Monday, April 19, 2010

Video Games Still Not Art

Or so says Roger Ebert.

Why not? Ebert prefers cave paintings to some game about the Waco confrontation I've never heard about.

He writes, "One obvious difference between art and games is that you can win a game. It has rules, points, objectives, and an outcome."

So? Let's say that I convince the National Hockey League to play its next game inside of San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. We put ice all over the floors and somehow incorporate the stairs. That would be sort of artistic wouldn't it?

Ebert continues: "She quotes Robert McKee's definition of good writing as "being motivated by a desire to touch the audience." This is not a useful definition, because a great deal of bad writing is also motivated by the same desire."

Bad art isn't art? If what we're after is some kind of high-brow definition of art that excludes crap like Thomas Kinkade paintings then great. But this definition would also exclude a lot of the movies that Ebert likes. Also, what is and is not art would change over time as the critical reputation of artists waxes and wanes.

Ebert thinks art improves when it "improves or alters nature through an passage through what we might call the artist's soul, or vision." Okay, great, but video games could do this.

The only real distinction that Ebert makes in the piece is that bit about rules and goals. Which is fine I suppose. But then we'd have all the art parts of a game--the story, the digital paintings, the music--and also some non-art parts. This reminds me of how in a movie you have all the guys just bringing sandwiches and calculating budgets and doing all that other non-art stuff that goes into making a movie. Wait a minute...

Personally, I don't see the art/non-art distinction being all that meaningful. I'm much more interested in the good art/bad art distinction. Or the good game/bad game distinction. Art/non-art? Well that's just something to talk about if you have nothing else to say.


Little Earl said...

Given that Ebert can no longer physically speak, your final observation may be even more barbed than you may have intended it to be. What I think Ebert wants to say is that he doesn't find video games very interesting, and he's wondering if he could ever find them interesting. That's fine, but it has nothing to do with whether or not video games are "art." I don't particularly find ballet very interesting, but would I be upset if someone called it art? He essentially reveals his cards at the end anyway:

"Why aren't gamers content to play their games and simply enjoy themselves? They have my blessing, not that they care. Do they require validation? In defending their gaming against parents, spouses, children, partners, co-workers or other critics, do they want to be able to look up from the screen and explain, "I'm studying a great form of art?" Then let them say it, if it makes them happy."

So there you go. I think he just enjoys touching this particular nerve and forcing gamers to defend themselves articulately. I actually read this article before you even posted on it, and even then this paragraph reminded me of you:

"Santiago concedes that chess, football, baseball and even mah jong cannot be art, however elegant their rules. I agree. But of course that depends on the definition of art. She says the most articulate definition of art she's found is the one in Wikipedia: "Art is the process of deliberately arranging elements in a way that appeals to the senses or emotions." This is an intriguing definition, although as a chess player I might argue that my game fits the definition."

We were arguing about this several years ago and you said that on certain days you found math equations rather beautiful and emotionally affecting. So what could I say to that?

Herr Zrbo said...

No fucking way man, you stole my blog post! I was in the middle of composing... why I oughta!!!

I'd like to add that Brian Ashcraft of blog Kotaku has an interesting 'Open letter' to Ebert posted here:

yoggoth said...

Haha, I half expected you to have already posted about the topic. Yeah I saw the stuff at Kotaku.

LE - games have visual art, music, and stories. How are they not art if those other things are?

Herr Zrbo said...

I think it's pointless to try and convince Ebert that games are art. He's from a different era, it's like trying to teach my dad how to use the internet, he's just not going to get it. Ebert grew up with movies which for the past 75 years have been one of the primary popular means of expression (with rock & roll being the other I'd say). As things change and new mediums emerge it's inevitable that the older generation is going to see those new mediums as invalid or inferior (such as rock & roll). 50 years from now we'll be bitching about how our grandkids new 4-D Virtual Zoidgames aren't artistic.

As to the question at hand, I'm not sure if videogames as a whole are 'art' but there are particular games and aspects of games that clearly have artistic merit. I still contend that the ending of Metal Gear Solid 2 was an amazing bit of artistry that can be 'read' multiple ways with multiple meanings in the way that novels can. My only question is why did Ebert decide to revisit this topic? It's almost like he wanted to stoke the fire again to see what happened. It seems we've/he's had this discussion before, we all know where he stands, I'm fine with appreciating my games, and I'm fine with Ebert appreciating his moving images.

Little Earl said...

I don't think Ebert thinks this is settled. I think he genuinely wishes that young people who spend a lot of time playing video games would spend that time watching classic movies or reading classic books instead. So he is trying to use the most button-pushing language possible.

I agree with Yoggoth that it is an exercise in madness to try to generate a scientifically airtight "definition" of art. But I do, on some level, share Ebert's lack of enthusiasm for even the best that the video game industry has to offer. Yet I've seen both of you write in great detail about the emotional experience of playing certain games, and I can't argue with your passion, if even I don't quite share it. It's more interesting to write about things you like than to write about things you don't like. But Ebert HAS spend a lot of time writing about things he likes, so I'll allow him this indulgence I suppose.