Intellectual Art, Popular Media, and Getting Away from Aesthetic Subjectivity

In the May 2012 issue of the Atlantic, writer Taylor Clark has an excellent profile of videogame developer Jonathan Blow. He’s misanthropic, severely thoughtful, and somewhat abrasive. But he’s also a brilliant creator and a near perfect example of what Clark thinks the medium needs more of: developers willing to make smart videogames.

Because for Clark the medium is currently an “artistic backwater” that produces only a few truly artful videogames in a sea teeming with “dumb” ones.

Many think that Clark is wrong and that Blow is overhyped. I disagree for several reasons. While a lot of gaming commentators see the “videogames as art” discussion as tired and fruitless, I think it’s timely and imperative. So I thought I might put it in the context of the ongoing League debate over artistic relativism.

The following positions were developed in previous posts and I will here attempt to (imperfectly) summarize them.

The Relativist

Sam Wilkinson defines the snob,

“These people assume that their own preferences are somehow literally superior, as opposed to simply being different. It is possible to run into these people regardless of the thing in question: snobs about cigarettes, snobs about beers, snobs about art, snobs about movies, snobs about food, snobs about clothing.”

Sam argues that claiming A is better than B is a matter of preference, because its based not upon factual truths about A or B, but upon facts about the person(s) making the judgment.

According to Sam, “…all artistic production has no intrinsic, inherent value beyond an individual’s consideration of it.”

For example,

“When somebody says that Citizen Kane is the greatest film of all time, they’re almost certainly reflecting their belief that Citizen Kane is the greatest film of all time as a result of the way in which it lined up with their own needs and wants of a movie. However, they are no more right than the person who says Adam Sandler’s latest is the peak of cinematic achievement, even if a thousand critics and a thousand scholars line up in opposition. That person prefers the one to the other. It is as simple as that.”

We might produce elaborate frameworks that point toward one or another pieces of art being better, but because these frameworks themselves are based on descriptive, valueless facts about our preferences, they hold no water. I sense Sam is nibbling around the edges of the naturalistic fallacy here.

Finally, in his own words,

“I am not arguing against the ordering of works of art within given critical schemes, but rather, the acknowledgement that those critical schemes are the creations of human beings almost certainly driven by their biases, their preferences, their pleasures, and their pains.”

The Realist

Tod Kelly lays out the three issues with art relativism as he seems them,

“1. Those who claim that art is only a matter of taste – or that consumer-based measurements are the best metric of art – are usually confusing “art appreciation” with “liking” something.

2. In the big Venn diagram of life, there is very little overlap of those that preach relativism in a form of art and those that have seriously studied that form of art.

3. There is however a surprisingly large – and perhaps ironic – overlap between those that are so confident that all art is relative, and those that rail against moral, religious, political, or any other kind of relativism.”

He then makes a case for artistic merit through virtuosity,

“I don’t particularly care for Ulysses. (I’ve always been a Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man guy.) I did enjoy John Grisham’s The Firm a lot; seriously, I found it a real page turner. But those two books are not equal in artistic merit. I don’t need to “like” Ulysses to appreciate the level of genius it took to craft its seemingly endless pages.  Similarly, I can understand that Grisham lacks that genius of a literary master and still really enjoy The Firm.”

He goes on to explain that the commercial and popular success of the latter versus the former has largely to do with accessibility. Art like The Firm is contemporary and has few barriers to interpretation, unlike Ulysses, which requires a lot of literary interpretation and secondary literature for its message(s) to be brought to the surface.

However, for Tod, this doesn’t mean a hierarchy of art is possible. The “symbiosis of objectivity and subjectivity” obscures too much for any single ordering to be very widely accepted.

The objectivity is their though, and it comes in through how hard it is to do something. Even if the rest is subjective, this component of virtuosity allows works of art to potentially be judged against one another at least on a case-by-case basis.

The Pluralist

Mr. Cupp thinks that “truth is not one, but many,” and that, “what we call truth is something both disclosed and created by signification, by the expression of meaning through language, art, music, etc.”

This grasp of many truths establishes a foundation upon which, according to Cupp, he can provide incomplete and circumstantial judgments. However, when these many truths conflict, there is a problem. Specifically because our perceptions differ “due to our respective tastes, affinities, abilities to experience and appreciate the art.”

But also because,

“Each [work of art] has its own meaning, of course, but also its own direction, its own laws and rules and regulations.  Each has its own language, its own vocabulary, and its own truth, beauty, and goodness.  Each is doing its own thing, apart from all others and even apart from the intentions of the artist and the approaches of those who experience it.  The differences here are not absolute, but nor are they insignificant.”

The result is that “it’s possible to compare two works of art, but only by abstraction and with a loss of perception,” precluding Cupp from ever making a final, definitive judgment.

Beyond Aesthetics

I think art can be good and bad, worse and better, low and high. Not necessarily aesthetically though. Sam’s central point is undeniable. You can’t tell someone they don’t prefer what they prefer (assuming they are in their right mind). However, to the degree that a piece of art is aesthetically pleasing to someone, to the degree that it sensually excites them and they draw pleasure from it, asking whether or not that itself is a good thing seems fair.

In other words, a person might find child pornography aesthetically arresting, but that doesn’t mean we would necessarily encourage, respect, or even tolerate that preference. And to the extent that an individual’s preference is not only considered taboo, but criminal and morally repugnant as well, we seem perfectly fine and willing to render a verdict on the matter. This is Tod’s 3rd bullet point.

But Sam doesn’t necessarily fall into that category, and might accuse me of shoving arbitrary preferences in through the back door. And it might be on this point that the question turns. However, I’ll table the need to ground morality at for this post and simply note that if you don’t buy into moral realism, the idea that we can judge one set of behaviors against another, you probably won’t buy into artistic realism either.

I do though, and while I wouldn’t constrain the criteria for good art by leaving it to the dictates of platitudinous moralizing, I do look to art’s critical and philosophic function as its primary one. And given developments in the “art world” during the past century, it’s hard not to. After all, how do you make sense of the various movements and schools without looking to their philosophically-based critical frameworks?

Recent art appears to be less an aesthetically informed object in itself and instead a comment on or reaction to, something else (including conceptions of what it itself should be). Its function is largely rhetorical with the form, the how of it, being collapsed into the content, or what of it, so that you need to have a working knowledge of formal elements even to be able to understand what the piece of art might be getting at.

In a way it’s like blogging. If you aren’t familiar with some of the standard conventions and courtesies, or with the ongoing discussion into which you’re being dropped, it’s likely you won’t have a good grasp of what the other person is really saying. Except that art, like philosophy or any other specialization of knowledge, is jargon filled and operating in a peculiar sort of market.

Which brings us to Sam’s problem with ranking art. Deeply commercial art forms like film and videogames need to appeal to most people. As a result they need to be accessible, which often means cutting through the intellectualized discourse and simplifying the message. Instead, they need to be driven by pleasure rather than a complex message, question, or commentary. What’s left for the most part then really is a matter of preference. Do you prefer Braveheart or Gladiator? They are certainly different movies, but both star leading men, both are set in the distant past, and both won Best Picture. The themes of both movies are largely the same as well: dealing with loss, subverting the political order, crucifixion.

The same thing happens with videogames. Is Fallout 3 better than The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim? It really just comes down to whether you prefer guns or swords, nukes or magic, dystopic wastelands or medieval fantasy. Even comparing largely disparate games like Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 and Final Fantasy XIII-2 comes down mainly to genre preferences. Do you prefer multiplayer FPSs or single-player JRPGs? That’s because neither is really saying anything that deep or provocative. Both can be very fun, but it depends on who’s playing which.

Now of course this doesn’t stop people from trying to outmaneuver one another. Many JRPG players claim to have better taste than Battlefield players, who in turn claim to be more sophisticated than Call of Duty players. But all of this is a tribalism-driven shell game. The market for these products is driven by people, specifically their subjective experiences with the videogames that are created, so it shouldn’t be any wonder that the world of videogames, and I think film to a large degree (as well as other popular forms of media), is permeated by a sense of artistic relativism.

However, that’s mainly because of the nature of art as entertainment. Art as representation or imitation was ripe for judging. Art as manifesto or internal critique equally so. But art as pleasure, not so much. Which leaves me only with these two thoughts (which I’m sure I’m not the first to have).

If art is to be a meaningful category for describing human creation, simply calling anything that elicits an aesthetic reaction or a pleasurable response art isn’t enough. Which is another way of saying that most popular art is quite useless as art, even if it’s amazingly good as entertainment.

The other thought is that videogame criticism is probably so poor in part because its object  provides very little that can be meaningfully critiqued from a non-technical or commercial perspective. I don’t think I’m the only one who would like to see that change.

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104 thoughts on “Intellectual Art, Popular Media, and Getting Away from Aesthetic Subjectivity

    • I’m going to beat my drum again.. . video games are an awful medium for narrative storytelling. The push to shoehorn them into ‘art’ isn’t going to bear much fruit. We spend nearly zero time debating whether or not chess is art. We never sit around and complain that if only certain people would do things a certain way, that we could realize the real artistic possibilities in the next Packers-Vikings game.

      Video games as narrative media has been a bad diversion video games have taken, a frame that designers shoved them into to overcome technical limits that has continued to spiral out of control even as those limits have started to fall away. Game criticism is terrible, yes, but that’s because we still don’t have any idea what video games are even for. As long as most of the critical community is trying hard to see games slightly interactive versions of Bad Boys 2, I don’t see how it’s going to change.

      The Atlantic piece, which I happened to read yesterday on a plane, was terribly facile. I want to deride Mr. Blow as the pretentious twit the piece makes him out to be, but it’s just as likely that Clark’s made him out that way. Braid is a great work, but it looks like Blow has learned only all the wrong lessons from it, the monomania you see in that piece is stunning (and, again, may be very exaggerated by Clark’s awful work). Awful people sometimes produce a great work, that has minimal bearing on much of anything else.

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      • Sorry, David, this was supposed to be standalone.

        I did want to LOL at that comment., does anyone seriously believe that the gaming world is in dire need of a revolution that only a Myst clone can spark?

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        • In the Atlantic profile, Blow is described as creating a game that sounds quite a lot like Myst with even more beautiful graphics and quite a bit more melancholy to its backstory. It doesn’t seem to be a narrative that the player is propelled through (a la Skyrim). From what I could gather, it’s a backstory which the player discovers non-linerally through gameplay. I don’t think that counts as “narrative;” it seems more like a painting or a sculpture than a movie or a novel.

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            • “I’m going to beat my drum again.. . video games are an awful medium for narrative storytelling.”

              awful might be pushing a bit too far, but generally yeah. those attempts either end up being twee fodder (braid was not my thing) or far more commonly a michael baysplosions experience which may make for good popcorn but generally not great storytelling (i would put space operas like mass effect in that bucket as well).

              that said, there are exceptions – planescape torment being the most obvious.

              what they’re really good at, particularly the more open world stuff, is creating a world in which players can craft their own narratives from their experiences. at their best, i think of something like fallout 1 and 2, or more recently the stalker series. i had many great and memorable moments in those games, but very very few of them were crafted intentionally by the developers. instead they allowed the situations to develop through the rudimentary ai and environmental tools they had at their disposal.

              even the first crysis, which is about as manshooty as you can get, had a lot of emergent situations. (the second not so much, but i was kinda put off a bit by the obvious 9/11 parallels, though they were fairly effective at creating a simulacra nyc which captured a bit of what it felt like right after the attacks – so perhaps it was more effective than i give it credit.)

              a great game in my estimation, then, is one which crafts an experience worth telling stories about.

              on the subject of games criticism, rockpapershotgun.com is really the only place where pc folk should sup. they “get it”.

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        • I don’t do said conflating, the “interactive” narrative is the centerpiece for those who insist video games have this massive untapped potential as art.

          I had not read it before today, but the David Thier Forbes post that Ethan links makes a similar point, it’s one of the best essays on this art brouhaha I’ve read.

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      • Plinko, I see your point about the potential limits of the video game as an artistic medium.  We’ll see, I guess.  Jonathan Blow hit a marvelous meld of form and function with Braid, [although its “reverse chronology” isn’t terribly different from Pinter’s Betrayal or the film Memento], but it could be more like a one-off.  Right now, his next game, The Witness, seems to be Myst with an overlay of BlaiseP-type impressionistic philosophizing.

        I did enjoy the Atlantic article a lot, though, and found Blow’s musings on the nature and process of art is be right-on.  Whether that results in good art is another question, though: the rubber is not the road.  Sometimes crap comes with a brilliant explanation while what makes a masterpiece remains unarticulable.

        Nice job, Mr. Gach.  You write, “If art is to be a meaningful category for describing human creation, simply calling anything that elicits an aesthetic reaction, a pleasurable response, isn’t enough.”

        As a classicist and one who even believes there’s a metaphysical dimension to aesthetics, this would be in my philosophical wheelhouse.  However, I do have a weakness for the French idea of “Only Connect.”  Absent a connection between artist and audience, is art still a medium, in the truest sense of the idea?  And if a connection between two people, artist and audience, is made, then isn’t the piece already successful as art?

        And I admit I really hate “art” that comes with an instruction booklet.  Surely there must be some visceral reaction!  One need not know the backstory of Michaelangelo’s Pieta to be stunned by it.

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        • Another puzzle game, leading to enlightenment?   Puh-leeze.  What games need today was defined a long time ago by von Neumann.   I can’t recall exactly how it went, something like this:

          You can only approximate truth.   Truth is too complicated for anything but approximations.   But if you approach the truth empirically and reach some solution, it takes on an artistic life of its own thereafter.   Too much of that sort of thing and the only way to save it is to start over with the empirical evidence.

          Games these days are stupid because they’re still suffering from some exceedingly primitive ideas about games theory.   There are no two-player games out there worth a damn, beyond some of these trivialities like Words With Friends.   The AI is primitive, character development is startlingly inept:  too much work goes into the physics of rolling balls and too little into meaningful strategy and tactics.   I see more life in the game of Go than what’s coming out these days.

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            • Not some split screen hoo-hah, two players.   Playing each other.   And don’t get me started on those goddamn FPSes like Team Fortress.   Flamethrowers as weapons?   Eet eez to larf.

              I have a solution for these jackass FPS developers.   I will turn them loose in a ruined neighbourhood and I will hunt them with a bona-fried large-bore semiautomatic weapon.   It will cure what’s wrong with their gameplay, for I will kill about five or six of them and make the rest of them carry off their dead and wounded comrades, over their shoulders, a longlong way down a muddy trail.

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                • Nah.  You have to play the game all day and all night, with people you come to know really well.   Then when they get killed, or you get killed, no more playing the game again.  Ever. You get to salute their boots and their helmet. And you get to live with it for the rest of your life.

                  You might come visit their wives and kids. Might go to Arlington to see where they’re buried. Call it a game extra.

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                  • It was a website that was started and run by a cop who was paralyzed by a bullet in the line of duty.  It’s gone now and it’s very likely because of the health issues that came up due to said bullet.

                    At one point, he wrote an article about the outcry at the time for more realism in FPS games.  The article was quite well-written and discussed how FPS games will never be able to duplicate what it’s actually like to be in a gunfight. 

                    Your comment reminded me of the article so much that I was wondering if you may have read it or a similar article.

                    On a related note:

                    Certainly, there have been attempts to simulate realism.  The early Rainbow 6 games, from normal to hard, used bullets as one shot kills often.  You take a bullet to the throat and you were down.  There was no magic first aid kit or food lying on the ground that instantly healed you.  It was “reset time”.

                    Gamers hated it.  Along the same lines of what I wrote below about games being product, gamers found that they really didn’t want more realism.  They just wanted more awesome.

                     

                     

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              • I think you’re confusing “game” with “murder simulator”.

                Team Fortress 2 is a game. Everything — from the weapons to the character designs (the latter done in a style to make their silloute easy to distinguish between classes at a distance) is done to promote a fun, competitive game. Which is generally “King of the Hill” or “Capture the Flag”, only instead of tackling people you shoot cartoons with cartoon weapons.

                A “murder simulator” would be what you’re after, but those aren’t generally fun to most people. Which is good, because that means most people don’t want to go out and violently kill people.

                Instead, they’d like to play Capture the Flag.

                I do eagerly await your rant against every form of military action adventure — movies to literature — that does not live up 100% to realistic depictions of the fact that, you know, shooting people is generally a bad thing even in extreme circumstances.

                I do suggest trying to secure the pay-per-view rights for your forthcoming Tom Clancy hunt.

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                • Oh don’t kid yerself.   War has been glorified forever.   I started this by saying any empirical approach to truth takes on an artistic life of its own thereafter, with periodic re-injections of empirical evidence.   If ever there was Empirical Truth given to Artistique Flights of Fancy, Tom Clancy is the pilot.

                  Here’s the deal.   The porn industry bought the first really hardcore high-volume web servers.   They’ve been pioneers in video and audio ever since.   Porn was the first money-making venture out here.    Now the games industry is out here, too.   Like porn, the games people are selling cheap thrills, seemingly devoid of consequences.   And like porn, games are tremendously popular.

                  No rants from me about what folks like.   But let’s not play little self-deluding games about what’s Bad and Good out here.   As you so correctly point out, the BlaiseP Smell-o-Vision accessory kit would not sell terribly well in the wargaming community.   That would be just Turrible.   But in accordance with the dicta of the acknowledged creator god of gaming theory, John von Neumann,  periodic re-injections of empirical truth are required.

                  Jus’ keepin’ it real, brotha man.

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                  • You’re not keeping it real so much as having a weird, paranoid/delusional breakdown about first person shooters. Assuming you’re not indulging in some form of performance art, and I’m not falling into a sarchasm.

                    What point you might have had sorta went “bye-bye” the instant you brought up Team Fortress 2, simply because Team Fortress 2 is noted — famous for, actually — it’s cartoonish style and graphics. It is further from “real” than paintball mode on Goldeneye. It’s about as realistically violent as a Bugs Bunny cartoon.

                    Now, the whole “playing FPS will lead people to kill and glorify guns” argument is a bit stupid to begin with — not to mention dated. But if you were going to take a hack at it, you should stick with the FPS’s that are designed to be realistic.

                    And even then, perhaps you should start with bemoaning modern TV — it’s got a lot more eyeballs than FPS’s, after all.

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                    • He makes a good point with the porn industry which reminded me of another conversation that I had.  The basic gist of the conversation was how, when we were kids (oh, who am I kidding?  When this old man was a kid), we got off to the women’s underwear section in the Sears catalog with the hardcore stuff being the occasional Playboy.  As time went on, Playboy wasn’t good enough so porn came about.  But, as time went on, porn went from the “softcore” stuff that you saw in Stallone’s movie to the Hardcore with the camera angles that left nothing to the imagination.  Now, that isn’t good enough and there are an increasing number of sites that cater to the ultra-hardcore/fetish thing.

                      Saying that the modern-day FPS leads people to glorify war as opposed to guns is not an unwarranted observation.  All you have to do is play the recent CODs or the last Medal of Honor for that.  Hell, I wrote a blog on how the advertising (and, later, the demo) for Just Cause 2 made me uneasy.  One of the trailers had you stealing a small plane and then flying it into a pair of skyscrapers.  The game’s premise (which plays out less like a Michael Bay movie and more like George W Bush’s vision of Iraq) is that, if you reduce a country to abject poverty by blowing up all their sources of food and energy (including setting off a nuclear bomb on their off-shore oil fields), they will love you because you got rid of the dictator who was in charge.

                      It is not an unjustified stance to say that a lot of the military FPS and even some of the more fantastical games such as Just Cause 2 lead to a glorification of war.  Maybe using TF2 was a bad example but it doesn’t invalidate the point.

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                    • I didn’t bring up TF2.   That was Plinko.   Do try to convince me you’re not just another illiterate bumpkin: thus far I am not particularly impressed with your rhetorical or reasoning skills.

                      I don’t have any reservations about violent video games.  I just don’t distinguish them from violent pornography.   I do hope you’re broad-minded enough not to condemn pornography.   Video games which might involve stomping on kittens or dropping depth charges on a pod of whales might offend some folks, but if it was cartoonified, I do hope I can rely on you to defend it.   After all, it’s for the lulz, in terribly short supply these days.

                      Guns will be glorified whether or not I have anything to say about it.   I really don’t care.   I didn’t care with my kids, I don’t care about what anyone around here does with their free time, Jaybird’s a great guy who plays a lot of different games and I pay attention to what he has to say.

                      Suit the action to the word, the word to the action, with this special observance, that you o’erstep not the modesty of nature: for any thing so o’erdone is from the purpose of playing, whose end, both at the first and now, was and is, to hold as ’twere the mirror up to nature: to show virtue her feature, scorn her own image, and the very age and body of the time his form and pressure.

                      Run along now and hoist up some cartoon game.   Or maybe some particularly interesting hentai.   Have some fun, Morat, the cartoonier, the better.

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                    • Uh, yeah.   Those of us who have raised Boy Children have been down to Worst Buy and bought all sorts of games.   Controllers and video cards, too.   Headsets and all manner of similar appurtenances.

                      Now, perhaps you’ll vent your spleen in a productive direction.  I need a working defence of violent pornography, a subject on which I’m pretty sure you’re the resident authority around here.   Enlighten us, Duck.

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                    • I love how you type twelve paragraphs about how first-person action games can’t even be anything but Violent Murder Simulators and then tell me that I should “vent my spleen productively”.

                      Again, it’s If He Types Enough Then He Won’t Have Been Wrong.

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                    • Wrong?  How so, you obtuse little man?   I derive no pleasure from shooting people, having done so in a real Call of Duty context.  Call it Aesthetic Subjectivity, I have concluded the pleasure derived from violence in video games is no different than the sadistic pleasure derived from violent pornography.

                      You may not share that sentiment.   It’s a question of Mind over Matter.   I don’t mind.  You don’t matter.

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              • Starcraft is not split screen. My point was there’s a lot more great possibilities in a ‘game’ by just eliminating the AI entirely. Before we had video games, a ‘game’ was a structured interaction between people – I still believe many of the best things we can get from games are when we play together or against each other. My fondest memories of my teen years was spent with my friends playing split screen multiplayer games on my N64, it was a fantastic shared experience that I am sad to may never be repeatable.

                TF2 is not a ‘murder simulator’, though you are free to disagree. I chose it deliberately because it’s a completely different thing from the Battlefield and Call of Duty – games out there that are really properly described as murder simulators. I used to enjoy those games (I still occasonally pick up Day of Defeat), but I lost my taste for them a long time ago. I do not wish to argue with your visceral distaste for the entire FPS genre, but in my mind TF2 successfully makes the transition into properly belonging more with real games or sports. It is not a simulation of reality, it’s not even intended to be a reasonable facsimile, it’s a game with rules and conventions that one learns and plays.

                I used to long for more realism in the multiplayer FPS genre, not any more.

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            • The hard way, huh?  (dark amusement)  Do any of his students end up in Walter Reed?   Or Arlington Cemetery?   I will tell you a simple truth:  first person shooter games are snuff porn.   Very few people actually die of gunshot.   They live a long time and they make a lot of noise while they’re dying from blood loss or shock.   The people around them start making a lot of noise too, crying and shouting and losing their minds.  The helo crews who come in to extract them get the worst of it, coming in hot.   Lots of people get shot just trying to get them out.

              Oh the improvements I could make to First Person Shooters.   Oh my.

              Roughly five thousand troops have died in Iraq and Afghanistan.   More troops have committed suicide in the same time frame.   Wonder how that gets factored into your buddy’s gaming strategy.

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              • Yeah but these days, you have to unload a half to full clip in someone (during the SP anyway) for them to die.  I imagine that the people who had a full clip unloaded into them in a pattern that usually ranges from upper chest to face weren’t making a whole lot of noise.

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                    • Let them play their little shoot ’em up games.   It’s a free country.   I’d very much like to slap helmets on their heads and give them a good swift kick in the ass and send them out along the dusty roads of Afghanistan or Somalia or some other benighted zone, where the veneer of civilization has peeled up a bit, to see if they learned anything.

                      Matter of fact, why don’t you volunteer?   Plenty of wicked old jihadis out there in the weeds for brave souls like you to flush out like so many partridges.   When it comes to sick fucks, the world is full of ’em.  My sick fuck detector has only gotten better over time and I strongly believe you might just be one.

                       

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                    • Amusingly, I said something close in the comments under Yahtzee’s COD:Black Ops review.

                      It ended with me being called a hippie for telling people that military FPS really don’t describe how horrible it actually is in a war zone as well as forwarding the position that the solution to the problems in the Middle East wasn’t “Exterminate all of them”.  (Ironically, the person who was making such comments said that he would not join the military while I come from a family that is largely military.)

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                    • What these War Porn games need is Smell-o-Vision.   Take about twenty kilos of fresh human feces, stir in a couple of gallons of fuel, set it on fire, stir vigorously for twenty minutes, make sure the barrel is upwind of your game console and you’ll add oh-so-much realism to your fire base.

                      “Smells like victory!”

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              • the hard way, as in “learn from experience and getting your ass whupped.” Okay, so not the “really hard way” where they gotta die.

                … also, who the fuck said we were talking First Person Shooters?

                Military don’t pay outside contractors to come in and whup people at those dang things. We’re talking wargames, logistics, all that jazz. I dunno how detailed they got in manpower…

                (have you played X-Com? That did quite a bit with psyops as I recall. Good game too.)

                Also, I have relatives who were on “first responder” duty in Israel — What you say ain’t news to me.. We got smarter about how to keep the bleeding people alive, mostly.

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                • I didn’t drag TF2 in here.   Thank Plinko for that.   As for logistics for the military, I’ve done work for both USTRANSCOM and USARMY logistics and supply.   Way back when, I was a linguist and a trainer, turning people from the Bronze Age into competent infantrymen.   I continue to get interesting job offers from people who somehow have me on file as a Pashto and Arabic language guy.

                  Yesterday, if memory serves, yes…(scrollscroll)  I said I was puzzled by my lack of interest in video games, how it sort of embarrassed me, to which Burt Likko responded in jest (it really did make me laff!)  Get off BlaiseP’s lawn, you damn kids!    I then tried to explain why, and you recommended System Shock.   I watched my son play System Shock back in the day.   More bullshit AI.  Sorry, I write AI for a living.   Not fucking interested.   AI doesn’t encapsulate ethical constructs.   It never will.

                  As for Israel, well, they’ve settled into an eternal battle for their Jewish State.   There’s no Pause Button on their little game.   The Israeli kids are all leaving, as fast as they can get out.   Soon Israel will be stuck with all those non-hard-fighting Hasidim, a good many of them opposed to the very existence of the State of Israel, palling around with the State of Iran.   Israel is an object lesson straight out of Kafka, the cage that went in search of a bird.

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                    • ROFL!   Now you just toddle on over to Sandia Labs’ website and pick up a copy of JESS.   It’s a bit dated, I now roll my own AI solutions, but it’s a dandy little launchpad for ackshul fackshul machine intelligence.

                      I just don’t see any ethical constructs in there, try as I may, and I’ve been around JESS for a long time.   Maybe you can find some.   Or maybe…. you can write up some.   Gosh, it would be so useful to have such a library.   Let’s call it com.rawls.veil.   There ya go.

                       

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                  • “I didn’t drag TF2 in here.  ”

                    You’re right, because the conversation was:

                    BlaiseP:  “FPS games are all just kill simulators that pretend to show you war and the only people who play them are the ones who want to violently murder a bunch of innocents but haven’t got the guts!”

                    Plinko:  “Dude, TeamFortress 2 is a murder simulator?  Really?”

                    BlaiseP:  “Whatever, I’m still right and you know it!  Here have some poetry.”

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      • I agree with your references to chess and football. And I think that’s what most videogames are like. But there are many others types of digital interactive experiences that are possible, and which a few people in the medium are exploring, that couldn’t easily be called a game (e.g. you don’t win, you aren’t playing against someone). I think those latter kinds of loosely designed experiences present a new way for examining the human condition that other forms like books, film, and music don’t.

        Which is only to say that at least someone (though certainly more than just him) are trying to make art using the medium, rather than just more entertaining games. I love Mass Effect 3, Skyrim, and Call of Duty, but certainly there’s got to be other things we could be using it for as well.

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        • Minecraft, to name the most prominent (and probably best) example,came to my mind when I woke up this morning. Is It’s hardly even a game, but I would say it’s also an incredibly important piece of figuring out what video games can be and should be. I hesitate to refer to it as art, it’s nearly a medium unto itself. I suspect there is a lot more great possibility down the Minecraft road than the Skyrim road, myself.

          The great thing about the new-ish indie game movement is how some designers have been able to push the boundries of what is a “game” entirely.That’s what gets me so much about Blow and the article (or rather, the portrayal of Mr. Blow in the article) – that he seems to have zero concept of his games to be anything but didactic. He wants you create potential experiences so you get a message, and he seems quite frustrated when the world doesn’t get exactly the message he wants. He seems like a very bright but emotionally stunted child.

          When he derides the simple game experiences that are so popular now (Zynga’s schtick, Angry Birds), he seems to have no concept of the possibilities you outlined where the gamer creates an experience interactively with the game itself.

           

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          • Minecraft is good. Dwarf Fortress is….interesting, to say the least. EVE Online was groundbreaking, and not just for the 18+ month infiltration and assasination that became so famous…

            Although I still enjoyed watching that video of Minecraft simulating an 8-bit adder. Turing machines indeed.

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  1. Video games have lost every iota of charm for me.   Used to play a fair bit.  Over time, less and less.   Finally it was down to two Microsoft Flight Simulator setups:  27 Left at O’Hare, in a Learjet, approaching in the driving rain.   The other was a zero-thrust free fall onto an aircraft carrier deck in a Learjet.

    I periodically go back and have a look-see, hoping the situation has improved.   It hasn’t.   I’m not reducing the argument to Taylor Clark’s obvious idiocy:  I remember when games were lots of fun.   Lots of AI people I know work hard to make these characters into viable simulacra.   Artists, storytellers, the entire gamut of skills which goes into the craft of videogames has always pushed the hardware to the limits, pushed computing hard, in the right directions in most cases.

    So why have games lost their appeal for me?   I can’t say.   This much I can say, nobody’s thinking about people like me when they write these games.   All these absurd combat games are worse than the vilest snuff pornography for me.   Maybe Max Planck was right, the old generation has to die off before opposition to this sort of thing goes away.    Call me old and irrelevant, I probably am.   I just don’t know why video games, which used to be a favourite pastime, simply died for me.

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        • Have you read “Trash, Art, and the Movies” by Paul Rossen? He tackles why older people might not like movies as much that in the later third of the essay. His theory is that because most movies only work as entertainment, and thus through certain aesthetic tools, once you’ve become accustomed to those tools (i.e. seen a lot of movies and had your fill of gangsters, cowboys, starships, etc.) they don’t work as well.

          I know that I personally enjoy playing games. But if I weren’t trying to write or think about them, I wouldn’t be able to justify spending much time with them. A few hours a week playing multiplayer or RTS? Sure. But not a lot of the stuff which would leave me feeling just as guilty as if I’d spend two straight days marching through BSG on Netflix.

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          • I especially like this bit:

            Perhaps the single most intense pleasure of moviegoing is this non-aesthetic one of escaping from the responsibilities of having the proper responses required of us in our official (school) culture. And yet this is probably the best and most common basis for developing an aesthetic sense because responsibility to pay attention and to appreciate is anti-art, it makes us too anxious for pleasure, too bored for response. Far from supervision and official culture, in the darkness at the movies where nothing is asked of us and we are left alone, the liberation from duty and constraint allows us to develop our own aesthetic responses. Unsupervised enjoyment is probably not the only kind there is but it may feel like the only kind.

            Too anxious for pleasure, too bored for response.   In the world of video gaming, especially violent gaming, we are reduced to little children brandishing our cap guns and shouting BANG BANG at each other.   We are not only liberated from duty but from consequences.   Testosterone, the molecule of rage, mixes with adrenaline, the molecule of motivation and we are given exactly what pornography gives us:  a disposable, anonymous, repeatable thrill.   It’s just a game, we tell ourselves.   Those people in the pornographic films are compensated for the seeming indignities of their professions, well, yes, everything’s a trade off.   Reprehensible?   I can’t say.   Transgressive?   Beyond a doubt.

            If this is so, if violence in movies and video games is merely blowing off so much hormonal steam in a harmless fashion, why shouldn’t we indulge in other sadistic simulacra where animals are crushed under foot or depth charges are dropped on whales?   Rule 34 comes into focus, there’s a porn for everything, starting with killing each other, the most primal exhibition of power and dominance since we first started throwing rocks at each other.   C’mon, in Hollywood, guns have always been fetish objects, talismans of power.   Where would the world be without James Bond’s Walther PPK?

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    • Because games have gotten easier, and dumber.

      Pick up System shock. It may not be the dangnabit “best” and most “realistic” combat thingy you’ve ever seen. But at least the weapons wear out, and you gotta count your bullets.

      And the monkeys are damn creepy.

      Playing it feels a lot like real combat — where the ais hide, jump out at you, etc.

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    • “Finally it was down to two Microsoft Flight Simulator setups:  27 Left at O’Hare, in a Learjet, approaching in the driving rain.   The other was a zero-thrust free fall onto an aircraft carrier deck in a Learjet.”

      Note carefully how these include absolutely no other human beings whatsoever.

      If your definition of “game” is “something I do entirely by myself” then sure, games haven’t “gotten better”.  But I remember how games used to include multiplayer features as a total afterthought–heck, I remember that some games would give you a redistributable copy of the multiplayer-only portions of the game for free!  That’s how little anyone thought of multiplayer, even as late as the mid-Nineties.

      These days it’s exactly the opposite.  Big single-player adventures with no multiplayer content (like Deus Ex) are the exception now.

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  2. Blow is a bloviating blowhard that mistakes 12th grade decoder ring literary “criticism” for original thought. That his works have achieved the notoriety they have is the clearest manifestation of gaming’s collective inferiority complex. We ill need a savior such as him.

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  3. By the way, I think a good general rule (that does have exceptions of course) about art might go like this:

    Good art may not appeal to the masses, but great art almost always does to some degree.

    It may be the case that most people don’t, in their everyday lives, listen to The Magic Flute, or read Don Quixote, or stare at Monet, but if you let them listen to it, or tell them Don Quixote‘s story, or let them see a Monet, almost everyone will appreciate them. Most people choose simple over hard, because thinking is something most of us choose not to do unless we have to, and good and great art tend to be harder than they are simple, but sometimes the difference between good art and great art is that the latter has something simple at its core.

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  4. Art is such a vague term, really. Video games are games first and art second. But they’re definitely art, or comprised of many pieces of art; interactive art, perhaps.

    Anyways, excellent post.

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  5. It’s far easier to identify great art in retrospect. Out of all the playwrights in not just the Elizabethan era, but the entire English Renaissance, one goes on to be a household name. That’s a hell of filter. Beware self-identified deep thinkers peddling contemporary work as great art.

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  6. Blow is indeed overhyped.  Much like Jeff Minter, he thinks he’s smarter than he really is when he just happened to be in the right place at the right time.

    As for “games are art”:

    If there was one good thing that came out of the Mass Effect 3 whinefest, it’s that Hideo Kojima was proven correct.  In 2005, Hideo made the comment in an OPM interview that “Videogames aren’t art”.  He then went on to describe how art is a reflection of the creator where videogames, due to their need to appeal to a wide audience, are a product.  They may be a product with artistic merits but, in the end, they are still a product.

    At the time, people were shocked to hear that the creator of games that were widely held up as “art” would say such a thing.  Seven years later, ME3 proved it.  As gamers, we prefer that our games be a product that matches our tastes rather than a work of art.  The art is secondary to the nature of the product.

    I believe that gamers debate the “games are art” as some form of navel-gazing circlejerk.  We do so because we believe that, by defining games as art, we elevate ourselves above the rabble.  We play them.  We “get it”.  We are enlightened.

    This is why it took so long for gaming to become mainstream.  We were so busy with the question “How can we make the public accept our games?” that it took Nintendo to tell us that was the wrong question.  Nintendo realized that the question should be “How can we make games that the public will accept”.

    Of course, this set off the whole “Hardcore vs. Casual” debate because, when games became mainstream, gamers suddenly “lost” what set them apart from the crowd.  All of a sudden, they were just gamers…..like everyone else.  Suddenly, the same gamers who had been asking how to get the public into gaming were now erecting these artificial barriers to preserve their own sense of uniqueness.

    In the end, the question “Are games art?” is as relevant as asking “Are paper towels art?”.  They can be.  Maybe you find the patterns on the towels artful or you put up a framed portrait of the Brawny Man.  However, in the end, the artistic merits are secondary to it’s purpose as a product.

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    • “Blow is indeed overhyped.  Much like Jeff Minter, he thinks he’s smarter than he really is when he just happened to be in the right place at the right time.”

      Not saying I would disagree, but I’m curious what your evidence is to support this theory.

      Also, I tried as hard as possible not to have the conventional “are videogames art” discussion. Instead, I’m asking can certain peices of art be better than others? If that’s the case, which I think it is, than who cares which videogames are art and which ones aren’t.

      Instead, what matters if which videogames are good art, and which ones are good fun. Those two things aren’t mutually exclusive, but few people are trying to focus on the former.

      I want to have a videogame experience that tells me something about time, causality, and knowledge that Whitehead or Hume does. Braid is attempting to do say something about those things in a way only a videogame can.

      I also want a videogame to tell me something about agency, humanity, and being in a way that Philip K. Dick, Blade Runner, or Satre does. Mass Effect 3 is trying to be fun, and has the trappings of being something more, but isn’t making that a priority, or structuring gameplay to fit it. That’s fine, but we have plenty of Mass Effects and not enough Braids.

      And we won’t have more of the latter until “gamers” cop the fact that just being a part of the pop cultural milieu isn’t enough.

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    • This goes back to the aesthetic realism argument. Is it possible for art to be “bad”?

      *IF* it is possible for “telling a story” to be an example of art

      AND *IF* it is possible for videogames to be this particular kind of telling a story

      AND *IF* it is possible for art to be done poorly…

      Then it might be possible for Mass Effect 3 to be bad art.

      Once we can establish that possibility, then we can discuss whether “introducing a character in the last chapter who fixes everything” is representative of bad art or not.

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      • Which is why I’m trying to “get away from aesthetic subjectivity,” and get to artistic realism, which would just be a form of general realism that employ aethetic/formal elements in a certain way. Because I don’t think that purely aesthetically ME3 could be bad, except perhaps for an individual, as in, person X will not derive pleasure from this so it will be a bad/poor choice for them. But in so far as ME3 is trying to make important/interesting/challenging statements about humanity vs. machinery, agency and collective guilt, etc. then what it’s saying on those things and how well that statement is reflected in the design of the game can be good or bad, or at least better or worse.

        Mass Effect 3 can still be a good game but poor art. But I’m pushing back against the notion that seems to have been widely accepted by the “gaming community” that all games are art and art is relative thus you must accept all our games because each one is valubale in its own way and playing them is not a waste of time.

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        • From what I understand, the video game proper is absolutely amazing when it comes to gameplay… it’s the last 5 minutes involving cutscenes that make people feel like they had an absolutely amazing dinner with an absolutely shitty dessert.

          As such, it seems easy to say that ME3 is a great game but fails as art (and, more’s the pity, because failure was avoidable).

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        • My opinion on Blow is a subjective one.

          “If all games are art, then being art is nothing special”-me when I used to debate the subject more frequently.

          I’m not sure that there is such a thing as artistic realism especially asking “can certain pieces of art be better than others”.  If you’re comparing across genres, that strikes me as arguing that a piece of music is inherently better/worse than a painting.  If you remain within a genre, that becomes a case of arguing whether Bach was better/worse than Brahms or whether a Rembrandt is better/worse than a Warhol.  Ultimately, such arguments come back to aesthetic subjectivity.

          Maybe there are people who believe that Lady Gaga is the most talented musician ever.  Is there really a way to say they’re objectively wrong without saying “Here is my subjective opinion which others agree on so I will present it as fact”?

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      • Um, someone has to conclude the art is Bad.   When we’re told a story or played a song, we the audience can vote with our feet. Robert Fripp said if you accept responsibility for innovating your own tradition, you can’t accept responsibility for the audience.

        Frankly, I’m getting sick of the aesthetic debate. It grates on my nerves no end. All these begged questions about aesthetic realism, it’s a contradiction in terms. Aesthetics is a personal matter and so is the creation of art. Two separate viewpoints.

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        • I don’t think saying that objective properties are subjectively pleasing gets you to strong aesthetic realism. Just because a person can identify the properties of objects which they find aesthetically pleasing doesn’t mean aesthetic properties inhere in objects. So the realism/anti-realism debate is about parsing.

          Or: given my experiences, I can justify why I like object X more than object Y by identifying the objective properties of each. But that doesn’t mean that there is a mind-independent fact of the matter that object X is better than object Y. But – and this is where it gets tricky – given that I in fact can identify those objective properties gives rise to the idea (strongly held!) that my judgment is objectively determined. Which it is! But only for me.

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          • Let’s pull that apart at the seams, see where it goes.    I’ll start with Byzantine art.   It’s symbolic stuff, no longer representational, highly stylized.   Important figures are big, less important figures are, well, little, they’re painted onto these flat gold backgrounds.   Vasari said it was degenerate, barbaric.   But it served its purpose well enough, we saw that sort of art return with Picasso and Giacometti, not merely symbolic figures, but images reduced to some essence.

            If I understand the premise of aesthetic realism, independent of the maniacs and tub-thumping dualist / gnostic folks, good art has some kinship with reality.   If there’s any objective properties to measure, it’s like looking at the cave art in Lascaux, exquisitely rendered bulls but little stick figure people.    We know those bulls well enough, the people, ecch, interesting watching them running around but it’s the bulls we really like, because we can draw stick people but those bulls, well, that’s great art.

            There’s no objective or subjective in these judgements.   It might be intersubjective, insofar as we all might agree the Lascaux bulls are great art, but let’s be careful when we start in on Objectivity in this context.   Art is not real life.   It’s made by real artists.   If those Lascaux bulls are meaningful, we’ve given them meaning.

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        • It is amusing to think of the story of Metal Gear Solid, a mix of warmed-over technothriller ripoffs and oddness for oddness’s sake, as being a sort of performance-art piece by Kojima.  “Games cannot be art,” he says, “and here, I’ll make a bad one on purpose to prove it.”

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  7. I think the biggest problem with “Are Video Games Art” is the fact that 99% of the people trying to ask the question start by using artistic measures designed for other mediums. Which is pretty much the exact same issue with “Are movies art” had, and I suspect every new creative medium suffered under.

    Books aren’t movies aren’t photographs aren’t paintings aren’t video games. What is “artistic” under each has few similarities, and those are so general as to be meaningless.

    To me, a videogame is “artistic” if the gameplay is good, the setting engaging, the story enthralling — or to put it another way, if I look up and am surprised to see it’s 4:00AM.

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    • But doesn’t that beg the question that if a videogame where the “gameplay is good, the setting engaging, the story enthralling” is artistic, what important explanative role does the term even have at that point? It also begs the question of what makes the gameplay good, what makes the setting engaging, what makes the story enthralling (the answer to which I would say is probably that it aesthetically works for you).

      Why say videogame X is artistic, rather than just say videogame X has good gameplay, the setting is engaging, and the story is enthralling?

      If the term art is to have important explanative power, it needs to describe something more complex than what we already have common place words for describing. It also needs to describe something that can be communally discussed/recognized/disagreed upon, or else the term is reduced to something sociological (e.g. “art” is what various sub-groups of people at a given place and time found aesthetically pleasing) which seems hoplessly uninteresting and unenlightening.

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      • i think that the term art, in this case, is largely used to invoke feelings of and to ultimately claim of legitimacy for a field whose consumers and practitioners feel – rightly or wrongly – to be less than legitimate. it’s about peer and familial social acceptance more than anything else.

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        • That and first amendment protection. :)

          I think it’s more  of a generational thing, really. My parent’s generation wonders (well, they finally did give up) when we’d stop playing “kid games”. We wonder why they ask…or why they think video games are just for kids. (It’s not like my parents gave up Spades or Hearts — despite learning them as kids).

          Then again, the Wii sorta crashed generational divides a bit on that. Wii Sports is a truly awesome little game. Watching my grandmother bowl on the Wii is heartwarming. Also, my grandfather trash talks worse than a 14 year old.

          Personally, I can’t think of more than a few games I’d consider truly artistic. But I can think of a number I felt were groundbreaking, genre-defining or changing, unforgettable….maybe those were truly artistic. Maybe not. :)

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      • All excellent questions.

        The problem is too many people try to answer those questions as if they were talking of paintings, or books, or film. :)

        Video games are a relatively new medium, and have already fractured into countless sub-fields — I could give you some off-the-cuff thoughts on a few (a few sub-types of RPGs, my general view on shooters which I’m not a huge fan of, bits and pieces of real-time strategy games…).

        Which is actually a problem, as video games — and what appeals about them — is a bit split up. Raph Koster tends to fond of the Bartle test as a starting point — there being four basic types of gamer — Achievers, Explorers, Socializers, and Killers.

        I don’t personally think those are unique to video game. Or at least not all of them. At the very least that would lead to four very disparate fields of video game art. “Enthralling” to a Killer is different than a socializer, same for fun, engrossing, moving — all the lovely words people tend to use about art. (But then, some people think art is only paintings of horses, and others see it best in film…)

         Frankly, it really doesn’t matter all that much to me. As long as they fall under the first amendment as far as any other creative work does, what do I care? :)

        I can enjoy what I can enjoy, and screw the idiots who think their passion for fly fishing or poker or 1940s cinema is the better hobby. I’m sure they’re having fun too.

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  8. I’m sorry to have missed this piece when it was posted. Because that Atlantic article… well, it’s an early leader for The Stupidest Thing I’ve Read All Year. In any genre.

    Look, Braid was a good game. I particularly enjoyed its art design, and the ending was clever. But the writing was incredibly clunky, and the puzzle design was uneven at best. There is a craft to puzzle games, which has to do with making puzzles that are solvable through some combination of intution, logic, and experimentation in a decent time frame. Braid often failed that test, with puzzles that could only be solved if you literally stumbled upon the answer.

    But more to the point – just everything about that Atlantic piece was awful. For starters, it’s pretty clear that Taylor Clark is resoundingly unfamiliar with, and contemptful of, the world of video games and gamers. He takes everything Blow and his friend Bosch say as gospel, challenging them on nothing, lacking any sort of meaningful reference points for comparison.

    It’s clear from his awe at Miegakure, for example, that Clark has never played Portal. What kind of asshole writes about the future “Citizen Kane” of video games without referring to, let alone playing, the best-reviewed game of the last decade?

    Moreover, even when he invokes Kane, it’s clear that Clark does not know what he is talking about. Citizen Kane was, first and foremost, a great work of popular art. It drew from avant-garde techniques, but it was not avant-garde itself, nor did it try to be. It was well-respected in its time, modestly financially successful and nominated for Best Picture. And what made it great was not simply a matter of being Artful; it was a matter of stunning craft that informed filmmaking for decades afterwards.

    Kane didn’t really change the kind of stories that were told all that much. It changed how they were told, opening up a boatload of new techniques in cinematography, editing, and staging. Welles didn’t invent any of those techniques, but grabbed them from the German Expressionists and other sources to effectively popularize them. And there were plenty of great, great movies before Kane. Clark’s ignorance of this, plus his evident ignorance of the world of video games, makes him hugely unfit to write such an article. He compounds those errors with his worshipful treatment of his subject – who really, when you get down to it, doesn’t have anything all that original to say.

    That’s not to insult Blow, who I think on the whole is a talented guy and a promising craftsman. Because when you get down to it, the question of whether video games can or can be Art is pretty damn stupid in itself. It all boils down to a smug attitude about cultural superiority, rather than an appreciation for actual artistry, which can be found in all sorts of places if one only cares to look.

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