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Controversy watch: games deserve criticism even when they're "art"

Conversations about offensive material are worth having, argues Ed

Art is a horrible word, isn't it? The kind of word you can't read online without fumbling for your gag reflex in self defence. After much study, I've come to the conclusion that it isn't even a real word, really - more a sort of word-shaped football, chipped to and fro by self-styling intellectuals. Nobody can agree on what it means precisely, assuming it means anything whatsoever, but everybody understands that they can score points with it. Time for another crack at goal.

Around a year ago, the most obnoxious form online discussion of "art" as relevant to videogames could take was the infamous "are games art?" debate, also known as the "where's our Citizen Kane" debate and the "shut up Roger Ebert" debate. Nowadays, the thinking seems to be more "games are art, evidently, and you'd better watch out". Specifically, you'd better watch out if you think, say, the photogenic destruction of bondage nuns in Hitman: Absolution trailers is questionable, or if you're worried about racial imagery in Resident Evil 5, or if you're not 100 per cent sure the prospect (if not the reality) of sexual assault belongs among Lara Croft's trials by fire.

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Because if you do that, see, you're committing the most horrific crime imaginable. You're proposing to impose limitations on art - on what it's allowable to express as art, and on how it's allowable to express it. According to this school of thought, art is above such paltry concerns as personal prejudice about choice of subject matter, or even sensitivity to the prejudices of others. Artists should be able to follow their own noses, kicking down any taboos they see fit, crossing every line they wish. And our responsibility, as consumers of art? To appreciate their efforts, or get the hell out of their way.

I find the idea that art exists in a vacuum misguided, personally, for reasons that would take centuries of extremely boring prose to divulge - in a tightly-packed nutshell, it's Eternal Wisdom in a secular guise. But you don't need a working concept of art and its social responsibilities or lack thereof to understand how sabre-rattling like the above can be damaging. Art, here, is just another in a long line of excuses (see also "political correctness") for avoiding a valuable, enriching debate. Defenders may think they're sticking up for freedom of expression when they shout down complaints about style or subject matter. But in doing so, they're of course denying that freedom to those who complain, and what's more, they're denying artists the chance to learn from the experience.

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It's easy to trace the origins of this mindset, in many cases. For years, champions of gaming have been defending the medium against disproportionate criticism from outside, including charges of pornography, blasphemy and baseless talk about incitement to violence. An unfortunate byproduct is that we're less willing to accomodate criticism that comes from within, from those who endorse gaming as a whole but take issue with aspects of it. That Absolution trailer, for instance. Over at GamesIndustry, Rob Fahey offers an excellent discussion of the backlash against those who found fault, suggesting that the problem isn't that some think the material is above reproach, but that they're utterly unwilling to even consider the possibility that it isn't. "We have to learn that we've won, and that the sky won't fall if we try to have an adult debate over big questions of how our medium deals with tough subjects," he writes.

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