Archive for July, 2008

Does the arcade suck, or have I just outgrown it?

Posted in Arcade, Consoles, General, Rants on July 29, 2008 by Kit

About one million years ago, some friends and I went to an arcade in Indianapolis just to see what it was all about. It was part of a larger idea I had to pursue the idea of The Arcade as some kind of cultural watermark.

It wasn’t my first arcade, obviously. But it was my first trip to an arcade as someone who could be reasonably called an adult. I’m not sure what I took away from the experience, if anything. Just a lot of disconnected observations.

The music playing over the sound system was pitch-perfect. Our Dear Sweaty B summed it up: “It was as if the arcade had gone into full-on Mrs. Havisham mode – it forever ran the soundtrack of the time immediately prior to its irrelevance.”

The bloated corpse of the 90s loomed large not only in the choice of music, but also the game selection. The “classic games” of the earlier arcade era were limited to one of those terrible multi-game cabinets stuck in a corner. Somehow that wasn’t very much fun to play. Recent titles present were limited to the most recent iterations of the well established thoroughbred brand name fighting and shooting kinds of games.

And of course, being the awesome people that we are, my friends and I made a good stab at having fun with it. And it was fun. Ish.

But the thing is… I couldn’t help but think about how I could be playing better games on a bigger screen with better graphics at home. With the same people. In fact, every one of the friends that I brought with me are people I’ve spent at least some time playing games with in various living rooms starting with my college years up until today.

It’s difficult to blame that lousy mall arcade for the poor selection, broken machines, and general air of boredom that hung around the place. All just more evidence that the audience has moved on.

The arcade at the Circle Center Mall is well aware of its own recent mortality.

It may seem weird to think of games in such grandiose terms – but the ability to play at home really was revolutionary in a basic sense. No more could arcades hold you hostage for 5, 10 or 15 minutes a quarter. You didn’t have to wait in line for the most popular game. You didn’t have to bike across town to a dark, smelly bowling alley.

Is there a trade-off? Sure there is. But it’s an uneven trade the scale of which even a white trader stealing land from a Native American might well appreciate. The winner in this exchange is so obvious that it hardly bares repeating.

There are kids who are already almost grown up who can’t imagine scrounging quarters from couch cushions to play a game that charges them each time they play.

I still carry nostalgia for those old times. And I hear that some prisoners have fond memories of their various prisons. But it’s as hard to imagine an ex-con locking himself back up, and it’s hard to imagine video game culture moving back into the arcade.


For Dale: The Art Thing Revisited

Posted in General with tags , , , on July 28, 2008 by Kit

You should check out DaleCooper’s most recent rant on the topic for background. He is specifically responding to Roger Ebert’s (by now infamous) opinion that video games simply aren’t art.

By the way, I’m not going to make a larger working definition for “art.” I don’t think it matters. I’m not a hippy-dippy fuzzy-thinker who thinks you can call anything “art, maaan.” But everything that I have to say here would apply to any serious definition of the term. I’m not willing to engage in hair splitting between different ideas about what art is. Y’all can work it out for yourselves, please.

Ebert’s reasoning that the presence of player choice renders games artless is shallow on its face. This attitude would classify Andy Warhol as just a clever graphic designer. It’s revealing that Ebert dismissively references Warhol in the article linked above. Warhol’s art required the viewer to have some familiarity with the cultural icons that he repackaged and recontextualized (a word that I despise but can’t seem to find a replacement for). It also required some familiarity with the conventions of art itself. Without the participation of the viewer, the can of soup really was just a can of soup.

I discard the idea that player agency has anything to do with whether games are art, because it’s a dead end. I don’t think there’s any useful way to think about art that precludes the participation of an audience. More importantly, as Dale points out, it also reveals Ebert’s lack of experience with most modern videogames — which are usually as crushingly linear and predictable as a Mike Myers vehicle.

For Chrissake, this is something that we started deciding on long ago. If Ebert wants to argue that any work that requires the viewer to participate in its outcome isn’t art… he’s going to have to go back and argue with the surrealists, the absurdists, the expressionists, the existentialists, the modernists, the post-modernists, etc. The dynamic interaction between artist and audience is a fundamental obsession of much of 20th century thought.

So, putting that aside… can games be art? The debate is a good one, and I think there’s still plenty to be had here. I think they can. But I also think that they aren’t.

Sure, they are all art in the sense that they are all artifacts made by people, and they all “express something.” So in that sense, most of today’s video games are art in the same way that The Love Guru is art. Entertaining but highly disposable.

I think that Ebert (and Dale [and I]) are probably talking about something more when we use the word “art.”

So far, I don’t think any game has really earned the “serious art” label to the same degree that the Very Serious Filmmakers that Ebert enjoys have. That doesn’t mean it won’t happen. I think it’s only a matter of time.

SweatyB points out in the comments on Dale’s blog that it’s unfair to apply the measure of an established art form like film to a fledging art form like games. New art forms need time to mature and develop conventions. To this I would add:

The development of film and the development of video games both suffer from technological dependence… each generation is made to look obsolete by the next generation. This is more true of video games that depend entirely on the advance of computer graphics technology. It’s difficult to make a permanent mark when your art looks terribly dated within a few months. Eventually filmmakers developed enough tools and the viewing culture developed enough literacy that this limitation was mostly overcome. The language of film and our understanding of it has developed enough that today most culturally literate people can jump easily between Jurassic Park, The Birds, Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, and Star Wars without being too bothered by the accompanying radical shifts in film technology.

Typical of me – I both agree and disagree with SweatyB. Ebert really is missing the point, and risking looking like a cantankerous old biddy in hindsight when the great Game Revolution comes. But I also think that the people creating video games need to take him seriously. Because he is currently basically correct, and the relationship between critic and artist is one that helps an art form mature. To date, people making games haven’t much delivered on everything this medium promises.

Sidetrack: Imagine we brought a 19th century theater critic forward in time in order to visit one of our fabulous cinemaplexes to view a random sampling of just whatever happened to be playing that week. Would our time-traveling critic be justified in going back to the 19th century with the idea that film couldn’t be art?

The games-as-art argument landscape really is bleak right now. I have played many games that had glimmers of real artistry. But I’m not sure if I know of any that I would call “art” in any meaningful sense.


Can a game that most people would recognize as “good art” be fun to play?

How would film, television, and popular music have developed if early practitioners had been focused on being artistic instead of being entertaining?

To what extent does this obsession among game fans reveal an inferiority complex about their favorite hobby?


Posted in General, Rants, Science on July 28, 2008 by Kit

I am now back from my long hiatus. This is the only thing I will give you by way of explanation:

Careful readers (both of you) will remember my plan to visit a bunch of arcades and write about them. This fell by the wayside after one jerky start. Then I moved into a 3 acre homestead built in the 1930s, and all the things that accompany this fell on my head. The Blog was left to rot.

I’ll admit that I have felt a bit of guilt about nearly abandoning this venture. I’ve learned over the years that my reaction to guilt is to drop out and fahgeddaboutit. Some pop psych assholes would call this “avoidant behavior.”

But you know what? I’m not going to do that, dear reader. This is going to be different. This blog … is special.

And so are all of you.