because cool kids are boring

Real Art

with 4 comments

Jason over at Geek Studies threw up a post awhile ago with the title, Will [insert geeky medium] ever grow up?. As always, I suggest giving the entire piece a read through, but here is the opening to give you a feel.

Kotaku recently compiled a bunch of articles and quotes from critics in a debate about whether games would ever “grow up.” To summarize, some arguments include:

1. Comics and games are “infantilized” because artsy content is the exception, with most of these media targeted to teenage boys;
2. But games “have more to achieve” as a medium, and some creators are pushing for that;
3. Moreover, dominance of the low-brow “isn’t inherent” to these media, but actually is common across all entertainment media;
4. And in the meantime, part of the problem is that consumers “expect too little” of games (as evidenced by Bioshock, which is not nearly as sophisticated as its reception might have suggested).

My response to this is sort of a follow-up to recent posts addressing the perceived immaturity or unmasculinity of geeky pursuits like games and comics. In short, I agree with just about all of these to some extent, but I’d contend that these stereotypes can be escaped through creative and marketing efforts. Just look at the “graphic novel.”

While I understand where Jason is coming from, I’m reluctant to agree with him. Before getting into my thoughts, it is worth while to provide a little context.

I am all for artists attempting to push a given medium into new and interesting areas. To work with Jason’s reference to comics, while I am a fan of super hero comics, I am also a fan of many indie comic creators as well. I’d easily hold up something like Joe Sacco’s recent journalist style comics (Palestine, Safe Area Gorazde, War’s End, The Fixer) as some of the most important, forward thinking, work done in the medium in recent memory.

My issue with Jason’s statements is one of motivation. Attempts to expand the pallet of a given medium is something that I applaud, and celebrate when it succeeds. Attempts to “legitimize” a given medium I think are fool hearty and potentially detrimental to the medium itself. Any medium that places a focus on being legitimate, is destined to be irrelevant long before gaining any actual legitimacy.

As an example, I offer up Jazz. Jazz’s roots are populace. It was a form of music that reveled in the emotions and celebrations of the communities where it was being born. Over the years, the genre has moved further and further away from its populace roots and embraced a more high brow approach. Yes, the genre has created some amazing music while pursuing these lofty goals, but the fact of the matter is that the biggest artistic challenge facing the genre today is relevance. Most people don’t care about Jazz. In fact, many view it as little more then a haven for music snobs that has completely lost touch with its roots. The exceptions to this, tend to be nostalgia acts, who are trying to recreate an era when the music was relevant, or artists who are trying to merge it with other genres which are more populace in nature.

The thing to understand when discussing whether a given genre is legitimate is to realize that the discussion is always misrepresented. The idea that a medium’s validity is to be measured by its ability to create high art and the frequency with which it creates that art, is an idea that is held only by a small minority of people. The vast majority of people tie the validity of a medium with its ability to entertain and express emotions/ideas/etc that they can identify with. In short, for the vast majority of people, validity is tied to whether what is being done in the medium is relevant to their lives.

The whole discussion about whether a medium is legitimate is a trap, since the vast majority of the time the discussion is held between two distinct camps. One, which already sees the medium as legitimate and the other that will never see the medium as legitimate. The much more important discussion, in my opinion at least, is whether the medium is relevant? This is a subjective discussion of course, as is the “legitimate” discussion. A medium may be very relevant to one group and completely irrelevant to another group.

Since we are discussing geek culture, I feel it is safe to rephrase the question as ‘is the medium relevant to geeks?’ For things like video games and comic books, I think we can all safely assume that the answer is a resounding, ‘Yes’.

Now, you can recontextualize Jason’s statements as a response to the question of relevance, especially if you are considering the relevance of these mediums outside of the geek mind set. And I wouldn’t have any real issue with his statements in that regard. I do find myself wondering why I should care though?

OK, so there are very real implications to the question of the relevance of these mediums outside of the geek mindset. Especially as they pertain to the economics of keeping the companies working in these mediums afloat. The horrible state of the comic industry is probably the most obvious example. Let’s put that aside for a minute though, since the question is more an economic one then a cultural one.

The questions of relevance outside of geek culture is also a perfectly valid question for individuals who are operating in those cultures. And I have no qualms with these people using mediums which are predominately geeky in nature to express themselves. As I said in the Geek Culture Manifesto,

If it inspires you to create your own thing, then fine. The thing that you create though is not the thing we have created. Do not pretend otherwise.

Geek culture is ours. It is us expressing who we are and what we care about. Why should I care if someone who is not one of us groks what it is that we’re doing? Further more, why should I change how I express myself to conform to the will and whim of people who are not part of this culture?

To put this another way, they wouldn’t let us play with them when we were kids. And so we went off and created our own games and played amongst ourselves. Why should we give up our games, to go play theirs, now? I prefer our games. I find their games boring.

Written by Matt

March 15th, 2008 at 9:30 pm

Posted in Thoughts