Thursday, April 22, 2010

Orly?

I've recently been thinking on a post i wanted to write about the nature of the experience that is a musical concert. Instead, today's post is going to comment more upon the nature of Art as a whole. You see, Twitter brought to my attention Roger Ebert's recent article delineating why video games are not, and can never be, Art. As a rabid geek, self-described gamer, artist, writer, this assertion rankled with me. The riling nature of his opinions are all the more exacerbated by the fact that, as near as i can tell, Mr. Ebert has played few - if any - video games.

This nest-rattling claim was first made way back in 2005 and has been brought up every now and again ever since, responded to by such names as Tycho & Gabe, Kellee Santiago, my fellow writers at Cracked.com, and many others. The debate has only recently come to my attention, although i've held the Gamer's position for many years now, not even considering the opinions of the general masses, let alone considering them for any length of time.

Many good points are made on both sides. Ebert's big talking point - and the one i have the most difficulty refuting - is that the very interactive nature of a game is in conflict with what his conception of what a piece of art is. This view, i must believe, is generally shared with the non-gaming public; Art is viewed, appreciated, experienced, but not "played". The gamers' usual rebuttal begins with Ebert's admission that he's never seen a video game worth playing. Some simply leave it at that, since it proves his stance, however well thought out, comes from a place of complete ignorance regarding the medium. Many, however, go further into the fray, formulating complex arguments with all the rich design that one would see in the programming of one of their exemplary games. And that is why this fight will never end.

Eventually, all the arguments come down to trying to define what Art is in such a way that their view point falls within its parameters and the other side's doesn't. Obviously, any rhetorical conflict is doomed to idiocy when the parties involved cannot agree upon the definitions which make up the very foundation of any point they might try to make. It seemed Ebert tried to clarify this at least once, in 2007, when he admitted that what he should have said is that, "games could not be high art, as i understand it", but since has become so mired in his single-minded position that the thesis of his most recent article is simply "Video Games Can Never Be Art". This claim is the last nail in the coffin Gamer Good Will.

Let's go a couple steps back and look at why i consider video games to qualify as Art. First off, let me say that i do not believe all games to be Art, just as i don't think all music or movies are Art. Wilco's "Yankee Hotel Foxtrot" is a paramount of modern rock and roll and rewards careful and repeated listens, but i'd get pretty stabby if someone tried to tell me that the new Hannah Montana album is Art. Gus Van Sant's "Elephant", yes. Keenan Wayans' "Scary Movie 2", no. I think its safe to say that all examples do not have to qualify in order to claim that the medium can be considered Art. With that supposition in mind, i formulated my own definition of Art, then talked to my brother (of Good Night, States fame) for his thoughts. His thoughts are thus:

Art is that which is crafted using physical means in an attempt to comment on something metaphysical. Personally, while this definition is rather weighty, i think that very factor is important. Good art should strike you in a way which you cannot precisely define. This point is complimentary to my original thought, namely, that art is anything which is both aesthetically pleasing AND evokes an emotional or visceral response in the perceiver. I'm sure there are as many different views on the concept as there are possible readers of these words.

After our conversation, i found myself unable to reconcile a specific aspect of Steve's definition with my own thoughts. The problem is that my definition leaves out the idea of intentionality. Both my brother and Mr. Ebert agree that Art is created by an artist. This is important.

Very few (if any) games are designed to be works of Art. Hell, not many movies these days are, either, but this does not mean that they are not beautiful.

This is the delineation which i believe is causing such a schism. We, the video game-playing generation, have spent decades sharing a metaphysical experience in the interactive, narrative, sometimes-competitive landscape of a plethora of games, video or otherwise. Be it the sweeping story arc of a beloved Dungeon Master or that one cut scene in Final Fantasy Whatever, we have all be touched by a game we have played in a way that just slightly defies explanation. We have found beauty, and it has changed us.

What makes us such a unified front is that these experiences, while often occurring in the stereotypically dank, isolated caverns of our mother's basement, has been shared by millions of gamers. This effect has cleaved us together, mind and soul, with a bond much akin to that shared by the audience of a momentous event, or the brothers-in-arms of a conflict. We all watched Aeris die. We all dread Water Temples. We all know that the cake is a lie. We all recognize the Konami Code. These experiences make up the shared history of Gamers in a way that is no less meaningful than any other demographic-defining denominator.

And this, dear reader, is why we, the gaming community, are so pissed at Roger Ebert. I think Cracked.com writer Robert Brockway put it very well in the closing paragraph of his defense:

"But why even bother with all of this? Ebert himself wonders: 'Why are gamers so intensely concerned, anyway, that games be defined as art? Bobby Fischer, Michael Jordan and Dick Butkus never said they thought their games were an art form….Why aren’t gamers content to play their games and simply enjoy themselves?' And he’s already answered his own question: 'do we as their consumers become more or less complex, thoughtful, insightful, witty, empathetic, intelligent, philosophical (and so on) by experiencing them?' Anybody who’s ever felt even an inkling of something like that from a game is going to be understandably 'concerned' when you insist that they’re lying."

The aging critic is just lucky he doesn't drop any purples, or there'd be a queue to take a crack at him.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

In Memorium

I once knew a man whom i truly respected as a paramount of all things Man. His name was Jim. He is dead now and i miss him sorely.

Jim was a great friend. If you made it onto his mental list of friends & family, you could count on seeing him a couple times a month, just because we would stop over to give you a little something or just to say hi. His actions never spoke louder than his words, and his actions were usually pretty loud. Our freezer downstairs is still full of venison.

Jim respected women greatly, but didn't treat them like porcelain. I would always warn any girl i introduced to him that he would ask if he could keep her and possibly propose marriage. This was just his ever-joking way, and his way won him a lot of smiles and friendship. But god help you if he saw you mistreat a woman. More than one man has been put in the hospital because Jim was close enough to reach him.

Jim was an outdoorsman and an artist. There wasn't a material on this earth that he couldn't evoke a beautiful image out of with his carving tools. He was a crack shot and a masterful hunter, more in tune with the world around him than most of us have even seen in movies. His garage was chock full of antlers, the smell of fresh wood and cigarette smoke, ivory he'd somehow found at a yardsale.

While never married, Jim was engaged twice. I never met his first fiancee - or was too young to remember - and she died of a terminal disease before i could. I was there the night he found out his second fiancee died, drinking with him, reminiscing, gravely taking the pistols he had lying around and listening dispassionately as he called God a cocksucker.

The next morning he apologized for his behavior. To God and to me. We kept the pistols for a few months anyway.

I never knew Jim when he could walk. He was born with spina bifida, a condition in which the spinal column never fully closes around the spinal cord. He had difficulty walking without crutches by 10. By the time i knew him, he was wheelchair-bound. Complications took his life this past year - his 50th - more than 30 years later than his doctors guessed.

He was a bear of a man (which, along with his love of the outdoors, led to his nickname of... Bear), weighing well over 300lbs for most of the time i knew him. Almost all of this weight was confined to his upper body, giving him arms of terrifying strength. To shake his hand was to know that, at any moment, he could crush every bone in your's. His forearm was so big that, wrapping both hands around it, i couldn't touch my fingertips together. It was this tremendous strength combined with the muscle control of a life-long hunter that allowed him the precision and delicacy of a master engraver. It was his bulk which allowed him to be such a softy. He was a scary man to meet, until you realized he was a teddy bear.

Jim taught me a lot in the few years i really put in the effort to know him. I regret not finding more time. I suspect i'll end up typing up more than a few of his stories in this 'blog, and i hope you enjoy them as much as i always did.

I miss you, Jim.