Monday, April 19, 2010

Ebert: "Games Aren't Art" Me: "Define your terms!"

"Before you would debate me, define your terms."

Roger Ebert has announced that "Games aren't Art" again. There's no point in debating this, at least until people agree on definitions*. It's clear that Ebert is using the word "Art" to mean something that most people would call "High Art" or something along those lines, since he thinks that most films, books, etc. aren't art.

Ebert isn't the first person to have a backwards argument like this, (Arguing whether A is B, without defining A or B) but he should know better, since there are many comments on his blog asking for a definition, or proposing definitions of their own. I seriously wonder if he's just trolling the video gaming community.

There should never be an argument about whether A is B. Once definitions are given, it should be easy to say, "does the definition of A overlap with the definition of B?" Without definitions, all you can say is, "do the cultural associations I connect to A remind me of the cultural associations I connect to B?" Which is obviously unproductive, since no one's cultural associations are going to be identical.

The root of all of this is human psychology. Human brains don't operate with definitions, they use prototypes. When a human thinks of a Tree, they don't think, "a woody plant that has many secondary branches supported clear of the ground on a single main stem or trunk with clear apical dominance.**" Instead, they think, "something that resembles that one tree I'm thinking of." For example, a Maple Tree, or a Pine Tree.

Imagine, for a moment, a "tree" that was perfectly normal for your prototype of tree, except the branches extended into and merged with the branches of another perfectly normal tree. This "tree" isn't a "tree" from the definition above, but it's still similar enough to a prototypical tree that I think most people would accept it as one. If that same tree was really short, like six inches tall, more people would tend to remove it from the "tree" prototype and place it into something like the "bush" or "shrub" prototype. With this prototyping system, there is never a clear border between one prototype and another.

This is a harmless field of debate, but this same problem of lacking agreed-upon definitions has frozen all debate in American politics. Next time you see a political argument on television, I will bet the entire thing would be resolved if the participants were using the same definitions.

*If anyone is curious, a possible definition of art could be: "something created with the intent of appealing to aesthetics". Naturally, this doesn't separate crappy art from High Art, but I think any definition that tries to do that is hopeless.

**Thanks, Wikipedia!

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