Tuesday, July 20, 2010

MMPAG: Massive Multiplayer Art Generation

A while back, Roger Ebert wrote an unfortunate post claiming that video games couldn't be art. Of course the automatic reaction of the game playing and general culture geek community was "Roger Ebert is an idiot" along with a chorus of "Not mad, just very disappointed" from many people who had assumed Ebert was too smart a guy to go around attacking genres he didn't personally follow.

To Ebert's credit, he did later admit his own ignorance on the subject of video games, which is a lot like my own ignorance of Cricket. * The furor died down, and the whole thing is quick moving into the realm of shared geekculture memory, like the concept of slashfic or the memory of Wertham's anticomic crusade.

I was right there with everyone else rolling my eyes at the idea that video games can't be art-- they present ideas! They involve the audience emotionally and conceptually! By my foma, they change the very patterns of society!** What else does art require?

But Alexis, over at Failbetter Games' Betterblog, brings up an elaboration that I hadn't been able to articulate to myself before- that video games (all games, really) don't become art until they're played. *** It's an interesting point. I think it's accurate.

I also think it's the reason so many critics can't see games as art, and the reason so many players and producers have trouble defending the medium. People are used to the idea of art as a complete preexisting thing, an entity to itself. A painting reflects the same light wavelengths when no one's looking. A novel doesn't gain or lose chapters based on who reads it. Ebert's original unfortunate post explored this a little with his discussion of "authorial intent", the idea that a work of art is the vision of a creator, complete as it stands.

He didn't explore it much, though, and given his usual field of criticism it's a weird omission. Because while a script (or a piece of scenery, or a given costume) may be a work of art on its own, a play or a movie simply does not exist until a group of people come together and contribute their own individual arts- plural, as a discipline- to make a work thereof. Symphonies and architecture, musical performances- none of these are really complete without a collaboration. Are things less art for involving multiple people? Does art not exist until it's finished?

I wish these were just semantic questions. Why they aren't is for another post, because, well, I'm lazy. But what do you think? When does art happen, for you? And have you ever played a particular video game you honestly felt was art?

* Not my thing, not interested in making it my thing, way too busy to bother learning about it beyond its sheer existence, which baffles and amuses me enough. But this ignorance does not make me a better person.

**Ask an old geek-- say, 40 or 50 years old-- about the effect of the original Star Trek computer game on workplace productivity and personal computer use.

*** But since Alexis is a professional game developer, and I'm an amateur comic artist. I'm not particularly abashed that he's more eloquent on the subject. Bet I've got all kinds of deeper thoughts on the subject of gutters.

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