Art in Competition

One of the questions I semi-routinely get asked on interviews about interactive fiction is whether I think the annual IF Comp is a good thing for the community. I find the question hard to answer: the competition is so essential to the community identity that I have a hard time imagining it away, and besides, my opinion wouldn’t change anything; it’s like someone asking whether the human body would be more aesthetically appealing if it didn’t have a spine.

Nonetheless, I’m constantly conscious of the con arguments brought up a few times a year: that the competition siphons off attention from other games released at other times; that it produces a trend towards small games rather than epic works; that there is something wrong or unfair about the voting scheme (opinions vary on what that might be); and — my least favorite — that “real” artforms, like novels and paintings, are not produced primarily for competition, and that therefore competition is an unhealthy or unnatural context for artistic production, and we’d be better off without it. (Here we touch another of my pet peeves: people who make sweeping statements about “real” art are usually talking about [what they know about] commercialized artistic production in the early 21st century. I run into something similar with freshman mythology students: they’re often convinced that “originality” is the defining feature of good art, and so object to the fact that ancient authors reused mythological material. Their conceptions about literature have been shaped by market forces and copyright law in ways they don’t recognize. They also, if pressed, don’t have a very clear idea of what originality means, other than perhaps refraining from reusing the same plot and cast of characters from another work.)

Lately I’ve been reading two books that have helped clarify my visceral sense about this problem into something I can articulate.

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