Thursday, December 30, 2010

Video Games and Art

I should preface this by saying that I do not consider myself a gamer. There are maybe four video games that I've really gotten into.

Roger Ebert has famously and repeatedly written that "video games can never be art." To my knowledge, he wrote most extensively about that subject here. I've been thinking about his article for a while now. He makes some good points, but for some reason I couldn't bring myself to agree with him.

For Christmas I gave my brother some popcorn in a New Orleans Saints tin as well as The Hunger Games.  He sent me a text the other day, "Guess which of your presents I finished." I texted back that he must be done with the popcorn. For one, he has a voracious appetite for popcorn. He was also really busy working on a major project, so he didn't really have time for the book. Also, I suspected that when he finished the book he'd have a lot more to say about it than just "I'm finished." Turns out, he had just finished the popcorn.

But then I thought about his phrasing a little bit more. One does not "finish" a good book like that. It sticks with you, it gets in your head. After I read Dune, I couldn't look at a glass of water the same way for months. Every year when April shakes up what remains of winter, it brings me back to the first time I read Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. I'm not "finished" with those books.

But before I thought of either of those examples, I thought of an example from a video game—Final Fantasy VII. Every time I sit at a campfire, I always think of the scene in that game where the group is seated around a fire in Cosmo Canyon, and I think Barret says something about how the flames pull out deeply rooted memories. Then I started thinking about how the music and images of that game have stuck with me years after I first played it.

Central to Ebert's argument is that video games cannot be art because you beat them. You don't beat a novel or a painting or an opera. Well, I think it's safe to say that I did not really beat FFVII. It's one of the few games I've played through, and I must have played it start-to-finish half a dozen times. I play it for several reasons. First of all, it's fun. But it also looks beautiful, there are some fascinating characters, and the plot is sprawling and involved. And aside from the usual themes of life, death, and love, the game also explores the significance of colonialism and environmentalism, and identity and memory. It gets real.

But Ebert has bigger issues with video games. He writes, "No one in or out of the field has ever been able to cite a game worthy of comparison with the great poets, filmmakers, novelists and [sic]poets."  I have several problems with this. First, comparing art forms is a little silly. "Show me a piano sonata with character development as profound as even a low-rate novel!"

There are bigger problems, though. In the linked article above, he counters the argument that video games should be spared scrutiny because the medium is in its infancy. Ebert cites the beauty of cave paintings and the sophistication of early cinema. But the real test of art is time. We just can't know now if a video game made today will be timeless. I know that must be a hard pill for a film critic to swallow.

And now I'm actually going to get to the heart of the matter. Art is not like gold. No matter what we think of gold, whatever name we call it, whatever form it's bent in to, it will always be gold. It's as unchangeable as any other element. But the definition and properties of art are entirely dependent on what we assign it.

I'll turn to Prospero's last soliloquy from The Tempest. At this point in the play, Prospero is reconciled with his brother, the king, Ariel, and Miranda. Yet out Prospero comes to tell us that whether he returns to his home in Naples and is absolved is entirely up to us. He says, asking for applause:

But release me from my bands
With the help of your good hands
Gentle breath of yours my sails
Must fill, or else my project fails.

I don't think Prospero is just talking about his fate, or the fate of the play itself. This was the last of Shakespeare's plays, and I think Prospero is speaking about the entire body of Shakespeare's work and fiction in general. Prospero is trying to clue us in that the fate of any work does not lie in itself, but in how others perceive it. The author's intentions and best wishes are inconsequential if the audience wholly rejects what they have seen. The opposite is also true. I doubt that Shakespeare intended for his works to have the kind of force and presence that they have today. There was just no parallel in his age, aside from religious texts, to what his influence would become. And on top of it all, plays weren't considered art in his day.

There may come a time when we see video games in an entirely new light. I don't think Pong will ever be looked at like the Epic of Gilgamesh, but maybe Final Fantasy VII will be considered to be on par with "Le Voyage dans la lune." And some educated and refined people may never develop a taste for even the best video games. But that's okay. Lots of people don't like opera.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Separation of Church and State

I don't usually like to get political, but this is an ever-increasing notion in America that I disagree with. Despite what most people believe, the phrase "Separation of Church and State" is not constitutional. It's not in there. In fact, the part of the constitution which deals exclusively with religion is the first amendment. M.J. Sobran had this to say about it:

"The Framers of the Constitution . . . forbade the Congress to make any law "respecting" the establishment of religion, thus leaving the states free to do so (as several of them did); and they explicitly forbade the Congress to abridge "the free exercise" of religion, thus giving actual religious observance a rhetorical emphasis that fully accords with the special concern we know they had for religion. It takes a special ingenuity to wring out of this a governmental indifference to religion, let alone an aggressive secularism. Yet there are those who insist that the First Amendment actually proscribes governmental partiality not only to any single religion, but to religion as such; so that tax exemption for churches is now thought to be unconstitutional. It is startling to consider that a clause clearly protecting religion can be construed as requiring that it be denied a status routinely granted to educational and charitable enterprises, which have no overt constitutional protection. Far from equalizing unbelief, secularism has succeeded in virtually establishing it.


"A religious conviction is now a second-class conviction, expected to step deferentially to the back of the secular bus, and not to get uppity about it.


"What the secularists are increasingly demanding, in their disingenuous way, is that religious people, when they act politically, act only on secularist grounds. They are trying to equate acting on religion with establishing religion. And—I repeat—the consequence of such logic is really to establish secularism. It is in fact, to force the religious to internalize the major premise of secularism: that religion has no proper bearing on public affairs." (Human Life Review, Summer 1978, pp. 51–52, 60–61)

Neal A. Maxwell writes:

"It is always such an easy step from dogmatism to unfair play--especially so when the dogmatists believe themselves to be dealing with primitive people who do not know what is best for them. It is the secular bureaucrat's burden, you see.


"Our founding fathers did not wish to have a state church established nor to have a particular religion favored by government. They wanted religion to be free to make its own way. But neither did they intend to have irreligion made into a favored state church. Notice the terrible irony if this trend were to continue. When the secular church goes after its heretics, where are the sanctuaries? To what landfalls and Plymouth Rocks can future pilgrims go?

"If we let come into being a secular church shorn of traditional and divine values, where shall we go for inspiration in the crises of tomorrow? Can we appeal to the rightness of a specific regulation to sustain us in our hours of need?" ("Meeting the Challenges of Today," speech given at BYU on 10 October 1978.)

Now, I'm still not one for public prayer in elementary school because I feel like children are too young and impressionable, and at that stage, religion should be taught at home and in the church. But prayers in Congress, in the White House, in Universities I feel are not at all inappropriate. Those prayers do not establish a state religion. Neither do Christmas decorations in public buildings. I would actually love to see decorations and exhibits for Ramadan, Hanukkah, and Diwali in public buildings.

The Daily Show said something coy about how Christmas is the only national holiday that is also a religious holiday; so Christians can go home and celebrate Jesus' birth, and everyone else can ponder "the true meaning of separation of church and state." Well, as already noted, that separation is not a constitutionally or legally mandated separation. Second, I don't think having Christmas as a national holiday establishes Christianity as a state religion. It's a practical issue more than anything. The vast majority of Americans would want Christmas off whether they were Christians or atheists. It's just as much a cultural as a religious thing in America. Rather than denying millions of government employees time off for Christmas, it makes much more sense to just make it a national holiday.

The paranoia and superstition that seeks to remove religion from the public discourse frankly amazes me. I echo Sobran's disbelief that a document so clearly written to protect religion is now being used to drag religion into public contempt.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

My Contribution to NaNoWriMo

"Once upon a time there was a lovely little sausage called Michael, and it lived happily ever after."

It's semi-autobiographical.