This weekend, Roger Ebert stirred up the whole “are video games art?” debate with a blog post and dozens of Twitter messages saying they won’t and will never be. I was surprised. I would’ve thought he’d want to put that whole mess behind him after the last time a few years ago, especially since he keeps feigning surprise that so many video game players and developers would take offense.
As it turns out, the post came in response to a video of a TED talk given by Kellee Santiago of thatgamecompany, one that was forwarded to Ebert because it calls him out and attempts to refute his argument.
Like Ebert, I’ll say that Santiago is a good speaker who delivers an engaging presentation. Unlike Ebert, I’ve played and loved the game Flower, thatgamecompany’s most recently-released project. And unlike Ebert, I’m making an effort to understand where Santiago’s coming from instead of instantly dismissing her claims and acting as if I’ve “won.”
Still, I’d have to say that Santiago’s defense of games as art is about as unconvincing as it could possibly be. She starts with a statement that games are art but can’t hold up any great examples to compete with the great masterworks of other media — a mistake, because judging the merits of one medium in comparison to another one is entirely missing the point.
Next she uses a modified version of the “games are still young” argument, comparing them to cave paintings. That’s always seemed completely empty and without merit to me, both for the reason Ebert gives to refute it — many cave paintings have a representational quality that resonates even today — and because it’s unnecessarily defeatist. We don’t have to wait and see the great games get made; they’re already being made.
Lead by Example
Then, she gives a cursory overview of three games, including Braid and Flower and an assertion that they’re art, based on a weak and easily-dismissible definition of what “art” is. Here I do have to admit that I got a kick out of Ebert’s dismissal of Braid as having “prose on the level of a wordy fortune cookie.” Not because I particularly hate the game, but because it’s the perfect example of How Not to Do It. It wears its art game pretentions on its sleeve, and is so frequently trotted out as “Hey Look At How Much Art This Is” by people eager to have video games justified, that they’re afraid to acknowledge its flaws.
In particular, its biggest flaw: that wordy fortune cookie prose, which just makes it glaringly evident the game’s “meaning” isn’t delivered via its mechanics, but simply reinforced by them. Here you can read about a guy regretting past mistakes, and here you can play a plat former where you can take back moves. Unlike, say, Shadow of the Colossus or even BioShock, where the “meaning” of the game becomes evident directly through the player’s actions in the game. Here is a game which you gradually discover is about choice when confronted with the choices you actually made — or more accurately, weren’t permitted to make — over the course of the game. All that said, Ebert did Braid a disservice by dismissing it based on his own archaic definition of what a “game” is. “Taking back a move” is indeed a cop-out in chess; it’s not a cop-out when “taking back a move” is one of the game’s core rules.
But Flower is a much better example of a game as art. Santiago explains designer Jenova Chen’s motivation for the game, and the idea of the balance of nature that he was trying to convey. It’s a work that conveys meaning from a creator to an audience via the properties unique to its medium — you can debate whether it’s “good art” or “bad art” all you want, but that game fits any layman’s definition of what “art” is. If you dismiss Flower as not being art, then you’d have to dismiss entire schools of visual art as well. Ebert again gives it a cursory dismissal based on the fact that he doesn’t like it, asking questions that could be easily answered by either playing the game (it’s not that long, Roger) or even looking it up on Wikipedia, and again holding it to his definition of what a “game” is, not any definition of what “art” is.
Market Impact and Critical Acclaim
After what would’ve been a compelling example, Santiago then defends the games in terms of their financial success and critical reception. I can only assume that she figured if the defenses of them as “art” didn’t take, then any defense would do. Ebert — correctly, I have to say — lays waste to the idea that critical and financial response have anything to do with the nature of art, so the less said about all that, the better.
So now, Ebert’s mentioning the hundreds of responses to his post (I think his last claim was over 2000 at the time I wrote this), many of which just call him out for being old-fashioned. He acknowledges that he stirred up a hornet’s nest, when the whole thing was supposedly in response to a reader’s e-mail message, and he’s somewhat disingenuously claiming to be bewildered by the response. (And, I’ve got to point out, he’s being kind of a dick about the whole thing, but considering how many angry video game players he’s had to listen to over the weekend if not the past few years, I’d say that he’s entitled).
The fact is, though, that none of those responses are going to make a difference. Obviously, the “you just don’t get it, man!” approach is going to fail, and the “games are art because I cried in Final Fantasy VII” tack isn’t going to fare much better. Part of that is because of Ebert’s obstinance, and part is because he doesn’t give much to work with. At least in the last go-round, he gave people something to chew on: a pretty astute (for a non-gamer) argument about authorial control and the role of the player, based on an interesting (but I think too limited in scope) definition of what a “game” is. Here, he’s just shooting down points raised in a 15-minute video and hundreds of indignant responses.
But there are a couple of interesting parts:
Why are gamers so intensely concerned, anyway, that games be defined as art? Bobby Fischer, Michael Jordan and Dick Butkus never said they thought their games were an art form. Nor did Shi Hua Chen, winner of the $500,000 World Series of Mah Jong in 2009. Why aren’t gamers content to play their games and simply enjoy themselves? They have my blessing, not that they care.
There is, obviously, a good bit of condescension there: a disingenuous cry of “what’s all the fuss over little old me?” along with “go ahead and enjoy your little games while the rest of us appreciate true art” and “I am not familiar with any sports personalities of the last two decades.”
But the basic question is key, and that’s why the argument’s valuable, and that’s why I’m making a point of it instead of joining the chorus of people throwing up their hands and saying “Not this again!” The question is: why do you care?
Why are you offended when someone like Ebert delivers a public dismissal of your hobby and/or career as not being “art?” Are you trying to change his mind? Are you looking for validation from someone else? And is there possibly something that you’re not quite getting from video games that you feel is missing?
I’m not asking in the “why bother?” sense, either: I think it’s an important question to ask. If you’re the type who is bothered by someone claiming that games aren’t art, and you don’t just dismiss the argument, or say that “games are just entertainment” or “they only need to be fun and nothing else,” then start asking the right questions and arguing the right things. Don’t just say “this is how Ebert [or whoever] is wrong,” but “this is why I care.”
Why I Care
The reason I care ultimately breaks down into a tautology: it’s important that games be recognized as art because games are art. That is: people are already using games as a medium of expression; they have been for years. I’ve seen them, I’ve played them, and I’ve been affected by them enough to try and build a career around them.
And you won’t be able to create one of those moving, expressive masterworks unless you set out to do it. Art is about communication, but it’s not about looking for someone else’s validation of what you’re doing; it’s about your own definition of what you’re doing. (Ebert attempts to dismiss this by dismissing Santiago’s definition of art in terms of intent: she says that the great works are driven by an intent to communicate meaning; he responds that a lot of awful works are driven by the same intent, which is a completely facile non-argument). If you aim to create diversion or entertainment, that’s the best you’ll achieve. If you think in terms of “product” and “users” and market-share or critical acclaim, then you’ve imposed an artificial limit for yourself.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with pure entertainment, as long as you don’t get locked in the mindset that meaningless entertainment is the best you could possibly aspire to.
Take film, for example. You’d be hard-pressed to argue that Edison’s movie of a man sneezing is “art” by any useful definition of the word. (And to stave off the “games are still young” argument: you can say the same thing about countless home videos on YouTube). But if you stopped there and took it as a given that that was all the medium was capable of, then you’d never have seen masterworks like Rear Window or White Chicks.
No, Seriously: Games are Media
And despite what I said earlier, it’s still helpful to point out “this is how Ebert [or whoever] is wrong”:
One obvious difference between art and games is that you can win a game. It has rules, points, objectives, and an outcome. Santiago might cite a immersive game without points or rules, but I would say then it ceases to be a game and becomes a representation of a story, a novel, a play, dance, a film. Those are things you cannot win; you can only experience them.
That’s approaching something useful, not just curmudgeonly “what’s with the kids and their video games these days?” but something like a genuine definition of where Ebert’s coming from. It’s easily refuted by anyone who’s played games in the past 15 years, but it’s actually a pretty good starting point for explanation of games as media.
For convenience, take a film that’s universally accepted as “art:” Casablanca. That is clearly a representation of a story, but it hasn’t ceased to be a film. So why can’t someone say the same for a non-abstract, narrative-based game?
You could translate Casablanca into a game, giving it rules (characters can’t come back to life after they die, Sam can’t suddenly become the romantic lead), points or status (Rick’s met Ilsa, Rick’s met Lazlo, Rick’s made it to the landing strip), objectives (get Ilsa past the Nazis), and an outcome (a hill of beans). With any story-based game, “win” or “experience” isn’t an either/or proposition: you win the game by experiencing it. (Note: this would be a lousy game, please don’t make it).
And that, of course, is only one type of game. To compare it to the history of film, a purely linear narrative-based game is the equivalent of filming a stage play: there are advantages to doing it in one medium instead of another, but it’s not fully exploiting the possibilities of the medium. And there are sufficient examples of games that are exploiting the possibilities of the medium; The Sims is the most successful, both artistically and, coincidentally, financially.
I’ve read interviews with Will Wright where he says that as he was developing what later turned into The Sims, he wasn’t preoccupied with making art. (Although I’m pretty sure that several of his collaborators were interested in making art). The key, though, is that he wasn’t preoccupied with any preconceived notions of what a game is or what a game can be. There’s no reason to suspect that a simulation of computer people would be all that fun or interesting, much less that it could become a satire of suburban life and relationships. But as with any art, you know it works when you see it.