Posts Tagged ‘censorship’

Book Burning

"Book Burning." CC Copyright by pcorreia

[This is for my cousin Victoria to whom I gave a completely facetious answer to this question and to whom I owe a better one.]

Making the World Safe for Puberty

I’ve seen an article making the Facelink rounds among a few of my friends recently.  Meghan Cox Gurdon’s “Darkness Too Visible” bemoans the fact that fiction for young adults is a cesspit filled with all manner of luridly described unpleasantness:

Profanity that would get a song or movie branded with a parental warning is, in young-adult novels, so commonplace that most reviewers do not even remark upon it.

If books show us the world, teen fiction can be like a hall of fun-house mirrors, constantly reflecting back hideously distorted portrayals of what life is. There are of course exceptions, but a careless young reader—or one who seeks out depravity—will find himself surrounded by images not of joy or beauty but of damage, brutality and losses of the most horrendous kinds.

You can go on and read the rest yourself if you want but you really don’t have to.  Because if you have been at all sentient during the last, oh, four centuries, you’ve already read this argument many, many times.  Often it is directed at specific titles or series (“Harry Potter is turning our kids into Satan-worshippers!); more often it is directed against entire genres (slasher films, sci-fi) or even wholesale forms of media (books, films, television, and video games in toto have all at one time or another been accused of corrupting the pure moral heart of our precious youth).

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Art Deco Spandrel

Art Deco Spandrel. CC Copyright by Atelier Tee

In his article Broadpaw made an excellent point about the reluctance of many people to think of games as art or even that particular games might be a form of art; we are lightyears away from someone acknowledging that a specific game might be great art.  Broadpaw noted that the entire debate is structured around a series of false binaries.  And they are false  if we consider the way these things actually work in the world.  As I noted previously, the non-art/art binary doesn’t apply at all to our actual creative practices.  However, the important thing about false binaries is that they can nevertheless have real-world effects.  It is the reason why people use them, after all.  The concepts they describe and the words that give them life are the foundation of careers, schools of thought, forms of power.  All well and good, right?  The great wheel of capitalism turns to the benefit of all?  I want to spend a bit of time thinking about the downside, the real world negative effects of these false binaries on the present and future place of games in our culture.

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Graffiti Art

Art isn't a Crime, Creative Commons Copyright by natashalcd

There is perhaps nothing quite as likely to initiate yawning and eye-rolling amongst game developers as the question: are games art?  Yet the question keeps returning and it is one upon which the International Game Developers Association (IGDA) has taken a strong position, arguing in its anti-censorship talking points that “Video games are emerging as the leading art form of the 21st century” and emphasizing that “Digital games are an expressive medium worthy of the same respect, and protections, as movies, literature and other forms of art and entertainment.”

The IGDA’s position, however, does not seem to be shared by a significant number of developers, many of whom prefer simply to avoid the question or to maintain that it isn’t relevant to the real work of game design.  For example, in Washington Post article, Ken Levine, lead designer of BioShock, when asked whether games are art, replies that “he doesn’t spend much time thinking about the art question.” He goes on to say, “I don’t know, and I guess I sort of don’t care. . . All I care about is, does it work—does it have an impact on an audience?” (F2).  Other developers have reacted more strongly.  John Carmack maintained in 2002 that “We’re doing entertainment. Saying it’s art is a kind of sophistry from people who want to aggrandize our industry” (quoted in Au); a point of view he reiterated in his keynote address at the 2004 Game Developers Conference (McNamara).  Carmack’s view, in particular seems to represent a more widespread attitude among developers and gamers (google Carmack’s “sophistry” statement, for example, and you’ll find it quoted approvingly in a number of gaming forum discussions).

These expressions of impatience and hostility, and even the more benign sentiment that the question is irrelevant, are based in large part on several fundamental misconceptions about the differences between art and non-art.  While the misconceptions are widespread amongst members of the public and even artists themselves, the distinctions they embody bear little resemblance to actual artistic practice either historically or in the present day.  By focusing on the most common misconceptions I want to highlight what is at stake for game development in trying to fit in with the popular (mis)understanding of the nature of art as well as the dangers inherent in refusing a more active role in helping shape cultural perceptions of art in a way that would include games. (more…)