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Video Games, Art, and Roger Ebert

June 14, 2012

Art is something that is hard to define in general terms. It is something that was created to express some sort of thought or idea from the creator, and it is expressed through some sort of medium. As I said, hard to define. I often have found Tolstoy’s definition to be the best, as it ignores concepts of the beautiful and just gets down to brass tacks.

To Tolstoy, art exists so that a person may convey his feelings and emotions or ideals to another so that that person may experience them as truly as the artist themselves. Tolstoy, of course, would expand that societies use art for a variety of purposes, and that art should be used to champion moral causes, so on and so forth. Let’s set that aside since it doesn’t necessarily do much for today’s question.

The question of the day is deceivingly simple, are video games art?

I personally want to say yes. They are certainly a medium through which ideas are expressed, and a creator tries to have a person experience their own emotions or ideals. A majority of video games might not be particularly good art, if we are to follow Tolstoy’s system. If a video game doesn’t make you feel what the creator wanted you to feel, it’s sort of failed. Of course, my adherence to Tolstoy’s aesthetic opinions is pretty damn rare. If I recall, I was the only one in my Aesthetics course to even write on him or bring him up in class.

The larger issue is that many people say that video games are not art, or are not yet art. Some of them are the same sorts of people who still don’t believe film is art or the written word is art. For them art begins and ends with cave paintings. Some of them have valid points, and others just really don’t know what to make of video games because sometimes video games don’t know what to make of themselves.

If there’s one thing that can be agreed upon in the ‘Video Games as Art,’ issue though, it is that Roger Ebert is a well known opponent of the idea that video games are art. Whether or not Mr. Ebert really thinks this way is a question that we’ll explore as we go. The reason I bring up Roger Ebert is because through various comments he’s made, as well as the existence of his profession, he raises some interesting points.

The best place to really begin in dissecting the notion of video games as art is to take a step back and realize something about video games. They’re extremely young as a medium. Not just in the wide scope of human history, but even within our own fast paced society video games are still very young. Especially video games that are reaching a wider audience. Sure, we can argue that text-based games existed long before the video arcade, and that computer games were alive in the 1980s, but it’s only been in the past fifteen to twenty years that video games have had a far-reaching cultural impact.

My generation, or so, is the first generation to really grow up with video games. Yet even in my life time, video games have changed dramatically. I’ve seen something akin to four or five generations of consoles out of seven or eight? I’ve watched the power of computers increase so fast there was a time when a computer my family had bought for Christmas was nearly out-of-date by the time we opened the box. The idea of some sort of feedback through the controller was a pipe dream when I was a child, now it’s standard. Video games are changing more and more each day.

The reason I bring this up, is because when I think of Roger Ebert I’m reminded of the fact that he grew up in the fifties, and went to college in the early 60s. When he was 25, he began his professional career as a film critic. He grew up with film, yes. But he didn’t grow up with film like I grew up with video games. He grew up with film in the sense that children being born now will grow up with video games. Yes, there will always be advancements, but we’re only just now really cementing the ground work of video games. Over the past thirty years we’ve created our tropes, the things we expect from video games, and the way we produce them.

I’m sure that the video games made today, just as these things are really being codified and discussed, will look just as silly to gamers of the future as the flat shots of old war movies from the forties and fifties look today. Who knows, in the next forty years, over-the-shoulder cameras might be repurposed for something completely different from gritty shooters. Just like the flat angle shot has become standard in comedy films rather than serious shots aboard the bridge of a battleship.

The way I’ve experienced video games is the way that people experienced film throughout the early days of cinema. We marveled at film itself happening, and being made widely available. Then people began to experiment with film, and then came sound! Then people began to experiment with light and dark, and filters, and so on. Tropes were established, tropes were subverted and broken. Color came, and more filters, and more camera angles.

As this is going on, people are going back, and watching films like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and asking questions like, “But what does the towering desk of the bureaucrat mean visually? What does it tell us on its own?” They then began to turn their eyes to current cinema and ask questions borrowed from literary inquiry and theater. Slowly but surely a language of film developed, hobbled together from literature, and theater, and the minds of various directors and critics.

Video games are just now reaching this point.

The few legitimate video game critics that exist are trying to construct an actual language of video games. People like Yahtzee at the Escapist, and the whole crew of Extra Credits, sit around and ponder the question of how to judge video games as a whole. A video game goes beyond what it tells the player, and beyond what it allows the player to do. It is a large, heavily involved, experience to play a video game and we are still struggling with how to speak of it.

How can we critique something, how can we call it art or not, if we don’t have a voice?

Another fun analogy is thinking of craft beer versus wine. A lot of people are developing a taste for craft beer these days, but if pressed many of them will say something that suggests wine is a more complex drink. This isn’t the truth, but it seems that way because wine has centuries of language behind it. Vintners have discussed tannins, acidity, and so on for seemingly the whole of time. Craft Brewers in the United States have borrowed terms from old European manuscripts, and a couple of decades under their belts. If the average person doesn’t know that yeast affects taste in beer, then yeast doesn’t affect taste in beer.

But who cares about critical language, there are already shots being fired across the bow! We don’t have the time to let such things develop on their own, people need to know whether or not games are art right now. It doesn’t matter that just now kids are able to design their own games on an iOS platform, and attend prestigious institutions for degrees in game design and theory. In other words, we still haven’t even hit the crest of the video game industry’s Spielbergs and Coppolas. Are video games art or aren’t they? People are saying that I’m not an artist, and by Talos, that makes me pissed off!

Step one, who cares about what other people think, let the deriders deride and let’s continue on with trying to make a good product and culture.

Step two, back to reality.

If we really want to solve the question of whether or not games are art in an expedient way we can, as has been suggested by Mr. Ebert, just offer up a game that the game community universally considers art.

Of course, that very idea reveals much wider issues.

We don’t have a game that we universally consider art. The video game community is somewhat divided on the nature of its own art, or what makes a game a game or a story with some button pressing moments along the way. The merits of games are still being discussed and argued. Once again, we lack a critical language.

I could say, that games like Ico, Shadow of the Colossus, Portal, and Limbo are all art but I can’t necessarily say why. We have yet to say, “Well this game is better, because it expresses things to the player better because it does this.” We are still struggling to determine what this is. Furthermore, lacking critical language means that we lack critical associations.

The driving organizations within the video game industry are more focused on the industrial concepts. They’re business organizations focused on tracking sales data, demographics, and the like. Granted that sales data does help prove that video games aren’t trivial things for children. After all the ESA’s most recent report shows that the average player of video games is in their thirties. However, sales data doesn’t say whether or not a game is art.

MovieBob over at the Escapist once mused over the notion of a Video Game version of the Oscars. A big moment where developers, artists, critics, and so on, got together and choose to showcase the best of the best. The problem, of course, toward having a legitimate award show that celebrates the artistic values of video games is having that legitimizing group of developers, critics, and so on. The Academy, regardless of whether or not its skewed in its viewpoints, is still capable of legitimizing film in a way that no magazine or website can do for video games.

Furthermore, such an event might help turn the tide for video games as a whole. Right now the people who obsess over what this is, the thing that makes video games capable of expressing ideas and thoughts to the player, are involved in the indie side of the industry. They’re guys who are doing all the coding by themselves, balancing the game by testing it with friends, and their art director is sometimes their pet dog that they talk to now because making a game on their own has destroyed all of their actual human relationships. Triple-A developers might be more inclined to make a few “Oscar-worthy games,” if there was some sort of accolade to win. If there was prestige in making an artistic game, or if there was a profit to it, they would do it.

Currently though, it is the purview of people that live in rented houses or apartments that might as well be condemned with their entire development team. These guys take shifts on the bottom rungs of video game companies, or in the service industry, and use what little free time they have left to work on their own video games. They do this while also trying to engage the community and come to a further understanding of what makes video games art. Then their video games are bought by a small subset of people who like that sort of thing. People that are willing to take hits in some categories (normally graphics) for a good game that says something.

Still, let’s say a game appeared and it was universally agreed by the video game community to be art. Everyone who played it actually felt moved, and it clearly had the same affect that a good painting or film does. Such a game would be wrapped up in a package with a big bow, and a cake that has “Fuck You,” written on it and it’d be hand delivered to every naysayer like Roger Ebert.

Would they play it?

At some point Roger Ebert has said that there may be artistic games out there but he’s not going to play them. Ultimately, can you blame him? Even shorter games are several times the length of a film. Big budget games often take more time than reading a novel to complete. Some games don’t even derive their narrative from a set series of quests or levels that are completed in a certain amount of time but they allow the player to tell their own stories by playing against people from around the world until the servers sputter and die.

Even if people that didn’t play video games tried to play this artistic game, they might be confused by things that have become standard to gamers.

Why can’t I move with the arrow keys? What’s WASD? Why do red barrels explode but green barrels offer cover? What does binding it to my “hot keys,” mean?

There are video games in the world that are not intuitive, and somewhat exclusionary. Some of these games are even very good. This will always be the largest hurdle to get over for video games to be considered art. Part of what makes games unique is that the player takes a part in creating the art, in forging the story. Games are an interactive medium, and they go far beyond those shitty choose-your-own-adventure books.

To be moved by music or a painting you don’t need to know much about the process by which the piece was made. However, with video games you’ll need to know how to play them and have the time, which will always cut off their access from the general population. However, there is no requirement that art be accessible to all. After all, some people would argue that you can’t truly appreciate art unless you know about the processes by which it is made. In the case of video games, the processes that you need to know about, are the final process to complete the piece: playing it.

The largest step that we face to really understanding video games as art, is to begin grappling with them as they are. There are some great first steps being made, and in all honesty the people that deride our efforts as futile are a part of that process. As we all know, art comes from adversity, and if people don’t consider our art a form of art, then there’s a lot of obstacles in creating it.

As for Mr. Ebert, I think his feelings toward video games are in some ways correct, because people have yet to do what he’s asked; a game that is universally considered art by the video game community, and that he’s willing to play. The important thing to remember about him is that he fully well knows what he’s asking isn’t possible, because he’s not willing to play a video game. There are already too many good films to watch. What I’m saying is, that Roger Ebert is just sort of trolling at this point, he’s loving it, and frankly it gives us someone who we’ll never please to try and appease. That means, in theory, our work should only get better.

And trust me, video games will get better.

As the core of gamers becomes more interested in games that actually try to move them or express an idea, more games will be made to appeal to that market. Right now the Humble Indie Bundle is helping move games forward by leaps and bounds. Critics like Yahtzee, and theorists/developers like the people at Extra Credits, are currently helping to create the language the community needs to evaluate its work. Finally, the more that kids grow up wanting to express themselves through an interactive medium, just like kids grow up wanting to write music, or direct movies, the more we’re likely to see games that are art. Sure people will deride their creators decades later for selling out, but their original masterpieces will always be held in high esteem.

I believe that video games are an art form, and I think that given more time, it will become more apparent to the rest of the world.

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From → Opinions, Video Games

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