Thursday, November 02, 2006

Are video games art?


"I do indeed consider video games inherently inferior to film and literature. There is a structural reason for that: Video games by their nature require player choices, which is the opposite of the strategy of serious film and literature, which requires authorial control. I am prepared to believe that video games can be elegant, subtle, sophisticated, challenging and visually wonderful. But I believe the nature of the medium prevents it from moving beyond craftsmanship to the stature of art. To my knowledge, no one in or out of the field has ever been able to cite a game worthy of comparison with the great dramatists, poets, filmmakers, novelists and composers. That a game can aspire to artistic importance as a visual experience, I accept. But for most gamers, video games represent a loss of those precious hours we have available to make ourselves more cultured, civilized and empathetic." - Roger Ebert

A year ago this month, film critic Roger Ebert made the above comment on his website. Not only did he tick off hard core gamers but he inadvertantly started a debate on a topic that had long needed to be discussed - Are video games art?

Like most gamers, my initial response to Ebert's quote created a torrent of anger and frustrated thoughts like: "The man is too old, he's out of the loop. He's probably doesn't even know what an MP3 player is. He's a movie reviewer, what does he know about games?" and "The guys a moron."

Then I thought of something, this kind of thinking will never get video games to be considered main stream. If the video game industry is to be taken seriously, we have to be able to respond to thoughts like this in an intelligent, rational manner. An angry response of expletives and insults (while always fun) just makes gamers look like a ticked off toddler when their parent tells them they can't have any candy. We look like immature brats who can't think for themselves.

Personally, I'd prefer to be an intelligent teenager (which is what games are to the grandparent-like TV, Music and Movies) and give a thoughtful answer which gives the more established mediums enough pause to reconsider their stance. The Big 3 have been around a heck of a lot longer than games and they deserve our respect. They also, like a stubborn parent or grandparent, need to be enlightened about the changing world around them.

To make an intelligent case for video games as Art, lets breakdown Ebert's statement.

"Video games by their nature require player choices, which is the opposite of the strategy of serious film and literature, which requires authorial control."

Good point. Games are much more interactive. Players are an integral part of a games story and can guide the development of the characters...to a point. You can't actually do anything in a video game that the creator of it doesn't want you to to. To me, this makes the authorial control in a game much more pronounced than in any other medium because in order to get a games full experience, you are required to perform certain tasks. This qualifies video games as a form of interactive art.

This quote also brings me to a gaping hole in Ebert's statement. What about when a film or a piece of literature sucks? Is it still Art? Does he mean to tell me that I have to view all Rob Schneider movies as Art because it fits his definition? Does this mean O Magazine and US Weekly are pieces of Art too? I do consider Playboy Art however.

"To my knowledge, no one in or out of the field has ever been able to cite a game worthy of comparison with the great dramatists, poets, filmmakers, novelists and composers."

So what you're saying Rog is that games don't have a Steven Speilberg or a Billy Shakespeare or a Snoop Dog? I hate to agree with you but you're right. We don't have anyone who can consistently create that visceral emotional experience...at least not yet. Games are getting closer to that and depending on who you talk to (Final Fantasy and Hideo Kojima fans for example) some would say we are already there. As gaming emerges from its infancy, the opportunties for a different type of story telling combined with the vast visual improvements will gradually attract the types of creative minds that normally flock to film and creative writing schools. Gaming is such a new medium with so much potential that its only a matter of time before it has its own Ernest Hemingway or George Lucas.

"That a game can aspire to artistic importance as a visual experience, I accept. But for most gamers, video games represent a loss of those precious hours we have available to make ourselves more cultured, civilized and empathetic."

Ouch! Now you're hitting below the belt. Yes, "Schindlers List" contains a powerful message and "Where the Red Fern Grows" made me cry as a boy (I'm secure enough in my manhood to admit it) but did anyone become more cultured or civilized watching "Police Academy: Mission to Moscow" or the Sly Stallone arm wrestling flick "Over the Top"? No, in fact I think the world's overall I.Q. dropped 20 points thanks to those duds. And honestly, what wastes more time than watching TV? Can I get the 46 hours of "Knight Rider" I watched in the 80's back? The argument that video games are just a waste of time really chaps my hide.

I look at it like this, the human brain can't be on all the time, sometimes it just needs a break. So what do we do? Veg out in front of the tube, listen to some tunes, shoot some baskets...play a video game. Playing games can be therapy for your melon, just like those other things. Saying gaming is a waste of precious time just screams ignorance.

Let me conclude with a little story. Two years ago my wife and I spent 2 weeks in Italy. The Misses was an Art History major in college so about a million museums were on the agenda. In Florence I stood in front of the statue of David. I was completely awestruck. I was amazed that a human being could make such a thing. I'd seen pictures of it before but standing in front of it gave me a true appreciation for it.

Here in town I'm also very close to an artist who produces colorful, yet crude drawings that always draw an emotional response - my 6-year old daughter. About a year ago she moved from drawing heads with legs and arms sticking out of them to drawing people with actual bodies. In her drawings of me, I even have curly hair and glasses. Its quite touching, at least from my perspective.

And that's my point. Art is subjective. As a father, my daughter's drawings are Art. To someone else, they're just a goofy drawing a little girl made of some guy with a giant head. Art, like beauty is in the eye of the beholder and trying to agree on what is Art and what is not Art is like trying to get a Democrat and Republican to agree. It just ain't going to happen.

For me (and many other gamers) video games are beautiful works of interactive art. What they're defined as by others really doesn't matter. When it comes right down to it as long as games continue to give us the experience that fulfills whatever need it fulfills, why should it.

terry.terrones@gazette.com

3 comments:

Anonymous said...

GREAT stuff, Terry! Couldn't have worded it any better myself. Kudos!

Anonymous said...

Ebert's point with which I agree most is the last bit, and you touched on it as well. Like any other art form, video games can be great - I consider Final Fantasy VII to be among the strongest narratives, beginning to end, I've ever encountered.
However, even as we get more and more advanced narrative games (which is itself a debatable statement), the non-art titles proliferate and get even more insidious. The biggest offenders are sports and racing games. I understand that to some extent infinite replayability = value for money, but I would hate to calculate how many hours I've spent playing Tiger Woods PGA Tour 200X just to get fake trophies.
Basically, it's those titles, which are practically as addictive and dangerous as crack, that make me want to turn away from games altogether. On my deathbed, I may think "I'm sure glad I played FF7," but probably not "I'm glad I spent every spare minute for four months getting 100% on Gran Turismo 4."

Terry "coloradojoe" Terrones said...

You're right. They're are games that are just filler but like every other art form, games have their own version of American Idol or Deuce Bigalo: European Gigolo. I think that comes with all art forms. Some stuff just appeals to the masses.