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Does Art Deserve Our Loyalty? (and other musings)


I'm going to try to tackle a broad subject today, it touches on the tips of a few icebergs, but my goal is just to get some discussion going (I think that's the best use of this space, anyway). To start, I'm going to lay down some ground rules I'll be working from: games are "art", "games" is a colloquially wide term that includes famous examples like Dear Esther, and that there are multiple nuanced reasons people play the games they play. I'm alright with disagreement on any of those ideas, but those perspectives will be informing the rest of this piece.

A few more fundamental ideas: Games as art are designed for our enjoyment, no matter how that ends up happening, but games are also products produced for profit in an industry that attracts a lot of big-dollar business people. Game consumption (to put it clinically) is also tied to many people's identities that were formed at a young age -- the industry itself is young -- and marketing has long since taken advantage of the fact. Brand loyalty has been a big aspect of the ebbs and flows of console hardware success (which makes some sense) but that idea can also be found on the software side of things.

That's where I begin to question this confluence of product and creative output. It's absolutely not a new question, but when I consider games as individual works of art, it makes the idea of "staying loyal" to a series quite absurd. I know people who will buy any Final Fantasy game, sight unseen, because they are Final Fantasy fans. I'm sure these kinds of fans exist for every major game franchise, even if they don't outright articulate that idea, and it always seemed out of place to me.

The only thing that rescues this idea from total unrelatability is when I see in myself the desire to play a game because the action of doing so is innately satisfying. Just look at any MMO or Free-to-Play game and you'll see a wealth of scientifically designed mechanics meant to make the act of playing be as addicting as possible. Whether it's acting as a social conduit for friends (*raises hand*), as an outlet for stress and anxiety, or whatever else you gain, games give something to people outside of their artistic and aesthetic merits.

So the headline question comes a bit more in to focus now: does a game series that inherently promises people a practical use deserve loyalty despite also functioning as pieces of art? It begs two questions, I'm afraid: can games be consumed in more than one way at the same time; and, is there a problem with being loyal to art in the first place?

I think games can be appreciated for many reasons, but are usually only sought out for one reason. The foot-in-the-door for most games is their recognition, which is most readily delivered by their title. A recognizable title can convey a lot of information and recall a lot of specific feelings with just a few words. I realize I could be writing this about any number of other entertainment mediums, but games are what I know and of course this is a gaming website, so by framing it within games I'm not saying this is a subject unique to games. With that noted, I still don't think loyalty to a game franchise is a good thing. Even though I can see myself looking to certain games and playing them mostly for the hobbyist-style joy of performing those duties in the game, it still seems enjoyment of games still dwells mostly on a practical level. Games may be art, but games are still widely consumed as the digital toys they began as.

That fact is likely at the root of the pestering problems of artistic appreciation and freedom of games, culturally. It's a conflict between the strict definability of an activity (like sports, which we're seeing games increasingly be compared to) and the great mutability of art that is necessary for any medium to progress and thrive. It's enough to convince some people that maybe games aren't "art", but rather they're composed of many individual artistic design elements. I think that perspective works to smooth the edges, but it also narrows things too much. The experiential quality of games waffles back and forth between a participatory activity and a creator-led narrative. It discounts the latter experiences to say that the amalgam talent that goes into a game cannot be considered artistic -- that the arrangement of all of those elements isn't itself a creative force being appreciated by the player.

If it's all just semantics, then I'd be happier to call it a wash, but I suspect these things don't just end with their labels. As long as games are primarily a commodity, we'll see continued push-back on new experiences in game design and structure.

I went off the rails a bit there by the end, but I did try to reign it in. If any of the above sparked a thought or two, then leave them below! I'll try to respond or clarify (or probably both).

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About Dr Melone of us since 10:58 PM on 01.31.2012

Cohost: https://cohost.org/DrMel

Hello, curious browser. I've been a reader of Dtoid for several years now and continue to enjoy the unique sense of community around these parts. I think I'll stick around, if ya don't mind.