Covering University of Colorado sports, mostly basketball, since 2010

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Can Video Games be art?

This past Friday, Roger Ebert (Who I love to read from time to time) sent the video game world into a tizzy by furthering his contention that video games are not art. Being an avid gamer, my mind endlessly processed the debate all weekend. I guess it all depends on your definition of "art." Ebert's post, in response to a video discussion from game designer Kellee Santiago, struggles to find a central definition, at first rejecting Santiago's definition (which was from Wikipedia, so I would tend to disregard as well mostly because of it's simplistic nature) before declining to provide a consensus answer.
"Plato, via Aristotle, believed art should be defined as the imitation of nature. Seneca and Cicero essentially agreed. Wikipedia believes "Games are distinct from work, which is usually carried out for remuneration, and from art, which is more concerned with the expression of ideas...Key components of games are goals, rules, challenge, and interaction."

But we could play all day with definitions, and find exceptions to every one. For example, I tend to think of art as usually the creation of one artist. Yet a cathedral is the work of many, and is it not art? One could think of it as countless individual works of art unified by a common purpose. Is not a tribal dance an artwork, yet the collaboration of a community? Yes, but it reflects the work of individual choreographers. Everybody didn't start dancing all at once."

Certainly, what can be considered "art" is totally based on the perspective of the individual. I, for one, tend to agree with some notion that art is an expression of ideas. But there is a little more to that. In an episode of "Top Gear," (probably my favorite television show) presenter Jeremy Clarkson (when talking about the essentially pointless Alpha Romero 8c) relayed the opinion, "[...] for something to be art it can have no purpose other than itself... no function." So, ideas expressed for ideas sake.

(You'll find the quote around the 5:45 mark.)

I like that definition a lot. While it doesn't encompass the whole of "art" (the definition shamelessly excluding fields like literature and architecture which certainly have function along with form) the requirement of no purpose, which Clarkson then appropriates to a car that is impossible to drive, gives me a focus on the issue. For a video game to be "art," it would have to take a loose definition of the concept of "game."

Based on this, I think, at least on some level, that Mr. Ebert has confused the playing of video games with video game creation. Check out this paragraph:
"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."
But couldn't the stadiums that those players competed in be works of art? Couldn't an ornately carved and delicately designed chess set be art? He's completely missing the point: it's not the playing of the games, or even really the game itself that could be considered "art;" it's the design of the game itself. I think there is a point where the focus on the object of desire (be it a chess set, an old style arena, a movie, a over-wrought piece of literature, or a game) causes that object to abate its original functional purpose, and become "art." In other words, when the artist (or collaborators) quest for the expression of ideas overrides the function for which it was created, art takes its place.

(While not the best example, the old Chicago Stadium where MJ started certainly has some artistic flair.)

The creation of a game certainly is an intense collaborative effort. There are art directors, actors, writers, and producers (much like films). Recently, in fact, I have been equating, in my mind at least, the upper echelon of video games with cinematic story-telling. I would certainly guess that Mr. Ebert would agree that films can be (but not necessarily are) art. And, as in film-art, games designed for one purpose, can be used for another.

One possible recent example of this would be "Heavy Rain." As the gaming world contemplates weather or not it is in fact a game, maybe we should instead be contemplating weather or not it's a work of art. The design of the game, from its intricate attention to detail of the character imaging to it's interactive format, is more conducive to a cinematic setting; As a game, however, it's rather lukewarm. In the creators quest to change the way the world views games, they created something that may not be a game. (In fact, one of the primary concepts behind HR is "interactive drama) So wouldn't that fit my working definition? I believe it could.
(Maybe we finally found a place for Heavy Rain)


Ebert opined, "no one in or out of the field has ever been able to cite a game worthy of comparison with the great poets, filmmakers, novelists and poets." Ummmm.... OK? I don't believe that anyone, anywhere, has ever tried to make that contention with a straight face. Food can still be great food even if it comes off of a home-maker's range-top. More to the point, does art need to be "great" for it to be art? I'm not entirely sure it does. "Heavy Rain" is certainly not on a level with Kurosawa's films, but that doesn't necessarily exclude the possibility that within my lifetime that the expressive nature of games couldn't reach that level.

Top-level game designers like David Jaffe, Tim Schafer and Shigeru Miyamoto are infinitely talented. Their games have shaped an entire generation (weather parents like it or not). But it's not the games themselves that makes their pursuit art... it's the design of the games. Playing a game is obviously not artful; but I've experienced somethings through video games, be they thought-provoking, awe-inspiring, or other, that are certainly interesting ideas being expressed by the authors. Sure there is some schlock out there, but just because "Transformers 2" was a pile of worthless tripe, do we necessarily disregard the "artful" possibilities of the cinematic medium? Absolutely not.

(Fallout 3 was more than just some pretty thing to stare at for hours. It was an excellent example of world building and narrative. The world created could surely be seen as "art.")

I'm sure Mr. Ebert would disagree with most of this, but I wish he wouldn't be so dismissive of the medium all together. I certainly get the feeling that he hasn't played many games, so he wouldn't have experienced the stories (read: ideas) that the games express through their design and execution. In much the same way that I couldn't rightly disregard the novels of Tom Hardy as being worthless (they are) before I had read a few examples, Ebert shouldn't disregard video games before he has experienced them.


At one point in the article, Mr. Ebert noted that he was surprised that gamers cared weather or not video games could be considered art. Video game commentators have generally recoiled at this contention; vociferously denying that they care weather their beloved genre is considered art or not. Me thinks they doth protest too much. Of course they care, and I believe they should care.

To love something, and not defend it, is plaintively stupid. Art is seen as the pinnacle of culture. The expression of a societies ideas (and ideals). Video games, being such a large and growing part of western culture, have a place in this, and like any new medium, need to have their place in society defended. More to the point, if games were accepted as art, maybe it would be easier to protect them from the hyper-crazed parental groups who can't seem to understand that not all video games are for kids, and, much like movies and other mediums, that there is a place for games aimed at adults.


Rico said...

I personally think that a good definition of art is any sort of media that provokes an emotional response. A very broad definition, but no less accurate than Mr. Ebert's definition.

I'm a video game classicist. Nothing has moved me quite as much as Final Fantasy III/VI, VII, and other RPG's. They have very immersive storylines - more so than most movies - and they're just wonderful pieces of interactive fiction.

Even the individual elements of games can be considered art. The backgrounds, textures, and cut scenes in most games are superbly done and could be considered works of digital art outright even without playing the game.

I think Ebert is part of the old guard and I'm sure in the next 10 years we'll have art critics taking longer looks at video game storylines and textures for awards.

RumblinBuff said...

Absolutely. FF3/6 is still in my top 5 games. The most cinematic game I've ever played was Metal Gear Solid 3, and because it's original top down angle made the gameplay a pain in the ass, it even fits my "top gear" definition. I really think he just get caught up in the playing vs experiencing thing.

The rpg genre, based on the ad&d type in person rpg games, is usually a perfect example of immersive gameplay. As they've evolved they've essentially become movies with gaming interludes.

You should check out the comments in his post... over 2,000. It's ridiculous.