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p a r t i The Lively Arts In 1924, the cultural critic Gilbert Seldes wrote an essential book on the popular aesthetic, The Seven Lively Arts, making what was then a bold argument—that America’s greatest cultural contributions in the twentieth century would come not from imitating the great art traditions of Europe, but rather from exploring emerging idioms such as jazz, Broadway musicals, cinema, and comic strips.1 Seldes sought an aesthetic language for discussing these “lively arts,” one that emphasized energy, virtuosity, and kinetics rather than nuance, narrative, or thematic ambitions , and he was not afraid to apply this vocabulary to talk about what excited him about Picasso and the emergence of modern art. His book is seldom read today because it is so preoccupied with describing the emotional dynamics of specific performances rather than making grand statements , but it contains core insights that continue to shape the study of popular culture. In “Games, the New Lively Art” I attempt to tease out some of Seldes’s core claims about popular culture and apply them to the study of computer and video games. This essay emerged from a series of workshops that I and other faculty in the MIT Comparative Media Studies Program conducted with key “creative leaders” at Electronic Arts, one of the preeminent games publishers. As we sat around a seminar table with leading game designers, it was clear that they already had a well-developed framework for thinking about their craft, but they felt that discourse on games as “art” strengthened their hands in dealing with the management and marketing divisions of their own company, who were often hostile to experimentation and innovation. When I presented the earliest formulation of these ideas in Technology Review and in the arts section of the New York Times, I was struck by the public resistance to the idea that games might be considered art. I pondered yet again how radical Seldes’s assertions about the value of slapstick comedy or comic strips must have seemed the better part of a century ago. Today we take such arguments for granted, but we still have difficulty extending them to newer forms of popular art. I used to joke that by the end of the twenty-first century, some guy in an arm chair would be urging Public Television viewers to think back nostalgically over a century of artistic accomplishment in game design. It turns out that I didn’t need to wait so long: a recent PBS documentary, The Video Game Revolution, opened with a guy in an arm chair and included me as one of the talking heads helping viewers develop an aesthetic appreciation of games. Games have gone a long way toward cultural respectability and artistic accomplishment over the past few decades, but what will come in the future will boggle people’s brains. The French cultural theorist Pierre Bourdieu rather famously sets forth the differences between popular and bourgeois aesthetics in his book Distinction . On the one hand, he argues, the popular aesthetic reflects “a deep-rooted demand for participation . . . the desire to enter into the game, identifying with the character’s joys and sufferings, worrying about their fate, espousing their hopes and ideals, living their life.”2 By contrast, Bourdieu argues that the bourgeois aesthetic values “disinvestment, detachment , indifference.”3 Bourdieu associates the bourgeois aesthetic with “the icy solemnity of the great museums, the grandiose luxury of the opera-houses and major theatres, the décor and decorum of concert halls.”4 The popular spectacles of circus and melodrama, on the other hand, are “less formalized ... and less euphemized, they offer more immediate satisfactions. . . . They satisfy the taste for and sense of revelry, the plain speaking and hearty laughter which liberate by setting the social world head over heals, overturning conventions and proprieties.”5 Working in a different intellectual tradition, Lawrence Levine arrives at a very similar set of conclusions when he seeks to understand how Shakespeare became a central and “sacred” part of American culture. In the nineteenth century, Shakespeare’s plays were quoted in vaudeville routines on the decks of showboats and performed in blackface as part of minstrel shows. The emphasis was on the broad humor and the raw emotional power of Shakespeare’s stories, not necessarily on the lyricism of his language. Americans of all classes shared a fascination with the vibrant , larger-than-life personalities of the great Shakespearean performers , whose images were marketed on cheap postcards that people...


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