11 May 2010

Dismissives: Two Angry Letters

Responses to “Cave Painting” & “On Gordon Brown”

On Cave Painting

Dear N+1,

The author of Issue Nine’s “Cave Painting” argues that the answer to whether videogames are or can be art appears to be an “emphatic no.” He also claims that, for the “best writers” on the subject, video games “don’t need to be” art. Having spent the better part of the last year and a half playing and writing about video games, I have something to say on this topic.

“Are video games art?” is not the best question. The best question is whether the video-game medium can provide an artist with a viable means of expression. One way to answer that question is to put it to a thoughtful video-game designer. My favorite video-game designer is a man named Clint Hocking, who works for Ubisoft Montreal. I interviewed Clint at length for my book, Extra Lives, and at one point he told me this: “Finding a way to make the mechanics of play our expression as creators and as artists—to me that’s the only question that matters.”

Clint’s magnum opus (thus far) is a game called Far Cry 2, which on its surface is a first-person shooter, set in a contemporary African civil war, that concerns itself with blowing stuff up and killing a small nation’s worth of people. Beneath that surface, however, if you chose to engage with it, is an elegant, disturbing, and powerful critique of the shooter form and a troubling meditation on the act of taking virtual life. The better you get at killing in the game, the more disturbing the tasks it asks you to perform. Far Cry 2 is designed to take the putative exhilaration of video-game slaughter and confound it with the gamer’s increasingly penitent recognition of his role as a gameworld agent of death and destruction. The author of “Cave Painting” writes, “There is no game, at least not yet, in which you accomplish the mission only to learn you’ve been torturing an innocent person,” but this is the very dialectic Far Cry 2 explores. While working on Far Cry 2, Clint and his colleagues at Ubisoft Montreal believed they were making a work of art. I, and many others, engaged with Far Cry 2 on the assumption that they succeeded. I ask the author of “Cave Painting”: Was Clint wrong? Am I?

Not every game is art. Not even most games are art. But the worst examples of a medium cannot be used to annul that medium’s highest aspirations. With less contested mediums we do this type of discernment math all the time, which allows us the freedom to view someone like Jonathan Franzen as an artist, someone like Stephen King as an honorable popular artist, and someone like James Patterson as a corporate entity whose relationship to art is definitively vague. Games and game designers exist along the same continuum. Far Cry 2is, at the very least, an honorable work of popular art. It is perfectly true that some games “don’t need to be” art, but others will be unmistakably engaged in the self-interrogation of all art: What tradition do I exist in? What does that mean? What do I mean? What do you make me mean?

It’s telling, I think, that the kind of game the author of “Cave Painting” appears to be most familiar with is the real-time strategy game—a genre capable of smarts and artfulness, certainly, and a genre I am very fond of, but not a genre whose potential for walloping emotional power I place much faith in. Such games don’t need to be art, and indeed no one is asking them to be anything other than fun, interesting, and challenging. As for something like World of Warcraft, another game I sense the author is familiar with, I can say that, in my view, the massively-multiplayer-online genre is, artistically speaking, sensationally insufficient. At the same time, who am I to arbitrate the authenticity of the MMO player’s aesthetic reaction? Our understandings of what art is or must be may not be equally learned or considered, but they are all, in human terms, legitimate.

Finally, the author of “Cave Painting” suggests that the participation inherent to video games cancels out at least one Kantian prerequisite for art. It is a fair and defensible point, but, I think, wrong. In fact, the medium video games best resemble is the most interactive of all: theater. (In this insight I am indebted to the video-game critic Michael Abbott.) When we play video games, we are not in the audience. We are, rather, on stage. Various things limit what actual and video-game actors can do, but within those boundaries the real and virtual actor alike is allowed a startling freedom of movement and interpretation and decision. If interactivity makes art fundamentally less likely, stage actors are by definition lesser artists. No one, I think, would be prepared to make that case.

The video games I am most interested in allow me a way out of myself, just as portraying a character or writing a poem or working on a short story allows the actor, poet, and fiction writer a way out of him- or herself. This is the basis of the artistic experience, at least as I understand it, and it is why I cannot agree with the author of “Cave Painting” that video games “encourage you to identify rather than sympathize.” The video games I love allow me to observe and control fictional characters, and when I am at the helm, I try to make these characters behave not as how I would but how I feel they want to—a strange sympathetic process for which there is, as of now, no good name. While I frequently wish video games were better written and more multifarious in their subject matter, this observation-while-in-partial-fictive-control is wholly unique to games. None of which, of course, automatically makes video games into art, much less those who play them into artists, but it does suggest that video games are bringing civilians within range of an interactively transformative experience previously available only to artists. Perhaps, if video games truly aren’t art, it’s only because art has yet to catch up to them.

—Tom Bissell


On On Gordon Brown

Jason Farago must be the only person left on the planet who will miss Gordon Brown. I’m including even diehard Labour voters here, who must have secretly hoped for or expected today’s resignation announcement. For the periods on either side of the height of the financial crisis, Brown was spectacularly unpopular. This is because hating Brown was the correct attitude. It hardly matters that popular reasons (his being fat or Scottish) were often dubious; in the end, the cause was just.

So Prime Minister Brown led a spectacular bank rescue that warmed the hearts of all the Keynesians. Was it not a response to the miserable “prudence” of Chancellor Brown? The very same man who depleted the British balance sheets had for several years committed himself to Conservative spending levels while allowing the banks of the City to run rampant. This is why during the years of Brown’s “stewardship,” there was some worry by the crassest of the elite (eg Mayor Michael Bloomberg) that London was surpassing New York as financial capital of the world. Meanwhile, the innovations of Brownomics of the boom years have come back to haunt him (and us). Most famously and lamentably, the PFIs—or Private Finance Initiative—where the British government paid private contractors over several years to produce public works. This made the budgets look attractively stable, even if they actually weren’t; it was the sort of policy that, were it done outside Western Europe, we would have found simply corrupt. And it has led to rather odd spending practices; as Ross McKibbin noted in 2009, Britain ended up with situations where “the government is now lending money to private firms in order to rent back schools built with its own money.”

I have said nothing, meanwhile, regarding the NHS, or the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. One could go on and on detailing the failures of Brown—and of New Labour more generally. (Tony Wood has summed it up well in the most recent New Left Review.) But Mr Farago inadvertently does it best when he calls Brown a 19th century liberal out of his century, and allows himself some admiration for Brown’s PhD. This is exactly right. As Byron presciently noted, the 19th century was the century of “cant,” where with banalities alternately sonorous and mealy-mouthed, politicians convinced people to accept free trade, imperialism, child labor, and the “satanic mills” of industrial capitalism, all in the name of endless progress. Come to think of it, that sounds a lot like our new century. Perhaps Brown was right at home after all. But it wasn’t Brown who turned out to be too smart for his own good; it was the people who rejected him.

—Nikil Saval

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