Culture I say

April 17, 2014

Let’s talk culture.

In college I developed a definition of “culture.” My journey toward it came from odd places: like teachers telling us students that we had to attend “cultural events.” Attendance even had grades attached to it. Here, look at this syllabus for an orientation class at the University of Maine:

“Each student is required to attend two cultural events . . . . Cultural Events may include, entertainment events, lunchtime lecture series, Art exhibition etc. Only one athletic event can be used. Turn in ticket stubs with your name on the back or a short description of the event and your personal reactions on a separate sheet of paper” [sic]

Whoa, really? Why? What’s so valuable about “cultural events” that you can justify requiring students to attend?

Well here, maybe an explanation can be found in this program description from the University of New Hampshire:

“In order to expose students to the broader constructs that frame our societal environment, as well as enhance their worldview and facilitate the acquisition of a global perspective, the McNair Program will provide access to cultural events for participants to attend. These events will include the fine arts, activities of ethnic diversity, and community/geographical events unfamiliar to McNair participants. During the academic year, participation in at least one (1) cultural event is required of all McNair students. During the summer component, all cultural events on the summer calendar are required.”

Oh, now that’s interesting. “Culture” is about “the broader constructs that frame our societal environment.” And yet we’re still talking about (per UM) “entertainment events” and “art exhibitions.” Yes, UNH also gave the example of “activities of ethnic diversity,” but pray tell: what are those? Demonstration of ethnic dance, perhaps? Workshops in making arts and crafts? All the things that make people happy or make their world more livable.

Culture is entertainment. Perhaps entertainment and art, if you feel those are separate categories.

Or at least, culture is entertainment when we speak of “being cultured.” Ask yourself: what is a cultured person? Images come to mind of an upper-class individual quoting Shakespeare. Which, come to think of it, is exactly in line with these college links I provided: once upon a time, universities existed to create “gentlemen,” the properly-cultured individuals of classical education.

But we need not look to upper-class snobs to quote Shakespeare. As you know, the average person is capable of saying that “all the world’s a stage” or complaining “lord, what fools these mortals be.” Culture, it seems, is nothing but a shared geekdom. It is the idea that you have experienced some entertainment (or art) and so have I. It is the assurance that if you ask “wherefore art thou Romeo?” then the people across the way know you’re not calling them Romeo; you’re quoting Shakespeare.

This means that videogames are culture.

Absolutely no way around this. Some people ask “Can videogames be art?” Less-presumptuous people ask “Are videogames art?” because the first question assumes it currently is not. But no one, NO ONE, questions whether videogames are entertainment.

Last time, I wrote about Jonathan Blow’s speech titled “Design Reboot” from 2007 (with the lovely animation of choice quotes by Superbrothers). Here’s some more:

“Why do people play games? We already know one of the answers is pretty obvious.
“1. Games can provide entertainment/fantasy/escapism. . . . But if this is all that games were, I would be intensely dissatisfied. Because fantasy and escapism is not fulfilling to me. At the end of the day, I want to feel like my life has meaning.
“2. Meaningful artistic expression. Coming from a different angle than other media. . . . Music doesn’t feel like a movie or a poem. In fact, if you have a song that is sad and a poem that is sad, the sadness from the poem is going to feel fundamentally different than the sadness of the song.
“3. A means of exploring the universe. . . . Games are formal systems . . . and systems like that are biased toward producing truth (or at least consistency). . . . You can think about mathematics. You start with some axioms that are defined or assumed as true and then you have some rules that you can use to combine those axioms . . . until eventually you end up with something that makes a statement that must be true that you didn’t know when you started.”

Thus we have videogames. Valve’s popular Portal series is quoted by people who share this geekdom: “The cake is a lie.” “We do what we must because we can.” “For science. You monster.” How did we get to this point? Portal is a puzzle game that fully explores its mechanics, granting the player an interesting new “means of exploring the universe” (“thinking with portals”), and then going forward logically. The gameplay engages the audience, as does the humor in the unfolding story; and, as the story proceeds, it explores the humanity (and lack thereof) of the characters in the play. I mean the plot. Thus is it both “entertainment” and “meaningful artistic expression.”

It is culture. The “cultured gamer” has played Portal. Just as you can say the word “Tetris” (no link possible, for it is ubiquitous) and the people across the way know you’re not sneezing.

And now gaming culture has been around long enough that the earliest gamers, predominately starting from the 1980’s, are now the grown-ups raising children. Just search online and you’ll see bloggers asking when and how it’s okay to introduce children to their own personal geekery (in movies, comics, or games). The people raising the next generation, the people running and spending money on today’s businesses, are people who’ve played Tetris.

So today’s game developers are advised to remember their creation is not “just a game”: games expand our mind and our language, they “frame our societal environment,” and they’d jolly well better “enhance [our] worldview” in preference to shrinking it.

I’ve performed in Shakespeare, and I’ve played in Portal. The great playwrights of past centuries are all dead. Videogame developers aren’t. Are you prepared for history to hold you to the same standards?

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