Friday, November 30, 2012
News Kneejerk: MoMA Sez "Games = Art."
Yesterday the MoMA announced that it is adding the following titles to its collection:
• Another World
• SimCity 2000
• The Sims
• Katamari Damacy
• EVE Online
• Dwarf Fortress
And this is only the beginning. If you clicked the link, you'll have surely noticed games like Pong, Asteroids, Chrono Trigger, and Minecraft on the MoMA's wish list.
Oh, good; here we go again. Video games: art?
I enjoy playing video games as much as the next hip twentysomething jerkoff, but this news from Manhattan somehow doesn't sit well with me. I've been trying all day to sort out why.
I've noticed, for one thing, that the more cultural legitimacy games acquire, the less interesting they become to me. This might be a personal problem as much as anything; the griping of an O.G. annoyed that the band that used to belong exclusively to him and his friends suddenly belongs to everyone.
Maybe there's more to it than that.
Nintendo Power -- a magazine whose reporting focused on reviews and strategy guides -- recently went under after 24 years. Nostalgic older players can be heard muttering to themselves about "the end of an age" as they click on the next Kotaku link.
Meanwhile: earlier this year, the Onion A.V. Club unveiled a spin-off site called The Gameological Society, which focuses its reporting on what video games mean. It's some relatively highbrow stuff, reading like some Artforum contributor's examination of Secret of Mana or Metroid. More than once I've stopped reading an article halfway through, thinking GOOD GOD, IT'S A FREAKING VIDEO GAME. GET OVER IT.
Yeah, yeah -- this from somebody who's written a veritable book on Final Fantasy. Call me inconsistent.
(However: two years after playing through the whole freaking Final Fantasy series, one through thirteen, and writing about it, I feel a lot differently about Final Fantasy.)
Truth is -- and I've said before -- video games have become a guilty pleasure for me. An hour spent plunking virtual credits into Revenge of Death-Adder on MAME is an hour I'm not writing, going outside, reading 19th century novels or Greek philosophers, learning calculus, looking at the stars, having sex, doing a crossword puzzle with a friend, et cetera., et cetera.
It's too passive. Which is fine -- were it not for the pet pleasures society affords us, those of us on the lower rungs would have burned down the banks and government offices years ago. Lord knows an hour or two with a fighting game or shmup after work has more than once been the difference between Functional Patrick and Sociopathic Patrick.
But art -- especially the sort proclaiming itself modern -- is not supposed to be passive.
Yeah, yeah -- video games are interactive, you say. That's not what I mean. Mario moves and jumps when you hit the buttons, but it's still so damned easy. That's the point; toys aren't meant to be hard. Games are meant to be played and won, ideally yielding their player as much entertainment and as little frustration as possible. For the most part they are psychic comfort food.
I've always been under the assumption that modern art's ideals are to provoke and challenge its viewers. To upend their assumptions and beliefs about the world in which they live; to force a reevaluation of their values and perspectives. Modern art is not easy. It's best when it drives you crazy because you can't easily resolve it, can't figure out how it makes you feel, can't "win" at it.
Tōru Iwatani made a very neat game once (Pac-Man) and is evidently a career lecturer these days, but I wonder if he has as many interesting things to say about his medium and the world as Kandinsky, Miró, or fuck, even Warhol?
Perhaps I am being unfair?
Maybe. But these might be questions we want to ask, distinctions we want to make when selecting which cultural artifacts have more weight and lasting value than others; which notes in the general cacophony allow the listener to transcend and arrange the rest in a more melodious order.
While typing the last paragraph, it occurred to me that the MoMA's very decision to incorporate games in its collection might be construed as a challenge. The choice itself was made to provoke thought, discussion, and argument.
Video games are not longer just hobby pieces for kids and geeks. "Subculture" is no longer a term that applies to self-described "gamers." The scene has gone mainstream in a big way. And the values expressed by these games, by the people who design them, and in the lifestyle choices of the people who consume them, are exerting an increasingly heavy influence on society.
I wonder if the MoMA isn't implicitly asking us to consider what the values implied by these developments might be? What is the difference between a pre-gaming culture and a gaming culture?