Sunday, August 16, 2009

link roundup

Instead of commenting on each of these articles at length I thought I'd make a quick note of each and give them to you all in one post. So, enjoy!

Excellent article (from ALDaily) on the last thing classical music needs right now: blind praise

Can the constitution be seen as a cultural document, a work of art? Not exactly, but there is much to learn in this piece by conservative historian of the American Revolution Gordon Wood

Can videogames be an effective storytelling medium? Possibly, but the key aspect which differentiates them from novels, etc. is: interactivity (the same point reached by Kojima in a previous post about whether videogames are an artform)

On the topic of previous post concerning the social circumstances/agency debate (and where Marx stands), Steven Pinker holds an interview with BoingBoing guest commentor on the nature vs. nuture debates. The bottom line: Pinker is a methodological individualist (see a counterargument here)

Ponyo, Miyazaki's latest film, was released in the U.S. on Friday. The critics' verdict: overwhelmingly positive but it ain't no Spirited Away


  1. hey dan.

    i meant to ask you this before but i don't see how interactivity itself distinguishes video games from art. there is interactive art and has been for some time. the importance of interactivity might distinguish video games from other kinds of art but i don't see how this makes it non-art.

    The link you post about interactivity and story telling is interesting but it does seem to be more assertion than argument. They keep saying interactivity limits story telling but I don't understand why. For the vast majority of games this interactivity is strictly limited and dominated by the story/narrative.

    The Dutton guy they keep quoting basically played a few games to see if they worked like "traditional narratives." That they don't is not surprising to anyone. That this then makes them ineffective forms of story telling is an unfounded leap.

    I honestly think that already, as is, video games are already effective media for story telling. Of course, from the point of view of another medium it lacks things it "should" have (fancy words) and has things it "shouldn't" have (interactivity, popularity) but this is true with all forms of art. From the perspective of film, books are weak. From the perspective of books, films are weak. I don't think there is any quasi-objective way to really evaluate these different media. So we'll get some people championing the new and improved and we'll get a reaction from traditionalists worrying that superficial new media are undermining the more serious and intellectual old forms.

    I understand short articles are always more assertion than argument but as someone who doesn't quite buy the basic premise (of a strong distinction between story and game, or interactivity as obstacle to narrative) I'm left with just questions.

  2. Hey Joe,

    Thanks for the comment. For the record I don't completely buy their argument either, as I think games like Okami and a few of my other personal favorites exhibit, to a degree, how games really can be artistic. However, let me try to explain what I think the "interactivists" are getting at.

    (First of all, here is the Kojima video I referenced in my post "interactive aesthetics":

    Videogames must have some degree of functionality attached to them. This, I think, is the importance of interactivity and why people stress it so much (so, I'm now using interactivity and functionality similarly, in the spirit of the Kojima video). Functionality, or making the game playable for the gamer, means bending the rules of the artist's universe. What do I mean by that? Well, traditionally, art is concerned with expressing the artist's (or sometimes, more broadly, culture's, or state's) feelings, thoughts, values, what have you in a particular medium. The task of the observer is then appreciation, to _ actively observe_: the aesthetic qualities (visuals, audio, etc.), or maybe of the history of the particular work of art, or understanding through art criticism, etc. That is the task of the observer.

    Now of course, this is where the line is drawn thin, because for people who argue that videogames are not art, they see functionality as primary to the games and consequently, the functionality means the observer is no longer just active observer but also participant: THEY are shaping the environment in the interests of the game developer. But, and here's the key twist for me: functionality _could_ mean the above properties of appreciation (through senses), art criticism, and recognition of historical significance.

    For example, if "functionality" means allowing the user to direct himself through the game utilizing various objects along the way to get them to some goal, then this could very well describe the role of the observer in traditional art, like some person looking at a da Vinci painting: they search the canvas, or sculpture, or what have you, in an attempt at piecing together what the artist is trying to convey in his work of art. And they do this through using various aspects of the work (painting, sculpture) which the artist presents. All of a sudden, the line between functionality and art begins to disappear and the interactivity argument fails, because the observer _is_ interacting in some way with the work of art in order to derive meaning, aesthetic qualities, etc.

    It's like, when Kojima gives the example in the video of a work of art titled "an uncomfortable chair", and then asserts that videogame designers are still all about designing comfortable chairs -- i.e., works that are easy for the user to use/adapt to. But, the observer of the uncomfortable chair still must "feel around" to discover why the chair is uncomfortable, and that in itself can be described as invoking functionality.

    In the end, I'll go back to my original point -- I don't entirely agree with the interactivity argument, though I think it carries some weight. Basically, I think there are some elements of videogames that can be seen as artistic (themes from a story, or maybe the music, which require some subjective element of the user for full appreciation), while other elements are more scripted -- i.e., there is usually some formulaic response (series of jumps, set of puzzles) towards a goal that is INTRODUCED by the maker of the game in order for the person to WIN the game (and NOT to derive any sort of meaning, per se... think boss battles, level completion criteria, etc.). So, it goes back and forth, in the end.

    What do you think?

  3. that makes more sense. i suppose i still think the uniqueness of video games, to the extent they are unique to other media, doesn't have much bearing on whether video games can be art.

    not every video game is art itself, or high art or whatever, but the same can be said about every application of paint to a surface or writing of words on paper. part of what is interesting in art is how the artist deals with or uses the uniqueness of the medium. in every case i think there are advantages and disadvantages in a medium and i see no way of ranking them in terms of their capacity to be art.

    so, for me, the interesting question is not whether video games can tell stories, like Greek tragedies or Shakespeare, but how DO people tell stories with video games, unlike they do in other media.

    as you said, there are elements of video games that are not about meaning per se, and we can save a discussion about meaning for some other time, but accepting this is true seems to have important implications for HOW video games tell stories, but little to do with whether they can.

    a quick example, not meant to prove anything but to make a point, is the You Have to Burn the Rope game. you can/do win the game or acheive the goal but the way in which this is done has meaning and is designed to make a point about the medium of video games.