Author Archives: shadgross

Art, Video Games, and Research

During the last year of my undergraduate education, I (Shad) encountered my first experience of the video games are(n’t) Art debate. While there was certainly a lot of passion surrounding the argument, the logic was somewhat lacking. One side seemed to center around the fact that Grand Theft Auto: Vice City (which had been released earlier that year) contained vestiges of the stylistic aesthetic of the 1980s and presented a compelling point for social engagement with a distinct cultural setting from recent history. Alternately, the opposing side argued that these elements were simply superficial, and that the game’s message, at least in terms of any artistic merit, did not represent a real cultural statement to the degree required by the title of Art. However, these arguments seemed to center on the games themselves, as if Art were a property that is intrinsically part of some artifacts and intrinsically not part of some other artifacts. In short, the argument had missed the social connections that surround Art evaluation: the relationship between the concepts of Art, the Art World (comprised of critics and consumers of Art who ascribe a cultural value as well as a monetary value to Art objects), and the objets d’art themselves. At the time, I felt as if the current courses of debate were not ever going to result in any kind of conception of video games as Art, and that it would be a while before the discourse would develop to a point where video games could be spoken of as Art.

Ten years have passed since that point. At CHI 2013, the opening plenary was presented by Paola Antonelli, Senior Curator and Architecture & Design Director for Research & Development at the MOMA. Her presentation focused on exhibitions that have looked at video games as Art at the MOMA and, more broadly, the importance of the relationship of design to art (and vice versa). It seems that, at least in practice if not in theory, my question from a decade earlier has been partially answered. Video games are beginning to be treated as Art is treated. Design, as an applied art, could act as an indicator or close relative of Art, but not a true member of the club. Video games should be appreciated in a manner similar to Art, video games, as designed experiences, can equally be treated as art.

Art and art theory have had a history of relevance to HCI, as is especially evident in the ACM SIGGRAPH Digital Arts Community ( and example topics including (but not limited to) the convergence of goals of Art and HCI (e.g. Sengers and Csikszentmihályi, 2003, Blythe 2013), collaboration (e.g. Adamczyk et al., 2007, England, 2012), and creativity support (e.g. Morris et al., 2009, Kerne et al 2013). While not a comprehensive list, from this it can be discerned that there is some sort of connection between the aims of HCI and Art, that there are challenges in the connecting of the two (both in terms of aims and in terms of what is considered valuable in a piece of art) and that supporting art is one possible goal for interaction design. As a possible overarching theme, there are elements of Art that are important to the practice of HCI and the creation of technology in general, but that there are both practical issues such as the economics of art and concerns of would-be collaborators and theoretical issues such as the density of art theory. Supporting creativity makes a convenient bridge point because it is a concept of equal importance to art as it is to HCI.

Returning to the consideration of video games as art, from the end of technological design there is some sort of convergence between the two and that this has warranted looking at art as a mean of understanding interaction design. As partial confirmation of this, it would seem that the Art World (of which the MOMA is certainly a part) has an interest in looking at some of the results of interaction design, including video games. So, for both stakeholders in the discourse, there is a benefit to treating video games like Art. But again I return to the question of discourse surrounding video games, which we believe leads straight to the questions of why and how to study video games.

So why should it matter that video games are beginning to be considered as art is considered. First, it means that there may be even greater cause to take video games seriously. Not just Games With a Purpose or games that are explicitly made to embody a political statement (such as the excellent games created by Lucas Pope ( but video games in general. Previous work has already started to look at video games from an ethnographic standpoint (see Boellstorff et al 2012 as well as the individual works of all its authors) as well as more quantitative approaches that look at data taken from play (e.g. Yee et al, 2012). There also have been calls for a much more in-depth study of games as a source of “social rationality,” taking a more critical stance of their content (Grimes and Feenberg, 2009). As a continuation of this trend, it seems like the way that games are observed – as both an aspect of social engagement and a reflection of society in general, needs to change. As more artistic elements become prevalent in a greater number of games, it will be important to understand how these elements developed in a historical sense. Even in games that do not attempt to challenge the norms and folkways of virtual worlds, as players become more aware of video games as art, there performances within those games may very well change with respect to this perception. Looking at virtual worlds as some sort of indicator of social phenomena, then, not only has a number of different approaches but seems to demand them to varying degrees. Employing the tactics of art theory and new media along with ethnographic investigations and analysis of data traces may very well result in new understandings not only of games, but also society and art.

It is an exciting time for the study of games. While they now have an increasing number of different meanings to different people, the fact that they have importance is becoming more difficult to ignore. However, along with the increased potential of game studies, there is also a necessity to broaden the approaches used to study virtual worlds.

Adamczyk, P. D., Hamilton, K., Twidale, M. B., & Bailey, B. P. (2007). HCI and new media arts: methodology and evaluation. In CHI’07 extended abstracts, pp. 2813-2816

Blythe, M., Briggs, J., Hook, J., Wright, P., & Olivier, P. (2013). Unlimited editions: three approaches to the dissemination and display of digital art. In Proc. CHI’13 pp. 139-148.

Boellstorff, T., & Marcus, G. E. (2012). Ethnography and Virtual Worlds: A Handbook of Method. Princeton University Press.

England, D. (2012) Digital art and interaction: lessons in collaboration. In Proc. CHI’12. Pp. 703 – 12

Grimes, S. M., & Feenberg, A. (2009). Rationalizing play: A critical theory of digital gaming. The Information Society, 25(2), 105-118.

Kerne, A., Webb, A. M., Latulipe, C., Carroll, E., Drucker, S. M., Candy, L., & Höök, K. (2013). Evaluation methods for creativity support environments. In CHI’13 Extended Abstracts. pp. 3295-3298.

Morris, D., & Secretan, J. (2009). Computational creativity support: Using algorithms and machine learning to help people be more creative. In CHI’09 Extended Abstracts pp. 4733-4736.

Sengers, P and Csikszentmihaly, C. (2003) HCI and the arts: conflicted convergence? In Proc. CHI’03, ACM, pp. 876-7.

Yee, N. Ducheneaut, N. Yao, M and Nelson, N. (2011). Do men heal more when in drag?: conflicting identity cues between user and avatar. In Proc. CHI’11. pp.773-776.

Of rituals and technology

I have always enjoyed fixing computers. This is not because of the challenges that are presented by the process of computer repair (although there is a certain amount of enjoyment to be found there as well) but because it is interesting to hear how people feel about their computers both in terms of their normal functioning and their malfunctioning. There seemed to be a near-infinite number of ways that people had come up with to make the functioning (or malfunctioning) of these machines make sense. I came to think of these little quirky approaches to grappling with the black box of computational devices as little rituals. Cultural anthropologist Victor Turner describes rituals as symbolic actions, grouping them alongside other forms of symbolic action such as social drama and metaphor (4). However, I did not have a concrete definition of what a technological ritual was; I just knew it when I saw it.

Fundamental to these is the idea that rituals are activities that occur in the material world, but have some sort of importance beyond their material qualities. Metaphor has become an important to aid users in understanding the functioning of the otherwise complex functioning of digital devices (e.g. 1). Digital technology also has its share of social drama: Facebook relationship status being one way to solidify a romantic engagement between two people. Even ritual itself has been spoken of in the context of computation. One study has examined how “ritualized interactions often play a major role in the performance and experience of the art or performance work,” (2) while another has looked at how ritual activities could be used to make virtual characters seem more like real characters (3). However, art performances hold a kind of lofty ambition and a focus on making virtual characters have rituals focuses on representing people to make them easier to interact with. I wonder how looking at the more everyday practices of people as they relate with technology could lead to a better understanding of both people and the technology they use. As an example of how to look at technological interactions in terms of ritual, I point to Merlin Mann’s Inbox Zero.

It is common to hear people complain about having too much email. It takes a lot of time to sort through all of one’s messages, it causes problems with missed communication, and it can make people feel overwhelmed with the amount of information they are receiving. As an answer to this problem, Merlin Mann describes Inbox Zero ( , a way of handling email overload. At one level, this is a prescription of simple actions of sorting, removing and addressing the demands presented in a person’s inbox. However, it is also a set of small actions that in combination hold a certain higher personal and social value. The empty inbox described by the processes name not only reduces distractions when new email comes in, it also gives a symbol of technological well-adjustment. It is social in the sense that the person’s relations to others are kept in check. The material of Inbox Zero is an empty in box, it’s meaning is control of technology in a way that also incorporates interactions with other people.

This idea of ritual, as it pertains to technology, is still quite rough. However, as HCI has focused more on experiences and the designing thereof, the kind of duality of meaning that comes from ritual acts may prove to be a valuable way of understanding the relationships between the form and function of artifacts and the meanings that people ascribe to them. Looking at interactions as rituals may point to better understandings of digital artifacts and the people who interact with them.

[1] Blackwell, A. F. (2006). The reification of metaphor as a design tool. ACM Transactions on Computer-Human Interaction (TOCHI), 13(4), 490-530.
[2] Loke, L., Khut, G. P., & Kocaballi, A. B. (2012, June). Bodily experience and imagination: designing ritual interactions for participatory live-art contexts. InProceedings of the Designing Interactive Systems Conference (pp. 779-788). ACM.
[3] Mascarenhas, S., Dias, J., Afonso, N., Enz, S., & Paiva, A. (2009, May). Using rituals to express cultural differences in synthetic characters. InProceedings of The 8th International Conference on Autonomous Agents and Multiagent Systems (Vol. 1).
[4] Turner, V. W. (1975). Dramas, fields, and metaphors: Symbolic action in human society. Cornell University Press.

The Ethics of Design in Increasingly Complex Situations: The Case of a Broken Voting Machine

Designers tend to approach ideas from a certain bias, which may require some explanation. While design is focused on the process of creating artifacts, it is rarely a straightforward endeavor. Of particular importance is the accountability that comes from creating a new artifact, the ethics of design so to speak. In the most general and common sense, the impetus is to solve a problem, and the solution is assessed on the basis of its efficacy. This can be thought of as the function of a particular design – what it does as a means of resolving a problem. The designer, in the ideal circumstance, builds that function into the artifact. In addition to this functional aspect, there is also a process of changing and reframing problems [see Nelson for more clarity on this]. This procedure carries with it yet another aspect of evaluation– the framing of the problem is judged on the basis of how well it captures some aspect previously unconsidered that, nonetheless, is integral to resolving the problem. To put this all more simply, a design can fail procedurally due to improper problem framing, regardless of how well the it functions, or it can fail functionally, regardless of how well the procedure of framing the problem goes. The results of either of these failings have implications for the designer. A failing of functionality indicts the designer on charges of poor craftsmanship, while a failure of procedure points to general ineptitude. The inverse is equally true – merit is given for functional and novel approaches.

While there are a number of good and bad designs in the world, this topic has been covered considerably, and so the nature of such evaluation will not be addressed here. The proceeding is presented with the hopes of identifying how a designer is ethically tied to the success or failure of an artifact. If this is taken as true, then what happens in the grey areas? If two ends of the spectrum refer back to the designer, is it not reasonable that the middle ground has a similar effect? The situation above becomes socially relevant when one considers Winner’s argument that artifacts can have politics [Winner]. Those politics become built into the artifact both procedurally and functionally; both with implications for the designer. In the case of Winner’s examples, Moses’s bridges are problematic due to their function – their function is limited by the way they were made. Alternately, the tomato harvester suffers from a procedural issue – namely that the framing of the problem showed greater concern for efficiency and cost-effectiveness than the implications of mechanization with economical and ecological consequences. In both cases, Winner’s description seems to fit well within a model of accountability as prescribed by design. But lets suppose a situation where the decisions are not quite so clear. As an example of such a situation, consider this Pennsylvania polling station.

In a Philadelphia polling station in the 2012 election, one of the booths had a problem regarding candidate selection. When the space on the screen occupied by Barak Obama’s name was clicked, the box for Mitt Romney would be checked. Now, in a situation similar to Moses’s bridges it could be imagined that this machine was designed with the specific intent of favoring a specific candidate. This would be a functional aspect, in that the artifact’s functioning had a specific bias. But let us suppose that the person who posted this video’s first inclination (from going into “troubleshoot mode”) is correct and the problem is a malfunction rather than a deliberate decision. It seems reasonable that a touchscreen could break, particularly if used repeatedly (as would be the case of a polling station). Then it would seem that the accountability would fall upon the individual who chose that particular touch screen, making it procedural – rooted in a concern of cost over functional robustness. This need not imply any political orientation with regards to Romney and Obama, but it certainly represents a political statement nonetheless. However, suppose that such was not the case. Suppose, rather, that the reduced size of one option’s button was the result of a contextual issue. A power surge, a component broken during shipping, or any number of events that had happened to that specific machine could be at fault. In such a case, what would be the ethical standing of the designer? Would the complexities of the context caused a newly emergent political stance without an actor behind it, or is there an implication at the level of deciding to use such a machine in the first place?

If that sounds somewhat far-fetched, consider the 2010 “Flash Crash.” Sommerville et al. describes how a $4.1 billion block sale that was “executed with uncommon urgency” resulted in a “complex pattern of interactions between high-frequency algorithmic trading systems… that buy and sell blocks of financial instruments on incredibly short timescales” [Sommerville]. The systems employed had functioned together well, until that context had arisen. But when that context DID arise, roughly $800 billion disappeared [ibid]. As in the final hypothetical situation regarding the voting booth, it becomes difficult to consider the ethical position of the designer(s). Both describe systems of systems (the algorithms in the market and the technological parts of the voting machine). Both also describe situations where the final result is emergent, as opposed to a situation that is deliberately created. Risatti makes a distinction between function, and emergent application: use (Risatti)It would seem that these issues fall more under latter than the formerand by virtue of the fact that use is not constructed into the artifact in the way that function is, that the designer is somewhat free from blame. After all, designers cannot be expected to be capable of predicting the future, can they?

As a somewhat unsettling conclusion to this case study, what happens when the model of accountability that is defined by function and procedure becomes less common? It is becoming more difficult to consider any one given technology in isolation. Phones sync to computers that sync to bank accounts; information is stored to a cloud where multiple people, from multiple devices, can access it. Systems of technology are moving towards systems of systems of technology. As this increases, the chances for emergence also increase. Buried in this complex scenario is a notion that is as lucid and cutting as what Winner expresses: if artifacts have politics, do systems have politics as well?  It seems evident that the answer is a resounding “yes.” However, that answer only leads to a more worrisome question. If systems have politics, who is accountable for those politics?

Nelson, H. and Stolterman, E. (2012) The Design Way: Intentional Change in an Unpredicatble World. 2nd ed. MIT Press.

Winner, L. (1986) Do Artifacts Have Politics? The Whale and the Reactor: A Search for Limits in an Age of High Technology. U. Chicago Press: 19-39.

Sommerville, I. Cliff, D., Calinescu, R., Keen, J., Kelly, T., Kwiatkowska, M., McDermid, J., and Paige, R. (2012) Large-Scale Complex IT Systems, Communicatons of the ACM 55(7): 71-77.

Risatti, H. (2007) A Theory of Craft and Aesthetic Expression. U. North Carolina Press.


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