Saturday, January 29, 2011

Philosoraptor 1

Sunday, January 23, 2011

A cold evening

We, the great, great, great,
great, great, great, great,
endlessly great grandchildren
of soil and shards of bone,
again looking with wonder
at a canvas bright with dying stars
on a cold evening.

If I

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

"..." 34   (two kinds of lifelong readers)

To the extent that novelists think about audience at all, we like to imagine a "general audience"—a large, eclectic pool of decently educated people who can be induced, by strong enough reviews or aggressive enough marketing, to treat themselves to a good, serious book. We do our best not to notice that, among adults with similar educations and similarly complicated lives, some read a lot of novels while others read few or none.

[Shirly Brice] Heath has noticed this circumstance, and although she emphasized to me that she has not polled everybody in America, her research effectively demolishes the myth of the general audience. For a person to sustain an interest in literature, she told me, two things have to be in place. First, the habit of reading works of substance must have been "heavily modeled" when he or she was very young. In other words, one or both of the parents must have been reading serious books and must have encouraged the child to do the same. [...]

Simply having a parent who reads is not enough, however, to produce a lifelong dedicated reader. According to Heath, young readers also need to find a person with whom they can share their interest. "A child who's got the habit will start reading under the covers with a flashlight," she said. "If the parents are smart, they'll forbid the child to do this, and thereby encourage her. Otherwise she'll find a peer who also has the habit, and the two of them will keep it a secret between them. Finding a peer can take place as late as college. In high school, especially, there's a social penalty to be paid for being a reader. Lots of kids who have been lone readers get to college and suddenly discover, 'Oh my God, there are other people here who read.'"

As Heath unpacked her findings for me, I was remembering the joy with which I'd discovered two friends in junior high with whom I could talk about J. R. R. Tolkien. I was also considering that for me, today, there is nothing sexier than a reader. But then it occurred to me that I didn't even meet Heath's first precondition. I told her I didn't remember either of my parents ever reading a book when I was a child, except aloud to me.

Without missing a beat Heath replied: "Yes, but there's a second kind of reader. There's the social isolate—the child who from an early age felt very different from everyone around him. This is very, very difficult to uncover in an interview. People don't like to admit that they were social isolates as children. What happens is you take that sense of being different into an imaginary world. But that world, then, is a world you can't share with the people around you—because it's imaginary. And so the important dialogue in your life is with the authors of the books you read. Though they aren't present, they become your community."


According to Heath, readers of the social-isolate variety (she calls them "resistant" readers) are much more likely to become writers than those of the modeled-habit variety. If writing was the medium of communication within the community of childhood, it makes sense that when writers grow up they continue to find writing vital to their sense of connectedness. What's perceived as the antisocial nature of "substantive" authors, whether it's James Joyce's exile or J. D. Salinger's reclusion, derives in large part from the social isolation that's necessary for inhabiting a imagined world. Looking me in the eye, Heath said: "You are a socially isolated individual who desperately wants to communicate with a substantive imaginary world."

Source: Franzen, Jonathan. "Why Bother?" How to Be Alone. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2002: 74-78. Print. [My emphasis]

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Comments on the "video games as art" debate

Image source: Grim Fandango (1998)

      IN MANY WAYS, the word art is polyphonous. It has a large number of disparate meanings that we tend to invoke indiscriminately each time we use the term. It's not surprising, then, that when someone argues that so-and-such is not art, there is some kind of backlash, and the case of video games is no exception. Film critic Roger Ebert has kindled this debate over the years by arguing on various occasions that video games are an inherently inferior medium. “No one in or out of the field," he says in one interview, “has ever been able to cite a game worthy of comparison with the great dramatists, poets, filmmakers, novelists, and composers. That a game can aspire to artistic importance as a visual experience, I accept. But for most gamers, video games represent a loss of those precious hours we have available to make ourselves more cultured, civilized, and empathetic.”
      These and other statements of his have brought on a number counter-arguments—some good, some bad—from game critics, designers, players, and people with too much time on their hands. Many of them pointed to the artwork, music, and sounds in games while others identified storytelling techniques that are unique to the medium; some even gave offered examples which are personal favorites of mine like Shadow of the Colossus. But every refutation I've read seems to miss the point, as I see it, in one way or another.
      Recently, Ebert retracted his comments, graciously agreeing with numerous accusations that he didn't know much about video games in the first place and that he was wrong deny outright the artistic possibilities of a medium still in its infancy. Despite this, I find myself―as someone fairly knowledgeable about games―mostly agreeing with his earlier arguments. In truth, it's rare that any game comes anywhere near the mantle of “high art,” as haughty a notion as that is. But it's also rare that games approach the sorts of art that I consider to be the most valuable: art that opens up new conversations, that brings new light to the old and familiar, that has a profound impact on how we experience and make sense of the world. Of course, this sort of art is in short supply in other media as well (and, of course, it's partly because of its scarcity that it's so treasured). Yes, video games have no “Moonlight Sonata” (although the song appears in some of them), no Ulysses, no Ernest Goes to Jail. But, just as there are countless uninspired first-person shooters, there are countless uninspired mystery novels, love songs, and unexceptional paintings. Where I agree with Roger Ebert is with his argument and not with his irreverent use of the word art: that the core experience in video games, as a medium, is not an intuitive vehicle for art as he and I have defined it.
      In their early days, video games were thought of mainly as children's playthings. Grand Theft Auto and other titles have helped to change that perception over time, but the medium hasn't quite outgrown it. And despite the improved graphics and mature content, the center of today's gaming experience is still a kind of toy-driven exhilaration. Bioshock has some Ayn Rand inspired story elements, but they are ultimately a background for shooting things. Myst, Silent Hill 2, Shadow of the Colossus, and Braid are all excellent examples of subtle, evocative storytelling, but they are ultimately about exploration and puzzle solving. In the same ways that Chess is about warfare and Monopoly is about capitalism, their stories are lost in the “action,” so to speak―at best a host to their interactive elements. As Doom creator John Carmack once said, “Story in a game is like story in a porn movie. It’s expected to be there, but it’s not that important.”
      As Ebert has noted, there is a basic conflict of purpose between the conventional experiences of video games and the works of other established mediums. Games are usually about overcoming obstacles or playing within the parameters of the game world, while novels and movies are more concerned with characters and storytelling. This is not to say that no video games have taken storytelling seriously. Interactive fiction (text adventures) of the '80s and graphic adventure games and interactive movies of the '90s made story the central focus and reduced game play to a series of decisions to advance particular narratives, with mixed results. The problem with these has generally been that player decisions are mostly superfluous. One path leads to the end, the rest to impasses or “Game Over” screens. Some games have multiple endings, but they are usually analogous to a different final paragraph at the end of a novel. All told, very few game story lines necessitate meaningful player decisions. Most are essentially movies broken up by puzzles, hazards, and errands. Even ambitious titles like Heavy Rain, which offer up more complex choices and consequences, are still far from being considered exemplars of an art form on par with film and literature.
      As eloquently or poorly as some stories are told, high-quality stories in video games are extremely hard to come by. I suppose Grim Fandango is a decent love story; Rez is an interesting experiment with A.I. in existential crisis; and Andrew Plotkin's Shade has its flaws but could not be told in any other way. I'm not suggesting by any stretch that my tastes are universal, but anyone familiar with video games up to this point has to admit that there is a very limited number of games out there which competently—much less masterfully—explore contemporary issues or manage to impart a lasting emotional impression. Simply put, most video games do not focus on these things. They have amusing mechanics with challenges to overcome, and they generally don't need the social commentary and emotional resonance to be successful as games. But in so doing they cannot be so easily classified as art (as I've been using the word).
      However, I may be getting ahead of myself in suggesting that good stories are the only ways to get at these qualities. Some exceptional games are able to achieve these through the game mechanics themselves. fl0w, for example, presents a stylized glimpse into the experiences of tiny organisms, and I can't help but think that Katamari Damacy makes some kind of commentary on consumerism and all of the objects and clutter in our lives. As always, the line between art and not-art is tenuous and ultimately subjective, but I still believe that art which breeds empathy, emotion, and understanding is perhaps harder to come by for games than for novels and movies—due, in large part, to the medium itself rather than shortcomings in terms of what has been offered so far.
      All things said, though, my favorite game to this day is still probably Super Mario Bros. 3. It may not engender empathy or count as "art" based on what I've said, but it's damned fun.



Journey is probably for the best argument I've seen yet for games as art. Absolutely incredible.

"..." 33   ("Today's Baudelaire's are hip-hop artists.")

In the nineteenth century, when Dickens and Darwin and Disraeli all read one another's work, the novel was the preeminent medium of social instruction. A new book by Thackeray or William Dean Howells was anticipated with the kind of fever that a late-December film release inspires today.

The big, obvious reason for the decline of the social novel is that modern technologies do a much better job of social instruction. Television, radio, and photographs are vivid, instantaneous media. Print journalism, too, in the wake of In Cold Blood, has become a viable creative alternative to the novel. Because they command large audiences, TV and magazines can afford to gather vast quantities of information quickly. Few serious novelists can pay for a quick trip to Singapore, or for the mass of expert consulting that gives serial TV dramas like E.R. and NYPD Blue their veneer of authenticity. The writer of average talent who wants to report on, say, the plight of illegal aliens would be foolish to choose the novel as a vehicle. Ditto the writer who wants to offend prevailing sensibilities. Portnoy's Complaint, which even my mother once heard enough about to disapprove of, was probably the last American novel that could have appeared on Bob Dole's radar as a nightmare of depravity. Today's Baudelaire's are hip-hop artists.

Source: Franzen, Jonathan. "Why Bother?" How to Be Alone. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2002: 65-66. Print. [My emphasis]