Saturday, 14 November 2009

Is Football Art? Wait, What?

This post was originally written (by me) and published on March 18, 2007 here.

Tens of millions of people around the world watched, on the edge of their seats. Fabio Grosso stepped up, placed the ball on the spot, took a deep breath and slotted the ball into the French goal. All over the world people cheered or cried as Italy won their 4th FIFA World Cup title. In dozens of languages, commentators did their best not to swear as they tried to convey the elation of the Italians, and the despair of the French. And do you know what phrase was not uttered in any language by any commentator around the world? "Yes, but is it art?"

Nobody bats an eyelid that I'm going to spend the better part of fifteen or twenty hours a week watching football (Australian Rules, not soccer, just to be clear) once the season starts. Not playing, mind you, just watching it and associated post game analysis. There aren't people lobbying the government to have sport banned because it promotes violence and prejudice (just ask a Man U supporter how long he's been a gunners fan, preferably from in a reinforced bunker of some description). There aren't debates raging across the internet about whether or not sport should be considered art, but there's no question that sport can elicit powerful emotions that run pretty much the entire gamut of human feeling. Sport isn't art, it's sport, and it holds its own important place in the modern world as a form of entertainment.

So, why does the computer games industry permanently have this debate? Why do they even want to? I specifically put in the word "computer", because the creators of other kinds of games don't care. Chess isn't art, Go isn't art, nobody thinks they are, everybody thinks they're games. I don't know about the pen and paper RPG industry, but I'm pretty sure they wouldn't call what they do art, they after all give themselves titles like "game designer" and "playtester" and you don't test art. Board games aren't art, they're games, and they've been around for thousands of years.

Why, then, does a medium that is in many ways the combination of sports, board games and pen and paper gaming get caught up in the issue of meaning and relevance? I'm almost certain Tom Brady didn't sit back after winning his third Superbowl and think "You're entertaining millions Tom, but is it art? Does what you do really matter?" Maybe it's the developers themselves who wallow in the throes of artistic ennui because they fear that what they create has no "real" meaning, whatever that is supposed to mean anyway. I'd just like to say that I value games far more for their entertainment value that for any perceived cultural relevance. If academics look down their nose at my preferred form of entertainment because they can't write 100,000 word theses on the use of magic realism, I don't care. Similarly, if they can, I don't care.

In a world where more people watch Big Brother than read the Pulitzer Prize winner's book, and the combined wages of players on a football team exceeds the GDP of entire countries, I think the demand for computer games to justify their existence in terms of artistic expression is not only totally unwarranted and unfair, it also demeans the value of entertainment. I don't know about you, but I like being entertained.

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