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Old 09-16-2010, 09:34 PM   #1
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Art of the Task: A New Critical Approach

I'm currently working on an essay, and I was just wanting to gauge interest in such a piece. Here's the introduction. I'll post the entire thing when I'm done. Any comments or ideas would be greatly appreciated.

Art of the Task: A New Critical Approach

Poetry, as one of the oldest and most respected artforms, has often been a tricky subject. It can and has been debated as to exactly what qualities make a poem “good.” The nebulous and intangible feeling a good poem, when read right, is undeniable. Its as if somehow the words trick your tongue, heart, ears, and even your eyes themselves, briefly suspending your consciousness with a burst of clarity that is prosaically inexpressible. The ability to envoke such feelings is one of the crucial beauties of art. Whether it's a movie making us laugh or cry, or a painting placing us in a trance, good artwork needs to have some effect on us. Therefore, if video games are ever going to be included in the artistic bunch, it would be good to analyze what makes a game “good.” However, as I mentioned, knowing what is “good” about art isn't always easy to identify.

Luckily, all of the critical discussion about artwork has led some to establish guidelines. One of the most notable movements to catch on is that of the New Criticism, a system devised in the 20s to objectively view poetry. The New Critics established four important criteria when determining the quality of a work: Ambiguity, Irony, Paradox, and Tension. Although these criteria might not directly relate to games in general, there are parallels which can be drawn.

The most important distinction we must make before using poetical analysis to evaluate games is to identify the difference between the two artforms. Poetry is an artform of meaning and words. When used properly together, wordplay can convey a greater sense of meaning to a poem, and meaning can give greater significance to each word. Likewise, video games are an art of task and gameplay. Gameplay serves as a means to accomplishing a task, while the task can give greater significance to the gameplay. Let's explore how these criteria, when applied to the task of a game, can qualify a game as “good,” or better yet, qualify a game as “art.”

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Old 09-16-2010, 10:14 PM   #2
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Re: Art of the Task: A New Critical Approach

I think good poetry, not always, but often, succeeds by breaking rules of form, breaking standard rhythms, breaking the fourth wall and forcing a reaction from the reader who may not have a clear context or way to find one. I suppose it could be argued that a poet is creating new language systems in his/her work - but will they be reinforced through a piece, or be broken down and re-built by the end?

in ee cummings - 'anyone lived in pretty how town', for example:

all by all and deep by deep
and more by more they dream their sleep
noone and anyone earth by april
with by spirit and if by yes.

you could argue there's layered meaning in this quotation, that relates to the passing of seasons, sleep, uneventful life... but- is it deliberately constructed that way? Not likely. Poetry is passion. It's an outpouring, not a plan. Videogames are all plan. A videogame has to build a world with rules, create exploits for the rules, but still have rules and tropes in layers. If you break the cause and effect of gameplay for some shock value, it might be a cool trick narratively, but not one that will make people want to keep playing.

Of course, this doesn't apply to all poetry, and there certainly is structured poetry- and there are games that are more passion than plan... hmm.

Interesting idea, anyway. Run with it!
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Old 09-16-2010, 10:25 PM   #3
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Re: Art of the Task: A New Critical Approach

The idea of the New Criticism isn't necessarily to place boundaries on poetry, because surely poetry relies on ingenuity. However, it is an attempt to examine why one piece of "mold breaking" works better than another. It's designed to help evaluate a poem on its own terms, without the need of literary genius to pick up on heavily buried allusions and dense symbolism.

Your ee cummings examples work well under the guidelines. Ambiguous in meaning, ironic and paradoxical in the specificity of the pronouns, and tense in manner in which the words are (seemingly) thrown together.

While I cannot deny that poems are passion, that does not mean that poetry cannot be planned in execution. It is not uncommon for a poet to work on a poem through several iterations (Langston Hughes). Similarly it isn't uncommon for a poet throw down his poems without second though (Rilke). So, as games might be "all plan" in execution, there certainly can be an underlying passion. To say that a masterpiece like "Shadow of the Colossus" lacks passion feels wholly inaccurate.

Another point of the essay is to identify that games shouldn't be evaluated artistically solely on the story or narrative, but primarily on the task it presents. William Carlos Williams "The Red Wheelbarrow" tells a terrible story, and is lyrically worthless, however, as a poem, it stands with the best. So it probably isn't best to directly compare video games to, say, movies, as they both set out with different goals. Similarly, it isn't a good idea to compare great songs to great poems, although they share similarities.
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Old 09-17-2010, 07:05 AM   #4
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Re: Art of the Task: A New Critical Approach

I try to apply traditional art theory when reviewing video games in general so I'm all for unique ways to examine our games.
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