Wednesday, April 21, 2010

ARE video games art? Should we care?

Roger Ebert who, if you don't know, is a famous (if not the most famous) film critic, has claimed in a blog that video games "can never be art". Or, rather, that we won't see any game comparable to the great poems or novels or films in our lifetime.

This has obviously sparked a gigantic debate on his page with literally thousands of comments either supporting his argument or claiming the opposite, producing numerous examples. I've read some of those and posted a couple of responses myself, but it's really not much of a discussion; Ebert's simply posting on people's comments, occasionally answering one with a chuckle-worthy one-liner. If I didn't know better (and I don't), I'd say this whole article was just to get thousands of people to visit his blog.

In any case, while the actual question of whether games are art or can be is intriguing, I was actually far more interested in other aspects of his claim, as well as the responses to it.

Firstly, the problem I had with the argument isn't so much that he doesn't think games can be art but that he thinks they will never be. He presumes to that we won't see such a game in the near future. An argument that begins with a kind of absolute statement like that is, in my opinion, fundamentally flawed. He has admitted himself he has little experience with video games, so even if he's right, how would he know it?

This brings me to the second point. He thinks he knows the answer because he thinks he has a clear definition of games. In the article, he compares video games to chess, basketball and so on. Clearly, a new definition of 'game' is needed. In the 70s and 80s video games were simply that - interactive, electronic games. But since then they have evolved - containing worlds, narratives and even cultures. Calling them 'games' just doesn't fit anymore. I think big part of the reason people misconstrue video games is because of that anachronistic labelling, and this is the same trap Ebert falls into. He thinks he understands video games because of what he perceives games to be. But video games aren't like other games - with some exceptions, game are no longer about score, rules and competition. They are about narratives, experience, theory and even philosophy.

Another thing Ebert asks is why do gamers even care whether or not their preferred pastime is considered art. This question, however, stems from his ignorance of games as I've just explained. He equates this situation to basketball players or fans wanting their sport to be considered art. But the point is that these games aren't the same, as I've stated.
However, this is the one point in his article I do agree with. It's not about us wanting games to be art, or to be considered art. Games have to do that themselves. When a game comes along that is unequivocally art, games will start to be recognized as such.

Which brings me to my final point - the readers' responses. I haven't read all of them, but of those I did read some were logical and some simply appealed to the emotional impact games are capable of, presenting it as proof they are art. Obviously a definition of art is also necessary, but I'll spare you an attempt to make a cohesive one. However, emotional stimulation is definitely not the sole requirement for something to be art, of that I'm sure. People are claiming by the hundreds that because this game or that made them cry or made them care for the characters and immersed them in the world - that makes the game art. The thing is, it doesn't. These games are wonderful escapism, but that's just not art. Not the high art Ebert is reffering to, at least. Visually they're captivating, but aestheticism, while important, is not meaningful enough.

But the thing is that, unlike what Ebert thinks, some games have begun to touch upon it. Some games do realize that escapism isn't the only venue for games. Introspection, skepticism, thought... some games are starting to enter this territory - even if it's just a byproduct of them becoming so detailed.

Overall, I don't think we'll have to wait as long as Ebert does for a video game to shine as a true work of art.

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