Thursday, May 20, 2010

Are Video Games an Art Form?

I know I'm a little late to this party, but I've been busy. I've been mulling this topic over in my head for a while, too, and now I just feel the need to get it out on virtual paper.

Roger Ebert, some time ago, made the statement that video games could never be art. In response to this, Kellee Santiago of thatgamecompany gave a talk at a TEDxUSC event taking the opposing view. Ebert, unusually, felt the need to respond to that.

As usual on the Internets, a shitstorm arose in the gaming community and everyone from Gabe & Tycho at Penny Arcade to G4 TV's Adam Sessler to "Yahtzee" Croshaw have posted responses. Responses have ranged from outraged disagreement with Mr. Ebert to agreement on certain points and others basically wondering why anyone gives a rat's ass.

Well, I certainly don't kid myself that I belong in company of those people above, but I still have my opinions. For what it's worth, here they are:

First off, we sort of have to define just what art is. Andy Warhol's quip about most Americans thinking it's a man's name notwithstanding, I think art can be appreciated and defined by anyone ... but people will always have their disagreements about that definition. I think of art as a process (or product of that process) of arranging elements (whether visual or auditory, or whatever) in order to elicit an emotional or sensual response in an audience. I believe art can be the work of one individual or of a collaborative process.

Most importantly, though, we need to remember that whether something is art or not, does NOT determine its quality or value. There is good art and there is bad art.

Let's take one of my favorite paintings as an example: Nighthawks, by Edward Hopper. (I'm sure you know the painting, even if you don't recognize the name. Just do a Google Image Search.) I think pretty much everyone would agree that this is an example of art. Now, take the crayon etchings of a 2-year old that's up on the refrigerator of a typical middle-American home. Very few people would argue that the child's art is objectively the better of these two works. (Some might argue over purity of expression, or some such, but I'm not going there.) Most people would also consider both of these works an art form.

Similarly, the prehistoric etchings on cave walls have a certain beauty in their lines and are very expressive, but the objective technical quality doesn't compare to Leonardo Da Vinci's work. And furthermore, take a look at different forms and styles like the surrealism of Magritte or Picasso's cubism. These are all art. So is the spoof of Nighthawks featuring Elvis and Marilyn Monroe and James Dean. What about the Velvet Elvises and Dogs Playing Poker and the Unicorns with Rainbows being sold out of a van on the corner? I think most people would consider those art. Mostly bad art, yes, but art nonetheless.

I believe most people consider the act of storytelling to be an art, as well. Storytelling can take many forms: verbal communication or sign language, drama (stage & screen), literature, or sequential imagery (comics). And once you move from someone's individual vision, you're moving into collaborative art.

Mr. Ebert says he tends "... to think of art as usually the creation of one artist." I'm not sure why he brought this up, because he almost immediately shoots the concept down by providing examples of collaborative art: a cathedral, a tribal dance - though he goes on to claim that the dance is made up of individual choreographers. "Everybody didn't start dancing all at once." I find it odd that he neglected the most obvious form of collaborative art in our modern society - the field in which he works professionally: Film. Modern film is a collaborative art. Not everyone who works on a film is an artist - there are technical people and all sorts of behind-the-scenes workers involved - but there are many artists involved: writers, directors, actors, designers of props and sets. The end result of their efforts, both artists and non-artists alike - is a film - which I think most people, Mr. Ebert included, would consider a work of art. Maybe not all films are really "art" in their purest sense. But I think the medium itself is an art form. Sure there are some really lousy films out there, but that doesn't mean they're not art. They're just bad art.

So, I think we can dismiss the idea that art must be the result of one artist's singular vision.

One of Mr. Ebert's biggest issues seems to be with the non-static nature of video games.

Our modern method of photography didn't exist 200 years or so ago. At one time it was a new technology. An argument could be made that photography isn't an art, because all you're doing is pointing a tool at something that already exists and pushing a button. You're just mechanically producing two-dimensional representation of something from the real world, using a technological tool. Of course, anyone who's seen and been moved by the photos of Ansel Adams or Alfred Stieglitz or even Mathew Brady's portraits and documentary photos of the American Civil War will disagree with this argument. Photography is definitely an art, and I think most people today would agree with me. At one time, however, that wouldn't have been the case.

Motion Pictures didn't exist until just over a hundred years ago, either. If photography is an art form, does the non-static nature of movies make them not art? I'm guessing that Mr. Ebert would agree that motion pictures are an art form. Maybe he wouldn't consider all films art, but he certainly wouldn't say, as a result, that motion pictures could never be art. Of course, once a film is printed and shown, the film itself is identical for all the audiences viewing it, so in that sense, motion pictures are static.

So there's an argument - since each "audience" or player of a video game experiences the game differently, the game cannot be art.

But what about live drama? Each performance is slightly different from each other performance, even if working from the same script and using the same props, actors, backdrops, etc. Even tougher to categorize is improvisational theater or performance art, or dance, or live music. These performances of art are never quite exactly the same, even in cases, such as choreography and music, where the artists rehearse repeatedly to make each performance as similar as possible. How about improvisational jazz, or "jam" sessions? Does the fact that the various musicians are reacting to one another (and even the audience response) in real time make the performance no longer art?

And what about the audience? I believe that art exists in stages - there's the artistic concept, the execution of the concept, the presentation to the audience and the audience reaction. All of these are parts of art. And all of these can exist within video games. A video game can certainly elicit an emotional response in its audience. Sometimes it's curiosity, or wonderment, or simply frustration with the game, but there is an emotional response. And some games - especially story-based games - can invest the player/audience with emotional reactions every bit as deep as a film or book or play.

Mr. Ebert also has issues with the fact that one can win or lose a game. As he admits he has never played a video game, I will cut him some slack for such an ignorant statement. (Though I have to wonder why a person with pretty much zero knowledge on a subject, would feel the need to offer opinions on it without exposing himself to it at least a little bit!) I have played games where there is no win or lose state. Take The Sims for example. That game is simply a simulation. Sure there are goals within it, but even if you fail at them, the game just keeps moving along, and the story you're creating within it doesn't stop, either. I've also played games where, even though player death is possible, you get to re-load and continue the story. So even though there may be multiple fits and starts in the story line, I know, as long as I keep playing, I will eventually get to witness the whole tale unfold. Prime examples of this include BioWare's CRPG games, such as Mass Effect or Dragon Age. These games tell involving stories, that keep the player playing just to see the tale unfold - these are stories to rival or even exceed many of the stories told in to-day's cinemas.

Just as an example: when you watch a movie that involves the main character being faced with acts of brutality, you find yourself hoping that the hero manages to overcome adversity and put an end to the situation. In Mass Effect 2, there is a scene on a penal ship where there are some nasty and abusive activities going on. As a player I found myself disturbed by this and hoping that I would get a chance to right the wrongs being committed. Now, just because I have a certain amount of control of the character, and because I can chose, to some degree, the order in which certain events happen, does that artistically invalidate my response as an audience? I don't believe it does. My emotional response as a player was the same as it would have been watching the same scene in a movie, or reading it in a book. The only difference is that there is a certain interactivity involved. This is called audience participation, and it certainly doesn't invalidate the artistic merits of a live theater performance or improvisational theater. When the Blue Man Group interacts with its audience, it changes the performance. Does that suddenly mean the whole endeavor is no longer art? Of course not!

I think Mr. Ebert just can't get his head around the fact that video games are a new, interactive art form. It's a form that is just too different, and too outside his realm of experience for him to see the artistic merits within it.

Does that mean all video games are art? No, probably not. Just as maybe not all photos are art, and maybe not all motion pictures are art. I wouldn't call Tetris a work of art, necessarily. It's a clever and addicting game, but probably not art. I would say most strategy games aren't art. They're more akin to board games - though there can certainly be artistic elements within both.

But some games are art. And that's where I have trouble with Mr. Ebert's statement. It's just such a dismissive, blanket declaration to say that video games can never be art. And coming from a man who has never played a video game, it comes across as disingenuous.

I don't think that's his intent, though. I think it's simply a case of an opinion borne of ignorance.


  1. Very nicely argued. And I agree with all but one thing.

    Tetris is TOTALLY ART. Are you kidding me? The blocks dropping, those ever growing walls. Wow! Art and completely breathtaking art at that! There should be a old school Game Boy nailed up to MoMA with a never ending game going.

  2. I don't know ... the case could certainly be made, and I might even be persuaded to buy into it. I guess it just depends on where you draw the line.

    Tetris is certainly brilliant, and it's an entertaining experience. It inspires the puzzle-solving part of the brain. But it doesn't really evoke any kind of emotional response in me. Same with Pac-Man or Super Mario Bros. or Defender. I love those games, and the creators of them should be lauded and celebrated, but I don't know they're quite art. I guess I would say they're in a gray area ... or maybe they're just a different kind of art.

    The term ART is so subjective, anyway. And sometimes it almost seems loaded. I can see why someone would say that those games are art, though. I just think that it's easier to make the case in more complex story-based games.

    Either way, I think Roger Ebert's being obtuse. (I can't help but wonder whether he's doing it intentionally.)

    Thanks for posting!