Monday, April 19, 2010

Why I Care

Oh, Roger. There are probably a million game blogs with a million better-written opinions about your recent article, "Video games can never be art," but for better or worse, I won't be content without adding my own.
"Why are gamers so intensely concerned, anyway, that games be defined as art?"
The short answer? Because it affects the growth of our medium. The long answer begins by pointing out how useless a subjective definition of art is. Useless, because two individuals can merely disagree about whether they are moved and accurately claim that something both is and is not art.

By contrast, the Wikipedia definition, "Art is the process or product of deliberately arranging elements in a way to affect the senses or emotions," is useful because it prioritizes the act of creation above its wildly subjective effect. By this definition, an earnest conversation by a friend, a meal from Mom, or a dance with a lover would be considered art. And why not? Did less emotion drive the words of a friend than the pen of Shakespeare? Or push the spoon with less heart than a master chef? Or move the feet of my lover with less passion than a dancer? What resonated more strongly with me? If an audience is necessary, how many people must be moved? If da Vinci painted the Mona Lisa for himself, would it be art? What if no one found it?

This less subjective definition casts a wide net, making the role of critic more important. A good critic connects us to art we may find compelling and exposes why it compels us. Whether the critic personally likes a piece (or calls it art) is less important to us than how well it informs our own preference. Critics help audiences find artists, and artists hone their messages, paving the way for the next da Vinci, Shakespeare, and Welles.

Game players and creators also argue over the definition of art, but no one questions that the rules and setting of a game affects senses and emotions. Games like Chess put us in the role of tactician, exposing us to the vast possibilities of the human mind. Football puts us on the battlefield, aligning fans and team alike in a battle against the enemy. Perhaps these rules don't apply because the games are too traditional, or the emotions too easy. But millions were just as immersed in hell as a lone gunman oppressed by evil forces in Doom. Still too easy? Hundreds of thousands felt "brotherly" love protecting a "sisterly" innocent from a paternal force in Ico. Still too easy? Thousands felt the struggle between self-expression and child-rearing in Gravitation.

Notice the number getting smaller? The more nuanced the experience, the smaller the audience, so I want critics that engage us in discussion and help audiences connect to these experiences. I want more creators exposed to what does and doesn't work so they reach wider audiences or surprise us with something from left field. I care less whether baseball and basketball are considered art because the experiences they offer are not struggling to reach an audience. I care about the fledgling voices pushing us towards new horizons.

And I care about a movie critic using his influence to push us out of the clubhouse. Doing so hinders connection, adds fuel to the fire of politicians seeking censorship, and excuses cynical executives for silencing important voices. It's ironic that a critic would do this, more so without expertise in the medium, and even more so under the guise of defending art. Designers faced enough challenges advancing the medium before Roger Ebert turned blowhard.