Sunday, April 18, 2010

"Video games can never be art": a case of mistaken identity

To apologize would be presumptuous, but to the curious, I've been busy earning money and haven't had the huge blocks of free time that allowed me to write for this blog so regularly during the past couple months.  In this brief span of time that I've allotted to video game theory, I need to economically and thoroughly respond to Roger Ebert's direct response to my previous post.  The first mistake he makes is calling me Kellee Santiago and saying that I delivered my argument at TED instead of writing it on Interactive Illuminatus.

The vital question that Ebert asks at the end of his post is, "Why are gamers so intensely concerned, anyway, that games be defined as art?"  Well, I can't speak for gamers, but most of the ones I've spoken with don't seem to view games as art.  They view them as diversion and sport, much as Ebert and most gaming developers view them.  The "gamer" community isn't known for backing efforts to classify their hobby as art, except to defend it against legislation that would make violent video games more difficult to purchase.  (Is that the answer you want, Ebert?)

So Ebert hasn't gotten a firm grasp of the variety of people interested in games--so what?  We can just assume he's talking to me, someone who wants games to be treated as a respected form of artistic expression, not because he's a "gamer," but because he's interested in art and the potential of interactive art works.  Therefore Ebert, my response is, "I'm concerned that games be defined as art because I want people to make better games."  Video games at the moment are trite, disposable, half-assed, and boring.  This is not because games have to be that way; it's because society views them as a novelty toys, so great creative minds are elsewhere.  I suspect this will change fairly rapidly whether Ebert approves of it or not.

Of course, my burning question is, "Why is Roger Ebert so intensely concerned, anyway, that games not be defined as art?"  Is he concerned about the "sanctity of art" the same way anti-gay marriage people are concerned about the "sanctity of marriage"?  Does he feel that if the "art" label is granted to certain video games, the art label on films will be a little less special?

An earlier post about the same subject sheds more light on Ebert's perspective:

"[Saying that video games could never be art] inspired a firestorm among gamers...Of course, I was asking for it.  Anything can be art.  Even a can of Campbell's soup.  What I should have said is that games could not be high art, as I understand it."

So the question is not really, "Can games be art?"  The question, to Ebert, is, "Can games be high art, as Roger Ebert understands it?"  Well, probably not, but then again, I don't know how Ebert understands high art.  Considering he has dedicated his life to an art form on the fairly low-brow end of the art spectrum, I imagine he has relatively low standards when it comes to letting things into his museum.  But this distinction between "high art" and "low brow" is pretty much like the distinction between "bad words" and "good words."  It's a sensibility handed down to us from ancient times that anything that the wealthy did that the poor didn't do is morally superior to what poor people did that the wealthy people didn't do.  Many people would say it's an outdated way of judging things, and I would agree.

I hope Ebert agrees with that, too, because it's an attitude that laughed at the idea of films being taken seriously as expression.  And, of course, just like Ebert does regarding games, critics of film (not film critics) have plenty of good arguments for keeping film out of the realm of artistic discussion.  Primarily, the argument Ebert himself gives about video games, "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 composers."  Obviously, take filmmakers off the list and put them in video games' camp and you'll find it hard to name a film that can seriously find a place among the pantheon of Greek tragedies and Renaissance sculpture.  These are works that survived hundreds or thousands of years.  They had the right stuff, and no film can claim that distinction.  Why?  Because the earliest films are about a hundred years old, and only film nuts like Ebert find any relevance in films that are more than sixty years old.

"High art" simply means "old art," and while the art forms that have survived thousands of years while others have passed by the wayside are definitely powerful and contain great works, there is nothing to suggest that somehow contemporary critics could have known the full potential of any of them when they were first being formed.  We're going to have to wait about four hundred more years to see if Citizen Kane can be ranked alongside the Sistine Chapel, and about five thousand years to see Godfather holds the same lasting appeal as Oedipus Rex.

Ironically, games actually have a much longer track record of being able to appeal to generation after generation.  I point to the game that was off-handedly and somewhat confusingly dismissed by both Mr. Ebert and Ms. Santiago: chess.   I have no idea why Kellee doesn't want to put chess in her camp (that's always a mistake), though it seems like she is merely admitting it hasn't been conventionally treated as art.  Ebert is more clear on his reason:

"One obvious difference between art and games is that you can win a game...Santiago might cite an immersive game without points or rules, but I would say 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."

Apparently Ebert's never been a part of a dance-off.  Of course, you should know that I agree with Ebert when he says that a game is something you must be able to win (or lose).  But to deny games the "art" label on that basis is nonsensical to me.  It's like saying a music lover saying that paintings aren't art because "you look at them instead of listening to them."  You can't "only experience" anything--you have to look at it, listen to it, smell it, etc.  Ebert seems to think that once you win a game once, you've grokked everything it has to offer.  As any chess player will tell you (and I'm going to be writing about in the future), that's simply not true.

Chess isn't merely one of the greatest games invented, it is also something that easily ranks up there with Shakespeare and Mozart when it comes to expression of the human condition and timeless aesthetic sensibilities.  It's not that chess can be viewed as a metaphor for so many things, it's that it is viewed as the best metaphor for so many things.  People aren't shoehorning meaning into chess, it arises organically out of the game itself.

Well, if chess isn't art and Death at a Funeral is (two thumbs-up), then I'll have more of whatever chess is, please.


Remy77077 said...

- and I'm grateful for more of whatever this post is, thanks. :)

I was thinking along similar lines to you as chess was glossed over.

Whilst I'm pretty firmly in the "I don't care how it's labelled" camp, this is the best take on this overdone topic I've read - and the most amusing. :)

Josh "Smokin Hot" said...

When I read Ebert's blog entry a couple of weeks ago, I was getting ready to write a big long counter-argument refuting everything he said, but then I realized that it would be pointless. Nothing will convince Ebert that video games can be art. Conversely, because I have experienced such strong emotional reactions to many different video games, Ebert cannot say anything that will convince me that video games are not art.

Which leads to the crucial point: Ebert has not experienced or played video games to any significant extent. He devotes a sizable chunk of his blog entry to delivering snide remarks about the games Kellee Santiago chose as representative works of video game art; but any of his readers can tell that Ebert has not played any of the games in question. He mocks and dismisses the concept each game presents, without ever experiencing them for himself.

As a result, Ebert's opinion should not be considered. It would be the same situation if he wrote a one-star review of a film he had never seen.

Ferguson said...

I agree that Ebert will not likely be won over by any arguments I make here, even if he happens by Interactive Illuminatus one day. I took maybe more shots at Ebert than I needed to, but ultimately I wrote this for the benefit of those who are on the fence, and clearly there are many. You and I, Josh, are in the distinct minority when it comes to video games qua expression.

So Ebert put out a pretty strong argument against thinking about video games as art, and I felt that I could lend a hand in the counter-argument so that people don't think that pro-video game people have nothing to say in response to Ebert's arguments.

I also think you're spot-on when you mention that Ebert clearly did not play any of the games. I didn't mention it myself because I'm not willing to hitch my wagon to any particular video games in any way. I don't think I could honestly provide one that I'd put up next to my favorite art, but then, like I said in the post, it's hard to find movies that will stack up to art, as well. Great works over hundreds or thousands of years old obviously have great universal appeal or we'd have never heard of them. But most people will get more out of the latest comic book movie than a timeless Greek tragedy, even if the comic book movie will be forgotten next year. To me, it's a question of utility, as I mentioned in The case for expression.