(Why) Should Games Be Art?

I wrote up a critique of Bioshock recently—a game which seems even more impressive to me now after playing through the much-hyped Halo 3—and among the comments following the post was one that deserves special attention. Z. said:

Not to rip this train from the tracks, but your post, like most other pieces on games and art, brings me back to the simple question of do games *need* to be art?

I understand that following a nebulous, subjective, functionally rhetorical question with yet another nebulous, subjective, functionally rhetorical question is fruitless ploy, but with your admitted focus on adult play I’d love to glean your opinions on the conceptual artistic merit of gaming versus its sheer interactive entertainment value. Personally, I enjoy games that are thematically challenging and emotively immersive, but do you feel such elements at all undermine the simple value of play itself? And, concerning the subjective nature of art, is a game that is emotionally resonant (such as Ico) significantly less “artistic” than a game that is, by design, more visually artistically stimulating (like Rez). I guess my question is simply does art warrant observation or interaction, and, if the latter, does the induction of the player into the formula make games more artistic in and of itself?

That’s a fair question, and I think that I’ll be writing enough about games and play enough that the response deserves its own post. My short answer is this: “Art” is a frustrating term, but yes, I think (at least some) games need to aspire to greater depth if this medium is ever to fulfill the promise that its fans would like to see.

Here is the longer answer:

Continue reading “(Why) Should Games Be Art?”

The New “Direct Market”

Note: This entry has been cross-posted to Shouting Loudly, where I tend to put most of my policy-oriented writing.

The Register notes that while Manhunt 2 may have been effectively banned from distribution in UK stores by the British Board of Film Classification’s refusal to assign a rating (again), the game could still sell online, via direct download (link via Game Politics).

Sound familiar? If you’re familiar with the regulatory history of the comic book, another medium stereotyped as juvenile, it should. The <a href="http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Comics_Code_AuthorityComics Code Authority similarly banned certain comic books from newsstand distribution by refusing to grant approval, which killed entire genres of crime and horror comics for years. The medium only began to see adult work widely distributed again through a direct market of fan shops (which was partially built on a network of converted head shops that had been selling underground comix). This is, as the previous Wikipedia link notes, the “dominant” channel of distribution for comics today. It’s also notoriously unstable and frequently resistant to reach beyond an aging group of superhero fans, rather than appealing to new readers. Comic stores also have a reputation (sometimes deserved) for being inhospitable to newcomers.

Would the “direct market” of digital distribution for games be more open and accessible than the direct market of comics? I’m not sure it would be, at least not at first. It certainly hasn’t pulled comics out of its own network of specialty stores. Despite proclamations that webcomics would be the future of comics distribution, able to reach whole new audiences, they are still overwhelmed by content aimed at geeky niche audiences. (And while I’m not sure that things will stay that way, it’s worth noting that there hasn’t been much of a move to suggest otherwise just yet.) While online distribution does get around the physical problems associated with specialty stores (such as infrequency or occasionally surly staff), it does still require a certain degree of technical aptitude. It makes retail locations destination stores, where hardcore fans could find what they want but newcomers and gift-buyers would be unlikely to tread. Moreover, digital distribution limits the kind of technologies one can use to consume content: Webcomics generally can’t be held in the hand and flipped through until converted to print, and downloaded games over a certain size would need to be on PCs, despite that consoles are the platform of choice for many.

Of course, we’re only talking about one game still—Manhunt 2—which hasn’t even been announced as being distributed digitally. The whole issue could be moot. I’m just very wary about announcing that direct downloading will be the savior of game distribution in the wake of overly restrictive industry self-regulation.

“Nerd Clothes for Thugs in Training”

The title of today’s post comes from a comment on Kotaku in response to pics from the upcoming Nintendo by Torrel clothing line. (More on Torrel and the line at this article from Black Enterprise.) In the words of Kotaku writer Michael McWherter, “Torrel LLC has taken the best of Nintendo, run it through the ‘urban market’ filter with plans to provide thousands of clothes-conscious gamers with over-sized and wildly tacky Nintendo authorized gear.”

Continue reading ““Nerd Clothes for Thugs in Training””

October Link Madness Continues: Comics, TV, Academia, and More

Got some more links to burn through today, and even more after this. And I still owe Z. a reply on why the “games as art” question is worth asking at all. And I’ve got half-finished posts lying around about video game genres and Nintendo’s “urban” clothing. I’ll address these in more, all in good time. For now, lots of links in no particular order.

Continue reading “October Link Madness Continues: Comics, TV, Academia, and More”

Introducing the Nork

It sounds like some sort of mutant dining utensil, but no. Genevieve sends word of an exchange between her roommate and the ten-year-old daughter of some friends. When the adult in the conversation asked where a certain band was from (who apparently appears on the Disney Channel sometimes) and whether they were new, the young’un explained that they had a couple movies out, like, a million years ago, and that you’ve got to keep up with the times if you don’t want to be a nork. A nork? Duh, it’s a cross between a nerd and a dork.

This is, I am told, a social underclass among children even lower than the nerd, which may suggest that nerd coolness is sort of starting to permeate kids’ school culture, at least at this kid’s school. Not that it’s any better for kids labeled as norks (or just dorks) to be the ones that get picked on, of course, but a potentially interesting development nonetheless.

The Bioshock Post

I’m not really in the business of doing “reviews” here per se, but I have been thinking I need to say something about Bioshock, the long-awaited first-person shooter from 2K Games (once known as Irrational). Jerry “Tycho” Holkins offered Bioshock alongside two of my own personal favorite games, Ico and Shadow of the Colossus by Team Ico, as evidence that games can be Art. Meanwhile, forums and blog comments have been hosting debates over whether the game actually lives up to the promise of “choice” that many credit it with.

I played through twice, once for each ending. And now I’m going to write about it, but there will probably be some spoilers. Mostly I plan to explain how certain mechanics conflicted with the plot or overall game experience, but I do need to discuss the implications of a major plot twist in slightly more detail (though I’ll try to talk around the details of that plot twist with as much vagueness as I can muster). Ultimately, I think that playing and discussing Bioshock gets at some interesting questions about narrative gaming more generally.

Continue reading “The Bioshock Post”

Early October Link Drop

I’ve been letting some links I wanted to post fall by the wayside as I work on revising a paper for resubmission, applying for jobs for next year, and putting together a presentation describing research done through Annenberg’s SummerCulture 2007: Lisbon program. (For those who wished us luck: Thanks, and the presentations went well!) Anyway, read on for some things that may be of interest.

Continue reading “Early October Link Drop”

Enabling Play

The new issue of Wired has a couple articles I found interesting, covering the Rock Band video game and Robot Chicken on Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim. To me, both of these cases represent new ways of making old media more accessible, so to speak. In the case of Rock Band, Alex Rigopulos, the CEO of Harmonix, compares the product to early MTV:

“Sitting down and watching music was a new thing — it changed the mass market’s notion of what music entertainment was,” he says. As we sit in his office, he describes how Rock Band could be the next stage of evolution for the music industry, as well as the game industry. […] “In five years, this is how people are going to consume the music they love.”

And in the case of Robot Chicken, we go from playing with toys to watching other people play with their toys:

“The show looks like what nearly every kid did: You got out your cars and G.I. Joes and smashed them together,” says Chicken fan Mike Johnson, codirector of the 2005 stop-mo blockbuster Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride. “The show works because it captures the joy of playing with your toys.”

In both cases, these products are about enabling us to do things we weren’t otherwise able to do as adults. “Playing music is one of the most blissful feelings life has to offer,” Rigopulos says, “But it’s too fucking hard to learn how. Almost everyone quits after six months.”

The barrier to playing with our toys, however, is one of social acceptability rather than difficulty level. We’re able to play with our toys, but perhaps we don’t feel we’re allowed to—unless it can be done through appropriately adult media. This means television in the case of Robot Chicken, or even video games in the case of Lego Star Wars, thanks to gaming’s new status as an adult pursuit. (Something tells me you’ll be hearing me describe a paper about this in a couple months.)