Twitter exploded this morning with a variety of responses to Roger Ebert’s post this morning in the Chicago Sun-Times entitled “Video games can never be art“. Various folk have posted responses and twitter comments, but I saw a criticism that while Ebert’s post was detailed, nuanced, and provided good arguments, the responses failed to do the same. I hereby run the risk of adding to this pile-up of drivel.
I feel strongly about this subject because I truly believe that modern videogames are a medium which is able to produce art. Yes, I realize this is not the first time people have debated the subject. Apparently, it’s not settled yet.
I do not wish to quibble over definitions with either Ebert or Plato on what exactly art is nor do I wish to address Ebert’s befuddled depiction of gamers’ strong desire to have their choice of entertainment validated as art. However, I feel one thing does need to be cleared up before we address his main point and that is his tenacious hold to the belief that games must have a win-option.
He is right that games have rules, objectives, goals, even that they often have an outcome. But I do not think that any of these necessarily equals or necessitates a win-option. Civilization has win-options but you can continue to play the game after you’ve “won”. Dragon Age has win-options in a way but I would disagree with anyone who said play ended at that point. In fact, it seems new every time you play it. Other games certainly have winnings and endings. Super Mario for example. You beat Bowser and you have won. Of course, you can keep on playing. I know I did as a child with wonder as I looked at rows and rows of items having been giving to me for “beating the game”. Others have an infinite-like point system. Some of the early arcade games like Donkey Kong for example are still being “won” if you can call it that.
I realize that this does not at all contradict his point that games are not art, but I’m not finished. He goes on to claim that if you don’t win a game, you are merely experiencing a representation of some other kind of art – a story, a dance, a film, etc. This is entirely false. Certainly, you are experiencing a game in that you are viewing, interacting, hearing, understanding, questioning, wondering, etc. as you play it. It is not a representation of something else though. It is its own. It transcends those categories and is what we call a game. Perhaps as Justin McElroy noted, our terminology is faulty, but it is what we have and it is what Ebert was referencing. Yes, you experience games. No, they are not simply images of art. They are art.
Ebert goes on to speak of how he disagrees with Santiago’s point that “Art is a way of communicating ideas.” Judging from his response, his adjustment to that statement would be something like art is an avenue for viewers/readers/listeners/etc. to have their own ideas and create their own art. I think he has a valid point. Many artists certainly try to communicate with viewers but I don’t know that they are trying to communicate specific ideas nor that they end up communicating anything they had originally intended. Think Derrida and the infinite interpretations of a text. It is as if art comes out and becomes its own inspirational force.We see a painting or hear a piece of music and are driven to either paint or write in response or perhaps something entirely different. Can games do this? Yes. I of course have a rather personal claim to such if you’ve read anything else of mine over the last year, but I’m not unique in this practice of feeling the need to create after having been inspired by a game. Players create videos, stories, galleries, even cake because they’ve played something and want to respond or because they’ve experienced something and need to express it. Further, games are able to address ideas and problems and allow players to work out resolutions on their own. Dragon Age addresses concepts of racism, morality, justice, love, and more. It doesn’t spell them out and ask for a right or wrong answer. It gives us an experience (actually many experiences) and we are free to be inspired as we will.
Ebert: Art grows better the more it improves or alters nature through a passage through that which we call the artist’s soul or vision.
Going by his definition and assuming that developers have a soul (or some of them), can games do this? Can games improve or alter nature? I would use his own example against him – Braid. He judges it based on an assumption of its rules, namely that they are analagous to chess, but he is in fact quite wrong. A simple trip to another Wikipedia page would have told him this much. Braid does not simply let a player redo their actions if they mess up (that’s what Farmville cash is for .. to unwither your abandoned crops). Rather, it allows the player to examine the way we as humans view the process of time and interact with it. Not only do we redo actions, we have choices about the flow of time. We can see time not be all-powerful – that is, some objects will not be changed by time. One could write a great deal on this game if they gave it some thought after even a brief play-session. My point is this simple, independently-designed game alone alters and changes nature through the vision/soul of its creator. Does it improve it? That is for the player to decide.
Art is not a list that sometimes gets added to or perhaps I just do not have such an exclusive view of art as Ebert’s “greats”. Perhaps Braid or Flower or Dragon Age or anything else doesn’t get compared to Homer or Van Gogh. But it shouldn’t. It isn’t even the same medium of art. Nor is it a copy or an attempt to mimic masterpieces. Art isn’t the business of replicating art. It’s the business of creativity. It’s the business of viewing and experiencing and responding to reality in a way that makes us feel something “real”. If I can play Braid and see the world in a new way, if I can play this game and be inspired to ask questions about what terms like “yesterday” mean and “fate” and “finished”, if I can have this experience/reaction/inspiration out of playing a game, I am experiencing art. We may not have our Michelangelo yet, but that doesn’t mean we aren’t creating art. Even chicken scratchings on a wall can be art as Ebert himself so eloquently showed. A matter of taste – perhaps. If so, Ebert has successfully shown that his palate with respect to this medium is as yet uneducated.
As to his final point, I must agree. Santiago’s circles are circles of fail. Art is not the business of making a profit.