Games #1 – Too Much Fun

We at CFA recently came across one of the fresher side conversations of the venerable debate about what gets to be called art.  New Scientist’s Culture Lab blog asked a half-dozen intellectuals, industry-insiders, and people otherwise eligible for serious comment-making the question can videogames be art? Even without proper pundit credentials, we’ve invited ourselves along.

Though some respondents paid the question more attention than others, the panel of ‘avowed gamers’ almost unanimously felt that the debate had really moved beyond whether games had artistic merit – they were answering the wrong question. We hadn’t heard of BioShock until a couple months ago and we acknowledge that some games are are more Rambo than Rimbaud, but we still agree that the question of art eligibility is guffawable.

Of course video games can be art – games have poked and prodded our emotions and intellect through symbolic representation; they have plot, character, setting, drama, and can contain social criticism; they are often beautiful; they prompt conversations such as this one – thus, Art.

In no way does that end the discussion.  Of the issues that remain, we’ve tried out a few.

1.  Fun!

Like hovercraft and rocket launchers, videogames are for fun.  They always have been. While we are universally in favor of fun, we also realize Art and Fun have often found it difficult to play nice.  Games are often stuck, like detective novels, Mad Men/The Wire, and science fiction, in the (perhaps enviable) position of being incredibly popular and finely crafted.  It is much easier to make the case for cultural products that no one buys and isn’t much fun – it certainly isn’t entertainment.  Must be art.

2. Audience Participation

Games are, or should be, the envy of the cultural world – they have a level of audience participation that other art forms can only theorize about.  Gallery placards and playbills claim ‘a unique capacity for engaging the viewer’ or ‘an innate sense of play,’ but each breathless sentence assumes the work has an audience’s undivided attention.  The audience, just as often, has to pee or wants a sandwich.

I have friends who buy new Halo games instead of groceries. Wii Tennis may have given me a bladder infection. Successful games, by the numbers our most successful cultural product, certainly have our attention. They exist to interact with us. Other forms of media (ahem, books) are dashing to catch up with interactive and connected technology – games are the technology.

As far as we’re concerned, this is a huge natural advantage, a major factor in record sales, and another reason that games are the LeBron James of arts and entertainment.  They do things we’ve never seen before, generate sacks full of cash, and haven’t gotten near their potential.  I devoted the years 1996-2000 to games that look like tic-tac-toe compared to the online worlds currently going, but most games are still in their adolescence.  I haven’t been a gamer since I collaborated with Final Fantasy 7 on my teenage obesity and I’m still looking forward to what happens when, like film, games get full grown.

3.  New money, new rules.

Speaking of participation, a comment on the commendably well-mannered NewScientist message board pointed out, “if there is a definitive value of art, it is how much people are willing to pay for it.  For most computer games, that’s around forty pounds.”

This logic relies on the idea of scarcity – because there is only one of each of Jackson Pollock’s painting, each is worth oodles.  Games, like electronically recorded music, lose nothing of their artistic value by being mass-produced. This, however, is nothing new – the printing press and a procession of ever-cheaper music distribution pulled this off long before Mario.

[We’’ll spare you another discussion of ‘Democritization and the Internet’]

Scarcity no longer applies and, we reckon, neither will other old rules of art and commerce.  The old thrills, however, still might – what happens when games find a way to deliver the thrill of being there and authenticity that we get from readings and live music?

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