Art art Art.

by zunguzungu

Apparently, Roger Ebert recently declared that “Video games can never be art.”  After making him “an object of scorn and incredulity for members of the gaming press, not to mention the Great Unpunctuated out there on the boards,” as a friend of mine put it, this categorical statement also provoked an interesting response from “Game innovator Kellee Santiago” which provoked Ebert, in turn to offer a more careful and considered effort to clarify his position:

I remain convinced that in principle, video games cannot be art. Perhaps it is foolish of me to say “never,” because never, as Rick Wakeman informs us, is a long, long time. Let me just say that no video gamer now living will survive long enough to experience the medium as an art form.

I find the conversation interesting and thought provoking, though — full disclosure — I’m more or less totally apathetic towards video games themselves; having once been an avid gamer in the days when Starcraft hadn’t yet become the Korean national sport, video games are sort of an addiction I’ve kicked and, all things considered, am as fearful as an ex-smoker of revisiting. I’m also some combination of uninterested in the question and un-persuaded by Ebert’s argument, which is probably telling in its own way. But if these kinds of conversations tend to do more to reveal our own underlying preconceptions and beliefs than actually lead to any effective resolution, then maybe that, in and of itself, is a kind of useful mirror held up to reality. If you’re interested in the actual debate, you should really view Santiago’s video response to Ebert; though I think she’s hampered by adopting his critical orientation, it’s still a nicely put together presentation of the state-of-the-art of game design, which she frames as being still at a “cave-painting” stage of development, full of a potential that has yet to fully blossom. But I’m more interested in the rhetoric Ebert uses to argue with her (in a post, by the way, which has received well over four thousand comments).

After carefully finding fault — in turn — with each of the definitions of “art” which Santiago puts forward as ways of including video games under the rubric, he gets to his own argument:

Kellee Santiago has arrived at this point lacking a convincing definition of art…My notion is that it grows better the more it improves or alters nature through an passage through what we might call the artist’s soul, or vision. Countless artists have drawn countless nudes. They are all working from nature. Some of there paintings are masterpieces, most are very bad indeed. How do we tell the difference? We know. It is a matter, yes, of taste.

…These three are just a small selection of games, she says, “that crossed that boundary into artistic expression.” IMHO, that boundary remains resolutely uncrossed…The three games she chooses as examples do not raise my hopes for a video game that will deserve my attention long enough to play it. They are, I regret to say, pathetic. I repeat: “No one in or out of the field has ever been able to cite a game worthy of comparison with the great poets, filmmakers, novelists and poets.”

I hope that trimming his words down a bit helps demonstrate the appeal to authority at the core of this argument, the extent to which his argument is essentially this:

1. None of her definitions of Art — which would include video games — are good enough. This is true because I know it to be so.

2. Here’s my definition of Art: the difference between good art and bad art is that I know it to be so.

3. The games she selects as good are not good, because I know it to be so.

Now, that’s a bit of an injustice to Ebert, but only a bit. And I wonder if it’s possible to discuss whether or not something is “art” without making the argument, ultimately, into a contest between the authority to arbitrarily decide which arbitrary definition will be the one that obtains. I suspect it isn’t.

A friend to whom I often send one-sentence email queries and receive, in return, carefully thought out and insightful analysis, sent me the following:

…this vein of curmudgeonism reveals him as some kind of modernist; he seems convinced that the dispersed expressive touches in videogames will never match the formal concentration of poetry, which is probably true. Videogames are unconvincing as that kind of art. I would find it at least a little embarrassing to claim that my favorite games, even the winningly pretentious ones, are expressive or moving like film is. They start to look more credible next to some kinds of minimalism, in roughly the same category as sculptures that are about modifying the space of display and conceptual pieces that expose or distort the ecology of spectatorship. The core artistry in game-design lies in building complex interactions out of relatively simple rules and behaviors, in establishing spaces that carry some kind of genre-specific decorum. When they are a vehicle for narrative, the story itself becomes secondary to the way that it conditions the gameplay. Besides which, Benjamin would tell us that the question of whether videogames count as art defers the question of how they have already changed the arts just by existing (and, since the name’s been dropped, the ebay sweatshop economy of World of Warcraft is a pretty shocking literalization of Benjamin’s insight that the conditions of aesthetic appreciation mimic the conditions of labor).

That’s a lot smarter than I would have been able to come up with, but I think the difference between a reading like that and the fairly fruitless debate Ebert and Santiago were having illustrates the extent to which marshalling arguments that video games (or whatever) are or aren’t “Art” just underscores the essentially arbitrary nature of that distinction, making the argument from authority the unavoidable destination. Comparing video game to sculpture, by contrast, lets us think through how different “Art” is from “Art,” letting us put into play all the interesting ways that the various objets we’ve all decided to acknowledge as art are radically different from each other in practice. And that difference, it seems to me, is actually interesting, even useful. The manner in which one experiences a film is just so different from how one experiences a novel, a sculpture, a painting, something it’s almost shocking to see Ebert fail to recognize. There’s something totally bizarre, in fact, about seeing him place screen-captured stills of various video games next to a still of George Melies’ 1902 A Voyage to the Moon; what on earth would lead a film critic to imagine that a still could in any way represent what was interesting about a moving picture? By the same token, when he places a series of youtube clips of A Voyage to the Moon next to you tube clips of video games, what on earth would lead him to think that it was a useful comparison to place a viewing of a medium meant to be viewed side-by-side with a viewing of a medium meant to be played? If you strip the experience of playing a game from it — if you simply render it into a movie — you sort of remove its reason for existing. You don’t take pictures of sculptures and think you’ve captured their essence; why would we imagine that a youtube clip of a video game tells us anything useful about what it is (much less can be)? 

To give the last word to someone who actually knows what he’s talking about, Austin Grossman — a video game designer and novelist (and Berkelyan apparently, though I’ve never met him) happens to have just written this:

I think a great deal of aesthetic confusion arises from the fact that the form is still deeply, hopelessly invested in competing with or besting cinema — the idea that video games would be the successor, the completion, the fulfillment of film; that it would make the plane of the movie or television screen porous, and you the gamer would find yourself in the place of a film’s protagonist. This is a fantasy by which the medium is still judged, even though it’s hopelessly poor at delivering the satisfactions we’re most sensitized to, the experiences of narrative and psychologically sophisticated characterization that the film and the novel have accomplished at such a high level. And it’s a confusion that makes the voice of the interactive medium, if there truly is one, harder to hear.

…I would rather call it “art half-accomplished.” It fails a lot, and when it succeeds, it does so in ways we only partly sense and don’t even have an aesthetic language to describe. (Some developers banish the term “fun” from their vocabularies entirely, in order to force the development of more specific, substantive, useful critical terms). The sense of fulfillment, of a real aesthetic experience unalloyed by a feeling of falseness, is still fleeting and anecdotal. It shows up when it isn’t expected, often emerging from an unplanned coming-together of various game elements. It’s usually off the narrative point, a subtler note in a bombastic storyline that keeps crashing along without anyone — designer or player — much caring about it. I played Zork with less attention to solving puzzles than with letting the space of an underground empire grow in my imagination, stretching out from under my ordinary white house. Doom (1993) was a brilliant accomplishment, and I played dozens of hours, but the thing I remember with the most feeling is being able to look out a window at the lush, tropical surface of Mars.