What if the best thing art has to offer is freedom from choice?
There’s a reason it’s high praise, not criticism, to say that a film or a piece of music or a good novel “sweeps you along.” There’s a selflessness in it: not just the pleasure in pausing the parts of the brain that plan and calculate and select, but in the temporary surrender of investing in someone else’s choices. Good art can be where we go for humility: when we’re encouraged to treat each of our thoughts as worthy of being made public, it can be almost counter-cultural to admit, in the act of being swept along, that someone else is simply better at arranging the keys of a song or the twists of a book and making them look like fate.
Freedom from choice is a seductive way of thinking about art—and it’s at the heart of the debate over the cultural value of video games. Video games, for their cultural boosters, promise an art based on choice: an interactive art, possibly the first ever. For their detractors, “interactive art” is a contradiction in terms. Critics can point to video games’ narrative clichés or sloppy dialogue or a faith in violence as the answer to everything; but at base, they seem to be bothered by the idea of an art form that can be “played.” Choice is their bright line.
Last spring, Roger Ebert nominated himself to hold that bright line on his blog. And though the 4,799 comments (to date) on his original post weighed in overwhelmingly against his claim that “Video games can never be art,” and encouraged him to back off of that blanket assertion, he summed up as eloquently as anyone the danger posed to narrative by video games’ possibility of limitless choice:
If you can go through “every emotional journey available,” doesn’t that devalue each and every one of them? Art seeks to lead you to an inevitable conclusion, not a smorgasbord of choices. If next time I have Romeo and Juliet go through the story naked and standing on their hands, would that be way cool, or what?
It’s possible, as Owen Good did, to write off the whole argument as empty, just a chest-thumping proxy war between generations or subcultures: “Art is fundamentally built on the subjective: inspiration, interpretation and appraisal. To me that underlines the pointlessness of the current debate for or against video games as art….Is there some validation the games community seeks but isn’t getting right now?”
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