Roger Ebert, a film critic I respect and read regularly, once said that games are not art.
Apparently he never heard the end of it from gamers.
That's why, in a new column posted on the Chicago Sun-Times website Friday, he re-entered the debate. At the behest of one of his readers he watched a recorded lecture about games given by game designer Kellee Santiago, who discusses their artistic potential. After considering what he saw, he states, "I remain convinced that in principle, video games cannot be art."
Clearly, a statement like this is bound to raise the hackles of plenty of avid gamers. But before going to war, I think it should be pointed out that none of us began playing games because we wanted to appreciate a new art form. We played them because we wanted to play a game. It wasn't until later that, for one reason or another, many of us began to think of games as artistic.
What's more, Mr. Ebert astutely hones in on issues central to the debate by questioning the definition of art, discussing how far along games are on the evolutionary scale of an expressive medium, and whether something at the bottom of that scale should be judged according to different criteria than something at the top.
Of course, there is no clear, universal answer to any of these questions. However, it's important for him to clarify his opinions in these areas so that his audience understands where he's coming from. If he's beginning from the position that art and games are adjacent as opposed to overlapping circles-which he is-then we know that for him these mediums possess characteristics that are somehow mutually exclusive to one another (in the case of games, he thinks these characteristics are "rules, points, objectives, and an outcome").
However, even with this (debatable) starting point, there are still some serious problems with his argument.
Things start to fall apart for Mr. Ebert when he begins to pick apart Ms. Santiago's examples of games that qualify as art. He declares these games barren of artistry after having seen only pictures and video of them. He hasn't played them. Or at least that's what the language he uses suggests. That's akin to judging a movie's artistic worth based on stills and trailers.
The second problem is that he never concedes that even if a game is, in the end, just a game, it still has elements-writing, music, audio and visual design, voice and motion capture performances-that required some level of artistic skill to create and which deserve to be given credit as such.
Then, near the end of his post, Mr. Ebert asks why players even bother attempting to define games as art. He thinks they should simply sit back and enjoy playing. But this misses the point of the games-are-art argument altogether. He's viewing them from the perspective of the player rather than the creator. If a person making a game feels that his or her creation is an artistic expression of sound, visuals, and/or ideas, it seems both cruel and arrogant to discount it as such simply because of the medium he or she chose.
But perhaps the greatest problem with Mr. Ebert's argument is Mr. Ebert himself. At the risk of poisoning the well (and insulting a critic I've admired for years), many of his points carry little weight simply by virtue of the fact that he doesn't seem to like, play, or, consequently, understand games. For him to weigh in on the artistic value of interactive entertainment is like someone who believes the work of Jackson Pollock has no merit or meaning talking about the lack of artistry in splatter painting.
Here's the thing: Like any form of art, games need to be evaluated based on a scale informed by the medium. Video games require their own evaluation criteria, which is something that most critics are still struggling to work out. Some critique games purely on their mechanics and "fun factor," which, I think, fuels the thinking that games have no artistic merit. Better game journalists try to dig a bit deeper and expose themes, ideas, influences, artistry, and originality.
I won't go so far as to say that all games have artistic merit, or even that all games contain art (I remember playing text-based number-crunching games as a kid). But I do believe that games and art are overlapping circles. Some works of art are games, and most games are works of art. Whether they are good or bad works of art is an entirely different discussion, but that's what the discussion should be about. The critical question for critics shouldn't be "is it art?" but instead "if it is art, is it any good?"
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