April 29, 2010

Video Games as Art

Like pretty much everyone under the age of 40, I found myself disagreeing with Roger Ebert's rather misguided polemic against the idea that video games can be art. Clearly there are a wealth of games out there now that not only include artistic accoutrements but also, like Braid or Passage, tweak the conventions of video games for artistic ends.

I think it's worth focusing on that latter aspect: To the extent that we can talk about video games as art, as opposed to mere entertainment, it's because art games typically do something that is common in modern art in particular, which is to comment on the norms that have accumulated around video games over the past 20-30 years. Braid, for example, calls into question the assumptions embedded in save-the-princess adventure games going back to Mario and Zelda. Similarly, games like Shadow of the Colossus take a common video game goal -- kill the bad guys -- and subvert it: The protagonist is told by this disembodied voice to slay these beautiful, majestic creatures, and of course we, as the player, comply -- only to find out, too late, the true harm we have caused.

It may be helpful to think of video games as being more akin to the plastic arts, like painting, sculpture, or mixed media, than to narrative art forms like film or literature. Expecting video games to have the same sort of narrative density that a book or a movie have may be setting the bar too high, making it easy to dismiss video games as an art form. I like to think of a game like Passage as being like one of those interactive art installations you might find at MoMA or the Hirshhorn: It provides a singular moment of epiphany, rather than the presentation of a whole world. Indeed, the more I think about it, the more I think the comparison to modern art is apt: Compared to, say, the Lascaux cave paintings or works from the Renaissance, modern art frequently is accused of not living up to traditional standards. ("My kid could paint that!" "My kid could play that and rack up a high score!") But, of course, modern art is supposed to challenge our assumptions about art and about the world, and it seems to me that those video games that aspire to that belong in the same category.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

April 15, 2010

Putting the Kibosh on Kabuki

Jon Lackman says it's time for pundits to stop using the word Kabuki as a synonym for "posturing":
Of course, pundits don't care about the real thing. They use Kabuki precisely because they and everyone else have only a hazy idea of the word's true meaning, and they can use it purely on the level of insinuation. They deploy Kabuki because:

1) It sounds funny.
2) It sounds childish.
3) It sounds foreign.
4) It sounds incomprehensible.

Kabuki succeeds chiefly because it makes your opponent sound silly and un-American. And finally Kabuki works because:

5) It sounds Japanese.
As one who has used the word Kabuki in this way, I must say Lackman completely misses the point of what people mean by it in political contexts. It doesn't really have anything to do with Japan per se, but more to do with American distaste for artifice, whether employed for the purposes of art or the purposes of politics. Our national culture is strongly shaped by the legacy of the plainspoken Protestants who settled here -- Puritans, Quakers, and the like -- as well as our origins as a republic, when we dispensed with the artifice of monarchy and tried to develop a government more in line with natural law. As a result, we reward politicians who sound like they're being straight with us and saying what they mean, which is often the opposite of what we usually get in, for example, Supreme Court confirmation hearings.

Of course, being plainspoken can be an artifice in itself -- our history is rife with men and woman of privilege, from Franklin Roosevelt to George W. Bush, who passed themselves off as just folks. And then there's Sarah Palin, who has made ignorance about public policy into a badge of honor. Meanwhile, politicians who can't pull it off -- think George H.W. Bush at the supermarket or John Kerry windsurfing -- get hammered as elitist or out of touch.

April 11, 2010

99 Luftballons

In honor of the new START agreement:

April 9, 2010

News from the Old Country

So Greece is promoting the idea of resolving the Macedonian name dispute by calling the FYROM "Northern Macedonia," and the EU and the UN are putting pressure on both the Greeks and the Macedonians to come to some sort of resolution. The newest wrinkle is a proposal to have the Macedonians adopt a "dual use" name: They can call themselves "Northern Macedonia" for the purposes of international relations, but save "Macedonia" for internal use. Unfortunately, the Greeks aren't buying:
"We are very clear: a name with a geographical qualifier, for use in relation to everyone. A geographical qualifier that makes clear the reality of the situation, and for use in relation to everyone, so that the hide-and-seek can stop and a definitive solution can be found. 'Northern Macedonia' fits within the framework for the solution that I am describing," [Greek Deputy Foreign Minister Dimitiris] Droutsas stated.
Meanwhile, the new rights law in Macedonia bans discrimination on the basis of sex, religion, and ethnicity, but not sexual orientation.

UPDATE: Then again, perhaps the easiest way to solve the name dispute would be for Greece to sell the rights to the name "Macedonia," which would give the Greeks a much-needed infusion of cash. But can you copyright the name of a country or a region? If so, there are a lot of places -- Lebanon, Kentucky, for example, or Newark, New Jersey -- that would be in big trouble.

April 6, 2010

Political Conflict Isn’t About Free Markets

The main difference between left and right with regard to property rights is simply that the right is invested in a lot of rhetoric about markets and property rights and the left is invested in different historical and rhetorical tropes.

The Wikileaks Iraq Video

It's horrific. And required viewing:

I don't anything to add, but I think James Fallows takes the right approach on how to react to atrocities like this:
There will be lot of those "real questions" to consider, from rules of engagement to the apparent cover up of the footage. But the threshold point I meant to start with is this: The very high likelihood of such "tragedies" occurring is a very strong reason not to get into wars of this sort.

By "of this sort" I mean: twilight-zone urban warfare, not to mention "discretionary" or "preventive" wars, and situations in which a heavily armed-and-amored occupying force of foreigners tries uneasily to mix with a population overwhelmingly of a different race and religion and language. For their own survival, the occupiers need to be hyper-suspicious and ever alert -- even though today's prevalent Counter Insurgency doctrine ("COIN") warns of the self-defeating consequences of behaving this way. (Indeed, a mounting debate about the COIN approach in Afghanistan is whether the effort not to seem distant from the local population is exposing US soldiers to too much risk.) It is a situation with enormous potential for miscalculation, misunderstanding, and tragedy. And therefore one to avoid if you have any choice at all.

Farhad Manjoo Tries Out the iPad

His comment here, I think, gets to the heart of my reservations about the iPad:
Choire Sicha says that the iPad spurns creative people, but it seems more appropriate to say that it resists "power users," people who like to customize their machines to do things better, faster, and more productively. The iPad resists customization; there is only one way to do most things on this device—Apple's way.
And of course, power users like myself are a clear minority among the computer using population. So I don't really begrudge Apple trying to do what it's always done, which is to make the computing experience more accessible to more people. But still...