Anthony Wiener Would Make a Great Dungeon Master

When I say “Dungeon Master” I am not referring to any sort of S&M dominance play thing–although I'm not going to discount the representative from New York’s potential in that arena; for all I know he might be great at the job. He’s certainly got the abs for it. No; instead, I am referring to a far more deviant and misunderstood subculture: people who organize and play Dungeons & Dragons (and sundry other role-playing games).

As we have all been made painfully aware, Anthony Wiener is good at sexting. And at its core, sexting (and its related hobbies--phone sex, etc.) is pretty much the same activity as table-top role playing.

Allow me to unpack that a little. Consider for a moment the games of football* and basketball. These sports are very different on the surface, but the action of the participants is basically the same: people on a team work together to move a ball across the length of the play space, scoring points as they do so. The other team tries to stop this action or take the ball away from them. In the same way, RPGs and sexting are very similar: Participants improvise a story, are responsible for describing their character’s actions, and have some authority over the setting details and other participants' characters.

The difference is principally that sexting is about, well, sex, and D&D is about adventure and magic and orcs (and stuff like that).**

A secondary argument could be made that both of these activities have been lauded by their adherents as a bold future of human interaction, as amazing new ways of enabling people to become closer with each other. At the same time, both RPGs and sexting have been condemned by non-participants as everything from immoral to just plain weird.

I’m not going to make a call on the validity or importance of either D&D or sexting. Both are activities that are just fine for consenting adults to participate in once safely out of sight of minors and puritans. That’s not really the point of this post.

The point is that these two seemingly disparate things are actually both just acts of storytelling--one of the most basic elements of human communication, one that we are all naturally drawn to. Despite differences in how we approach it, it is something we all seek to participate in.

*When I say football I mean the American sport with the not-round ball. That is, I explicitly do NOT mean soccer.
**Although--if you can stomach it--this Facebook exchange shows that the congressman was trying to get into some superhero-fantasy play.

From the Gamestop to the Gallery

Are video games are legit now? If so, what does that mean for the medium?

The NEA has finally deigned to make video games eligible for grants; The Smithsonian launched a massive exhibition chronicling the history (and art) of video games; Cory Arcangel got a very nice bit of press in the New Yorker about his show “Pro Tools”; and L.A. Noire got a stellar review from the Times (the mere fact that the old Grey Lady has a video game review section is telling).

It’s easy to look at games like L.A. Noire or Heavy Rain as art, because they can be readily compared to other things we’ve already deemed worthy of artistic merit (novels, films). Who could argue about the quality of Cain’s Double Indemnity or Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train? So too is it easy to look at a work like Flower or Limbo or Love as works of art due to their pure visual majesty.

While I’m sure there is no end in sight to the churn of abysmally dull murder-core games out there, it’s nice to see that the silver lining is getting a little wider, and that folks doing truly innovative things (in any medium) are getting the praise they deserve. Does this mean that the medium is an art form? Or are there simply bits of artistry within an expanding miasma of product?

Video games are a commercial enterprise. They're meant to be purchased by consumers. How does that impact their artistic significance? It’s an interesting question; one I'm looking forward to seeing further thought on in the next few years.

But what about Mario and Master Chief? These characters represent game franchises that have spawned numerous titles that sold bajillions of units. They'll forever go down in the annals of history as “great games.” But were they art?

The right answer is: WHO CARES?

The argument is totally needless. Their cultural impact is profound and lasting. Turning the art world’s eye to games is nice. It makes an argument for the medium's legitimacy to stodgy old coots who are rapidly becoming irrelevant and societally functionless.* But in the end, whether or not games are ART doesn’t matter; what matters is that they’re still relevant in our expanding entertainment culture. There’s no real question that they are.

*In all fairness Ebert kind of apologized for his dismissal of the gaming medium. But it was a pretty weak handjob of an apology, and it smacked of being more a PR move than a heartfelt reversal of attitude.