leap forward in cannon tech.

    That’s not quite so true of Go. If we’re talking about Go as a game with no significant stakes (ie not tournament Go, or Go within a community where great status is bestowed on excellence in Go, or where Go ability is used a signal for some other kind of ability), then Go is intended to be fun. And Go is fun, once you know how to play. It’s a LOT of fun, for people who like the kind of fun it offers. It’s a great cannon, so to speak. It’s like a wheel. Every wheel is great at being a wheel. The essential qualities of being a wheel count for 99% of the value of making one. All the advancement and refinements might make it more suitable for certain purposes, but most of the achievement was in making a wheel at all. Go delivers what games are supposed to deliver. Sure, you can make games that
    do a better job on accessibility, but that’s a second-order criticism.

    Nevertheless, there are two other claims we have to evaluate. First, you say that it is possible to create a game that matches or exceeds go on every other dimension of quality in games (depth, engagement, etc.), but that exceeds Go in accessibility. Perhaps that’s true, but you haven’t provided any evidence for that claim, just faith. Is there a game already in existence that does so, in your opinion?

    Second, you claim that making Go more accessible would be a Pareto improvement – that is, if Go was Go but more accessible, it would by definition be a better game. Yet I’m not certain I believe that. An important aspect of where players find fun in a game is climbing the heuristic tree. As you learn to evaluate a position better you start to play differently, and there is great pleasure in that progress. If players started off much more capable of playing the game well, that climb is shortened. No doubt that argument doesn’t hold up at the extremes, but there’s 3500 years of evidence that proves that Go isn’t too complex for players to learn and enjoy.

    Moving on from the issue of whether the texture of the game itself would be changed and less interesting if Go was more accessible, we can also consider Go as a cultural artifact. Playing Go does confer status, it is a signaling mechanism in certain communities, and it engenders certain relationships (eg mentor). Whether Go is a better GAME because of that is related to your definition of game, I suppose. Yet the existence passionate and durable communities around a game is in my mind a success metric for the game. Shouldn’t we look at Go through that lens, and try and learn lessons from it on how to build a game that is culturally impactful, and that shapes relationships and communities?

  • treebiscuit

    Your argument doesn’t respect the fact that art is iterative. Everything is building off of the innovations of the past.

    You say that people aren’t supposed to stoop down to study classics by the standards of the time, but people aren’t actually saying that you should do that (or if they are, they are wrong. You don’t study classics without recognizing their deficiencies from a modern viewpoint, that’s impossible). The real argument for classics is that you are supposed to judge CURRENT things with the standards of the PAST. As an example, did the book that came out last year learn the lesson of the book that came out a hundred years ago? How about a thousand years ago? If you want to have a good understanding of your medium, then it’s necessary to know all of major the past innovations that iterated up to the current standard. This is necessary to have good taste. A game like Flappy Bird seems like the pinnacle of gaming if you haven’t played, well, anything. But there are games from the first few years which achieved way more, is the point. It’s only by judging Flappy Bird by the standards of the past that you can say “oh, it’s actually pretty shitty.”

    The inevitable result of art as a product of iteration is basically what you hate about poetry. It all seems like a self-masturbatory system, and maybe it is, but it’s that way because it’s a very mature medium. Games will inevitably be the same someday, and in a lot of ways they already are.

    tl;dr: You miss the point of classics. You’re supposed to enjoy classics on their own merits, but if you are unable to do so, you are at least supposed to take your knowledge of them with you in judging contemporary works. This is the process by which taste is developed