Video games can never be art – Roger Ebert’s Journal

I had, of course, heard that Roger Ebert had made statements to the effect that games can’t be art, but hadn’t bothered to track them down. Here is his sustained argument, Video games can never be art which takes as its foil Kellee Santiago’s TED talk on the subject. One way to read this debate is that it becomes a matter of definition. If you define art in a certain way then yes, games aren’t art, by definition. And Ebert seems to feel that either games can never be art, or it will take so long that we will all be dead by then (which is more or less the same thing.) Santiago, by contrast, argues that one shouldn’t judge the artistry of a genre in its infancy. I will have to think so more on this, but here are some first reactions:

  • Ebert’s definition of art from Plato, that it is the” imitation of nature,” does not, to my mind, define games out of the picture. One could respond that games imitate different features of nature like movement, flow, and interactivity. Ebert goes on to argue that art “grows better the more it improves or alters nature through an (sic) passage through what we might call the artist’s soul, or vision.” Again, I don’t think this definition excludes games in principle. What it does is reiterate a Renaissance belief in the vision of a genius, which even Ebert realizes excludes all sorts of art (like cathedrals.) The particular way we interact with games tends to hide the genius of creators – we don’t look on them with wonder at their creation. If caught up in them we play as if we were in the fictional world. Ebert may be right that our relationship with games is not a sacred one of visionary transformation before FINE ART, but that is a questionable and historically constructed relationship. I can imagine a future where games and their designers are treated with such reverence.
  • If Ebert is going to draw on Plato and Aristotle he should be open to another sense of art as craft. The painter who imitates nature uses technique to craft a believable representation. That craft or techne is what Plato and Aristotle were interested in, not some sacred relationship through genius. Plato was concerned with the effects of performing the poets (as opposed to listening to them) which is how epics were consumed – they were acted out – and he worried about youth playing disreputable characters. Video games are criticized in very similar ways – that they habituate youth to doing nasty things like killing zombies. Plato wanted to banish the poets and would probably have similar concerns about game designers today. Fine art, however, has been safely neutered so youth don’t really get to do more than wear tights for a Shakespeare play which no one seriously considers dangerous. In that sense games are the inheritors of a craft of imitation and context for player imitation that Plato called art. Art is no longer the art Plato warned us about. Games are now the dangerous imitation of nature. As for Aristotle, he was concerned with the place of craft in a hierarchy of knowledge and games are clearly technical productions that fit the class of crafts.
  • Ebert is right at the end to suggest that it shouldn’t matter to players that games are not art just as chess players don’t worry about it being an art. Perhaps we just need to define our terms and create a supercategory of fictions (imaginative things that we make). The fine arts and games are all members of this category. There are better and worse games just as there are better and worse plays. There are serious games that are meant to be high culture and there are potty performances that appeal to the worst in us. We have developed traditions of interpreting, playing and judging both games and fine art.
  • Why does it matter that games be an art? I suspect this says more about the maturing of gaming than it does about art. Gamers and game studies want the respect of being high culture for all sorts of reasons from academic acceptance to acceptance as a past-time. We used to treat games as something children played and adults were encouraged to get serious. I was certainly encourage to drop (or hide) my passion for military simulations (war games) when I entered high school and realized there were all sorts of cool women I wanted to talk to (who would laugh at my passion). Things have changed – boy culture or nerd culture is triumphant and it rightly wants to shed the association of its values with adolescence. Where I stopped playing games this generation is unafraid to be openly associated with gaming. The only remaining barrier is the perception that games, while they may be an adult pastime, are not serious art capable of bettering the soul (which is what we tell ourselves that the fine and performing arts do.)
  • Which returns us to the question of transformation? Can a game change your mind, influence your imagination, or transform your life the way we think high art can? I would argue that they can, but they do it in a different way than the fine art or philosophy does. Monopoly doesn’t tell you about capitalism or show capitalism at work. It creates a context in which you play as if a certain view of capitalism were true (that acquiring property and bankrupting people is the goal.) If you are changed by Monopoly it is not that you think “Oh, the designer had an interesting view about Monopoly that has changed my mind.” Instead you take on the habits or world view of a monopolist (or someone who is appalled by monopolies). It can change you, but in ways we aren’t trained to talk about the way we can talk about the transformative vision of Michelangelo. With time we will develop the critical traditions and feel just as comfortable asking about the world imitated in a game and its assumptions. Asking if games are art is one way to open this up. One day we will wake up and find there is a canon of what were transformative games. Until then we can play without thinking too much.

MLA Profession 2011: On the Evaluation of Digital Media as Scholarship

My paper “On the Evaluation of Digital Media as Scholarship” has just been published online in MLA: Profession 2011 (pp. 152-168). The PDF is freely available. The abstract reads,

As more and more scholarship is digital, we need to develop a culture of conversation around the evaluation of digital academic work. We have to be able to evaluate new types of research, like analytic tools and hypermedia fiction, that are difficult to review. The essay surveys common types of digital scholarly work, discusses what evaluators should ask, discusses how digital researchers can document their scholarship, and then discusses the types of conversations hires and evaluators (like chairs) should have and when they should have them. Where there is a conversation around evaluation in a department, both hires and evaluators are more likely to come to consensus as to what is appropriate digital research and how it should be documented.

This is part of a collection put together by Susan Schreibman, Laura Mandell and Stephen Olsen about Evaluating Digital Scholarship. McGann and Bethany Nowviskie, among others, also have papers in this issue of Profession.

TRAFFIC: Conceptual Art in Canada 1965-1980

Gordon Lebredt Get Hold Of This Space 1974

Go see the TRAFFIC: Conceptual Art in Canada 1965-1980 exhibit at the Art Gallery of Alberta. It is a dense exhibit with hundreds of works and relevant documentation. It is organized by cities (a room for Halifax, one for Montreal …) and seems carefully researched. You will find yourself bewildered and amused at the variety of conceptual art projects executed in Canada. You will notice that everything was done back then with typewriters, video and tape recorders. The colors look bleached the way old and cheap photographs are. The aging of all those postcards and paper forms dates the works as if they were brought out of the attic or from the back of the family station wagon left in the sun.

This show was developed by a number of museums (from Vancouver to Halifax) and is touring those museums. You can read about the show when it was in Toronto. Or you can read about it in Magenta.

BBC – Domesday Reloaded

Thanks to Paul I came across the BBC Domesday Reloaded. The original Domesday Book was commissioned in 1085 by William the Conqueror.In 1986 the BBC published a Laser-Disk based Domesday Project that gathered articles, amateur photographs and other materials. The Laser-Disk Project only ran on a properly configured BBC computer which was hard to find in Canada. I actually played with the system (and the Domesday Project) when I was working at the University of Toronto Computing Services. It was a phenomenal example at the time of computer-based multimedia even though it was limited to a particular play-back system.

Now the Project has been remediated for the web by the BBC as Domesday Reloaded. You can search the content and the places. They have crowdsourcing features to let people add an updated article about a place. Some of the content seems to be inaccessible from outside the UK.

Reality is Broken

Reality is Broken is the recent book about gamification by Jane McGonigal (New York, The Penguin Press, 2011) that has been getting a lot of attention. My copy finally came in the mail so now I guess I have to read it. I sound reluctant because everything I’ve read about the book disposes me to dislike it. The vapid “computers are going to save the world” (once more) hype by and for the author is enough to choke on. The idea that gamifying can solve all sorts of problems reminds me of when I thought I could get students to learn by making games out of completing assignments (yes, I too used scratch-and-sniff stickers to gamify learning.) I say all this to acknowledge that as I write one or more blog entries on this book as I read it, I am not reading the work with a fair mind, so readers of my comments beware.

Continue reading Reality is Broken

NFB: Out My Window

Joyce pointed me to a National Film Board (NFB) interactive work, Out My Window: Interactive Views from the Global Highrise. The work, directed by Katerina Cizek documents the lives of people in apartments through their apartments. For each apartment there is a 360 degree view that you can pan around (sort of like QuickTime VR.) Certain things can be clicked on to hear and see short documentaries with the voice of the dweller. These delicate stories are very effective at giving us a view of apartment life around the world.

Chronologie des supports, des dispositifs spatiaux, des outils de repérage de l’information

Christian directed me to a fascinating chronology of information technology (in French) by Sylvie Fayet-Scribe. It is called Chronologie des supports, des dispositifs spatiaux, des outils de repérage de l’information. and the web design isn’t the best, but it seems detailed and annotated. It seems like a good place to start if you want to understand the types of information aides from encyclopedias, indexes, and so on. Here division of time into epochs is also interesting. The bibliography is also good.

Informatica Umanistica: Interrupting Digitization

Informatica Umanistica has just published a paper of mine on digitization titled, “Interrupting Digitalizatin and Thinking about Text”. The article starts,

One of the memes of new media is that the form of communication determines the content. As McLuhan puts it the medium is the message, and therefore, as we digitize the evidence of human culture from the Roman forum to Hamlet we inaugurate not just a new edition of our knowledge, but a new knowing and with it a new way of thinking. This paper will not engage the question of technological determinism, instead it will assume that the enthusiasts are right and ask then what is digitization? or what is the message of the digital form? Asking such questions is an interruption in the rush to digitize everything; imagine the scanner has broken down for a moment letting us pause and ask if we really understand the digital, if we understand what is gained and lost, and if we understand the possibilities before us or how we are constrained.

Ritsumeikan: Possibilities in Digital Humanities

The last week and a bit I have been in Kyoto to give a talk at a conference on the “Possibilities in Digital Humanities” which was organized by Professor Kozaburo Hachimura and sponsored by the Information Processing Society of Japan and by the Ritsumeikan University Digital Humanities Center for Japanese Arts and Culture.

While the talks were in Japanese I was able to follow most of the sessions with the help of Mistuyuki Inaba and Keiko Susuki. I was impressed by the quality of the research and the involvement of new scholars. There seemed to be a much higher participation of postdoctoral fellows and graduate students than at similar conferences in Canada which bodes well for digital humanities in Japan.

Continue reading Ritsumeikan: Possibilities in Digital Humanities

Mihajlo Idvorski Pupin – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Thanks to Willard, I’m reading Mihajlo Idvorski Pupin’s Romance of the Machine, a defense of American materialism, science and engineering. He identifies 3 sets of technologies that have consolidated the Union – the telephone, the vacuum-tube oscillator (radio), and the gas-engine (auto and airplane.) He weaves a consciously idealistic story about engineering mirroring the machines of nature and weaving peace.

The machine is the visible evidence of the close union between man and the spirit of the eternal truth which guides the subtle hand of nature. (p. 29)

It looks like an act of providence that the telephone was born when the consolidation of our Union needed it most; the vacuum-tube oscillator arrived in time to lend its aid in the consolidation of this nation with the other nations of the world. Many an enthusiast believes that these two machines are messengers sent from heaven to aid in the guidance of the destiny of this nation, and of the whole world. This enthusiasm is not surprising. (p. 92)

There is a very interesting chapter (“Romance of the Telephone”, III) where Pupin argues that the telephone provided two important innovations – first the communications network and second a model democratic industry.

There is another epoch-making service which the telephone
rendered to this nation. This service was the creation of a great
American telephone industry, which in many respects serves to-day as a model to other big American industries. (p. 67)

His argument is that ATT is too big to be owned by wealthy families. Instead it is owned by the middle class – people like its employees. He further sees the management as coming from the same middle class and being professionals. He sees a shift from political democracy to economic democracy which benefits all. Whatever happened to that idealism?

Our telephone industry and the other large American industries encourage us in the belief that we are much nearer to the ideal of economic democracy than we are to Lincoln’s ideal of political democracy. The first is developed by scientists and engineers, the second is <pb> in the hands of politicians. (p. 77 – 78)

One thing that happened is a loss of faith in the technocracy. The second thing was a shift in business towards management who saw their mandate narrowly as being only to increase investor value.

Some more quotes:

There will be no place for barbarism, like war, in a world in
which the two American machines, the telephone and the vacuum-tube oscillator, are afforded every opportunity to develop their latent powers for the enlightenment of the world.

Here are two.machines which the American machine civilization has produced, and thus laid the foundation of the radio art, the most subtle and refined of all the technical arts ever conceived by the human mind. No trace of materialism can be detected in their history. On the contrary, their achievements represent them as messengers from heaven sent to earth to rid the world of barbarous notions and raise it to a higher level of civilization.(p. 94)

The telephone, the telegraph, the vacuum-tube oscillator, the aeroplane, and the automobile, will certainly bring the peoples of the world closer to each other and establish between them bonds of friendship, just as they are establishing them between the peoples of our States. That is the highest mission of these machines. (p. 103)

The book ends by talking about “The Great American Experiment” and how this political experiment inspired engineers and scientists to develop technologies to consolidate the Union so that “The designers, the builders, and the machines employed by them are the inseparable parts of the American machine civilization.” (p. 111)

Bibliographic Reference: Michael Pupin, Romance of the Machine (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1930).