06 September 2010

Can video games be art?

I realize I'm weighing in on a bit of an old issue here, but I still felt like I should get my official thoughts out on the matter.

As some of you may or may not know, Roger Ebert restated his position earlier this year that video games can never be art. The post was spurred by an old TED presentation by Kellee Santiago, who subsequently posted her rebuttal. And, of course, Penny Arcade were pestered by their fans enough that they decided to respond with, essentially, "This doesn't even dignify a response."

The issue raised is one of interest to me as a prospective film scholar. I have often stated that, though it probably won't happen for a while, if there was any push in the academic community to institute "video game studies" in the same way we currently have "film studies," I would be highly supportive of the notion. Of course, it took film at least 60 years before we had enough old guys running the universities who had grown up with the medium and felt it finally worthy of study.

The fact is, for a long time, film scholars had to constantly fight the battle against critics who claimed that something that is merely recording reality (i.e. photography and film) cannot be art. A good chunk of early film theory is often concerned with proving that film can, indeed, be called "art."

The current state of the debate
I think that video games are currently in this hazy zone of debate. Santiago claims that those in the industry already take it for granted that video games are art, and seems to assume the debate is thus over, as do Tycho and Gabe of Penny Arcade. I think this is a weak standpoint, as it comes from those who are deep in the video game community, and not from the people who really matter in this debate. Unfortunately, it's not the common man who make the final decision. No, it's art critics and scholars. Because ultimately, who really decides what is art or not but a bunch of haughty, pretentious people with a little too much time on their hands? (I will point out here that while I may have too much time on my hands, and I could arguably be pretentious, I am far too poor to truly be haughty!)

Anyway, what I'm getting at is that video games still need to fight for their position. Saying that Ebert is "a man determined to be on the wrong side of history" will only really hold up as a strong argument if you are actively working to create the "right side of history." And while Tycho and Gabe have done a lot of the video game community and I applaud them, they have not done much to influence the art community and the academic community.

At the same time, I think that Ebert, being a film critic, is being incredibly idiotic and naïve in his position. As someone who obviously has a vested interest in film, he seems to ignore the fact that many of his arguments against video games tend to negate film as well. Despite the auteur policy's claim of the director as the ultimate "artist," film is still very much a collaborative medium. And after all, why can't art have multiple artists anyway? Also, video games, like film and other arts, will often have a creative director. For example, we may see Shigeru Miyamoto as the auteur behind the Mario and Zelda franchise, in addition to so many other games. How is that much different than seeing Ingmar Bergamn as the auteur behind his collection of films?

The one argument that stands apart is that you can "win" at a video game, while you cannot "win" at a painting or a novel or a film. However, I don't entirely see how this is entirely valid. Film is different than other art in that it is recorded from reality. Music is different than other artforms in that is can only be listened to. Every medium has its own unique characteristics, so off course a new medium would have a new characteristic. However, he merely groups it in with games like chess which, while they may not be "art," also lack any sort of narrative element that is present in video games. Video games combine the competitive element of games like chess with visual art, music, and narration. In some ways, video games are essentially film + interactivity. Even though everything else can be compared to art, the fact that you can interact with it thereby makes it no longer art? His claim here needs some serious work. His proof is faulty. It says nothing of what art really is. He's just groping in the dark for something.

Ebert does somewhat address the issue of his contradiction regarding film as art when he suggests that he does not consider most films to be art either. If this is true, than he has, perhaps, invalidated his opinion in the debate over what is and isn't "art" in the academic world. Academically, film is considered an art medium in the same way as painting or drawing. I guess the pertinent question is, then, can video games be an art medium?

Video games as an artistic medium
I can use drawing to sketch a map of how to get to my apartment. Is this art? Probably not.

Now say that my fiancée draws a map of how to get around our wedding location. No longer is it purely practical. She wants it to look good too. I mean, this is for our wedding! She puts time into it. She tries to express some of the characteristics of our wedding and catch the mood in the choice of colours. The lines show her signature style. So what about this? Is this art? Some of you may say yes, a few of you may say no.

Now say that she does an illustration. This illustration has no practical purpose. It is not a map or something like that. It is all about her own self expression. Is this art? It seems pretty simple. Most people would say yes.

So where do we draw the line? Perhaps the first example is like a home movie (film) or a very basic computer program. Its purpose is entirely practical. Perhaps the middle example is an unimaginative blockbuster or some cheap shovelware. Yeah, some attention went in to it, but it ultimately comes back to a practical purpose (often, to make money). And maybe the last example is like a film by Akira Kurosawa or Shadow of the Collosus. There's obviously an artistic mind at work, and it's primary focus is to create something new and meaningful. However, note that it still makes money. Even Rembrandt did work on commission.

It seems like Roger Ebert is saying that only this last example is truly art (and only when it comes to established media). Is he right? Considering that a large portion of the film community will discuss terrible B-list horror movies as bad art but interesting social commentary, it seems like the academic community as a whole has largely accepted the latter two examples as both being art (though still being conservative and sticking to established media).

Of course, that first example is murky, but I'm sure some conceptual artist has declared the artistic power of the home video and there has already been a gallery exhibition somewhere that explores the implications of placing the home movie within the gallery atmosphere and thereby declaring it art. It's all very Dada, you see. It's like the modern day L.H.O.O.Q.

"Art" does not automatically mean "Good"
All and all, I have always found the debate, "Is this art?" somewhat pointless, and so I can see where Penny Arcade is coming from to some degree. If someone says something is art, I say, "Okay, so it's art. Now the real question is, 'Is it good art?'"

You see, I think Roger Ebert has conflated the idea of "good art" with the much larger concept of "art." In his mind, if something is "art" it must automatically be "good." But I don't think this is really true. And largely speaking, it doesn't seem to be how the academic world really thinks.

All and all, Ebert's declaration of "Video games can never be art," stems from his own personal feelings. What he means is, "Video games will never be good." Or more accurately, "I will never like video games. And as I am a critic, I thereby assume that my personal feelings are ultimately valid and correct despite the fact that, having never even played a video game, I am not actually qualified to defend my position with concrete examples."

Unfortunately, the academic world as a whole has more or less gone along with Ebert but for the simple fact that it's just easier. It's hard to get something accepted as a new field of study. Especially when you have a bunch of old farts at the top with the same narrow minds as Ebert.

I do think that will change. However, it's not going to be Tycho and Gabe that make the history books when that day comes, and Kellee Santiago will just be a footnote, as will Ebert.

It's going to take people who are genuinely fighting for video games to make that day real. And the fight won't be on blogs or at video game press conferences. That's not the important arena. We will need people fighting in the universities. We need professors submitting ideas for new classes on the topic of video games, and university boards accepting their applications.

Yes, I realize this is a little hypocritical. I am blogging this, after all.

But perhaps, someday, I will be one of those professors. Although my ultimate goal is to be a film professor, I will stand and fight for video games when the time comes. I will push for it as a valid field of study. But until we can convince the academic world as a whole that video games can be art, it's just going to be Eberts being crotchety old fogies and Tychos pretending to not care.

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