Monday, July 12, 2010

RANDOM THOUGHT #3: Videogames As Art


Here begins what will likely be the first in a long series of posts where I winge myself inside out trying to articulate my positions on various controversial subjects. Said viewpoints have probably been articulated much better by smarter indivdiuals than I, but hey, it's MY random thoughts!

Are games art?

This question has been tossed around a lot in recent months- caused in large part, perhaps, by Roger Ebert's claim that games are not, and in fact cannot be, art. I'm reading from his re-affirmation of this belief from his blog on the Chicago Sun-Times site, found here, so please, follow along, and feel free to correct me if I misinterpret him.

He starts by going over a speech given by one Kellee Santiago, who Mr. Ebert tells us is "Bright, confident, persuasive. But she is mistaken." He recaps Santiago's TED speech, starting with her claim that videogames are like cave paintings- an early form of expression that is bound to evolve- however, she agrees with Ebert's point that "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." For the record, I agree with this too- in a way, which I will address in a later paragraph.

In his recap, Ebert makes an interesting point.

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

I heartily disagree. Does a book not have an ending? Does a movie not have objectives? I imagine that a movie with no rules, points, objectives, or an outcome would be rather boring. The point made about "an immersive game without points or rules" also strikes a minor chord. First of all, Mr. Ebert seems to be suggesting that an arty game must be an adaptation of a story, novel, play, dance, or film. What if, for example, someone who wrote a book (novel, play, etc.) wrote the story for a game? Does text become less artsy when applied to a game? Second, if one is trying to adapt, say, a novel, a play, dance, or film to a game, wouldn't the goal of such a game be to be a representation of said story? Also, I submit one game that has no rules, points, objectives, or outcomes that is not a representation of a story: Garry's Mod. The ultimate sandbox game. Player gets a set of tools, a series of props, and can do whatever he or she wants.

But trying to convince Mr. Ebert of a mistake (when, to be honest, there wasn't one made) is rather futile, especially considering that he's already recinded his position (sort of). He states in another blog entry that he was mistaken. Not in his belief that games are not art, but in stating his position on the matter. He states that "I should not have written that entry without being more familiar with the actual experience of video games." I agree with this point- arguing without experience is like trying to enter a gunfight without ammunition.

But, in the end, Mr. Ebert's remarks didn't hurt my feelings- and it shouldn't have hurt anybody's.

That's not to belittle Mr. Ebert- he's a fine man, and in many ways, a man I look up to. He certainly seems to have a slightly better grasp on reality when it comes to videogames than most his age. But what Mr. Ebert said was simply his opinion. As we were taught in elementary school, opinions and facts are two very different things. Facts can be proven wrong, while opinons cannot. I could say that I own an Xbox 360 as a fact, and that is provably incorrect. However, I could also say that it would be cool if I had an Xbox 360- my opinion. A PS3 gamer might disagree with me, but neither is wrong. We could both feel very strongly about it, but an opinion by definition cannot be wrong. There's also an additional road bump in proving Mr. Ebert wrong- Art, and its definition. It doesn't have one. I can pull open a dictionary and read a definition, but by Ebert's own admission, that carries no weight. My definition of art is different than Ebert's, his is diffrent than yours, yours is different than your neighbor, ad infinitum.

What does offend me is the comments thread in the aforementioned entry. Some- perhaps even most- respond very level-headedly, either agreeing with or making well-reasoned arguments against Mr. Ebert's point. However, some seem positively ashamed at his opinion, stating that they've lost faith in him, and so on. Losing faith in someone over something so trivial as gaming? In my opinion, Mr. Ebert is all the better a person for stating his unadulterated position and not backing down in the face of overwhelming backlash.

I suppose that, at some point, I'd ought to get to my opinion on the matter. My opinion is that games can be- but are not always- art. But to really understand my opinion, you need to know my view of art. Art, in my opinion, is anything that makes you feel. I look at a painting of a beautiful sunset, and I feel introspective. I read a detective novel, and I feel intruiged. I play a shooter and- well, that's a little more complicated.

Games as an art in the aestetic sense can be artistic for two reasons- plot and design. For an example of a game where the plot is artistic, I'd direct you to Mass Effect 2. The story follows a ragtag cast of characters trying to defeat a cosmic evil, and does a masterful job of showing how these people- ranging from a test-tube grown murder machine to a cop-turned-good-mecenary to a crippled pilot- interact with each other. For an example of a game with artistic design, I'd show you the free game "Coma". The plot is very simple, but the visuals are absolutely stunning. Were the artist for Coma to create a painting in the same style, would that be art? I think so.

As a semi-final point, I'd like to state that not being art isn't necessarily a bad thing. I know that I wouldn't want to be forced to watch arthouse films all day. There's something to be said for mindless catharsis, certainly. Don't get me wrong- I was absolutely engrossed by Mass Effect 2's story and loved every minute of it, but when I'm feeling down, there's few more effective ways to cheer myself up than firing up a game of Team Fortress 2 and roleplaying a giant Russian man with a minigun as big as I am.

In retrospect, I suppose my whole issue with Ebert's opinion of video games is that it seems to be biased against the game part. A novel is art, but a game script isn't? A painting is art, but a model for a game can't be? It seems as though he's saying games such as Braid or Flower aren't art because they're games (and he very well may be), and that seems to smack of elitism.

I'll probably come back and rewrite part of this post, if only because I'm writing it at 1:45 in the morning.

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