Monday, April 26, 2010

Game for art's sake

For the past several years, film critic Roger Ebert has been conducting an occasional virtual debate on the merits of the video game as art. It all started with Ebert saying that he didn’t consider video games an art form in the same was painting, poetry, or cinema. This in turn led Clive Barker to call Ebert a name, which resulted in Ebert writing more on the topic, and on, and on. The latest volley in this pong of words comes in the form of Ebert’s recent entry on his excellent blog wherein he critiques a presentation given by a video game designer who believes that video games are in fact art. Ebert remains, for the most part, unmoved and he explains himself in terms which suggest that the problem isn’t the games or the art works in question, but the definition of art itself. I added my few bytes to the discussion in a reply to Ebert’s blog, but as I was reply number 3061, my vanity demanded its own space… thus…

This article, if anything, only underscores our already flimsy "catch-all" definition of "art." It's almost as bad as our definition of "pornography."

Those who defend the "video-game-as-art" argument tend to focus on how "cinematic" a good video game can be. True. I recently played Halo: ODST and found the scenes varied in lighting in ways that often appear to be in emulation of film-noir. The score, too, was often equally evocative. But beyond this imitative aspect, the game is ultimately a game. If art is going to be located in the video game, it has to meet it at where it specializes, namely, at the point of interaction.

A definition I have enjoyed for a long while (at least since my brief days as a philosophy undergrad) is that art is information + finesse filtered through interpretative subjectivity. The "information" is just the stuff of a game. The rules, the elements of play, and in the case of the video game, it is the visuals. "Finesse" is what the artist brings to his or her medium. It is what the sculptor brings to the clay, what the painter does with the canvas, what the actor does with the words of the page, what the writer does with ink and paper, et cetera .

In the world of games, the gamer himself or herself is the one who brings the finesse, not the designer, developer, or marketer. When confronted with a challenge in the game world, the gamer has a variety of (often very limited) options. How he confronts these challenges seems to be where the actual enjoyment of the game lies and where it stands the best chance of achieving something like an "artistic" imprimatur. A "sick" fighting move, a particularly arduous run-jump-spin-roll move, a certain panache in dispatching a squadron of enemy fighter planes... each activity, in its own way, may allow the player/artist to forward a unique expression of excellence.

And, as thousands of youtube videos can attest, particularly worthy game play can be uploaded and screened for an appreciative (or critical) audience. This is the subjective aspect that all audiences bring to any art form.

At present, however, I feel that the "finesse" aspect of these games is pretty paltry, anodyne and, frankly, not that interesting to anyone who has sat dry-mouthed while reading Proust or while watching "The Hurt Locker." The best art tends to have more channels for personal expression than the model I propose here for video games. But I definitely think that the potential is there for a true expression of the individual within the game world.

The limiting factor at this point seems to be two fold: 1) gaming is so wedded to industry that designers are not in a position to think beyond the interests of capital, and 2) the medium itself requires such technical prowess and up-front expense, that an avant-garde, underground, or "indie" movement cannot flourish in the same way as it does in other, more conventional art forms.

Will it always be thus? I don't think so. Eventually, technology always trickles down to the masses. Yesterday's $8,000 digital camera is today's $250 Best Buy special. This allows for the furtive 14 year old imagination to explore her world, take in information through her aperture, and, through finesse, generate something new. If such an "aperture" were scaled for the artistically-minded video game designer, then we may actually start seeing something like a true, audience-generated video game arts movement. Until that point, however, we are still in zoetrope mode as far as video gaming is concerned.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

The MMA Files – Part 2 The Establishment Clause: Professional Boxing vs. Professional MMA

The world of pro boxing is a fairly convenient place to draw up the foundations of an argument for mainstream combat sport recognition. It is long established has a deep history, and a vast cast of characters. What then of a sport just coming into its late adolescence, like Mixed-Martial Arts? As a young sport, MMA is currently in the process of figuring out what it is going to be. Starting out as a freak-show in the hey-day of pay-per view in the early to mid-1990s, MMA grew into a legitimate sport by the turn of the century, thanks to there being serious athletes involved with the events alongside the chancers and circus geeks. Now, seventeen years after its founding, the Ultimate Fighting Championships has helped to establish the sport’s legitimacy, creating something more than a mere-hybrid combat sport. MMA is now a “style” of fighting unto itself. So much so, that traditional martial arts schools and boxing gyms have began to advertise MMA training on their shingles.

The boxing mainstream are not particularly impressed. Floyd Mayweather has famously dissed the sport, going so far as to say that MMA is a “fad,” and veteran boxing journalist and pro wrestling historian, Bert Sugar, also panned MMA as a flash in the pan; a sport fit only for those bored of pro wrestling’s antics. Time will tell, but the box office and sell-through numbers for UFC events don’t lie. Arena sell-outs, record breaking pay-per view events, and consistently high ratings for the UFC’s reality show, The Ultimate Fighter, all speak to the UFC’s commercial legitimacy, at least in the short-term.

That being said, MMA still has some distance to go before anyone forwards it for inclusion as a demo sport in the 2048 Olympiad. It bears repeating that boxing had to jump through a lot of hoops to become legitimate in the eyes of the general public. In its early days, boxing was a lot closer to human cockfighting than MMA ever was. Bare-knuckles, fights-to-the death, and dank basements where the rules of the day before the Queensbury rules of 1867. The 143 years since Queenbury have allowed a space for professional boxing to develop its mainstream legitimacy. MMA, thanks mainly to sanctioning infrastructure developed by and for boxing, has leapfrogged much of this glacial establishment process. It has, in essence, placed itself squarely in the same culture a professional boxing. Las Vegas is the UFC’s headquarters. It’s smaller cards are in casinos rather than arenas. Ring announcers in tuxes and pretty girls carrying round-number cards are the order of the day. Nonetheless, a vocal core of boxing devotees continue to minimize the successes professional MMA has enjoyed over the past decade.

Why is this? There is the usual upstart rap that goes with every new cultural product, especially a new pro sports venture. Truth to be told, they nearly all fail miserably. Indoor soccer leagues, the XFL, arena football, legitimate professional wrestling, these and others have all been tried, and one is wont to not get fooled again. Americans, and perhaps leisure-based cultures in general, are very conservative when it comes to what professional sports they are willing to watch during prime time. Even hockey, once the forth leg of America’s sports table, has fallen back to second tier status. Boxing fans like what they like, and they like the parameters of their culture. MMA is consciously horning in on that cultural space. And, as the UFC’s acquisition of former IBF champion, James Toney suggests, MMA may also threaten to steal away their stars.

Oddly enough, boxing seems to be the only combat sport that feels this need to be defensive. I don’t think we hear a lot from the K1 kickboxers or the Greco-Roman Olympians regarding the legitimacy of the fledgling sport. In fact, at least one MMA promotion, Strikeforce, has felt comfortable blending MMA matches with kickboxing contests on several of their cards. Boxing feels threatened because … well, they have never really had competition. The other combat sports have never caught on in the professional ranks in America the way boxing has. Professional wrestling, boxing’s clownish, cousin, has long since relinquished any claim to legitimacy and has even cut itself off from the genuine historical ties it shares with boxing via their historic tradition of co-promotion. Only MMA has displayed true credentials in the market as a competitor to boxing.. It is obvious that it can make money, therefore, critics must attack MMA as a kind of faddish non-sport. Usually this involves lobbing easy volleys at the fans themselves. They aren’t sports fans but “spectacle” watchers. The kind of people who rubber-neck freeway crash carnage and play ultra-violent video games. Truth to be told, MMA fandom certainly houses such rabble. But then again, are there not hockey fans who primary interest in the sport is the violence rather than skating or stick prowess?

And depending on the location, the venue, and the card in question, an MMA event may attract a lot of these people (made more surly by the access to beer). When televised, their numbers are signified by the rampant booing that can be heard when grappling and wrestling are involved in the match. They want to see punches. They want to see strikes. Frankly, they want to see an old timey boxing match! But these people are not the rank-and-file of MMA fans. They are casual fans, and indeed, probably casual sports fans. Ask any MMA blogger his or her opinion on the topic and you will get an essay on what a “real MMA fan” is all about. It has to do with appreciation of the balance of skills that go into making a well-rounded fighter. Strikes, kicks, take-downs, grappling, “dirty boxing,” transitions, defense, recovery, strategy. They will also talk about “dream” matches and how one fighter is up and coming or down and out or ready to make a comeback. They love the narratives and the drama. Long build up to the big match. The obscure under carder who might one day be someone.

In other words, there is something about passion here, isn’t there? A concern for the display and execution of athletic excellence in the direction of another athlete who may or may not be as prepared, as skilled, or as lucky as the other guy. The passion is something that a lot of “real boxing fans” have or have had for their sport, and it is something this upstart new sport, still in its adolescence, is generating in millions of people around the world.

Friday, April 23, 2010

The MMA Files – Part I : Muhammad Ali and the Calculus of Greatness

Sports is beloved of left brain people, rationalists. Facts and stats win arguments. The fastest, the strongest, the most field goals, the most homeruns, the most goals. In our post-modern world of moral relativism and political correctness, there is something refreshing about the binary certitude of won/loss ratios, world records, and absolute percentages.

But the numbers don’t always tell the whole story. They don’t delineate the difference between “the most” and “the best.” Is Muhammad Ali the heavyweight with most wins during his career? No. That accomplishment goes to a man named Young Stribling, who, in his career of 289 fights, won 256 matches, 128 by knock-out. That is an 88% winning percentage. By contrast, Ali “only” fought 61 matches, winning 56. Only a slightly better winning percentage against far fewer fighters. But what makes Ali “the greatest” heavyweight of all time? 37 KOs? Over 60%. That is still only a little better than Stribling. So there must be other factors. Character? For sure, Ali was/is a celebrity. He was colorful in the ring, and charismatic and controversial in public. He was the right kind of sportsman for his time. A man who knew how to “sell” his personality and generate a fascinating public narrative.

This is why we have heard of Ali and not Stribling. But does that recognition, and his record, make him “the best?” No. The confluences of circumstance cannot be used to determine who the greatest is. Ali, after all, came into his notoriety just as television was becoming an international phenomenon. Not only could he do great things, more people could see it. Stribling’s only mass exposure came during a 1933 match against Max Schmeling, the first match to be broadcast on radio. That broadcast, and a handful of grainy silent film reels are the only electronic media evidence which have survived.

What makes any individual athlete “the best,” is his willingness to prove himself against the highest possible caliber of contender in his chosen sport. From Archie Moore, to Sonny Liston twice, to Floyd Patterson, Joe Frazier, George Forman, Ken Norton, Spinks, Holmes, and Trevor Berbick, Ali fought the blue chip fighters of his day, dodging no one who would fight him. Even at the end, when his fire was clearly out, he stood up with the best in waning years. But if anything, Stribling’s record would suggest that he had the more challenging record. He fought the world champion twice, and beat the national champions of a dozen countries while maintaining an arduous road schedule at home. His controversial loss to Schmeling in 1933 was his final opportunity to meet the sport’s top dog. Schmeling would go on to fight his historic bout against Joe Lewis a few years later, and by then Stribling was a fading memory in the minds of casual sports fans.

What accounts for this? Again, we may need to look back to the mass media component, but also consider that in life, more is not always better. There was something about the sheer volume of matches that smacks of a profligate career on Stribling’s part. He was from traveling entertainer stock. He was a born exhibitionist; a sporting vaudevillian. To work was to eat and without a massive promotion machine behind him (Schmeling, after all, had the Nazi state propaganda machine to tout him) all Stribling had was talent and energy. In the 20th century, that simply wouldn’t suffice.

The calculus then might break down along the lines of record, character, competition and timing.. Ali was an elite fighter who fought elite fighters, and he did it over a long enough period of time to establish by repetition and reputation his status as the greatest. His character marks him in time, his time. Thus he can’t be stripped of his spiritual title. At least not easily. Finally, Ali was a man of his time, and, by all accounts, defined boxing for the latter half of the 20th century. There will be better boxers than Ali, ones who win more fights, ones who fight better opponents, and ones who set the world on fire with their character. But whether or not that will ever come again in a single package remains to be seen.