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Video game nation: Why so many play

A journey through the world of video games, which 183 million Americans play – 25 percent over age 50. What's behind the fascination?

(Page 7 of 8)

I've looked forward to meeting Moriarty, a 25-year industry veteran. Five years after Mr. Ebert's games-can't-be-art article created a storm of criticism, the controversy began again. At last year's biggest video game convention, the Game Developers Conference, Moriarty gave a speech in Ebert's defense. That also sent the video game world into a tizzy. He was one of them!

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Ebert had two main arguments. First, that games aren't art because they are interactive. Great art, he said, is contemplative. Tolstoy and Mozart didn't want listeners or players making choices.

The counterargument? It's not true. Yes, Skyrim players have choices, but only along lines carefully thought out by its designers. Besides, who says those engaging with works of art have no choice? When pianists play a Mozart sonata, they choose tempo, dynamics, and pedaling. When jazz musician Dave Brubeck improvises on "Take the 'A' Train," he makes thousands of choices. In 2009, the White House gave Mr. Brubeck a medal for excellence in "performance arts."

Moriarty does defend Ebert's first point. He devotes more time, though, to a second one. Why, Ebert had asked, couldn't anyone cite a game worthy of comparison with the works of great dramatists, poets, filmmakers, novelists, and composers?

"Nobody could answer that," Moriarty says, explaining why he gave his speech.

Moriarty argues that a great book offers things games don't. "When I feel the need for reflection, for insight, wisdom, or consolation, I turn my computers off," he said in his speech. There are many things competing for his time. If he finds a great book, he says now, he would rather read it than play games.

Otherwise he'd suffer "gamer guilt" – the moment when "you wake up and say, I've just wasted 40 hours of my life."

O'Donnell can hardly sit still. "The idea that all game time is wasted time!"

"I never said that!" Moriarty replies. "I said I'd rather read Proust."

"Just because [a game's] not sublime doesn't mean it's not art. It's a beautiful thing!" O'Donnell says. "Michael Jordan was an artist!"

"He was an athlete!"

Back and forth they go. To me, Moriarty isn't arguing about whether games can be art but a more limited question: Can they contain the complex characters and moral dilemmas of novels or films? Later, when they've calmed down, Moriarty admits the "Are games art?" question isn't over. "I'm an optimist," he says. "Maybe we just have to wait for our Mozart."

* * *

Soon, we're talking to four students in the WPI program, one of whom might turn out to be the next Mozart. These are students with dreams tempered by realism. Wisconsin native Beth Kunkel knows that most of her classmates may not even wind up in the industry. Virginian Jeff Thomas thinks he might "get a job in computer science to make sure I have a house."

But Connecticut junior Nick Konstantino still seems focused on games. Later, he'll show me the "mocap" project he's working on – a high-tech way to capture motion from live actors that designers use to develop animation. But he's been building games since middle school. The MMO – massive multiplayer online game – he created in high school had 40,000 subscribers.


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