I don’t know much about power-ups, but I know what I like

'Cheers' by Bob DobI’m going to take a short break from not updating my award-winning* series of posts about storytelling in videogames, because the whole “Are videogames art?” debate has flared up again this week. People are already tired of the debate, and for good reason. But I can’t tell if people are tired of it because they believe the question is irrelevant, or because they believe it’s already been settled, or because it always devolves into name-calling and pointlessness.

I think it’s plenty relevant. And based on the varying responses you see whenever the topic comes up, there’s no clear evidence that the issue’s been settled. But there’s a ton of evidence of how quickly it becomes a pointless argument with a predictable pattern. The most recent example:

  1. Over a year ago, Roger Ebert got a bunch of shut-in gamers (myself included) all hot and bothered when he said videogames aren’t art and are incapable of art.
  2. Clive Barker responded with “is too” and rhapsodized on the artistic merit of bowel movements.
  3. For some reason, Ebert responded to that by reiterating that he hasn’t played that many games but he still knows they’re not art, and compared Barker and other game fans to earnest but ignorant 4-year-olds.
  4. This Monday, Newsweek‘s N’gai Croal picked apart Ebert’s commentary, making sure to take potshots at Ebert for writing Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (which, at this point, is about as trite an argument as “oh yeah well you’re fat!”)

And that’s just among the people getting all the press. Whenever the topic comes up on message boards (at least, the ones populated by the literate), you get the pattern: What does Ebert know anyway?, then What about Shadow of the Colossus?, then Games are still young, then What does it mean to be art? Once you hit the last point, you’ve ventured into the types of conversations that college sophomores with a major in philosophy and a minor in art history have, and nobody wants to go there.

But I still believe it’s an important question to keep asking. Not with answers as meaningless as Barker’s claim that basically “anything that you like is art.” Not with Ebert’s increasingly myopic definition of “art” as basically “anything that includes movies but excludes videogames.” And without spinning off into well-intentioned but impractical mentions of Duchamp and Magritte and Pollack and representational art vs. expressionism and attempts to come up with an all-inclusive definition.

Seeing how quickly the question devolves into pointlessness and pretense, it’s understandable to ask, “What does it matter, anyway?” N’Gai Croal’s article mentions three notable game designers (including Shigeru Miyamoto!) who claim that games are product, not art; and they still seem to be doing okay for themselves. The prevailing opinion is that a game’s first and only obligation is to be fun, not artistic. And what’s so bad about entertainment for its own sake?

There’s nothing bad about that, of course. I’m proud of the games I’ve worked on, and I’d be hard-pressed to put forth any of them as examples of what Ebert calls “high art.” And some of the most insightful, genuinely artistic movies I’ve ever seen walk a fine line between “art” and “just entertainment” (Adaptation and Miller’s Crossing to name two). The low art vs. high art debate (part of what Croal calls “art as broccoli”) is pretty much unnecessary unless you’re writing a term paper or a condescending review. I say that most of us are capable of distinguishing between a work that’s pure entertainment and a work that strives to say or do something greater, even if we can’t come up with an all-inclusive definition for what that something is.

At this point in the development of videogames as a medium, that’s really all we need: to acknowledge that there is something more that games are capable of expressing, that they’re not expressing now. Because there’s just no getting around the fact that videogames on the whole are still pretty stupid and juvenile. Stupid and juvenile is fine if it’s by choice, but not if it’s by necessity.

And this is exactly what we’ll end up with, if we don’t start to hold videogames to a higher standard:

  • Enforced Stupidity: You get a real sense of anti-intellectualism from videogame fans. It doesn’t stop at just “games don’t need to be more than entertainment;” it turns into “games shouldn’t even try to be more than entertainment.” You’re actually penalized for getting all uppity, having the arrogance to try to insert meaning into something as trivial as a videogame. It’s not just “outsiders” like Ebert and the Anti-Game Politicians who are keeping games in the ghetto, it’s the fans.
  • Tighter Restrictions: As long as the popular perception remains that games are product, not art, then it just leaves the medium wide open for the government to regulate it just like product, like toys.
    Want to have a parody of a celebrity or a TV show or movie in your game? The rules for parody and satire are different for products than they are for art. You’ll often see the same people who get all hot and bothered about the First Amendment as it applies to violent videogames, then turn around and complain that a game doesn’t meet some arbitrary dollar-to-game-time ratio. You can’t have it both ways, guys — pick a side: art or product.
  • More Censorship: Related to that, the more you insist that games don’t have to say anything, the more you’re encouraging an environment where games aren’t allowed to say anything. Whenever another hot-button game like Manhunt 2 comes along, you’ll hear people fretting about the First Amendment and freedom of speech, and you’ll frequently see comparisons to the Hustler obscenity case. The problem is that it’s a little easier to defend something like Hustler when you see that it has obvious implications for protecting great works like The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. It would’ve been a lot harder if the medium hadn’t produced anything classier or of more non-prurient-interest merit than Playboy.
  • Bad Criticism: Videogame reviews are written as buying guides. It’s a common complaint that game “journalism” is crass and amateurish, even among game journalists. The problem isn’t just that bloggers and reviewers have bad grammar and can’t spell, and it isn’t numeric or percentage-based reviews. It’s that they’re refusing to analyze games as works of art. You’ll find plenty of movie reviews that use simple thumbs-up/thumbs-down ratings, or some arbitrary number of stars, but they still talk about the movie in terms of what it’s trying to express, not in terms of film stock and editing glitches and running time.
    Reviews of even the most transparently commercial movies, like Transformers, will mention its themes, talking about the love of a boy for his car or some such. I have never seen a review of The Sims that describes it as a satire of consumerism.
    Once we get reviewers who are better able to analyze games as art, then we’ll get better-written reviews, and eventually, better games.
  • An Endless Cycle of Cliches: When you’re penalized for breaking from convention, you stick to convention. When the fan base insists that it’s game mechanics that matters to a game, not theme, setting, meaning, or overall artistic merit, then you can look forward to more decades of WWII shooters, dystopian sci-fi, and the choice of playing as a dwarf or an elf.
  • Bad Writing, Animation, and Design: When the medium is regarded as a big money-maker but a creative wasteland (or as simply commerce, or a diversion), then it doesn’t attract the best talent. It wasn’t until people like Will Eisner and later Alan Moore showed that it was possible to make art from comics, that you saw a greater pool of talent attracted to the medium. And if people had been satisfied that television was capable of nothing more than a diversion, and that movies were the real art, then we’d still be watching “The A-Team” and “Knight Rider” and thinking that that was the best we could get. Twenty years ago, it’d have been impossible to imagine the environment in Hollywood today, where people freely bounce back and forth between TV and movies, instead of just retiring to “The Love Boat” once their movie career tanked.
    As it stands now, people are attracted to games for the money, but most still don’t understand games, and only a very few are attracted to the medium itself. As long as that keeps up, you’re going to keep seeing programmers trying to write comedy games.

So in short, insisting that games are art — not sports; not “just” entertainment; not in the sense that everything is art; not at the expense of fun but in addition to fun; and not in some esoteric, abstract “inherent beauty of Tetris” way, but in a way that everybody can understand even if they can’t define it — means we’ll start seeing better games.

*Longest Delays Between Superfluous Blog Posts, 2007Rambling Weblog Weekly