This month, what I consider the greatest literary work of the 20th century celebrates its fiftieth anniversary. It's the best writing I have ever and will ever read; the prose is crushing, effortless: a creature of power and beauty and horror. I was lost from the first simple, chilling words:
Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-Lee-Ta.
I will never--can never--read this book again.
Lolita shattered me. A part of me will never be the same after reading the novel, and I'm not sure how I feel about that. The prose is so masterful: so clear, honest, and nimble. But I hate Lolita's subject matter. I hate Humbert Humbert, for his unrepentant, callous destruction of another human being; and Lolita, for refusing to fight back; and her mother, for blaming her daughter for Humbert's sins. To read (and finish) Lolita requires monumental effort.
That, of course, is the point.
Nabokov has been accused of cruelty towards his readers for his attempt to make an abominable character--a serially pedophilic parental figure--sympathetic. This is a charge with which I cannot agree; having read Nabokov's other works, I know that he treasured his readers deeply. Instead, I think he needed to write Lolita, in the same way that Mozart needed to pen Requiem, or Picasso needed to paint Guernica. True greatness hungers for challenges worthy of attack.
Lolita forces the reader to dissect Humbert's savage mind, and the insight is repulsive; yet slowly, unwillingly, the reader starts to ever-so-slightly comprehend Humbert's motives. Once the novel is finished, the reader is alternately amazed and aghast at herself for coming so close to truly understanding a monster, which, I think, makes her both hate and love Lolita all the more. For all its repugnance, Lolita is a work of art.
Art is not simply beauty, because beauty is too subjective to universally categorize. Art does not merely evoke emotions; after all, I cry at telephone commercials and I don't pretend to think those are art. Nor is art only social commentary, since The No Spin Zone is just that, and nobody accuses that of being art.
Instead, art is a mental exercise for the audience, a challenge to the psyche. It's something that actively makes us reassess whatever we've previously thought --if only to return to the same conclusion. There are plenty of good paintings that are not art. But Guernica requires me to incorporate my own experiences of suffering to understand the piece, and thus makes me reevaluate how I understand war. Great art is a mirror. Humbert Humbert is only repulsive because I, as the reader, make him so; I suppose to a pedophile, HH could be a genius.
Are video games art? The key ingredient in art is the interaction between piece and observer; games, by the nature of the medium, already have willing, responsive, and ready participants. And yet, so few games will truly explore this interactivity in a challenging and unexpected way.
I think much of the current commotion about games as art stems from insecurity: we gamers desperately want to attach worth to our hobby. What better way to do that than to label them as art? The word "art" connotes supreme and definitive worthiness; if I refer to something as "a work of art", then automatically, it must be important, worthwhile, and good. This is nonsense. Certainly, there are important, worthwhile, and good things which are not art.
Don't get me wrong. It isn't that games can't be art. It's that, as a general rule, they aren't.
To be art, video games would need to probe our identities, by challenging the foundations on which we base them. This isn't as simple pulling a trick on the player, as if to say "Look, everything you've ever thought was true? It's actually wrong! Ha ha! (Aren't I a clever game?)" Such an attitude is cheap revelation and very, very fleeting.
Rather, we'd play the game only to be forever marked by it. As I said, great art is a mirror. An artistic game would not be about what's happening on the screen, but about what's happening to the player.
So then, should games be art? Should we assign them the same self-reflective functions?
I don't know; it depends on our motives. Games seem to be serving us well enough as a medium without being art. Why should we impose art's limitations and constraints on a medium that doesn't need it? Do we have a responsibility to make all media, including games, into art? Or are we simply trying to legitimatize video games, so that governments will not regulate them and parents will stop complaining about them?
Maybe I don't want Tetris to make me reconsider my preconceived notions of self and other. It certainly could, but then again, I think that might muddle or conflict with its primary purpose: to entertain me.
Art like Lolita brings me closer to myself; I understand my psyche better for having read the novel. On the other hand, games are ultimately escapist endeavors: we play video games to do something else, become someone else. We do not play games to become ourselves.
Artistic games would place the burden of introspection on the player. It could be conceivable that one day, someone could create the equivalent of Lolita: The Videogame. I don't mean that in the sense that one day, someone will put pedophilic porn on TV; I mean that one day, someone will write a game that crushes its players, hollowing out their innocence and faith, leaving them eternally and irrevocably changed.
I'm not so sure I want that. Give me beauty, emotions, or social commentary, I don't mind. But as a player, I'm just not ready to cope with Humbert Humbert on my Playstation.