Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Reasons for staying underdog

Is it really important if you define video games as art? Isn’t it just a matter of trying to be socially accepted, to become one of the “cool kids” rather than “unpopular”? Blessing of Kings just wrote an insightful post about this, in a respons to Lume the Mads quite heavy, but very read worthy post Video Games as art. Now it’s my turn to take up the baton and add a few thoughts.

Even though I’m new to video games I’m not new to the discussion – I used to be a member of the science fiction fandom, where many people were just as frustrated as some gamers are – banging their heads against the wall trying to get science fiction accepted as “good literature”. The most annoying thing about it was that it actually happened that some great science fiction books finally were acknowledged by the critics – but once it happened for some reason the “SF tag” got lost on the way and they were presented as “idea oriented” “futuristic” or something else – anything but SF.

Myself I was brought up in a family where we never put up any borders classifying literature as “high class” or “trash”. My parents happily consumed everything – they praised the cartoons of Carl Barks one day and the next day they were reading the latest work of a Nobel Prize winner. They didn’t care if I read crime fiction or Sartre, as long as I enjoyed it. To take part of different sorts of artistic expressions was just as natural as to eat and breath and sleep – a basic need if you put it that way.

But clearly society in general until now hasn’t looked on those branches of art and literature with such a broad perspective as my parents. People love to arrange things in hierarchies, unconsciously if nothing else, and for a long time SF and fantasy literature and movies, comics and video games clearly have been considered “lower class”. But unlike Blessing of Kings I actually see signs that we may expect a change in this classification in the future. The quite conservative Swedish national morning paper I read, which has a clear middle-upper class academic profile, actually publishes in depth articles about video games in the art-and-literature section of the news paper, starting a couple of years ago. They don’t only do very serious reviews about new games, sometimes written by the same guys who do book reviews – they’ve also had a number of long essays analyzing video games from an artistic perspective.

From my point of view I really welcome the change. I want to read well written, intelligent analyzes of video games, targeting a well educated audience and not just kids. Currently I’m especially annoyed about a magazine dedicated to World of Warcraft published in Sweden, which is pure crap, which seems to written for 10 year olds who’ve flunked school. If we can get video games into the art section of the newspapers maybe the chances to find WoW writings intended for grown ups elsewhere than in the WoW blogosphere, which currently is the only place to go.

On the other hand you can look on it from an opposite way: do we really want to become socially accepted? Thinking about that the WoW playing is so common, that there are millions of players out there, that grannies and neighbours and colleagues and just about anyone you know may be playing it makes it a bit plain and ordinary, doesn’t it?

There is a pleasure in being an underdog actually, to be misunderstood by society, to find comfort and friendship with the other “unpopular” kids, to find a gang of your own to hang out with. This feeling may get lost, as the playing becomes more and more socially accepted and widespread.

It’s just like the SF bookshop in Stockholm. 20 years ago it used to be in a cellar, run by a few enthusiasts who had ordinary jobs beside it to make a living, open just a few hours in the evenings and in the weekends. You went there only if you knew on beforehand that it existed. It was an oasis where the misunderstood underdogs of SF readers could meet up, a sort of hideout. We looked upon any other kind of literature as “mainstream”, sometimes with a slightly prerogative undertone.

Nowadays I can’t help feeling SF has become the mainstream. At least it’s become quite accepted in Sweden. The SF bookstore has moved into the major tourist shopping area in a huge store, it’s got a huge hired staff, it’s open everyday of the week. You’ll find all sorts of people there, and they don’t look like underdogs at all. As a matter of fact I suspect they could have been some of the “cool kids” at school.

This post is starting to become rather long and rather rambling, it’s time to get to the point. I think that the conception of art is changing. And video gaming is probably going to be more socially accepted in the future than it is today. We’ll see it entering the art and literature pages in the newspapers. And we’ll see all kinds of players. Not just the unpopular kids at school, but also the cool ones.

This evolution is inevitable and mostly it’s for the good. Still being an underdog isn’t only bad – sometimes it’s quite enjoyable – you feel like a part of a secret society, a few enlightened people who’ve found something that others haven’t found. Actually I think there may come when we’ll miss the time when we were the underdogs.


Eishen said...

For the “art” part:

As in literature, music , cinema , and any other acepted “art” in videogames you can find a number of master pieces, many good pieces, loads of medianities and some lots of crap…. As in those art some of the classification depends on your own taste and some on objetive clasification

For the social part:
Video gaming is advancing at gigantic paces to social acceptance and even predominancy, now you can se GTA4 spots in TV , Wii has taken the place of trivial pursuit in “sociable” people private parties, PS3 with its blue ray is taking the place of DvD players in young people homes (at least young pepople with the money to have it! ;-) )

In the end, we are not so underdogs now , there are many room in this hobby/art/putyourowndefinitionhere for unpopular kids (and elders!) as it gives the “befefit” of privateness and indirect contact where yourself put the limits, but you are no more “the strange lonely boy in the dark corner” ONLY for pplaying videogames…..ey I got a “murloc agro” tone in my mobile for incoming messages and I can even tell about where it come from , and nobody try to take me to the psychiatric clinic

Anonymous said...

The benefit of being in the minority is that we don't get notice, and its good in that way. Becoming mainstream opens up the genre, however brings with it the eye and ire of society.

The benefits to video games as a social tool both directly through multiplayer, lans etc, and indirectly through in game chat, vent/teamspeak is also high, it opens people up to each other, and in many ways relationships formed through this medium are artificially closer than those in real life as people do not worry about what they can say, or how real to themselves they can be, because opening up to a person on the internet is safe, its easy and its always available. I think realistically the social impact of games is yet to be established, the lunatic fringe will always blame the newest trend for being anti-social, causing problems, yet I see WoW, and to an extent many other games as social tools, something to talk about, people to talk with. As I mentioned in my addiction comment, its not just you in Azeroth (or however many you's you play) but the other members of your guild, your server and similar, its a huge support network premised on the idea of mutual co-operation to succeed.

I don't know when we will get to be considered an art form, or even if thats truly a good thing as making "art" detracts from what games are traditionally about, you have artistic game and artistic themes, but to simply create "art" may deny the user the interaction, control and depth that games often give. Moving these games from the pool of games already happens, Metal Gear Solid is a game, yet it is often considered more of an interactive movie, or a piece of art due to the directing and story being more central to the game than perhaps the playing. Perhaps its a good thing to separate true "art" games from games we play, WoW will never be accused of being the prettiest game on the market, but its a work of art, and 9 million other people see something in it as well.

Larísa said...

Oh what bright comments I get on this post! It's evident that I'm not quite up to date with the ongoing changes. Being 40 years old I probably don't see HOW mainstream gaming (and btw sf/fantasy/comics and such areas which earlier were considered odd subcultures) have bedome.

Thinking about art - yes I think it's often used as eishen suggests. Things you that suits your taste you call art - things you don't like is not art.... But often the middle-upper class decide what society should generally agree on as being "art".

Its true that the interactivity in the game, the participation of the players, make the creaters of it lose control a bit. Still there ARE som artistic works, (performances, so called installation and such) which actually involves the audience. Perhaps the view of this will change, eventually. Though it will probably take longer than it takes to get gaming to become sociallly accepted.

Anonymous said...

Games, fantasy, comics are all really mainstream now, popular book sellers sell Manga, simple fact is as the gaming generations become older, the bell curve changes from niche, to a large % of the population having been or are gamers. The rise of E-sports at the moment, its still horribly niche, however in 20 years I can easily see a Halo 2009 (now allowing you to wield 2009 weapons at once!) tournaments or similar actually being popular, maybe still not in the realms of football or tennis, but having a following thats more mainstream.

Taking anime as an example, people may dislike Studio Ghibli, however Spirited Away did a lot more for Anime popularity and acceptability (it was really the first anime to really appear in huge numbers in blockbuster and similar that I know of, and non-anime fans watched it) than say Akira, or Patlabor. The latter are both good, interesting anime, however the openness and accessibility of Spirited Away and other Studio Ghibli made it acceptable and mainstream, they are sold everywhere.

WoW at the moment is probably the Akira of gaming, its opening up the market, and its popular amongst fans. I think sometime in the future we will see a game / mmo (and I separate these out since in many ways its not a game, its a social experience, since MMOs without a social structure and support to them tend to wipe much faster than those that allow for support) that is both popular and mainstream, the kind of thing "normal" people will play. Its what brain training did, it allowed people to play and enjoy the game and not see it as a niche game, and thats the "messiah" of gaming, creating a game thats accessible and popular and manages to bring gaming from mainstream to down right acceptable, where being good at and enjoying it no longer makes it "geeky" or "sad".

Larísa said...

Still I'm not totally comfortable in being one of the followers, one in the mainstream crowd... Being geeky is a part of my identity, to be honest. At the same time as we long for acceptance it's pretty nice to feel unique and a bit apart, isn't it?

Laughing, I must admit that I was one of those people who finally could start appreciating anime after watching Spirited away... I'm SO mainstream in some aspects!
I just have to cope with it.

Tufva said...

Ah, the old SF bookstore in Stockholm - as a teenager I only rarely visited Stockholm, but I always made a beeline for that shop. Back then before online shopping it was pretty much the only way to get hold of good quality fantasy (yes, so I'm more of a fantasy than an SF person). I loved that place.

I completely agree that as much as you still can't get some people to understand the concept of online gaming - on the other hand it is quite nice to be part of a sub-culture. :-)