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.
14 responses to “I’ll Know It When I See It”
Why do I care? Because games approach something different. It’s not particularly narrative-based (though that’s been done well), nor understood yet (though games like ICO approach it), and I’m fascinated to know what that thing is and how to hit it.
As for Ebert’s argument: it is analogous to saying that movies aren’t art because the Casablanca poster sucks. In a way, movies are to photos what games are to movies. So quite frankly, he shouldn’t be judging; and no-one would care if it weren’t Roger Ebert.
I look forward to proving him/seeing him proved wrong.
I think is good remember that, ussually, when something is really homebreaking as “Art”, normally it’s not acknowledge by its contemporanies. The Quijote, which is acknowledged now as the Greastest Modern Novel written in Spanish, was dismissed by the writers at the time as “non-art”. In fact, the only reason we still can hear about the Quijote is because it became insanelly popular in its time and Cervantes was forced to write a second part. Also, this “Greastest Modern Novel written in Spanish” is a PARODY.
My personal take of this is we can’t define already if video games are art or not. Maybe my little newphews could do it, because they had no symphathy for the 80 and they will not associate other stuff with the game. But sadly, and for most of the people who discuss this, we are contemporanies and we can be insanelly wrong. Just like most of the writers at the time of the Quijote.
I’m irritated by the fact that Ebert is focusing on assorted definitions of art and games, which are themselves not truly nailed down nor universally shared, then attempting to classify specific examples as one or the other based on their attributes, as if the definitions were set and agreed before the debate started. He might be worth listening to if he was commenting on Flower or Braid or really any other game at all after having *played* them. To discount them based on another person’s mere description of them indicates an unwillingness to expand his understanding of the medium that is far greater than any internet full of screaming apologists’ ability to change.
Call my cynical, but I think it’s worthless arguing with Ebert because I don’t think he gives two flying fish about whether or not games are art. He just wants to prove his market worth by generating a “controversy” which generates hits, and proves that he’s still “important” even to the 18-24 male demographic (which all gamers fit into, naturally). All a critic has to sell is his opinion, and if no one cares about his opinion there goes his business.
I also think debating what Is or Is Not art at this point is slightly idiotic, unless of course it’s from a legal view. We’ve had Dada, Found Art, Pop Art, Video Art and installation pieces. Art is pretty much anything and everything at this point, so debating “What Is Art?” is like debating “Who Is the Real Shakespeare?” or “Why Has Telltale Abandoned Point n’Click?!” The “debate” has been long over, and whether or not Ebert likes it, games count just as much as anything else.
Maybe the Traditional Art world (Man I love using capital letters! Does it show?) has not “officially” sanctioned video games yet, but that’s because we haven’t yet had the video game equivalent of Takashi Murakami’s Superflat movement to make them. I’m sure it’ll happen, though, and probably soon, and it’ll probably be 8-bit, because it can’t be the latest technology (outdated too soon) and referencing an earlier work is what post-modern does best! Also, it has to be simple to play (so Traditionalists won’t feel intimidated) and boring, because nothing says “Art” like being totally uninteresting to 90% of the population.
Don’t get me wrong; I think it’s important that video games be classified as Art so they can be protected under the same laws as porn. But otherwise I think the argument is a waste of time. Will better games be made if people approach them as “art” rather than “games”? I doubt it. There are many smart, talented people working in the video game industry, and it is an entertainment industry, just like the film and art industry. You don’t get into the entertainment industry if you’re not motivated, if you don’t have any ideas. So you have a group of smart, talented, motivated people full of ideas who are working their butts off; do you really think they aren’t already trying to make the best games they can?
That’s a good point. I don’t agree that we can’t identify what’s art until later generations decide, but I do agree that time plays a big part. A lot of the greatest works of art didn’t start out as great art (take Casablanca for instance). And the converse is true too: one of the surest ways to end up with crap is to start out convinced you’re creating one of the greatest works of art ever.
Well yeah, which is a big part of why so many people are jumping on the chance to correct him and say stuff like “just play Passage or Flower or Planescape Torment and you’ll get it!” even though it’s pretty clear that he wouldn’t, even if he were interested. Any more than somebody could tell me to watch “Glee” and suddenly i’ll appreciate the appeal of the show.
The worst is his bit with Flower. He tries to say games aren’t art and then criticizes that one for not being a game. It is both a game and a work of art, but he’s changing definitions to suit his own argument. That’s why arguing with Ebert for the purpose of convincing Ebert is pointless.
There are many more people working in industrial design who are even smarter and more talented. Take the automotive industry. They’re working their butts off to make the best cars they can, and they can do amazing work. But their goals aren’t the same as the entertainment industry. Making the best product possible according to the needs of the customer is great for most industries, but it’s deadly for art.
And there’s so much pressure in the games industry to do exactly that. Even more than the most business-driven film studio, since the nature of games is still so nebulous, and because games are so much more closely tied to the audience. It’s already common to hear “audience” turned into “customer” or “user,” and “game” turned into “product.” In that kind of environment, it’s not just that there’s little incentive to use the game as a medium of expression; there’s active resistance.
After all, isn’t that the more noble way to look at it? The customer is always right. Games are about enabling the player. Anything else is purely ego-driven on the part of the developer. It’s not about you; it’s about making a good game. And besides, it’s just a game — it’s not anything important.
And I think that’s exactly why it’s important to keep asserting that games are art. Not to convince Ebert, but to remind the players and the developers themselves. It’s so easy to just dismiss playing games as idle entertainment, a waste of time (even when compared to “real” culture). Or to become convinced that expecting games to be an outlet for self expression is hubris or ego, or getting all uppity and pretentious by trying to put deeper meaning into a game. You can be extremely motivated and talented and make fantastic stuff that still isnt art, if it never occurred to you that what you’re doing IS art.
Why do I care? I’ve long taken Ebert’s criticism with a huge grain of salt. For everything he writes that I agree with there are more (often hypocritical) things that I disagree with. In stretching himself to discussing games as he has, he’s called into question his entire methodology of criticism, and as a professional critic I think he is making a case that he is sorely overpaid.
If I were of the revolutionary sort, I’d say we go for his paycheck. If I were a paid film critic, I would be ashamed to associate myself with the profession when such shenanigans are going on.
If he isn’t even bothering to experience games or to do even a smidgen of research before starting a critique, can we really trust that he bothers to do due diligence in his film critiques? He might as well be walking out of films at the half-way point for how this makes him appear.
As someone who understands, or at least says he does, the importance of “literacy” and having a strong knowledge of the “vocabulary” of cinema in order to truly understand it as an art form, how is it that he feels he can comment on an entire medium’s worth, and eternal potential, with zero literacy or vocabulary of that media?
At this point it should be obvious that gaming is insecure, still looking for outside approval, and wasting too much time listening to overpaid blowhards talking out of their rear orifices.
Who’s to say a beautifully made car isn’t art? A beautifully made house is. I consider that good design is definitely art, and considering industrial designers like Karim Rashid have pieces of their work in museum collections I’d say the “Art World” does as well.
But that’s not what I meant by “motivated”. I meant that entering the entertainment industry takes a hell of a lot of hard work, and it takes years. Maybe breaking into the video game industry is easy, I wouldn’t know since I’ve never worked there, but I do know that prose publishing sure as hell takes a long time, and television and film isn’t any easier to break into. People who try to get published in the hopes of creating the next “Harry Potter” or “Twilight” franchise don’t last. The people who keep at it are the ones who love writing, can’t help writing or both.
I’m guessing that many of the people in the video game industry got in for the same reason. They didn’t do it because they wanted to become rich and famous, they did it for love of the medium. They did it because they want to make great games.
Of course, the business side of things isn’t interested in that; they’re interested in selling product. Just like the film industry. Michael Bay doesn’t get millions of dollars to make films because the producers think his work is art, and the producers of the AAA games probably look at their product the same way. All they’re interested in is selling units. Again, they are entertainment INDUSTRIES. I’d say the biggest difference between the game industry and the others, though, is they haven’t realized that art sells. It’s not as big a market, but it’s there, and it is lucrative if approached correctly. Then again, there are products being aimed at that market, like Flower, like Machinarium, like Telltale’s games. The indie developers are creating art, and they are selling it as well. Their growth is what will bring “art” into the mainstream, at least that’s what I hope. I don’t see any other way to do it.
I think Ebert is scared. In a way, Movies and Video Games are competing in the entertaiment industry and he see his Favorite Art been, in a way, destroyed by a new thing he doesn’t understand. If you don’t care about figure out how the new medium works, and you are scared by the destiny of your favorite thing, you attack back. And that is exactly what he’s doing. If he’s desmostrating contradictions to trying to make up a point, he’s enraged or scared, because he’s not thinking clearly.
In other words, I think we’re feeding a troll.
Well, I personally don’t think that his post(s) about games have any bearing at all on his merits as a film critic. The guy just doesn’t like games, or at least he’s stuck on his definition of what they are and isn’t particularly interested in changing it.
He has lapsed into condescending jerk mode a few times, especially on twitter, but again, I think he’s partly entitled. I haven’t even bothered to read the comments on his post, and he’s been getting deluged with them. I know when I spend more than a few minutes reading a forum filled with nothing but videogame players, I get the urge to start punching and stabbing, and I’m ostensibly on their side. Maybe if these discussions keep popping up, the audience (myself included) will eventually calm down and grow up a little.
I think I am, because it’s not for the purposes of what I’m interested in talking about. I think a big part of the reason the games-as-art topic gets so tiresome so quickly is because it always gets derailed into navel-gazing “what IS art?” pontification, which just doesn’t interest me at all.
The layman’s definition of “art” that I’m interested in: exists for its own sake, communication between artist(s) and audience, intended to convey some meaning or idea in a manner unique to its medium. So a car wouldn’t fit that narrow definition, because it doesn’t “mean” anything.
Of course there’s always a tension between “art for art’s sake” and commercial art, there is in any industry where “creative types” are involved, and there always has been. People gotta eat.
But it’s not so clear-cut: artists want to make great things, patrons and business types just want to make money. There are publishers who want to make great movies/games, and there are filmmakers and game developers who just want to make money. To use your example: I’ve never seen or read an interview with Michael Bay, but it wouldn’t surprise me to hear that he got into the business out of a genuine desire to make great movies, and he believes that he really is making great movies that happen to be profitable. And the converse of that: I’d say that the Coen Brothers are the greatest filmmakers alive today, but they’ve still got to keep an eye on which movies are going to sell (No Country for Old Men) and which are their own personal projects (A Serious Man).
My point is that, as Ebert points out in his post, “motivation” only goes so far, it’s not a given, and wanting to make art doesn’t guarantee that you’ll make it.
Where I think games are different, and the reason I think the question “Why do I care if someone says they’re not art?” is important, is because that motivation is nowhere near as black-and-white as it is in other media. You say that a lot of game developers got into the business because they wanted to make games; I ask whether they got into the business because they wanted to make art.
You could be a game developer and make a valid case that a “great game” has nothing to do with art, using my definition of art as conveying “meaning.” You could say that the best games are abstracted, like chess, and it’s not their place to convey meaning, and still make great games. You could say that games are like sports, and make fantastic sports games.
And, you can make the claim that the developer’s voice isn’t important, that games are all about enabling the player. (Which was basically Ebert’s initial argument way back when). That’s not “art” by my definition, because the sense of communication has been lost. But it’s still a valid way to look at games, because the player’s interaction is what differentiates interactive media from traditional media.
There are plenty of people who are saying “of course games are art!” and then defending it with claims like “they’ve got lots of artists working on them” or “they’ve got lots of art in them, so they must be.” That doesn’t make the game itself art, though, and that’s the part that I think is worth arguing for.
You are being used. Why did Ebert do a follow up post, after getting bashed by thousands of game fans? Because he got bashed by thousands of game fans. He’s in the entertainment industry and he found a way to touch a large audience. Discussing him just gives him a platform.
He is irrelevant, and his kind will disappear in not a long amount of time.
Don’t play along. You’re being used.
Maybe discussing “What IS art?” isn’t interesting to you, but I still think it’s important to the discussion because you can’t determine whether or not games are art if you can’t define what art is. And because the general consensus is vague, someone like Ebert can define it in such a way that games won’t qualify. To be honest, I think the layman’s definition of art is actually, “I’ll know it when an expert sees it, and then puts it in a museum or gallery”. I’m not saying most people can’t understand art, I’m saying they don’t bother, either because they have no interest or because they don’t think they can. I think that’s one reason people have gotten so angered by Ebert. He’s an expert, but they know he’s wrong. They don’t know how to explain why, though.
And just to clarify, I didn’t say Michael Bay doesn’t think his work is art, I said his producers probably don’t. I’m not even saying his work isn’t art, because I’ve never watched it. I may be a jerk, but I’m not THAT big of a jerk.
The points you bring up, that a “great game” doesn’t have to be art, that the developer’s voice isn’t important, that’s not arguing that games aren’t art, that’s arguing that they shouldn’t be. Convincing those people that games are art won’t change their approach to creating games. I’d say to them that trying to silence the developer’s voice is a hypocritical conceit that makes the games impersonal. Pretending that the player has full control is ridiculous, because no matter how many choices you give the player, you are still the one giving them those choices. The player can’t do whatever the hell they feel like; they can only do what you allow them to as the game’s creator. You can give them many, many, many choices, but still, the developer is the one who ultimately decides what those choices are. There is no nobility in trying to reduce a conversation to a false monologue.
I still think this whole argument is ultimately pedantic and, frankly, kind of annoying, but I will give two examples proving that games are art because proving that point is obviously very important to people. These examples are visceral experiences that occurred because of gameplay.
The first is from Max Payne; the section during Max’s hallucination when he must traverse a trail of blood while his infant’s wailing is heard. I watched my teenaged brother and his friend play through this section. They were both made uncomfortable, and my brother tried to run through the section as quickly as he could. Of course, the path being so narrow and the edges being invisible meant that rushing made him fall off the path and he had to keep starting over. After five minutes of this he dropped his controller and said he didn’t know if he could continue. His friend said, “This is shit is messed up.”
I asked him why?
He said, “You don’t think it’s sick running on a trail of his kid’s blood while you hear it crying?”
I said, “You don’t think it’s sick his wife and kid were murdered to get back at him? To intimidate him? You don’t think he would suffer? That’s what this is, his suffering.”
They both became quiet, and my brother unpaused the game and continued, more slowly and carefully. It still took him a try or two, though, and by the end the two of them were visibly shaken.
Watching a scene similar to that game section would have been unnerving, but it wouldn’t create that feeling of tension, they wouldn’t have had to focus on it the way they did on the gameplay and
I’m sure it would not have affected them nearly as much.
The second example is from the finale of Tales of Monkey Island, when a half-dead Guybrush is battling LeChuck on his ship. When I played through that puzzle I was tense and nervous and wanted to get through it as quickly as I possibly could, because I didn’t just hate having to see Guybrush suffer, I felt guilty. By not figuring out the solution faster I was prolonging his anguish. I have never felt guilty watching a character in a film suffer, because I never felt I had any control over his fate. With Guybrush, I did; it was my fault I kept seeing his poor, polygonal body get thrown around like a ragdoll.
Those are two examples of deeply emotional experiences that could ONLY happen in games. You could try to recreate them in another medium, and you could probably get pretty close, but you’d never be able to recreate that feeling of responsibility and involvement. That’s what I think is the biggest difference between games and other medium of expression. It’s not that games are interactive and other medium aren’t, because all art is ultimately an artist’s attempt to interact with their audience. It’s that games are far more interactive and gives more responsibility of experience to audience than any other medium. I don’t just think that games are art, I think they have the potential to be the most engaging form of art yet known.
Who’s being used, exactly? I’m fairly certain that people are going to know who Roger Ebert is, even without the links from the gaming blogs. But I’m even more sure that there are plenty of movie fans who are following the blog/twitter account of the most popular film critic in America, who would’ve never seen Santiago’s video otherwise. Or heard about games like Flower and Shadow of the Colossus. Or even have been aware that there are people who care about art in videogames.
Anyone who’s looking to change Ebert’s mind is going to be disappointed. And anyone who’s looking for consensus is going to be disappointed, too. And Ebert’s savvy enough to understand that: he’s been linking to the discussion about the topic, but never to people that agree with him. I think he’s completely wrong here, but he’s not stupid, and I think he understands that the discussion is more important than consensus.
You need a definition, but a personal definition, not an objective one. Every time this topic comes up, it gets derailed by people saying “define ‘art’,” and it never ends well: you either come up with something so vague it includes everything, or that includes only the stuff you like. There’s simply not going to be consensus, and that’s why I say the question isn’t interesting.
Instead, you come up with your own definition. Santiago borrowed one, Ebert borrowed a different one, and I presented the makings of my own. It’s a lot more useful to take the definition that’s important to you and then point out how something does or doesn’t fit.
I will say that I think the “layman’s definition” you present is way off-base, because it is — as you point out — based completely on validation from someone else. And — as you don’t point out — the assumption that other people think this way is condescending at best.
Well to be clear in case anyone hasn’t been reading this blog for long, I definitely don’t agree with the opinion that the developer’s voice isn’t important, or that games shouldn’t be art. But I do believe that somebody could approach games with that philosophy and still make fine games. I wouldn’t agree with their philosophy, but you couldn’t say it’s “wrong.”
And I disagree with your last claim: I think the mindset is extremely important to how you go about making games. My first job in games was at a studio owned by a film company, and there was a pervasive mindset in the company that a hierarchy exists: film on top, games on bottom. You’d get the sense that some people got into games because they couldn’t quite make it in movies. Or that artists would separate their “real” art from the work they did for the games.
If you don’t see games as an artistic medium, then that doesn’t mean you won’t make art, just that you won’t use a game to do it. It’s like the guy making comic books at work and saving his real creativity for the novel he’s writing on his own, or the person working on a sitcom to pay the bills while she saves up enough to make her indie film. They’re not “phoning it in” if they don’t believe that comic books or sitcoms are the proper medium for deeper ideas in the first place. That’s why I think it’s important to keep the idea alive that the game itself — not just the music, or the background paintings, or the concept art — can be an outlet for artistic expression.
And that’s basically why I think that the question “Are games art?” is so much less important than the question “Why do I care if someone says they aren’t?” Because if you just take the stand “of course they’re art; that’s trivially true,” then you haven’t really gotten anywhere. Or if you say, “They’re art because they have so much art in them,” you haven’t said anything unique to games.
But when you ask “why do I care?” then you start to get at the more interesting questions: What is it in games that I’m looking for but not finding? or What is it about games that makes me convinced that they are, and I’d like to see more of it?
And yeah, I agree that that interactivity is the key thing that’s unique to the medium and that needs to be exploited. (And if that seems trivially true, the consider the fact that a lot of really good games still take the form of movies with interactive bits tossed in to break things up). It’s not rules, or objectives, or a non-predetermined outcome, or even (I would say) choice, as much as the idea of a work of art that can make me feel something based on what I did, not just what I watched or read.
I think the issue of video games descendance from traditional game forms, namely ‘ludus’ games (or just games, for short) is always downplayed, when that, to me, is Ebert’s most valid criticism.
We cannot address any proposition of video games being art, without, at least, considering the very concept of video game. Games have existed for as long as art exists, and as Ebert thoughtfully notes, nobody tried to encompass them under the term art before. This is not to mitigate their relevance in human culture or their capacity to convey messages and ideas (which is not the sine qua non condition of art, I’m afraid), it is simply an obvious qualitative difference between the nature of these two concepts – games and art. If games have never been defined as art (everybody admits this much), then where does that leave the specific branch of games we call video-games, which being strict in their definition, really are games played in a computer (hence videogames)?
Surely the issue is more complex, because of video games’ dual-nature: one half interactive digital art – i.e. audiovisual interactive stimulus generated by a computer -, one half game, i.e. competitive activity with challenges, scores, rewards, punishments, and skill-learning. On one hand, there are the narratives, audio-visual aesthetics, exploratory interactions (non-competitive ones) which can, at least potentially, be art. They do not exist for any other purpose than that of aesthetic appreciation, and they fall neatly under basically all categories in art definitions (even the more elaborate ones). Multimedia art was all the rage in the 1990’s and, perhaps in a stroke of vision, was kept categorically separate from video games (go look it up!). They were similar in practically every one of their semiotic elements to video-games’ own, but with one giant difference: they did not have challenges or rewards or points or any other (let’s call it) game ‘trope’. Well, superficially this might not be seen as that much of a difference, of course, but just as games and art are different, so are video games and interactive digital art. Unlike others, Ebert knows this, mainly because he has played and reviewed games in the past (again, go look it up!).
But why are they really that different, you might ask. Well, firstly, a game author is no just concerned with expressing emotions and ideas, he is also preoccupied with the emergence of a challenging and rewarding play-activity, one which derives ‘fun’. There is no mention of this ‘objective’ in the realm of fine-arts. The very idea that an art-form would have such limiting boundaries would be contra-nature, as art is a means for free expression inside a medium. How can an author truly express himself, with such contingencies being placed in the very definition of his object?
Secondly, the relationship art-objects establish with their audience is rather different than those of players that play games. Art is meant to be aesthetically appreciated, to be understood and valorized by the assessment of the artist’s craftsmanship and capacity to evoke emotion and provoke thoughts and reflections on certain themes. That and just that. Art exists simply for the sake of it. It is self-contained. Consider your own memory of watching “Mona Lisa”, viewing “2001 Space Odyssey” or listening to Beethoven’s 9th. Any pleasure you derive from this pieces came from pure aesthetic appreciation. That was your only relationship with those objects – the assessment of their beauty and how that appreciation gave rise to the sublime.
But games are different. Games are meant to be challenging in their “viewing”, they presuppose the development of cognitive/physical/emotional skills in order to conquer their proposed challenges, and they reward and punish players according to their skill. This is the same for all games, be they the board-kind, sports-kind, or the video-game kind. Players, when playing games, focus on winning, on learning skills, on bettering themselves, getting better scores. They are competing with the game, inside the realm of its rules! Where in art does such a dimension exist? There is no reference to it…
Now this has naught to do with interaction, which is, indeed a dimension in art which digital media holds as one of its more powerful pillars. But interaction need not be game-play. Most art already involves interaction. For example, sculpture and architectural art both presuppose audiences to spatially explore those works – this is a mild form of interaction, but it is not game-play, as there are no objectives, rewards, points or challenges. If you want to go further down the interaction line, you can cite post-modern spectacles, theater, and multi-media installations – all allow audiences to interact directly with the “art” (so to speak), but there is no sign of gameplay. Interaction is not what defines videogames, but game-play is.
I argue that the medium we are discussing can be understood as a continuum of digital art and video-game (proper). How each video-game balances its game-structure with its own digital art is really the key to what defines an art/video game. Is the game meant to be aesthetically appreciated? Or does it focus on a competitive activity? Which of these forces if more dominant? A trivial example: Tale of Tales works clearly tend to the former. Call of Duty to the latter. One is art, the other is game. And it is easy to acknowledge this. Just consider the competitive experience of COD online, and conjure on what stands closer: football or private ryan?
This separation is not meant to belittle videogames that are games proper. Games have value despite all this art debate. They can be more entertaining than any art, and more so, while still conveying ideas and exploring human subjects. You want a better, more elegant and entertaining metaphor for war than Chess? A better realization of capitalist economics and greed than Monopoly? This is the very reason people like games and video-games. Everybody derives more pleasure from playing games than watching a painting. In fact, I doubt most gamers would want video-games to truly be art; because usually art is elitist and hard to understand and appreciate and surely not ‘fun’. Seeking validation from a realm that to which most gamers have very little connection with, very little understanding of and even less appreciation of, speaks tons of what kind of people are embarking in this debate. People who know very little about art. That is the reason for all the non-sensical FFVII made me cry replies. I have seen this rationale many times on the internet: everybody hopes that for once, what they like can be considered high brow, intelligent and provoking… even though these same people never enjoyed the equivalent expression in other mediums.
As an art scholar friend of mine would say: “Art is a noun, not an adjective meant to elevate another noun”. We would do well to keep this in mind when stating that video games are art.