Image courtesy of WebMuseum
I love Jackson Pollock … but there are many who despise his work and would argue that his technique, described as “”all-over” painting, pouring paint rather than using brushes and a palette, and abandoning all conventions of a central motif”, isn’t art at all.
I also love Derek Bailey … but again many would argue that his approach to music, which eschews structure of any kind, isn’t art, perhaps not even music.
And I love video games – I love role-playing, solving puzzles, shooting stuff, building civilizations, exploring mysteries, shooting peas at zombies, having in-depth discussions with elves and orcs, and more – and I certainly consider that video games have ascended to the level of an interactive art form.
So … why do I care? Am I not comfortable with my own views of art? Certainly I am fine with my own definitions and contexts, but I don’t really like to hear folks making broad-based assessments of things as good/bad/art/not art/whatever. Especially public figures …. and particularly when they make the same statement over and over again.
And, it seems that Roger Ebert can’t manage to keep quiet on the whole ‘games are/are not art’ thing. Yes, THAT Roger Ebert – the one many of us loved watching with Gene Siskel on Sneak Previews back in the 70′s and 80′s. The incisive and pointed critic who more recently has had a heroic struggle with cancer. That very same Roger Ebert.
A recent blog posting by Ebert at the Chicago Sun Times was picked up by GrumpyGamer and … well, pretty widely elsewhere.
In the article he actually goes all the way back to a presentation by Kellee Santiago at TEDxUSC in March 2009. To be fair, in the presentation Santiago directly addresses Ebert’s opinions on the subject of ‘games as art’ … in fact, take a look:
As far back as 2005 – and possibly earlier – Roger Ebert has stated that he
indeed considers video games inherently inferior to film and literature.
In that same “Answer Man” article he states:
video games represent a loss of those precious hours we have available to make ourselves more cultured, civilized and empathetic.
Taken at face value that is a rather shocking assessment, especially if one was to do a comparison of the game Planescape Torment to, for example, the film Saw VI or the book Valley of the Dolls.
Gamers took issue with this and reacted as only the internet can … some of which the Chicago Sun Times captured, including this nice take from Kieron Gillen of the Escapist:
It’s bemusing why games are always compared either film or the novel, as if they were the only art-forms worth mentioning. Why aren’t games compared to — say — dance or architecture, which are equally accepted as art forms and don’t operate anything like the silver screen or the printed word?
This form of inferiority complex has always been endemic in any new cultural form. Last year, I finally got around to reading Aristotle’s Poetics and was charmed to discover that large sections involve Ari discussing the relative merits between the new-kid Tragedy versus the established form of Epic Verse.
In other words, things in ancient Greece were exactly as they are now. The new forms are judged according to the standards of the old forms, and found wanting, until someone notes that while the new form may not excel in one area, it far exceeds the old in others.
As things tend to, the main topic of debate settled down in terms of public view, but anyone who participates on gaming forums will tell you that it never died, and once again sprung up two years later in 2007. At this point Ebert returned to address the issue for the sake of a point by point retort to a talk by horror novel author Clive Barker. He prefaces his comments by nuancing his earlier statements (emphasis mine):
Of course, I was asking for it. Anything can be art. Even a can of Campbell’s soup. What I should have said is that games could not be high art, as I understand it.
Barker spends a fair amount of time wrestling with a statement of ‘what is art’:
“I think that Roger Ebert’s problem is that he thinks you can’t have art if there is that amount of malleability in the narrative. In other words, Shakespeare could not have written ‘Romeo and Juliet’ as a game because it could have had a happy ending, you know? If only she hadn’t taken the damn poison. If only he’d have gotten there quicker.”
Which Ebert agrees with, once again stating that
I believe art is created by an artist. If you change it, you become the artist.
And for many, that is not a bad assessment – the ‘video games as art’ argument for them depends on the shared experience of the work of the original art and its audience.
Ebert concludes as follows:
I treasure escapism in the movies. I tirelessly quote Pauline Kael: The movies are so rarely great art, that if we cannot appreciate great trash, we have no reason to go. I admired “Spiderman II,” “Superman,” and many of the “Star Wars,” Indiana Jones, James Bond and Harry Potter films. The idea, I think, is to value what is good at whatever level you find it. “Spiderman II” is one of the great comic superhero movies but it is not great art.
Once again, I find that to be something I agree with. As someone who has always thought that art should be about transcendence or enlightenment on a very real and fundamental level, whereas entertainment is more about momentary
So now Ebert picks apart Kellee Santiago’s talk in his latest column. He goes step by step refuting her claims, but more or less it all comes down to games of wordsmanship. He concludes by wondering why gamers won’t ‘let it go’:
Why are gamers so intensely concerned, anyway, that games be defined as art? Bobby Fischer, Michael Jordan and Dick Butkus never said they thought their games were an art form. Nor did Shi Hua Chen, winner of the $500,000 World Series of Mah Jong in 2009. 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.
In the comments for the article, game designer Ron Gilbert (classic LucasArts adventure games) wrote this challenge to Ebert, and here too is Ebert’s reply – which is very much in keeping with what he has said since 2007:
Here is my challenge to Roger: Why is Monkey Island not art, yet, the Pirates of the Caribbean movie is art?
Ebert: Ah…”Pirates of the Caribbean” is not art..
Gilbert comments “If that is indeed what he thinks, then his argument does make a little more sense to me. He’s not saying that film is art, but that some film is art. Ok, I can believe, under his standards, that no game has reached the level of art, but to say they never will be art is naive and history will prove as such. ”
An interesting comment at Geekosystem:
I’m pretty sure Roger Ebert would never pass judgment on a song or a painting if he had only heard someone describe it; and he would never review a movie based on reading a few pages of the novelization. I wish he could have the same attitude towards games.
The problem with that is I basically disagree with the first half, and thing the structure of the statement is incongruous.
For example, I would bet that Ebert *does* make an internal mental assessment of a movie simply by looking at a ‘spec’ sheet, and likely has to avoid doing that for stuff he reviews to avoid that limiting view. I know I can do that with video games, and pretty much do it as I work on each GearGames Weekly – then check the reviews, or play the games and see how I did.
As for the structure, the fact that I can make assessments on video games with little direct exposure is very much different than making a general assessment about an entire field of interactive entertainment. In one he is detailing the minutia of a specific work and in the other it is assessing the state of a field as he understands it against his own set of criteria.
So now Kellee Santiago responds to Ebert (will this never end?)
But the final nail on this argument’s coffin is the point that many, many of the hundreds of commenters have already made – it doesn’t seem that Ebert has played many, if any video games. And if that’s the case, then his opinion on the subject isn’t relevant anyways. The title of my talk was “Video Games are Art – What’s Next” because I felt it was time to move past the discussion about whether games are an artistic medium.. Similarly, it’s time to move on from any need to be validated by old media enthusiasts. It’s good for dinner-party discussion and entertaining as an intellectual exercise, but it’s just not a serious debate anymore. As a rapidly growing medium, we game developers have so many other issues deserving of our attention.
In other words – why are we having a debate about the weather in Norway with someone who has only seen pictures of Norway on the web and has learned about the weather on The Weather Channel?
So she issues this challenge:
Ebert asks me in the section on “Flower,” “Is the game scored? She doesn’t say. Do you win if you’re the first to find the balance between the urban and the natural? Can you control the flower? Does the game know what the ideal balance is?” Well, it only takes you 2-3 hours to find out – about the same time you’d dedicate to a film! I’d be happy to send you a PS3 with a copy of the game installed on it so we can discuss in more depth.
I think I have made my opinion clear – I believe that video games have the potential as an interactive visual medium to rise to the level of a true art form. I also believe that in certain cases – such as the aforementioned Planescape Torment and some others – it already has.
But I also think that in the vast and overwhelming majority of cases video games are simply an exercise in escapism – a wonderful source of interactive entertainment, as is the case with many of my favorite movies and books. There is nothing wrong with that – while I love watching and reading ‘high art’, quite often I’m happy reading Sergei Lukyanenko’s Night Watch or watching Star Wars … or playing Jedi Knight II.
The question remains – does it matter? Not to me – I am much more concerned about the implications of the big-media buys within the industry, the impact of the iTunes business model, and the impacts of draconian DRM on the future of this form of entertainment I enjoy so much.