picasso it ain’t

My husband regaled this story to me while we were visiting a friend in Chicago and going through a Matisse exhibit

Picasso is sitting in a cafe, drinking a coffee, when a man walks up to him and says, “Mr. Picasso, I was wondering if you’d be willing to draw me something on this napkin”. So Picasso obliged, and in several moments had drawn something on the napkin supplied by the man. When Picasso turns the napkin over to the man, he simply states, “that will be 2 million dollars”. The man, confused at this, asks, “but it has only taken you 30 seconds to draw on that napkin.” Picasso responds, “But its taken me 30 years to draw that in 30 seconds”.

As an active member of the gaming community, I wonder if we don’t sometimes forget what really goes into art. I bring this up because there has been a recent rehash of claims made by Roger Ebert (yes of film review fame) that games are not art. As he stated previously:

But I believe the nature of the medium prevents it from moving beyond craftsmanship to the stature of art. To my knowledge, no one in or out of the field has ever been able to cite a game worthy of comparison with the great dramatists, poets, filmmakers, novelists and composers. That a game can aspire to artistic importance as a visual experience, I accept. But for most gamers, video games represent a loss of those precious hours we have available to make ourselves more cultured, civilized and empathetic.

His most recent conversation on this subject culminated in this article in his journal. Kellee Santiago gave a talk for TED at USC and tries to attack this very notion of “are games art?” Personally, I have yet to feel that an entire game can be considered “art” with few, if not one exception. But my interest in this article has more to do with Ebert’s lack of reasoning as to why Kellee is wrong and my eventual siding with Ebert.

The lack of reasoning is easily summed up in one of the comments to the post that he “simply doesn’t get it”. If Ebert doesn’t understand the mechanics of the game beneath what he is being shown on a clip of play through, he’ll never understand what people are trying in vain to tell him. It’s as if Ebert himself were trying to discuss why Jaws was so pivotal in the horror/thriller genre to someone who simply doesn’t care about a dolly zoom effect and what it’s influences were on modern film making.

Perhaps that is where people have gone wrong. My proposal to anyone who wishes to convince him otherwise, would be to recreate a movie frame by frame in a 3D environment. My feeling is that he’d still reject this.

Ebert never once defines “art” for his argument which should also be a clue to those who continue to try to convince him he is wrong. If he presents no point to contradict, there is no argument you can engage him in. Simply disagreeing with his opinion means nothing.

Now, while I don’t agree with how Ebert is presenting himself in this argument, I for one, have to agree that games are very rarely art. His one point about many aspiring artists draw many wonderful nudes, but it doesn’t mean they achieve the artistic recognition of someone like DaVinci or Picasso.

This brings me back to the Matisse exhibit. In this exhibit, we explored how Matisse came to be Matisse. Much of what was on the walls were early scribbles and sketches. Over and over and over again he would draw the same paintings, advancing his style, reworking lines, and thoughts and elements within. This is one thing I think every artist does. They continually rework their craft, ultimately developing their unique look and feel. They become (in the words of film) auteurs; authors of their own medium.

Have games gotten to that point? Do we have many auteurs in the industry? Like movies, games have huge budgets and thus huge crews, but ultimately they are carrying out the vision of the director or lead developer. And there is a new theory out there that suggests games fall under a new kind of authorship, one that is explain in the Studio Auteur Theory, where it is the studio one works for that will create the authorship of the works. But this seems a little flawed to me as auteurship is over different genres of films, different characters, different worlds. Most studios keep to what they know best: EA has its sports franchises, Blizzard has WoW and Diablo, Valve has Half-Life,  and Bungie has Halo.  However, even in these studios, we still only see a handful of masterminds behind games that can continually reproduce works that are both interesting and engaging. People like Sudo 51 or Masaya Matsuura creators of the games Killer 7 and Chime are a rare breed in an industry where the craft is more about deadlines and bottom dollars than seeing a vision played out. The amount of time spent perfecting a game is exponentially larger after release. (hence all the updates and “patches” we download each time we load up) Films don’t have that luxury. And with that comes a need to get it right the first time out. Is that where the “art” lies? Can art be a fluid thing? Can you change a canvas once its hung on a wall, and still call what it is “art”, if what it was before was “art”?

Just like Matisse, there may have been 6 or 7 versions of “Bathers by a River” but only one remains on the walls of the Louvre.

More thoughts later….

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Gender Crossing

I was contemplating some of the issues with “gender inclusive” game design and sort of ran a muck  with thoughts. Below is part of what came of it.

For an industry concerned with trying to appeal to women, You’d think they would first find out what women would like to play. And shouldn’t they assume that the female gaming age is not restricted to 7-12 year olds considering the average gamers age is in the area of 32? Creating the genre of “girls games” only creates more confusion and alienation for the female gaming community. Not to mention that the name alone turns of anyone who has passed puberty.

Personally, I find it appalling. I do not want to be pigeonholed to the point where I am only allowed to be interested in games that involve such classically stereotypical female things as “Barbie” or “social interactions” with pink load screens and little puppies in the background. I want to blow my fellow competitor out of the water just as much as he does me. The industry uses far too much time and energy to create female avatars that are either half-clad in clothes, or are creating fashions for Barbie’s already extensive wardrobe. Games such as Dead or Alive have built a reputation within the gaming community for having perfected their “breast physics.” Would not that time and energy be better spent in a genre of games that doesn’t exclude females but incorporates them? I’m sure not all male gamers can be happy about what these assumed images mean for them as well. Are all men sexually starved Neanderthals, that they must have Blood Rayne-like images in order to find a game appealing or entertaining? I think not.

It makes sense that the industry should want to walk the middle of the road in order to incorporate as many gamers as possible. Not only would you have the male population buying the game for its awesome moves, great special effects, and terrific narrative, you will also have girls buying the game for all these reasons with an added bonus that the main character is not offensive to them. What the industry needs to learn is that encouraging females to game is not a bad thing.

If it is true that gender roles are learned fully at age 7, and begin to be explored at age 2, it is hard to believe that an individuals cognition is not affected by the same socialization that causes them to recognize these roles. Women, just like men, are taught to act a certain way, behave and dress a certain way, as well as approach problems a certain way. Women are not traditionally allowed to use violence, for example, to solve problems. They are expected to communicate their issues better than men, and be more understanding than men. So it makes sense that we should think of women as learning differently than men.

A danger certainly lies in the assumptions of what is “inherent” in women beyond their anatomical attributes. Very little of what gender is, in the critical analysis sense of the word, has to do with biology. While some of these assumptions are less damaging than others, they certainly provide excuses for another’s behavior. Lets think of this in terms of a real world example: Erin. She’s been playing video games for a long time now, and no longer is victim to the ergonomics of the controller or the inability to prove herself in a room of male gamers and feels as though she has a grasp on what it takes to play with the boys. But now she has to go out into the real world and preach what she practices. She enters a room full of bright young programmers, all eager to hear her story of trial and triumph. She tells them of her new revolutionary way to make games “gender inclusive”. And then a young lady stands up and asks, “Why is it that I can’t like to play games the same way boys do?” Erin is forced to answer, “Well, that’s because you as a female learn differently from your male counterpart.” The young lady sits down and accepts this idea. She is different from her male counterpart not only in anatomy but also in brain function.

The idea of gender inclusive game design is a terrific way to get females into the market, but its short-term. At some point in the new female gamers life, they will want to do what the boys do. They will want to be able to play just as rough, be just as competitive without caring about the “relationship” at stake or ensuring everyone is having fun. And at that point, gender inclusive game design can do nothing for the stereotypes and gender assumptions at play within society. That gamer will still be criticized for behaving in such a manner, or participating in such play.

Is everything gender inclusive game design has to offer a negative? Absolutely not, as stated previously, it is a great short-term solution to getting females into the market. A higher female population in the market could be argued as forcing the industry to rethink its marketing strategies and thus game content. Should the images of females within games be changed? Yes. Should the marketing of games be geared towards both men and women, so as to keep both parties interested and not favor one over the other? Yes. But a danger still lies in creating games according to gendered learning. Creating a genre of games that are gender “safe”, where both genders can participate equally, or having games that are gender specific, does not solve the problem of gender “crossing”. By gender crossing I don’t simply mean having a male player able to play as a female avatar, though that is part of it. Gender crossing games have more to do with the idea that female or male, the game should be open to the player, and in return that player is not criticized for liking it because of gender constraints. As it stands now, games that are labeled as “male” (First Person Shooters) cannot be or should not be played by a female, and games labeled female (Girls Games) a male wouldn’t want to go anywhere near. Many gaming tournaments currently are male or female team specific. Creating games that make a name off of gender role assumptions validate these tournaments. They also prevent women from being taken seriously when they have true skills in genres they are not labeled for.

Just Don’t Die

This post is intended to be used for the Hack Gender project currently taking place this week. It’s a fantastic endeavor to understand Gender in a digital world. This is something I wrote some time ago, and still feel to this day. As an avid FPS player, its difficult to walk this line of gender and my frustration shows.

Don’t Die

It’s what every female gamer has been told at least once.

Just don’t die. Hide in the corner, walk around with someone, just don’t die.

It’s pretty easy to see that really what’s being said is

Since you can’t kill, just don’t die.

What I can’t decide, however, is this better than the alternative of not existing at all?

That’s right. Girls don’t exist online. Just forget about whether or not they are good. It doesn’t matter. And most of it is my fault.

For the majority of my life, I’ve abandoned all want to be a girl. I wanted to run with the boys, play like the boys, talk like the boys. And why not? They were allowed to fantasize about dominating power structures, not cooperating within them. They were taught to be aggressive in the quest for dominance, not to be subservient to the guy standing next to them. I rebelled against my gender in every way I could. I never wore skirts, always had my hair pulled back with a ball cap on backwards. Never wanted to go shopping, wear anything but tennis shoes, wear make-up or shave.

I found the whole idea of being female repulsive.

Then I got into gaming. I thought I was finally in a place where I didn’t have to acknowledge my gender if I didn’t want to. This meant of course that I still denied things that were inherently female, like my voice, or declaring my avatar to be female instead of male. But that trade-off was OK. I could still play how I wanted to play. The instant I acknowledged anything that would have made me female, I didn’t exist.

You can’t possibly be a girl.

You’re too good to be a girl.

If you are a girl, then you’ve got to an ugly dyke. Girls just aren’t good at games unless they have no boyfriends.

Can I have your phone number?

The list goes on but you get the picture. I think there’s an argument that could be made for the fact that online game play is overrun with individuals who are not necessarily acting their age, but I’ve had these kinds of confrontations with my own guy friends. And even when these same players act foolishly with other male gamers, it’s never called into question that they do or do not exist. Sometimes, its much more subtle and these comments come more from people who already know I am female but not necessarily that I game.

You play video games? Have you played the latest Mario?

You only have a Wii, right?

Wow Chico, that’s a pretty sweet move. Did Steve show you that?

In an ironic sort of way, my avatar is a character that takes up precious space on the server that, until the point I open my mouth, or acknowledge my gender, is an important piece of the puzzle. Once my avatar becomes female because I am female, it disappears, and suddenly that server space is no longer important. Girls don’t kill. Girls aren’t aggressive. Girls don’t want to play rough. So girls don’t play video games. They just don’t exist.

There’s a lot of talk out there about how the internet lets people be other people they normally wouldn’t be. I can pretend to be a magical elf, a powerful wizard, a super soldier, or a Brazilian insurgent. Somehow this lets people be “free” of all of societies constraints in the real world.

Be whoever you want to be!

Well, it’s made me non-existent.