Friday, 6 December 2013

Is My Art Better Than Yours?

You can't have missed the fuss this week, caused by the Kent University's questionable decision to belittle children's books and S.F. Said's subsequent (successful) campaign to make them apologise. I'm sure you can imagine where I fall on this debate, so I won't grind that particular axe today. But the discussion did make me think about my own reactions to creative projects, and the fact that I can be just as judgemental!

Let me give you a specific example. I write during my lunchtimes, and there's another guy I see most days, also working on his laptop. He doesn't ask me what I'm working on and I don't disturb him - we work in companionable silence (punctuated only by me sighing when I can't find exactly the right word). In the last year, I've gone through four drafts of a Middle Grade novel in my lunchtimes, and he... well, I wasn't really sure what he was doing, but I was mildly intrigued. It was only after I heard him talking to someone else and saw him sketching on squared paper that it transpired that he was building levels for Minecraft.

Minecraft screenshot © Mojang

Let me briefly digress to explain about Minecraft, for the uninitiated. It's something of a phenomenon in the gaming world, selling 33 million copies to date across various console and mobile platforms. The in-game graphics have a very characteristic "blocky" look to them, which seems quite primitive to modern eyes. The game can be played in several modes (including survival, exploration and combat) but the one that seems to have caught many people's imagination is construction. Minecraft has been likened to an enormous electronic Lego set, with players able to build anything they can imagine, just so long as that thing is constructed of textured cubes.

Now, I have to admit that I felt a little smug when I found out the guy had been using Minecraft. Look what I've produced in the last year and he's just been playing some stupid game! But at that point, I feel like I was falling into the same trap as the Kent Universities of this world, trying to put my creative expression on a pedestal above someone else's. Can we really judge creative output on a scale from high to low art? Are games any less childish than writing a children's novel?

Perhaps I don't altogether understand the appeal of Minecraft. My teenage daughter is an avid video gamer, but she dismisses Minecraft as "a boy thing." I certainly used to be a boy, but find I now crave video games that have a lot of narrative - I love to consume story in all its forms, and don't care for more abstract games unless I'm playing them in a group. I'll admit that I also feel a bit guilty about playing a game, that it's empty time I could be better filling with writing, reading or movie watching.

The late film critic Roger Ebert famously waded into the debate on whether video games could be art, with this statement:
To my knowledge, no one in or out of the field has ever been able to cite a game worthy of comparison with the great dramatists, poets, filmmakers, novelists and composers. That a game can aspire to artistic importance as a visual experience, I accept. But for most gamers, video games represent a loss of those precious hours we have available to make ourselves more cultured, civilized and empathetic.
Strong words indeed! I can totally see what he means, but is that the whole story? I think back to my teenage years, when I myself was spending a lot of time with squared paper, designing computer games with my best friend (most of which never progressed beyond the design stage). I found a love for creative pursuits that has burned ever since, even if I now choose to focus on words rather than code for my "art". You can certainly argue that I wouldn't be doing the job I'm doing today without these early technology experiments.

Perhaps if I was a child now, I would be as fascinated by Minecraft as the kids profiled in this BBC News item from earlier this year. But is it art?

What do you think?



  1. Sometimes when I'm browsing it makes me think about how close writers are to Minecraft and Sims addicts. Piecing internalised blocks of story into new patterns that will interest readers.

    1. I hadn't heard of that site before - it's slightly scary how much you can deconstruct story patterns! It turns out my novel features a Super Zero who is Too Dumb to Live with a Kid Sidekick who isn't a Damsel Scrappy but actually Hypercompetent!

  2. The thing with art is by definition it is subjective. One person's art is another person's unmade bed!