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WoW is a Work of Art, part 2: Blizzard's masterpiece

As you read the word, "art," what do you think of? Van Gogh? Beethoven? Academy Awards for Best Picture? What is it that established mediums of art, such as painting, music, and film have in common?

In many ways, World of Warcraft is a combination of all these media, and yet it is something of it's own too. WoW has vast landscapes to explore, interesting characters with their own meaningful stories, and powerful music to thrill you or spook you or make you feel awe. Not only does WoW combine these elements together in a deeply satisfying way, it stands out as a carefully balanced masterwork of the "game" as a creative human expression. In other words, WoW is basically a web of overlapping problems to overcome alone or as a team, for which all the visual, musical and story elements are metaphors that open the doors into this central element of the game's experience. Not only is it fundamentally interactive, exploratory, and progressive, but your choices, from the way your character looks to the way you chose to play him or her, all represent your own investment in filling out the open space the game has made for you and the community of players. You and your friends are the final keystone in the edifice of the WoW work of art -- your progressive interaction with the game and your cooperation with others is designed from the beginning to be the main stimulating force on your mind and spirit, just as looking or listening is with other forms of art.

Of course art is a subjective thing, like beauty itself. One person may be profoundly inspired and uplifted by her WoW experience, while another may be left shaking his head and wondering why he wasted his time. In their own way, both are right; art is never art without a certain kind of participation by the one looking at it, listening to it, or engaging with it in some way. The perceiver of the art always has to be open to the special impact that art can have on your mind or spirit, and be willing to make that leap of faith into the work of art and see what its creators intended. For some to be unappreciative of one art form or another is commonplace and natural -- people have their unique likes and dislikes after all -- but the fact that a certain work of art touches some people, perhaps many, in a profound way is what sets it aside from mere entertainment.

As human beings' powers of creative expression grow and diversify, new forms of art appear which at first cannot be easily understood by the general populace, especially those with a more rigid understanding of what sorts of things can touch the human heart and what things can't. So it makes sense that the mainstream public may have difficulty understanding that World of Warcraft can actually be as moving as reading a book or watching a film. These folks might casually talk about the latest TV sitcoms, even the most useless of celebrity gossip, and yet they would never understand that working together to defeat a raid boss, or acquiring some important piece of equipment with your guild could be all that important.

Even some of the people who play World of Warcraft a great deal do not realize how meaningful their experience could be. For them it becomes an addictive habit, a way of escaping from reality into comfort without having to think or grow in any real way. For people who allow WoW to become a corrupting force in their lives, it ceases to be art, and instead becomes a shallow form of self-stimulation and self-validation. If these people could understand the game differently, they could gain a lot more from it than just some epic loot and maybe status within their group.

When seen as a work of interactive art, WoW requires that the player use certain qualities in order to succeed, and this becomes a way that he or she can develop or practice these qualities in a fun and exciting way and then go on to use them in real life. The game may provide you with a chance to explore an inspiringly beautiful world, to patiently achieve a series of goals, or to explore finding new ways to solve difficult problems alone or as a team. Joichi Ito famously believes that WoW can train leadership skills through interaction and team management in guilds. He is right of course, but only if people approach it with the intention to benefit themselves in this way -- otherwise, as our Guildwatch feature sometimes reports, WoW activities can degenerate into infighting and immaturity, and the actual "art" experience, the exhilarating experience of exploration, patience, experimenting or leadership, can fail to materialize.

People often talk about the first time they faced Ragnaros rising up out of the lava, walked around in their shiny Paladin armor, or did a quest with a particularly interesting storyline. When they do this, they're basically telling you, "I had an amazing experience of the art of this game!" It's affecting them as deeply as a movie or book. When they go back into real life, and maybe doodle some sketches of their characters for their friends (or even make dolls or cakes or machinima), they're using the art of WoW as tools in their own artistic expression. When they make a new character on a role-playing server, they open themselves up to an art form within the art itself, take on a role for their character, and start expressing themselves in a unique way, very much like improvisational theater and creative writing combined into one.

Those who don't like games are free do do something else, while those who become addicted to games are encouraged to get help -- yet those of us who love WoW as a work of art bring away something from this game into our lives that stays with us all the time. For us, WoW is not an escape from real life, but a creative expression of images, sounds, stories and activities that mean something to us, and make real life just that much more full of moments that make you say "wow!"

"WoW is a Work of Art" is a three-part series. Part one focuses on the author's personal discovery that video games are an art form, based on his experiences in World of Warcraft. Part two explores how WoW is not merely another work of visual and musical art, but a work of interactive, team-oriented problem-solving art as well. Part three looks at WoW as a stage on which some players choose to play writer, director, actor and audience all at the same time, in their own improvised theater.

Filed under: Analysis / Opinion, Virtual selves, RP, All the World's a Stage (Roleplaying)

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