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The Designer's Notebook: Where's Our Merchant Ivory?
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The Designer's Notebook: Where's Our Merchant Ivory?

August 7, 2006 Article Start Previous Page 2 of 4 Next

Even if relatively few people go to operas, read serious literature, or watch Merchant Ivory films, even if art and ballet have to be supported by tax money and donations from wealthy companies and individuals, the very fact that they exist lends credibility to the entire medium of which they are a part.

Suppose the only music in all the world were rap or heavy metal. Do you think music would have anything like the level of respect that it does now? Would there be Kennedy Center Honors, with the President in the audience, for 50 Cent or Nuclear Assault? I doubt it.

Like comic books, games have no élite form or widely-venerated body of work yet. We produce light popular entertainment, and light popular entertainment is trivial, disposable, and therefore culturally insignificant, at least so far as podunk city councilors and ill-advised state legislators are concerned. They feel no reason not to censor games, because games have no constituency that matters and no history as important forms of expression.

Maurine Stapleton, Michael Moriarty and Elizabeth Ashley Performing at the Kennedy Center Honors (1979)

Now I know from long experience that a certain percentage of you are making derisive snorts of contempt because you personally care nothing for high culture and see no reason why anyone else would either. But even if you don’t like it, you still need it. And before yet another idiot pipes up with Standard Asinine Comment #1 (“but FUN is the only thing that matters!”), let me just say: No, it's not. Shut up and grow up. Our overemphasis on fun—kiddie-style, wheeee-type fun—is part of the reason we’re in this mess in the first place. To merely be fun is to be unimportant, irrelevant, and therefore vulnerable.

The serious games movement will help a little with this problem because serious games aren’t just for fun, but by itself that’s not enough. People write comic books to help teach kids about fire prevention and healthcare, but that doesn’t change the perception that comics are for kids. Serious games that seem unrelated to games for entertainment won’t do much for entertainment itself.

Elite forms of a medium help to legitimize that medium. They provide status symbols that people who want to be thought of as important and respectable can support. That’s why big corporations and wealthy families give money to ballet companies and symphony orchestras: Publicly sponsoring the elite forms of these arts reflects well on the givers. The élite forms also create shelter in which the less “worthy” forms of the medium can operate more safely. Once an élite form of video games exists, nobody can ever again say, “video games are just a silly waste of time.” Nobody would dream of saying that about music, even if they thought it was true of bubble-gum pop.

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