Liberal arts

A colleague and I were discussing the changing meaning of the word “literature”, given the rapid rise of interactive, responsive and collaborative media. This led to a conversation with another colleague and a gradual awareness on my part that a lot of people are grappling with many of the same ideas.

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines “literature” as:

“writings having excellence of form or expression and expressing ideas of permanent or universal interest.”

There is always some debate as to what gets to be included in this amorphous canon of cultural artifacts, but Shakespeare and Goethe usually make the cut, as well as a few hundred other authors, poets and playwrights down through the ages whose works have stood the test of time.

Just what new works might end up in the canon is a very tricky question, because artists generally create for a contemporary audience. In Elizabethan times a new Shakespeare comedy was not thought of as literature, but rather as pop entertainment. There is a long tradition of pop entertainment being reclassified into literature. The early works of Bob Dylan managed to make the transition fairly quickly, whereas Leonard Cohen still seems to be in some sort of in between state.

Part of the problem lies in the difficulty, when you are in the midst of a cultural moment, of being able to see what works will outlast that moment. Does your work speak only to your own generation, or to all generations? The works of the Beatles seem to be standing the test of time, whereas the works of many of their contemporaries now seem quaint and frozen in their own era. The best Marx Brothers comedies are just as funny today as they were seventy five years ago, whereas many comedies from the same period are so out of date as to be almost impossible to watch.

One reason it is useful to define “literature” is so that we can offer a meaningful liberal arts curriculum to young people. But now there’s a new wrinkle in the equation: interactive media.

Will The Sims become part of the canon? Myst? Half Life? Weisenbaum’s Eliza program? When it comes to new interactive media, it can very difficult to disentangle long term meaning from contemporary tastes, particularly when the medium itself is undergoing such enormous transformations every few years.

Some might argue that the entire question is absurd. After all, we are talking about games. On the other hand, a century ago it would have been equally absurd to talk about cinema as literature. Yet along came “Birth of a Nation”, “Nosferatu”, “Greed”, and an enormous flowering of experiments and genres in a remarkably short period of time.

We seem to be entering an equivalent phase in the creation of interactive games and narratives. In the Scratch community alone, several hundred thousand children around the world are creating interactive games and stories. As these children grow up, they will continue to apply the skills and ways of communicating that they are now learning.

So while it may be early to comfortably include this or that interactive work in the literary canon, it is essential that we start now to rethink how we define that canon. We must accept that interactive literature as an expressive form is already here. Rather than treat this collection of works as a cultural oddity (eg: creating a ghettoized “games curriculum”), we must prepare now for a changing literary world, and appropriately expand our definition of liberal arts.

3 Responses to “Liberal arts”

  1. Ashley says:

    I think ‘game literature’ will happen; but first, there must be more people playing a larger variety of games. I think Ian Bogost said something about the need for ‘boring’ (read: everyday) games before the transition of ‘game’ to ‘art’ could be complete.

    I tend to agree; especially since a large portion of the video game industry is still catering to a very small subset of gamers – the type of gamers who may not – yet! – see the value in boring or everyday games. The gradual change towards digital distribution, and the inevitable upset of the traditional publishing model, that has been building for the last few years will no doubt be integral to that.

  2. awl says:

    I am skeptical – at least when considering the current state in which these genres stand. As alluded to in the post, in order for a work of art to survive centuries of scrutiny it must be accessible on multiple levels and speak to a ubiquitous sense of humanity.

    There have been few examples of interactive/multimedia art or video games that I have witnessed which even approach grazing this bar. In the realm of “art” video games ( and interactive pieces ), a primary problem is that the last couple of decades have been helplessly stuck in the increasingly narrow hole of “conceptual art”. The notion of looking cool or exemplifying digital technology has taken precedence over relevant content. It is a stretch of the imagination to believe that any piece of art – multimedia or otherwise – which relies on a single “ironic” concept will withstand the test of time. There are some notable exceptions :-).

    On the other hand, I do agree that the level of graphics in some video games is absolutely gorgeous. Sure, the first time witnessing grand theft auto can almost take your breath away, but Shakespeare it is not.

    Rather I imagine that the finer examples of craftsmanship displayed in these genres may be held in regard as we now celebrate early advertisements. Sims, Myst, half-life are surely important cultural artifacts — ones that no doubt future generations of archeologists will back on with curiosity.

    To approach the stature you are suggesting — “Literature”– these genres will first have to adept and flourish outside the limited field of vision currently demonstrated.

  3. Ashley says:

    Yeah… that’s kinda exactly what I meant about the need for games to be ‘boring’ before they can really become art: They must be so commonplace and so everyday that they are generally unremarkable, so that your grandmother (excuse the stereotype – the Wii proves otherwise) thinks nothing of putting some time into the latest release on her favourite online game portal before bedtime.

    And to be clear: games as literature has – in my opinion – very little to do with graphics and realism. The games we mostly commonly hear mentioned in the same breath as art are far from the Grand Theft Autos of the world (Jason Roher’s games being a very apt example). The ‘art’ – the literature – of a video game lies in the its unique ability to deliver story, concepts, themes, or whatever through interactivity.

    We’re a ways from that yet, but that’s because video games are still very young, as Ken alludes to in his comment about turn of the century cinema. We’re still stuck in the rut of trying to port our knowledge of cinema and linear narrative to an inherently non-linear and interactive media – especially those of us in professional video games industry. Video game publishers are generally risk averse, and so innovation (mostly) tends not to happen at the most highly visible tier of video games: games developed for the current generation of consoles.

    Until we have more people playing a larger variety of games on a regular basis, we’re not going to see literature or art. Yet that is almost inevitable, given the youngest generations’ predilection towards everything digital.

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