video games as art

Link from jaylake: Roger Ebert on why video games can never be art.

I’ve got a lot of respect for Ebert, but in this instance I think he fails signally to construct a rigorous argument for his point, even as he’s taking apart Santiago for the same failure.

I could go through his article responding line by line, but that would produce an incredibly long and rambling post, so I’ll try to just hit the central points. First off, he dings Santiago for “lacking a convincing definition of art.” Given that no one has yet managed to come up with a truly convincing definition, that’s a bit unfair. And indeed, he immediately follows that criticism by asking, “But is Plato’s any better?” Okay, so he recognizes the contentious nature of definitions in the first place — but then the rest of the paragraph is spent on his own definition, which at the end, boils down to taste. Art is the amazing stuff. Everything else is . . . something else.

He clearly means “art” as a category of quality, rather than anything structurally defined. Which is an approach I fundamentally disagree with. To pick the simplest way of pointing out the flaw of that argument: Ebert says video games aren’t art (and won’t be) because none of the examples he’s seen impress him. But I guarantee you there are movies that do impress him which would bore me stiff, while there are video games I consider artful. The message I take away from his argument is that my opinion doesn’t matter; only his does, and people who agree with him. And that’s why quality as the delimiter of “what’s art?” is a bad way to go.

Let me quote him on the topic of Braid, which is the only game mentioned in the article that I’ve played.

This is a game “that explores our own relationship with our past…you encounter enemies and collect puzzle pieces, but there’s one key difference…you can’t die.” You can go back in time and correct your mistakes. In chess, this is known as taking back a move, and negates the whole discipline of the game. Nor am I persuaded that I can learn about my own past by taking back my mistakes in a video game. She also admires a story told between the games levels, which exhibits prose on the level of a wordy fortune cookie.

Here we see the danger of opining on things you don’t know about — because in Braid, while you can turn back time to correct a mistake, that is not the only thing it’s used for. The mechanics are a great deal more complex than that, and far from “negating the whole discipline,” manipulating the conditions of time-reversal is the point of the game. A really good player could get through without ever undoing a mistake, but you’d still have to reverse time in order to win.

Now, I will grant him that the prose of the game-story elements is very much like a wordy fortune cookie; the writer was trying so hard to be Significant and Meaningful that he fell over into Pretentious instead. But there’s a moment near the end, where the time-reversal thing is used to make a point, that caused me and kniedzw and kurayami_hime (who were all gathered around, playing it semi-collaboratively) to all stare at the screen and say “holy shit!” Is it a moment that could have been done in a film instead? Yeah, mostly. But I do think it gained extra effect because the actions being reversed weren’t things we’d passively watched; we’d done them, we’d gone to the effort of figuring out how to do them.

Braid actually does have an underlying idea it’s exploring, which is one of the possible definitions of “art” that Ebert dismisses along the way. I think it’s kind of clumsy in that exploration — my WTF? reaction was so strong, I had to go look stuff up online to understand what the game was trying to do — but as I’ve already said, I don’t think quality is the right basis on which to define the category. It’s more useful, I believe, to talk about “art” as a class of activity, and specific examples as “bad art” or “good art.”

Where I come closest to agreeing with Ebert is where he waltzes close to, but doesn’t quite notice, the hybrid nature of games (whether video or otherwise). As a genre, they marry the worlds of goal-oriented behavior — here are the rules; this is how you win — and storytelling. Which isn’t quite the word I want; it’s more than just narrative, it’s sensory experience and exploration and other things, but I can’t think of another word that would encapsulate all of that for me. Maybe what I mean is art; if I tried to propose my own personal definition, it would probably come closest to the Wikipedia definition Ebert quotes: “Art is the process of deliberately arranging elements in a way that appeals to the senses or emotions.” The more goal-oriented end of the game spectrum would, therefore, probably fall out as “not art” in my eyes; football and chess and Bejeweled can be fun and even amazing, but when they appeal to my emotions, it’s as a byproduct of their actual purpose, rather than the purpose itself. A long pass happens in football for tactical reasons, not aesthetic ones. But Braid very much wants to make a sensory/emotional appeal, and so does Dragon Age, and pretty much any game that deliberately builds in narrative elements.

I suspect that, if I were to show Ebert Dragon Age, he would at least grant that its narrative elements are in the category of “could be art.” As in, stories can be art, and this is a story, even if it doesn’t impress him enough to earn his quality-based label. Approaching it that way, though — extracting the recognized artistic element and evaluating it separately from the whole — is a fundamental misunderstanding of video games. I may have speculated on how you could turn Dragon Age into a movie, but when you get down to it, a well-done game deliberately implicates the player in its narrative. You don’t just sit there and watch story happen, then go back to killing things; you make choices that shape the way the story goes. And if it’s done well enough, that produces an emotional reaction: I actively felt bad when I sided with the werewolves in the Brecilian Forest, and only followed through to get the achievement before reverting to a previous save and making a different choice.

No, video games haven’t yet produced a Michelangelo. They’re in their infancy, though. Ebert’s little trick with the cave paintings, arguing that instead of being primitive beginnings, they’re just the earliest examples we have of a more-developed form, doesn’t prove what he thinks it does. Video games are still in their infancy — or maybe their toddler years — and still have the potential to grow. They may not be mature enough yet to earn his bestowal of the title “art,” but I don’t agree that his authority as a cultural gatekeeper means he’s right that they are not and never will be an artistic form. In this instance, sorry to say, I think he’s just being a curmudgeon.

0 Responses to “video games as art”

  1. drydem

    I’m working on a book that argues that games are more like folk art than ‘high’ art, so this is something I’ve been thinking about a lot.
    I think one of the things that Ebert misses in his deconstruction of goals is that goals are one of the key aspects of narrative. Are there not goals in any literary work with a plot? The only difference is a shift in the concept of sympathy, instead of imagining Frodo’s struggle to carry the ring into Mordor, you are presented with an interactive scenario that provides a sympathetic link to the struggle. Have these reached the technical proficiency of film-making? not on the whole. But as interactivity increases, the chances of creating art increase.
    I think one of the places the argument Ebert is countering falls down is in pointing out the best movie of 1902. Sure, La Voyage dans la Lune is phenomenally beautiful for a young medium. Let’s compare it to another popular film of the year. Uncle Josh goes to a Moving Picture Show. Is this seriously ‘art’ by Ebert’s standards? I think we have to put Ebert in the same category as Chaucer’s critics, people who thought literature in the vernacular could never be artistic. We can put him in the same category as Cervantes’ critics, people who thought that literature in prose could never be artistic. We can put him in the same category as Stravinsky’s critics, who thought that a ballet about primitive subjects could never be artistic. Ultimately, wrong.

    • drydem

      actually, to follow up with one final aspect. What will finally make video games art is when they actually realize the potential of interactivity in narrative on a larger scale.

    • Marie Brennan

      I think there’s a difference between narrative goals and game goals, in that the former applies to the characters within the narrative and the latter applies to the player of the game. Frodo’s goal may be to get the ring to Mordor, but that isn’t my goal in reading the book, nor even Tolkien’s goal in writing it. I see those latter two things are much more nebulous and multifaceted than they would be in, say, a chess game. “Capture or neutralize the other player’s king” is a far more specific goal than “tell/experience a meaningful story.”

      I would guess that Uncle Josh goes to a Moving Picture Show is not art by Ebert’s definition, no. Because it doesn’t impress him the way the other one does. But I obviously think it’s thoroughly nonsensical to say “some movies are art and some are not.” (And therefore equal nonsense to say “video games can never be art because there are no current video games that qualify as art.”)

      You’re absolutely right, though, about interactivity and narrative — in fact, my original post almost went off on a tangent about how I think it’s our increasingly sophisticated toolkit for responding to player choice that is making video games more complex and meaningful. At present, I far prefer tabletop and LARP games to anything computer-based for the precise reason that the former can adapt to the players’ choices in ways the latter cannot: a video game won’t permit me to make a choice it hasn’t been coded for. The day we can respond to the Giant’s Drink by knocking over the cups and murdering the giant, the world of gaming will really open up.

      • drydem

        I don’t think narrative goals are the same, but part of the emotional experience of art is the dramatic tension of unfulfilled goals. Part of the point of drama is the catharsis of resolved tension which relies on doubt about the resolution of character goals.

        • Marie Brennan

          I should clarify: by “game goals” above, I meant non-narrative games, which is why I went with chess in the latter half of the paragraph. My interaction with The Lord of the Rings is not narrowly goal-oriented the way my interaction with a chessboard is. Undoubtedly I feel dramatic tension and catharsis wrt the goals of the characters when I’m reading a book, and I can also feel those things in a narrative game (perhaps more strongly, because of the way interactivity facilitates my identification with the protagonist). But if you took the LotR board game and totally divorced it from its narrative context (which I will otherwise bring to my experience of play), then you end up with something more in the vein of chess. And I find that to be a very different experience than a game which hybridizes goal-seeking activity with narrative.

  2. nojojojo

    Actually, I think video games have produced a Michaelangelo — or three. Just not American games. I haven’t seen one of those that’s impressed me; they’re too consciously commercial to even try to be art. But a number of Japanese games have played with concepts in a “damn the investors, full creativity ahead” way that to me, can’t be anything but art. I would include:

    -Shadow of the Colossus (sequel to Ico, but only in a whiff of plot; in every other way it’s a very different game)
    -Okami (which even uses ukiyo-e as its basis)
    -Parappa the Rappa (arguably the first musical game, way predating Rock Band, etc.)
    -A recent one I haven’t played yet but very much want to: Flower.

    Scratch that — there’s a few Western games I would recommend, but nothing on a console. On the PC, though, was the venerable Myst franchise, offhand. I’ve seen a few other PC games that might qualify, but I have to admit I haven’t played many PC games, so can’t recommend much here.

    • Marie Brennan

      Flower actually gets mentioned in Ebert’s piece, and Santiago’s speech:
      A run-down city apartment has a single flower on the sill, which leads the player into a natural landscape. The game is “about trying to find a balance between elements of urban and the natural.” Nothing she shows from this game seemed of more than decorative interest on the level of a greeting card. Is the game scored? She doesn’t say. Do you win if you’re the first to find the balance between the urban and the natural? Can you control the flower? Does the game know what the ideal balance is?
      In this case, he apparently disqualifies it because it doesn’t fit his narrow definition of a “game.” In other words, he continues to ignore anything that might undermine his conclusion.

      I haven’t played many video games at all; my preference is for the in-person interaction of tabletop or LARP. But most of the few I’ve played have been PC-based, and yeah, I’ve enjoyed them a great deal: at least on the level of a decent novel, and sometimes more than that, because of the way they involve me in the narrative.

    • coraa

      I thoroughly agree; Ico/Shadow of the Colossus and Okami are art by any definition I can think of.

      And while the various Square Enix and Atlus franchises are not quite to that level, they are often rollicking good stories and interesting and sometimes inventive gameplay.

      There are a lot of fascinating things being done in Japanese console RPGs.

    • chibicharibdys

      How about Portal? I think that’s a really well-done narrative that, sure, could be a fine short movie, but the ways in which it’s particularily effective are as a second-person narrative. It’s not even so much the relationship between the main character and the antagonist as it is between the player and the antagonist, and that’s a thing that can be done in video games that can’t really in movies.

      Thirding Ico/Shadow of the Colossus. Okami is beautiful.

  3. gollumgollum

    He’d already lost me, but this made me laugh (rather derisively):

    I allow Sangtiago the last word. Toward the end of her presentation, she shows a visual with six circles, which represent, I gather, the components now forming for her brave new world of video games as art. The circles are labeled: Development, Finance, Publishing, Marketing, Education, and Executive Management. I rest my case.

    …What does he think movie studios do? I mean, there’s a studio out there that is only greenlighting remakes right now, because he knows they’ll sell. Some of the greatest movies of all time were made with the bottom line in mind from start to finish, and representatives of every single one of those categories had their hands in them. He’s not only being naive and curmudgeonly about video games, but he’s also got a very idealistic view of movies, too.

    • Marie Brennan

      I doubt his view of movies would be that idealistic if they were the focus of his discussion. But in his rush to dismiss video games, yeah, he sweeps under the rug all the questions his arguments raise about movies-as-art, and the ways in which he’s being more than a little hypocritical.

  4. toddalcott

    I like Ebert a lot, but I don’t know why he insists on making judgments about things he doesn’t understand.

    The cave paintings aren’t the right example — Train Arriving at a Station is a better example, an early “movie” that contains all the elements of Citizen Kane, just not developed to any high degree. I have no doubt that gaming will suppant TV, just as TV supplanted film, just as film supplanted theater.

    • Anonymous

      Art forms don’t supplant other art forms; they may wax and wane in relative popularity, they may supplement one another, they may individually evolve so that oral storytelling is now largely an event around childhood campfires instead of a nightly/weekly event for adults. Or, perhaps, in college lecture halls and at management conferences… but nobody sees that as oral storytelling.

      And this is where Ebert has lost credibility with me, and did so over a decade ago when he lost his other half (Gene Siskel). His critical acumen — and, sadly, his ability to understand the truly new — has steadily diminished since.

    • unforth

      “I have no doubt that gaming will suppant TV, just as TV supplanted film, just as film supplanted theater.”

      I had a knee-jerk VERY negative reaction to this statement. Rather than rant, though, I’m going to ask: what was your thinking in making it?

      It’s just that, from my point of view, supplant suggests the replacement of the previous form, and I don’t think a case could be made that either film or theater have been “replaced.” Maybe that’s just my biases as a theater loving New York City native, though, so before I argue a lot, I’d rather here clarification of what you meant. 🙂 (if you don’t mind a potentially lively discussion, that is – if you’d rather not bother, that’s fine too…)

    • Marie Brennan

      Gotta ditto what the others said — I don’t think any of the art forms you name have been supplanted. Eclipsed, perhaps; that happens all the time. And yeah, I wouldn’t be surprised if gaming turns out to be the #1 form of entertainment for a while.

  5. unforth

    Preface: I’m exhausted. I had a really long day yesterday. I don’t have the patience to read Eberts article, so I’m not going to, period. However, there are a few things you bring up that spawned some thoughts in my brain, so I am gonna talk to them each briefly.

    1. The interactivity alone cannot remove video games from being art; all forms of art are inherently interactive, and how we treat them greatly affects how we perceive them. When I pick up a “classic” book because I have to read it for class, and I hate it, is that because it was bad, or because of the conditions under which I perceived it? I hate Dr. Zhivago, because I had to watch in school. Is it a bad movie? I think it’s terrible, but I wasn’t exactly “objective” – and from what I saw when I attempted to read Ebert’s article, neither was he; in the first few paragraphs he made it clear that he’s prepared to approach any video game he as shown with the basic assumption “I will see a way in which this cannot possibly be art.” That’s exactly how I feel about modern art, and sure enough, when I go to modern art exhibits, I almost never find anything that I think is at all worthy of artistic merit. However, a lot of people would vociferously disagree with me: what counts as art is a matter of taste. Period. Thus, it behooves us to widen the field as much as we feel comfortable doing, and let as much into the fold as can reasonably be allowed, because art – in it’s way – belongs to all of us.

    2. I’m not really one for movies, theater or books as art. I generally prefer my art hanging up on a wall in a museum (or, for that matter, in my apartment…). (for those who don’t know me, I’m an art collector; I’ve spent as much as $5k for a piece of canvas with some oil slathered on it…). I love Hamlet with an undying passion, but I don’t generally categorize it as art. That’s my own narrow definition, fine. However, if Ebert can use HIS narrow defintion, I can employ mine to defend video games. Every once in a while, I will find a section of a movie or a book that I feel transcends: that moves me on so many levels that I can just watch it over and over again, independent of it’s context, just for beautiful and stirring it is. One that probably most people here have seen? The march of the Ents in Two Towers. God, I could just put that 5 minute sequence on repeat. Actually, the whole last hour and a half or so of that movie (extended version). 🙂 To cite one that involves fewer special effects (because the effects could, in theory, push this into a definition of art that I find more palatable): ….actually, I can’t think of one right now, but I know there are some. (argument epic fail! 😉 ). Or, one from a book: there’s a passage in “The Portrait of Dorian Gray” that I absolutely love (I’d quote it, but it’s about a page long).

    Off the top of my head, I can think of two video games that have sections that I treat in this exact same way: Final Fantasy 9 and Final Fantasy 10. In both of these games, I’ve played through the first hour or so repeatedly, not because the events are so cool, but because the opening cinema animations are so beautiful that I can just happily watch them over and over again: they are, imo, masterpieces of animation choreographed to music, tied together by my interaction with the game (though, being FF games, a trained monkey hitting the buttons could almost certainly have forced the cinemas to take place just by sheer chance, given enough time – don’t get me wrong, I love FF games, but…yeah… 🙂 ).

    • Marie Brennan

      The interactivity alone cannot remove video games from being art

      I don’t think it does; if Ebert thinks that, he didn’t say so. Having said that, I believe it’s worthwhile to distinguish between the basic interactivity you describe (everything, art or otherwise, is filtered by individual perception) and the kind of interactivity games provide (where the fundamental structure of the work is shaped by the individual’s choices).

  6. unforth

    Have I played an entire game that I thought was art? No. (actually, maybe) But then, I don’t generally personally categorize movies or books as art too. People have cited a few. I’ve played two of those cited: Ico and Parrappa the Rapper. I found Ico virtually unplayable, I hated it completely, and though it was pretty to look at, I can’t personally entertain the notion that a game that I loathed to the extent that I gave up playing it after a couple hours can qualify as art: for the ENTIRE game to be art, it has to meld the interactive game play with the artistic elemnts. And I love Parappa, have played it through many times, but to me it’s a Saturday morning cartoon. I’m not sure why Parappa was included, actually, but if it has something to do with cell shading, I could also toss Sly Cooper out there (which is a very pretty game to look at, at least). But, like I said, I don’t think that most modern art is art either – my opinion doesn’t make it not art. Which, as I said, seems to be what Ebert missed completely.

    Ah, but after saying I hadn’t played a game I thought was art? I actually did have one spring to mind and say, “hey, what about me?” That game? Prince of Persia: Sands of Time. This game was pretty to look at, fun to play, excellently acted, and had a satisfying story. I think that if I thought of movies as art, I’d almost have to think of PoP as art, too.

    Some side notes:
    “It’s more useful, I believe, to talk about “art” as a class of activity, and specific examples as “bad art” or “good art.”

    This is a very slippery slope – I’ve found very few things (nothing?) that EVERYONE can agree is “bad” or “good” – for all that I’m an avowed hater of post-modernism, I fear that we at least have to add (and possible only use) two other ways of defining specific examples: “art I like” and “art I don’t like” – when I look at a painting I don’t like, in my brain, I think, “god, what a terrible painting that is.” I often think this while some other museum goer is standing next to me, clearly fascinated by what I think is a piece of garbage that shouldn’t have been allowed in the same building as my beloved Rembrandts. I can’t, in clear conscience, call this bad art. But I can easily and loudly call it art that I don’t like at all and don’t think should be in the museum. 🙂

    So…I think this ended up disjointed, rambling, and a bit contradictory, but I’m just gonna go with it. 🙂 To sum up: I think that Ebert is being a close minded idiot. There are people who don’t feel movies are art, either. They’re wrong too – and Ebert would clearly feel that they are wrong. As much as it bugs me, I think a broad definition of art is much more serviceable in the modern era, and that we’d be better served to include too much rather than too little. Heck, I recently was labeling a set of pictures I took at MoMA. By definition, I only take pictures of the things I like. One of the paintings I liked included “bird excrement” as a medium. If that can be art? Anything can be art. I think the definition of art must include something about the ability of the movie, book, photograph, painting, sculpture, video game, tv show, song, whatever, to move the person looking, hearing, watching, interacting, etc. Cause whether Citizen Kane is art or not, I’ve never had one bit of interest in seeing it, but I can watch Titus play Blitzball while Other World is playing over and over and over again. (one of the main opening sequences of Final Fantasy 10, for those who don’t know.)

    • Anonymous

      Art _in_ game, game _as_ art

      Whoops! I was about to comment something along the line of “How can Ico and Colossus both be considered art and not also the Sands of Time trilogy??” But you sort of beat me to it. (I’ve played all five games, by the way; and incidentally I’ve been working my way through Flower and recently bought Okami, too. Before reading this I mean. {g})

      Coincidentally, the SoT trilogy also addresses the meaning of being able to go back and fix mistakes, though moreso in the 2nd and 3rd games than the first one. A lot of games deal with Big Conceptual Issues (including the Final Fantasy series, but also various Black Isle games like the Baldur’s Gate series and Planescape: Torment.)

      This opens up the question of art _in_ games, though. A gorgeous cut scene would seem to be visual art of film, _in_ a game, but that would that mean the game itself succeeds as art? The Ico/Shadow diptych, and the SoT trilogy, has a pervasive visual (and in the case of SoT audio) style, and one of the main elements invoked for gaming enjoyment is appreciation of the art style. So does that mean the game itself succeeds as art? Not sure, though it has to be closer than a cut-scene example in principle. (Note: a lot of people don’t much like the soundtrack to “The Warrior Within”, though, due to its Godsmack rock flavor. This was expressly chosen to help make a point that is developed in “The Two Thrones”, though, about the developing character of the Prince–despite the developers deciding not to use that musical style for the Dark Prince’s scenes in the 3rd game! {wry g})

      The Baldur’s Gate and Final Fantasy series generally stand as great examples of storytelling in games, and it’s clear that the authors (and game designers) were striving to engage the player as a gamer in aesthetic appreciation of the story. (Ditto Planescape.) This seems to be getting closer again to the principle of a game succeeding as art, since the game experience _as a game_ is now integral to the aesthetic experience: the player as a player is helping ‘create’ the story in conjunction with the game authors. (I don’t know if Bryn has played the BG series, but seeing as how she likes FF I’m pretty sure she’d like those, too–plus they’re co-op, though that gorches the story process somewhat.)

      For a game _as a game_ to be ‘art’ in regard to visual or audible aesthetics, wouldn’t that mean the player as a player has to be integral in helping create those aesthetics as part of the game process? Otherwise wouldn’t it be more accurate to say there is art _in_ the game, not that the game itself is succeeding (or failing) as an artistic endeavor?

      • Marie Brennan

        Re: Art _in_ game, game _as_ art

        See my reply just below — I agree there’s a difference between incorporating an existing art form, and establishing a new one.

    • Marie Brennan

      for the ENTIRE game to be art, it has to meld the interactive game play with the artistic elemnts

      I’d rephrase it slightly, myself; if the two aren’t integrated, then the game may be employing existing art forms (of the AV sort, though not specifically structured as movies or television eps), but it isn’t establishing a new art form in its own right. I do believe, however, that such a form can be established — and that’s a process that’s ongoing right now.

      re: bad art and good art — I certainly didn’t mean to suggest that was an unproblematic idea in the first place! But this is why I use the phrase “art form;” rather than treating “art” as a delineation of quality, I find it more useful to think of it as a category of activity. Rather than “this painting is art; that one isn’t,” I say painting is an art form, and then the argument can move on to the merits (or lack thereof) of an individual instance. 🙂

  7. pentane

    Art is, recursively, what people who judge art say is art.

    While I’ve never liked this arguement, I did have a discussion with my daughter’s notboyfriend and I talked about how I listen to music differently since I got sreious about Rock Band and he knew exactly what I was talking about when I said you can listen to music for simple enjoyment or as an artist.

    So maybe there is something to that circular arguement and I’ll just never get art.

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