Ebert and the Games vs. Art Thing

Video games can never be art, Roger Ebert reiterates.

I was originally led to the above link from Penny Arcade, a webcomic I normally agree with, or at the very least enjoy reading. It’s disappointing their retort amounted to little more than “Shut up. You’re old.” Similarly, I find Ebert to be one among very few readable film critics, even when I disagree with him. His argument this time around is worth reading right up until the point that it tries to define art, or more specifically, tries to deconstruct someone else’s definition of art.

See this? Nope, not art.

The only way to argue that video games aren’t art is to argue that they aren’t a medium. No sane person would argue that art in one medium has inherent value over art in a separate medium. Imagine a debate over which is better, “Stairway to Heaven” or Michelangelo’s La Pietà. It’s impossible to have, in any logical fashion.

But then again, no one would ever argue that song and sculpture aren’t art, so let’s use another example. Chris Ofili paints with elephant feces. In 1999 he took flak for painting the Virgin Mary in his signature turd-smearing style and surrounding her with photos of vaginal close-ups. I have trouble seeing this as anything other than a calculated move to generate controversy and, by extension, popularity. But I’m not about to knock the whole post-modern poop thing. How do I know the future won’t produce the shit-slinging equivalent of Rembrandt? The worth of a piece of art cannot be not determined by the tools used.

So it’s essential for Ebert to prove that games, by their very nature, fall outside the realm of the possibility of art. This is the closest he comes to doing that:

One obvious difference between art and games is that you can win a game. It has rules, points, objectives, and an outcome. Santiago might cite a [sic] immersive game without points or rules, but I would say then it ceases to be a game and becomes a representation of a story, a novel, a play, dance, a film. Those are things you cannot win; you can only experience them.

He is close to making a good point here. Yes, the game of chess and basketball are not art. But chess and basketball are not assembled by writers, directors, actors, and artists. I don’t see how victory conditions invalidate the work of those people. If anything, video games are far more concerned with the experience than “winning.” We’ve always known that winning a video game is meaningless. What’s the reward for beating Super Mario Bros. and The Legend of Zelda? New quests!

Ebert is right that you can’t win art. You can only win a game. But while working towards victory, you can admire the artistry in all the little details along the way. Even if you don’t want to call a Final Fantasy game art, no one could call Yoshitaka Amano and Nobou Uematsu anything but artists. That’s the point Penny Arcade’s Mike Krahulik and Jerry Holkins (Gabe and Tycho) make in their comic, which sums up their argument much more clearly, concisely, and respectfully than the news post I linked to above.

Can something contain art, and not be art? Possibly. A reoccurring theme in the comments to Ebert’s article suggests that while chess is a game, not art, the craftsmanship that goes into making the individual pieces is art. In terms of video games, is that a distinction worth making? If a video game is well-written and beautifully rendered, is it not art because of its interactive, objective-based nature? What if individual components are artistic but others are not — a poorly-written but beautifully rendered game? God knows those are a dime a dozen.

I’d be interested to hear someone like Ebert’s opinions on these matters, especially the last question, since he’s a critic for the definitive collaborative medium: film. In terms of measuring artistic worth, would bad acting invalidate good writing and directing? Shouldn’t you still give credit where credit is due? Unfortunately, Ebert only skirts around addressing these more interesting questions. Instead he opts to spend time judging three supposedly artistic games based on a minute of footage and quickly determining why these, and therefore the entire medium, are intrinsically inferior.

There are a dozen interesting directions this debate could go. Is there a point when interactivity intrudes on art? If something is poorly made, does it cease to be art, or is it simply “bad” art? Should a collaborative work be judged by its distinct successes and failures or only how it works as a whole? But the only way to have these conversations is to enter it with an open mind. Step one? Don’t use the word “never” in your headline.