[MUD-Dev] Art vs. Fun

Matt Mihaly the_logos at achaea.com
Thu Dec 13 01:06:23 New Zealand Daylight Time 2001


On Wed, 12 Dec 2001, Koster, Raph wrote:
 
> But when Jess asked if I'd write a rebuttal, I had to think about
> it, and ask other people's opinions. You see, it's sort of
> fashionable to put down being artsy, these days. After all, the
> public's image of art is religious icons dipped in excrement, it's
> tediously boring French films, it's dumping cases of type on a
> page and calling it poetry. These days, you can read about Art
> (with a capital A, of course) and substitute in this phrase:
> "pretentious, incomprehensible, shallow, manipulative, boring
> crap." Why sign up to defend something that has that rep?

Well, that's a problem with how art is taught, I think, but
regardless, the public's opinions on art are not to be taken
seriously I feel. Man, that sounds so stuck-up. Sorry.
 
> Well, it's a valid rap. I have no tolerance for artsy crap. I find
> pretentious, overly craft-driven, self-referential, obscure,
> tangled, and weighty books to be garbage. Same for movies. I don't
> like most foreign films. I think it's the problem with poetry
> today. It's why jazz lost its audience. Why nobody cares who is
> writing the Great American Novel. And this may be the shortest
> rebuttal in history, because I agree with the premise that the
> first obligation of an online game is to be fun.

Wow. To say "I don't like most foreign films" says, to me, that you
have little interest in another culture's way of viewing the
world. Beyond that, I don't understand this implicit idea that if
something is difficult for the ordinary person to understand, it
must be pretentious nonsense. Why is the ordinary person the
standard against which all must be measured? Can't we aspire to
something a little grander than that? A little more interesting? 
Something which requires, dare I suggest it, an education to
appreciate? What's wrong with a film like Satyricon that needs to be
parsed more like poetry than a narrative? What's wrong with writing
poetry that no one reads. My best friend is quite a good poet, and
never even tries to publish his stuff. His friends and wife read it
occasionally, and though he doesn't make money or gain fame from his
poetry, he really lives it. It is, without question, his passion,
and I respect him for it.
 
> First off, let me dispose of the false dichotomy that plagues all
> these debates. Art and Entertainment are not in opposition. Now,
> I've got a broad definition of "entertain" (and here you can
> substitute in any number of words that all mean roughly the same
> thing: captivate, intrigue, command attention) but I think most
> people do too. Art that does not entertain is bad art. Games that
> are not fun are bad games.

Entertain. Hmm. I'm not sure I agree, unless you use a very broad
definition of entertain. Art that simply reveals something about an
age, or about an aspect of life, or even about a mathematical
formula, may not be "entertaining" as I think of it, but that
doesn't mean it's bad. I agree, however, that entertainment and art
are not opposites.

And while I agree that games that are not fun are bad games, as we
have all said a million times, what we're making is more than a
game.
 
> This does not mean that good entertainment is necessarily
> art. Entertainment is hard. Most people suck at entertaining
> others. It's a goddamn hard skill to learn, and if it weren't,
> we'd have many more stand-up comedians in the world, a heck of a
> lot more mimes, and we wouldn't have 500 channels with nothing on,
> boring radio and lame movies every summer weekend. Entertainment
> is hard and there's nothing wrong with trying to master just that.

Yeah, I agree with that. There's nothing wrong with entertaining
people, and it is challenging, as you say.
 
> Art doesn't just offer pretention. In fact, when you see a
> pretentious artist, you're probably seeing one of three kinds of
> people: a poser who doesn't know what being an artist is actually
> like; someone on a government grant; or an actual genius, in which
> case you should just avoid talking to them. (Most geniuses aren't
> very civil.)

Yeah, but it's the last category that's the most interesting.
Geniuses are cool, and make it well worth putting up with the people
in the first two categories.
 
> There's a difference between being pompous and being an artist. I
> don't know how many working artists (of whatever sort) you know,
> but most of the pompous ones can't make a living. Artists have to
> speak to people.

Making a living off your art isn't a requirement for being an artist
though.

> Otherwise, they can't afford to do it again. And out in the real
> world, people who want to make a living at being artists know this
> (their other chance is to become snootily pretentious and live off
> of government grants, of course, but those are then the people you
> probably haven't heard of).

Sure you can. Lots of artists throughout history have had other
jobs. It's easier if you don't have to, of course, but I think the
moment you have to worry about selling your art, the tendency
becomes to start thinking about it as a commodity rather than art.

> Real artists know that you can't forget entertainment, because
> it's what gives them their next meal. Heck, they even have a term
> for that lengthy period of learning they go through, when they
> learn their chops and learn how to entertain. It's called "paying
> your dues."

Oh come on. "Real artists know that you can't forget entertainment." 
I'm going to chalk that up to over-generalization to make a
point. That's totally untrue as a principle unless you define an
artist as someone who makes his or her living with his or her art,
which I don't buy as a valid restriction.

>     So what does art offer?
 
> The single biggest thing that art offers is an emphasis on craft.

Agreed.
 
> Art means you develop terminology and language. Class clowns
> entertain (well, mostly because at that age, our standards aren't
> yet high enough).  It's done instinctively. People who are serious
> about a craft talk to others about their craft. They work hard at
> defining what it is they do, how they do it, and by formalizing
> and classifying their practices, they discover new ways to do
> things. And they respect their history (a favorite theme here at
> Biting the Hand).

Absolutely.
 
> The other big thing that art brings is ethics. Yes, there is such
> a high-flown phrase as "the responsibility of the artist." 
> Entertainment is notoriously irresponsible. My current poster boy
> for a lack of cognizance of the impact the arts can have on people
> is what happened at the Woodstock concert redux, when Limb
> Bizkit's performance actually whipped the crowd into a greater
> frenzy. The responsible thing to do would be to calm the crowd
> down (in the 1960s an equally ugly concert ended with a death, at
> a place called Altamont. But Mick Jagger at least had the sense to
> try to persuade the audience to settle down).

Well, the Woodstock '99 debacle was terrible, and they're clearly
very irresponsible people, but I don't think it was irresponsible as
artists. I think, in fact, that as artists (and please, I'm not
condoning what they did), they were living their art. I don't
actually know anything about Limp Triscuit's music except that it's
loud and shouty, so my apologies if it has no prayer of falling into
the 'art' category. My impression is that they're taken at least
semi-seriously by semi-serious music critics though.

> Silly question. Of course we do. Badly, in fact. The last few
> columns here at Biting the Hand have been about the need for
> common terminology, the need to launch titles that are polished
> and not buggy, and the need to be honest and respectful of your
> customers.

Hard to argue about that from a commercial perspective. Would anyone
really have ever disagreed though, despite the shortcomings when it
came to executing? (Actually, I know a small commerical MUD operator
who was successful for a few years while maintaining the attitude
that what customers secretly enjoyed was getting shit on by the
administration and other players as much as possible. Seriously.)
 
> Ragging on those developers who speak of "using storyline to
> encode ethical systems" and "teaching moral lessons through
> gameplay" in times when we are under fire (and in lawsuits!) over
> tragedies like Columbine seems foolhardy.  And surely we're not
> saying that games cannot aspire to the level of your average
> men-in-tights superhero comic book? Isn't this why the Ultima
> series is revered by gamers? Isn't this what popular novels do? 
> Movies?

That's a fine point. I don't see game designers as having any
ethical responsibility for teaching <whatever> moral system in their
games, but as a practical matter, it'd be good not to deal with
lawsuits.
 
> We're making virtual places here, and there's other people on the
> other end of the line. When we put in a feature, it's there for
> player A to use on player B. And when we choose to ignore
> pretentious phrases like "encoding moral values" and thus abdicate
> our "responsibilities as artists" we're not only doing a
> disservice to the players, but to the whole industry which is
> struggling for legitimacy.

I guess I come at it a bit differently. I'm interested in "encoding
moral values" because it's interesting, not because I think I have
any responsibility as an artist (I don't consider myself an artist
anyway.) I mean, it IS pretty damn interesting.

As far as struggling for legitimacy goes, I'll just say that one
benefit of being involved in text MUDs is that you know you don't
have to bother, cause you'll never get it. =)
 
> Forgetting that there are people out there. You see, the
> pretension and pomposity comes about when you let those things
> above get in the way, and you forget to entertain or even to
> respect the audience.

I don't think art has to be about respecting OR disrespecting an
audience. It can be simply creating what you think is beautiful, or
interesting. Perhaps other people will find something in your vision
wonderful and worthwhile. Perhaps not.
 
> The choice is simple. Have the old, fun way. Or try something
> new. Sometimes the new thing turns out to be fun. Sometimes it
> doesn't, and now we know. If we choose the door on the left every
> time, we'll eventually end up with only one game. Yes, it is a bad
> thing when un-fun features are in a game. But that is the price of
> progress, and I am not afraid to say it.

Well-said.
 
> So I say, hooray for Art. If it means that this medium we love
> might develop and grow, if it means that we'll learn enough about
> it to have common practices, if it means that we will demand
> perfectionism and also depth of content and theme, manage to
> respect our audience along the way, and still always make things
> fun, absolutely heck yeah. I'm not going to be ashamed to be one
> of "those people" called out in Jessica's article, and hopefully
> neither will you.

Hooray! (though I'm always a little skeptical when talk of common
practices comes up. Makes me think box box box box, and not the X
kind.)

--matt 
"You're on a first name basis with lucidity. I, sadly, have to call it
Mister!" - The Tick

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