Computer games and Art

Film critic Roger Ebert has come out again, in response to a TED talk by game designer Kellee Santiago, with a declaration that computer games can never be art. At least, not in the lifetime of any gamer currently alive.

This is the TED talk he was reponding to:

Now, to give Ebert his due, his viewpoint is rational, well-intentioned, and pretty reasonable. He picks apart a number of Santiago’s points that, frankly, don’t hold up to closer scrutiny. But the lack of validity of a particular example does not necessarily indicate the failure of the underlying point.

My difficulty with Ebert’s view is that he appears to fundamentally misunderstand the nature of what a computer game is. He purports to assess the art-worthiness of the three games Santiago uses as examples (Waco, Braid and Flower) without having played them, which seems to me a bit like dismissing Vertigo because you didn’t like the trailer. In this instance, the only game I have played of the three is Braid, which is also the game where Ebert’s dismantling of it makes the least sense. Braid invites its audience to engage with the notion of their own historicity (not history) precisely through the mechanism of game interaction. The story is definitely a little bit pants, but in context serves as little more than a qualifier – a lens, if you will – to inform and add detail to the interaction.

And here’s the thing. What a computer game does that no other supposed ‘artform’ does is interaction. If computer games are capable of being art in their own right (and not purely on their visual or sonic splendour), then it is surely on this basis that they can be so.

Now, the definition of ‘art’ is a problem here. I don’t want to go into it too much, because I’m not entirely sure I believe in some sort of vaguely-definable quality that somehow imbues some objects with an aura of awesome intellectual and/or emotional cred, and others not. But if I were accept at face value that there is such a thing as a distinction between ‘art’ and ‘not’, my feeling is that the difference is one of audience engagement. ‘Art’ invites its audience to think critically about the world around them, themselves, their emotion, etc. ‘Not’, at its worst, is little more than a form of pornography, offering a blend of gross visual and sonic stimulation and faux-sentimentality. (I’m sure Roger Ebert is familiar with this, as I’m sure he was probably professionally required to see Transformers II: Revenge of the Fallen, which is pretty much the Worst Film Ever. But I digress). My basic point is that ‘art’ encourages its audience to respond actively (albeit in purely emotional or intellectual way) while ‘not’ compresses its audience into a pus-like ball of passivity.

If audience engagement is a valid criterion for art, then Braid gets across the line in spades. In the same way that poetry can, Braid provokes a subtle and nuanced response from a sympathetic audience. And it does it through the ‘medium’ of interaction. Now, Braid is not Hamlet, by any stretch of the imagination. But maybe it’s… ummm… I dunno – like, maybe it’s one of Aristophanes’ crapper works, y’know?, the ones that Penguin Classics were all, like, “Ummmm… yeah… let’s not reprint these ones…”. (Okay, so my limited knowledge of mediocre-but-still-art theatre really let me down, here…). And like all art, Braid is not going to provoke an ‘artistic’ response from all players. For everybody in my English class whose life was altered by The love song of J. Alfred Prufrock, there were about fifteen who just couldn’t give a fuck.

Ebert also seems to get hung up on the idea that the purpose of playing a game is to win it. Sometimes, perhaps, this is true. But, while a game typically has a trajectory (i.e. a start point leading, sometimes via a user-determined middle, to an end point), this is true of any artform that is limited by the arrow of time (music, dance, theatre, cinema) and, much like in music, dance, theatre and cinema, the point of the game is the experience of which the game consists, not purely its resolution.

Not all games are art. Not even most games are art. I suspect that very few games are art. And those games which are art are perhaps not particularly good art. But I think that it’s naïve to assert – particularly having not actually bothered to come to terms with essential elements of the medium (it’s kind of like assessing Mahler on the basis of a few screenshots of the score) – that a computer game can never be art.

Or maybe this is simply a difference in perspective. Ebert appears to think that there needs to be some kind ‘proof’ that something is art. That nothing is art until it can be proved otherwise. Whereas I like to think that anything that is capable of making us think more about our own place in the world around us is art. And that it’s impossible to prove otherwise.

A more light-hearted take on the subject matter can be found here.

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1 Comment

  1. Chucky

     /  April 27, 2010

    A few thoughts in addition to the good points you made:

    First, whether or not certain games are defined as art or not doesn’t diminish the impact they can have, which can often be as great as any work of what Ebert seems to consider art: the last few Super Mario-esque levels of the Braid; Bioshock’s little sisters; the scope and detail of digital world (complete with culture and art!) of bioware’s creations Dragon Age and Mass Effect.

    Second, I’m sure Ebert would happily find the separate constituent parts of many games (of whatever quality) to be art: the music, the rendering of the world (nominally by an artist) etc. This isn’t a similar situation to: “is a report on the news about an artwork art?” These separate parts are integral to the medium and combine to produce something greater than the sum of its parts. It’s a little bit funny really.

    Third, regarding interactivity, what on earth would Ebert make of indeterminate techniques and mobile forms in music? Speaking of which, aren’t RPG dialogue trees structured is a similar way?

    Fourth, what would he make of a game like Audiosurf where music (any type of music: I’ve tried some Ferneyhough but I wonder what Cassidy would play like…hmm there probably doing the ‘I’m still alive’ equivalent of turning in their graves…) is the basis for the tempo, length, difficulty and structure of the gameplay.

    To be honest it sounds as if Ebert’s touchstones for games are sports and board game sims and perhaps the most archaic 8-bit wonders. It is hard to take an argument seriously that is based on second hand reports of games and their trailers. It’s just not good form regardless whatever the topic.

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