Games as Art

As always, the “Video Games are/aren’t Art” argument is in full swing, with Roger Ebert (seriously?) apparently as the newest celebrity to chime in. You can read his latest rant on the subject here if you haven’t already.

Ebert frames his blathering as a critique of a speech by Kellee Santiago of thatgamecompany in which she apparently says games are art, but agrees with Ebert’s original point of “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 poets” (apparently he holds the poets in extra high regard, worthy of the double mention). His most salient claim is that games are inherently separate from art because you can win a game but you can only experience art. He doesn’t support this with anything but applies it across the board to chess, basketball, maj jong, etc.

I disagree with both Ebert and Santiago on almost every point, but everything falls back to the definition of art, so let’s begin there.

Santiago goes with a Wikipedia definition (edit timestamp unknown):

“Art is the process of deliberately arranging elements in a way that appeals to the senses or emotions”.

She also says

“Art is a way of communicating ideas to an audience in a way that the audience finds engaging”.

Ebert takes Plato’s definition of art as the imitation of nature, extends it to mean improvement upon nature through the artist’s vision (he prefers art have one artist, but concedes to himself that multi-artist pieces can still be art… again totally unsupported), then tacks on the “art can’t be anything that can be won” part mentioned above.

I’m not sure where the definition of art became so convoluted. In my opinion, art is something that makes you think or feel. This includes the masterpieces, cave art, 4’33”, a starving dog, black square, etc, but equally includes an impassioned speech, a choreographed dance, a raked zen rock garden, an exceptional meal, a perfectly executed pass/shot/goal/step or a truly inspired play/move. You may not like it — in fact some art is created specifically to enrage or offend — but that doesn’t negate its existence as art.

Staying on topic, video games can be art on many different levels. Games like Shift turn the idea of a traditional level on its head (get it?). World of Warcraft can get you so attached to your digital accomplishments that you forget about the real world. Dwarf Fortress is one of the most feature-deep games you’ll ever play juxtaposed with a minimalist interface throwback to 1980. Canabalt makes entertainment out of a single button. Genetos is a shmup meta-commentary on shmups (I expect Ebert would be happy as a clam with a movie full of throwbacks to all the old influential directors and styles you suffer through in film class, but couldn’t give the time of day to Genetos). Infinity is a game that leverages procedural content so thoroughly that you literally have an entire galaxy to play in. Portal gets you to care about a box more than yourself; Karoshi Suicide Salaryman does just the opposite. Towlr is so incredibly simple that it is maddeningly difficult. All of these push some boundary or inspire you to think or feel something, despite most of them having a clear way to ‘win’.

Ebert’s only criticism seems to be the win condition — he even comments about an immersive game without points or rules (think Second Life), saying “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”.

This is the most inspired quote from Ebert’s article, although likely not for the reasons he intended. He touches the important part of art that he seems to be missing with his tunnel vision: the experience. The art of video games and everything else is in the experience. Without context, previously formed opinions, feelings, and memories art wouldn’t be able to carry its meaning (or intentional lack of meaning). Winning, like the end of a movie, isn’t the point – it is simply the motivation for the experience. I honestly cannot fathom how he critiques movies without this integral piece of understanding.

Ebert never makes a solid point, condemning video games as not-art because they can be won, because he doesn’t see a reason he would like them, or because, in his embarrassingly inexperienced opinion, they don’t compare to the masterworks of history. None of these things have anything to do with art — medium, personal taste, and quality simply cannot change something from being art. At every turn, his criticisms are awkward and uninspired. The acclaim awarded him by a passing generation, once a free pass to orate indiscriminately, now appears more like the oxygen tank that keeps him alive but means grandpa can’t go on the fun rides at the amusement park anymore.

Footnote: On Flower Ebert says, ‘Nothing … from this game seemed of more than decorative interest on the level of a greeting card’. Where the hell is he buying his greeting cards?

Article image:

Collin Green