Are Video Games Art?

A long, long, time ago, on a computer far, far away, Roger Ebert wrote a lengthy piece claiming that Video games can never be art. Okay, so it wasn’t that long ago, but it stirred up quite a debate. Many people have weighed in and responded to Ebert, and I’ll link to several of them below, but I wish to start by explaining why I’m contributing my voice to this debate.

Yes, I am a gamer. In fact, my first two paid jobs were as a video game journalist, a job that any 16-year old with a penchant for writing would dream of having. But if you think this background in video games is why I am writing a response to Ebert, you’d be mistaken. No, I’m writing this because I don’t understand what Ebert’s definition of art is, and why he thinks video games “can never be” art. In this piece I attempt to examine that premise by exploring—among other things—video games in the context of “being art”.

In Ebert’s piece, well-written as one has come to expect from him, he iterates over a series of arguments that Kellee Santiago of That Game Company made during her TEDxUSC talk, Video Games Are Art—What’s Next? Ebert skillfully picks apart each argument Santiago makes, with the bravura of a skilled debater arguing with a six-year old child. I don’t mean to say that Santiago’s talk was poorly done or that her argumentation was on a basic level; what I mean is that Ebert treated Santiago’s talk as some kind of end-all, be-all definitive case that proves that video games are art. Santiago, on the other hand, has pointed out that her talk had a different purpose entirely. For her intended (primary) purpose of reaching out to a group outside of “the choir” of video game makers and reporters, Santiago spent too much time trying to prove video games are art; for her secondary purpose of rebutting Ebert’s original claim, she spent too little time on this. As a result, Ebert’s dissection comes across more as a series of potshots than one man’s explanation of his position.

To be clear, I don’t quite agree with the three games Santiago chose to make her argument with; Waco Resurrection offers an interesting take on the process of playing a video game, but as with her second example—Braid—any attempt to find a deeper, cultural significance in each game is a stretch. Santiago’s justification for each game’s inclusion is more suited for a presentation made for Venture Capitalists when looking for funding to start a new game company, and less as a means to entice Ebert to finally try playing a modern video game for a change.

In the afore-linked response by Santiago, she exhibits a much more balanced and mature position on this matter than the vitriolic, knee-jerk reaction of two otherwise respectable video game and philanthropist heroes; for one, she aptly points out that without a clarifying definition of “art” it is fruitless to discuss the matter seriously. So what definition should we harness in this debate? Wikipedia states it thus:

Art is the process or product of deliberately arranging elements in a way to affect the senses or emotions. It encompasses a diverse range of human activities, creations, and modes of expression, including music, literature, film, sculpture, and paintings.

I dare say that one day, it is likely that this discussion of ours is reduced to a debate between Wikipedia contributors on whether or not it is appropriate to add “video games” to that list, with the question at large being firmly settled on “yes, video games are art.” But I digress.

Wikipedia’s definition feels lacking for my personal taste; this couldn’t be more appropriate since the full definition of art is likely unique for every person. For me, though, I’d like to think that Art has something more than what’s described by Wikipedia; something of lasting significance and quality, be it cultural, personal or educational.

We all probably agree that comedy is a form of art, yet one which rarely produces works that truly become art. There are comedy skits or films that we consider art, but much of comedy is periodical, a trend. It has significance and quality at the time of creation, but oftentimes these values deteriorate over time, much like how jokes about Bill Clinton and “cigars” have virtually no comedic value anymore today.

PZ Myers chimes in and makes comparisons to sports and dance, opining that basketball is not art because the intent of it is the performance (of the players), whereas with a dance performance the intent is somehow artistic. This, I feel, is simplifying the matter too much, because to me an amazing basketball game can be art just fine. In fact, switching this point over to the world’s sport—football, or as Americans would say, soccer—makes the case even easier. Just look at some football highlights through the decades, and, if you have any appreciation for the sport at all, what you’ll see is not performance, it is art. Pure, unadulterated art. When you look closely at those sportsmen, you’ll see that they are taken over; not by a desire to perform well, but by a love for their craft so deep that what they create is art.

“But wait,” you might say, “those rare and individual moments do not represent the sport as a whole!” Truly, you are correct. But does Rembrandt’s The Night Watch represent all of painting as a an art form? Of course not; it just happens to be the case that paintings, like music that is written down in notes or a movie that is recorded onto film, are persistent in their state whereas other art works are but a fleeting moment. If captured on film, their beauty can be shared and enjoyed by others for millennia still to come, but by themselves they are a different, more present form of art.

Myers continues in an attempt to define art:

Art is a kind of distillation and representation of human experience, filtered through the minds of its creators. A great painting or poem is something that represents an idea or emotion, communicated through the skill of an artist, to make you see through his or her eyes for a moment. Computer games just don’t do that.

I don’t disagree with his statement at all, it is a beautiful explanation of what art is. But that last sentence proves not what it says on the tin, but rather, that PZ Myers has not explored the realm of video games much at all. Kellee Santiago’s example of her own company’s game, Flower, does pretty much exactly that. More powerfully, perhaps, is a somewhat obscure little game called Ico. This beautiful gem of a game tells the story of a young boy who gets banished to a mysterious castle for having horns. It is there that he meets a girl who cannot speak, a prisoner like himself. Together they embark on a long journey to navigate the treacherous hallways, chambers and gardens of the castle while fighting off a legion of shadow monsters, all for one simple yet meaningful thing: freedom.

Ico, in every aspect of the game, is “a kind of distillation and representation of human experience, filtered through the minds of its creators.” The only fundamental difference between it and, say, Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake, is that in Ico you get to participate. Participation, by the way, can be significant for various forms of art, not just video games. A painting can be photographed and its (digital or film) duplicate appreciated, but it’s a lesser experience. What of the Sistine Chapel? A virtual tour of it is no match, no match at all to the experience of having stood there, looking up, and being able to tell someone what it smells like and what the air inside feels like. You participate in that work of art together with every other visitor who makes the journey there; it has become part of what makes it such a phenomenal piece of art. You may not have any say in the painted ceiling itself, but this is no different than almost any video game; the player doesn’t get to decide the colors and textures of the game world, they only choose how they participate in it.

No team sits down to script out a video game with the intent of creating a tone poem in interactive visual displays that will make the player appreciate the play of sunlight on a lake, for instance.

Metroid Prime, Zelda: The Wind Waker, Ico, Flower… these and many other games do that. Just because games do more than one thing, doesn’t necessarily mean the creators didn’t intend for certain emotions or contemplations to be triggered by just a single, seemingly insignificant detail. As an aside, I really must thank PZ Myers, because all the points he brought up made me think back to so many artful video games, and relive them once more.

Myers says that video games will become art “when replaying the performance becomes something we find interesting,” to which I ask my fellow gamers to raise their hands if they’ve ever replayed a game. Imagine the hands of gamers worldwide rising up to the sky, PZ. Worse, some games even require the player to replay (parts of) the game in order to explore their full depth. Tri-Ace’s Star Ocean series is notoriously infuriating in this respect, asking the player to play through countless of game segments over and over, just to see all fourteen possible endings. Now, I’m not saying that the Star Ocean games are art because of that, I’m merely illustrating that games have had replay value since the dawn of gaming itself, and have, in fact, taken it further.

The reverse is also true; I cannot even begin to count the number of times I’ve wished that I could forget ever playing Xenogears or Final Fantasy VII, just so that I could play through it once more and experience being taken over by that complete sense of wonder and amazement as the story unfolds. To me, these games were amazing works of art that have influenced my life in ways far greater than almost any movie, musical work or painting ever has. To me.

Art is subjective

It’s undeniable that art is subjective, but that’s a good thing. To Ebert, video games will never be art—unless he starts playing some. To people like Kellee Santiago and myself, video games have been art since the days of Pong, and later classics like the Monkey Island series. The converse applies just the same; Jackson Pollock’s No. 5, 1948 is the most expensive painting ever sold, considered as fine modern art by countless of people. To me, it’s a big canvas with countless of splatters of paint resembling ink, ketchup and mustard. I’m not trying to dismiss the work as not being art, only that it doesn’t move or inspire me the way it moves or inspires other people.

Art comes in many different forms, and some are not as widely recognized as others. But art can be found in anything, anywhere. So why wouldn’t it be in video games, too? It certainly is there for the eye to see, the mind to appreciate and the heart to love, as far as I’m concerned. As I write this I’m listening to the Final Fantasy VII: Overclockers Remix album, a set of 45 tracks that remix the original tunes from the game’s official soundtrack. More love has been poured into this product, a free product no less, than gets put into many a work of art from the more traditional arts. The people who remixed these songs show such a deep appreciation for the many things that moved them while playing the game, how could any of it not be considered art? Is that not the very point of art? To move us? To inspire us? To connect with us on an emotional level?

Wikipedia certainly seems to think so. As does PZ Myers. Ebert, unfortunately, fails to give us any kind of definition of what art is to him. He loves movies, that much we know, but as he has said before, “Very few films are art”. Which ones are? He wouldn’t say.

You know what I consider art in film, Ebert’s favorite subject? Avatar. Not the movie itself, which progresses a largely unimaginative and predictable storyline, but the world created in it: Pandora. It is nothing short of a complete work of art, and it is the sole reason I will watch that movie again in the future.

Or what of Sin City, the dark thriller filled with more violence and cinematographic excellence than you can shake an angry white fist at? Art, in my book. I doubt that my mother, who cares little for violence and blood in movies, would appreciate the movie at all—but my world of art is not hers and vice versa. One man’s trash is another man’s treasure, and one man’s art is another man’s never-to-be-played video game.

I’ve come to the end of this piece only to conclude that I care very little about what Ebert thinks of video games, but I feel refreshed in my appreciation of art. I feel excited about having gone back into my memories of days long gone, reliving if for but a moment the feelings and emotions I’ve had while playing certain games, living the stories they told and feeling the sadness when they came to an end. Sometimes the real world seemed like so little more than a bleak picture compared to the riches found in video games and the vivid imagination of their creators.

The thing that saddens me about all this is not the anger and fury it has spurred for some, or the way some respectable gamers have responded to Ebert. Neither is it that Ebert thinks so poorly of a medium I grew up with and have come to love dearly. It is that Roger Ebert, a fantastic reviewer of movies and stories, is choosing to miss out on so many wonderful, artful experiences that have enriched my life in very much the same ways that cinema classics have. As a video game reviewer, my job was never to determine the level of quality of the graphics, the sound or even the game play; it was to explain what kind of experience a game offered me, and whether that was something worth sharing with others, worth recommending that other people experience also.

Would the world be any better off if we don’t consider Kooyanisqatsi as art? No, probably not. All that might happen is that even fewer people get to appreciate the experiences that come with watching that lesser known creation. And that would be deeply regrettable.

Now excuse me while I go play some more art.

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