Is Mastering a Video Game an Art or a Science?

Image courtesy of Linda Williams

"It's more of an art than a science."  You've probably heard the phrase before, and if you're like me, you've wondered exactly what people mean by it.  We usually think of "art" as the practice of creating things for aesthetic appreciation, but that's clearly not what this phrase is referring to, since folks will use it to describe everything from designing a circuit to trolling an internet forum.  Do a Google search and you’ll likely come up with an explanation like the following:
It means it is not something which is governed by clearly-defined rules, as a science would be. 
This definition of art certainly could be used to describe many everyday activities, particularly those that require complex, non-physical skills.  For example, the act of planting a flower is mostly a physical activity that could be performed by anyone with sufficient instruction and fine motor coordination, so it would be called a "science" (by this limited understanding of the word).  However, caring for that flower requires both experience and complex contextual information.  Fine motor coordination and a set of instructions will only take you so far, so plant care could be considered more of an "art".

So what about video games?  They certainly require skill, but is that skill more of an art or a science?

Consider first the example of Super Breakout, shown above, which is the follow-up to Breakout.
To do well in Super Breakout, you just have to hit the ball with the paddle.  Yes, you have some control over the ball’s trajectory, but for the most part, this is a game of hand-eye coordination.  To get better scores, you mostly need to get better at hitting the ball with paddle and, when you get beyond the beginner level, hitting it with the appropriate part of the paddle.  There's very little strategy or situational awareness needed.

Galaxian, on the other hand, is a different beast.

Hand-eye coordination certainly helps, but responding to the alien attacks requires the player to keep track of the configuration of all attacking aliens, as well as their bullets, and respond in a way that won’t leave themselves cornered by subsequent attacks.  Managing that information in a way that keeps you alive for more than a round or two is most definitely an “art”, at least by the terms of the aforementioned idiom.  There are certainly definite steps one could take to become a better Galaxian player, but I don't think they would be enough to quickly make you into an expert.

Another way to approach this question is to ask yourself, how difficult would it be to write a program to play this game at an expert level?  In the case of Breakout, I would just need to instruct the program to determine the ball's trajectory and place the paddle at the location where it expects the ball to go.  As long as it could perform the computations fast enough (and with modern computers, it definitely could), then there's no reason to think it would have any trouble mastering the game.  For Galaxian, however, a computer program would need to be able to respond to bullets and alien motions, which are themselves adaptive, and make sure it never got itself into a position that it couldn't escape from.  I suspect you would need a program of much greater sophistication to tackle such a problem, perhaps even an AI with reinforcement learning.

So the nature of the skills required to master video games varies a great deal from one to the next..  But art, as I use the term throughout most of this blog, is about the nature of the experience of playing the game, not the kind of skill that it requires.  As such, even though the skill required to master Breakout is mostly just hand-eye coordination, the experience of playing it is a complex combination of stimuli that cannot be captured by the dichotomy that the art/science idiom refers to.  In fact, the kind of skill required to play Breakout is essentially the same as that required to play Circus, Pong, and many other paddle-based games, but no one would claim that the experiences offered by these games are all identical.

Still, I think the nature of the skill required to master a game tells us something about the experience.  Part of what makes Breakout work is its simplicity and the feeling that you are manipulating something very basic.  And even though the skill required is simple, it is still challenging to us because human begins are not optimized for the kind of fine motor coordination required to manipulate a tiny paddle to very high precision.  Galaxian, on the other hand, confronts us with a larger and more varied quantity of information. The game feels alive because it responds to our actions in subtle but systematic ways, just like a living thing would.  Fortunately, the massively parallel processors that are the neurons in our brain are well suited to responding to living things, so the game ends up being no more challenging (arguably less so, at least at first) than Breakout.

In the end, the idiomatic art/science dichotomy isn’t going to provide us with a simple way of judging the quality of a game, but it can help determine how a game is challenging us, and thus provide insight into why we enjoy (or don’t enjoy) playing.