Thursday, April 22, 2010
Are Video Games Art?
Revered film critic and all around awesome guy Roger Ebert has found himself in a bit of a maelstrom in recent days after concluding via his blog that video games are not, and will never be, "art". He cites a speech from a Kellee Santiago who first attempts to define art and then define the current crop of video games as the early "cave scratchings" for something that will inevitably evolve into an accepted art form. She concedes that no game has remotely approached the level of aesthetic appeal to the works of Michelangelo and Da Vinci, and doesn't bother to try and theorize what it will take for a video game to get there. Her point is, if you agree that there is artfulness in a medium, it stands to argue that one day, a masterpiece will be created within it.
To Ebert's credit, he is as thoughtful and tactful as ever, but I've never seen him as dismissive and curmudgeonly as he seems here, and it saddens me. His arguments that the presence of "rules" and the limited artistic vision in video games keep it forever from rising above the level of chess and Yahtzee. I agree that "rules" seem to be a handicap, but what artist is without them? How many writers buck conventions and decide to write sentences from right to left or omit punctuations marks? How many beautiful songs are devoid of structure and melody? Ebert goes on to argue that because you can "win" a game, it cannot be art, and if it cannot be won, it simply becomes a representation of a "story". This to me, is the curmudgeon Catch-22. You belie games for having rules and structure, but those that have none must be "homages" to greater art forms and somehow lacking. To be fair, the games that Santiago speaks of in her lecture are terrible examples of video games as art. A Grand Theft Auto style FPS is not a productive example, and Ebert is right to deride her assertion that it is.
It seems as though Roger Ebert's evaluation of art is a function of the handicaps that the artist had in creating it. Melies' "A Trip to the Moon" is infinitely more artistic than a video game because it was made over a hundred years ago with limited resources but boundless imagination? I'm not sure if he thinks video games are cranked out in a factory with a press of a button, but he doesn't seem to fathom the attention to detail and creativity that it takes to create a fully-realized digital world. This is surprising, as he knows more about film and the painstaking process of making a film than anyone could ever hope to know. Perhaps he believes that the presence of a "player" in a video game devalues it as an art form because art should stand on its own and this limits the amount of introspection and meaning one can draw from it. I would argue that the act of playing a game is no different than absorbing a work of art through your eyes, and that regardless of the art form, a human element is requisite for it to achieve any meaning.
For someone who plays no video games (except when SS "needs my eyes"), I am not writing this blog post as a jaded gamer, but simply as someone who is open-minded to the possibilities of a very new medium. In less than a generation, video games have evolved from Pong to this. For Ebert to definitively assert that video games can never dream of being an art form is more than just narrow-minded, it's unimaginative. Ebert is officially old.