Thursday, October 8, 2009

Everything Bad is Good for You

I recently had a conversation with someone in the industry that really struggled with the question of what value he was bringing to the society. I'm not sure everyone asks this question of their work -- I presume that most people just follow their nose and enjoy making games because they love games -- but does it add anything to society as a whole? Is it worth all of the toil in that sense? I believe so.

I've struggled over the question over art in general, as a self-described artist. I mean, why not be a scientist instead? I don't mean that cynically. I love science, and there's little question about the benefit science has brought society through technology, medicine, etc. But art? What kind of impact has all art by all artists, over time, done the world?

I'll start with a definition of art. Everyone has a different definition, and mine is broad. Art is something created with the purpose of influencing another's emotions. It could be a movie, a song, a building, a conversation with your friend, a cake, a striptease, and yes, even a game. I like a broad definition because I can comprehend the "artistry" involved in those things.

Quality is not a consideration. Many say, "that's not art" about bad art. But it's still art. Intent is a consideration. I would insist that the Mona Lisa was not art if a lion sat on some paint, and then sat on a canvas, and accidentally crafted it. I'd feel bad for being such a dick about it, but if anything capable of emotionally moving someone is art, regardless of intent, then the term is meaningless. Dirt is art. Sunlight is art. For the sake of a useful definition, I prefer to keep that off the table, even if you believe in a higher power.

And because art is about making you experience something, I tend to think of it as limited parcels of experience. The beauty is in its ability to share experience in complete safety. Movies are good at this. They don't have the same value as experiencing it directly, but I get a limited experience of hunting evil, or commanding citizens, or being hunted by someone. And in the traditional plotting of film, I also get to experience overcoming my flaws as a human being to do the right thing, or not doing it and experiencing a harrowing tragedy. It's these experiences, when they really emotionally hit me, that have the power to grant insights into my fellow man, for the better. That's where I see value in the arts.

That empathy is the thing that positively affects society. Map scientific progress to a timeline of humanity and there's an obvious and pleasant story for science. Map art to that timeline and do those experiences even help us? Do we become better society as a result? A more moral society? I believe so. It's the conversations we have with each other through art that increases empathy for each other, that slowly moves societies away from oppression and violence. Which isn't to say there isn't a lot of room for improvement. But I'm rather sure I would be more comfortable traveling through this world than the same one in say, 1000 A.D.

I have science to thank again. Not just because it improves our ability to police wrongdoing, but because it makes the proliferation of art that much more possible. The art that a single channel can generate to change my mind or opinion might be small -- and artists tend to tell and retell the same human stories ad nauseum -- but the number of channels that a wide variety of artists can use to deliver a more custom way of telling that story, and moving me, is now staggering.

And technology made games possible. Games are in their infancy, but I have high hopes for their ability to put you in the shoes of someone else, because it pricks so many senses at once. (And the term "games" get to cheat because they'll always be attached to an experience wherein you have great control over your actions.) As we learn how to manipulate emotions and bring more emotional experiences to you, our ability to have moral lessons will increase, whether they come from a ham fisted story, an abhorrent tragedy, or just an interesting simulation of how the world reacts to your behavior.

I love games and feel good about what they bring society because I feel like I'm pioneering an artform that has great potential to influence with positive and negative stories alike, in relative safety. In my book, games are a welcome pebble in the container of experiences that have the power to -- even if slowly -- improve the human condition.