Games = Art?

After reading Roger Ebert’s Video games can never be art article (which is a reply to a presentation done by Kellee Santiago, which is a reply to his previous statement) I immediately had a few thoughts and after reading the comments I decided to stick those here. I’m a bit hesitant to open that can of worms, because I recognise the topic of art purely as a subjective matter and thus, in my opinion, any debating about it is daft. But, oh well, guess it’s too late now.

The problem that I see with claiming or disputing the statement is that you really need universally accepted definitions of both what is art and what is a game. Which we clearly don’t have. I won’t try to do that myself because, well, I see that as an impossible task for the reasons I already stated.

– Ebert cites Wikipedia: “Games are distinct from work, which is usually carried out for remuneration, and from art, which is more concerned with the expression of ideas…Key components of games are goals, rules, challenge, and interaction.” He seems to agree with this definition. I, however, do not.

Works of art, those who are accepted as that by the majority, require and utilise rules as well. In written works there exist rules that the reader accepts and abides by (Umberto Eco calls this a model reader in his Six Walks in the Fictional Woods). The reader, for example, cannot ignore the fact that Snow White is a fairy tale and accuse the author or lying because dwarfs don’t exist. In a similar fashion you cannot accuse a painter of being a fraud for painting a pink elephant. Definitions have holes and arguing about which one is exact and correct can go on forever. Egbert, too realises this, but he still persists in reaffirming his claim, even though he is, so to say, without a weapon.

– In Ebert’s mind, one of the differences between games and art is that games can be won. The audience can win a game. You can accuse me of arguing semantics here, but what does winning mean? Doesn’t it mean to achieve a goal? If so, what is the goal the audience want to achieve when playing a single player game? I’d say mine is to experience and enjoy it. How is that different from reading a book, listening to music?

– Ebert also states that because games have rules, points, objectives and an outcome they cannot be art because art does not have those components. And goes on to say that the game doesn’t have those it ceases to be a game and becomes something else entirely (a representation of a story, a novel, a play, dance, a film). Furthermore, in his mind’s eye, you cannot win art but can only experience it. Now this is a slippery slope. Firstly this is again all very subjective, is a visual novel a form of literature or pictorial art? Secondly, he admits that while games are not art, the conglomerate of a game with another art, or a game that has evolved into something more, is art. He is clearly contradicting himself. By this line of thinking, cinema cannot possibly be art. It evolved from other art forms and was/is used as entertainment.

– He tries to disprove Santiago’s definition that “Art is a way of communicating ideas to an audience in a way that the audience finds engaging” and cites several works of art (“Night of the Hunter,” “Persona,” “Waiting for Godot,” “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”) wondering what ideas those works are based on. I don’t care about the bloody definition but it’s funny, how he believe that when you paraphrase or interpret an idea behind a work of art, you are creating art of your own. I always thought that subjective interpretation was a fundamental part of art, you cannot experience something objectively. The artist conveys his idea, which we cannot possibly understand exactly the same way he does, we experience the work based on our individuality.

– “But when I say McCarthy is “better” than Sparks and that his novels are artworks, that is a subjective judgment, made on the basis of my taste (which I would argue is better than the taste of anyone who prefers Sparks).”

“Some of their paintings are masterpieces, most are very bad indeed. How do we tell the difference? We know. It is a matter, yes, of taste.”

He keeps bringing up the matter of how experiencing art is completely subjective, yet he still somehow fails to see that he’s forcing his own personal view on us (as is Santiago’s, for that matter).

– Then we have the case of Waco: Resurrection, which Santiago uses as an example of a game that transcends the genre and is possibly art. I haven’t played it and to me it doesn’t matter if this game truly is art, but it’s readily apparent that Ebert hasn’t played it aswell. Despite that he dismiss the game as being just another “shooting-gallery”. Common sense tells you that you cannot criticise something you have not experienced. Doing a book review after reading the first 10 and the last 10 pages of a book, reviewing a movie even though you slept through half of it, things like that.

– Santiago uses a game named Braid for her next example. Again Ebert waves it away like a grumpy old man (not saying he is). You haven’t played it. You cannot judge it from watching a video of the gameplay. I have and it evoked emotions, I felt moved and I loved the experience itself. But nevermind that.

– The third example is a game called Flower. Here Ebert wonders if the game is scored, if it has a goal, how does the game play out, things like that. Does it need those things? Oh right, if it doesn’t have them then it’s not a game. Maybe it is art?

– I’m not going to analyse “A Voyage to the Moon” or scrutinise his attempt at humor.

On the whole, I cannot get past the fact that he, as a critic of some renown and experience, can dismiss a medium for not being an art form with the wave of a hand. He clearly has very limited or no experience with games, but he still claims the right to criticise and scrutinise an attempt at a better definition and revision of the genre that may be crossing the boundary and becoming an art form.

Because I’ve broken my oath and tried to define what is by my opinion undefinable, along with meddling into things I shouldn’t, this blog will now implode due to reverse causation.

Nah, now I’m just making shit up.

PS: Rock, Paper, Shotgun summed the whole argument up nicely.

PSS: TED have some really outstanding presentations, well worth a look.

Edit: Steve Gaynor over at Fullbright sums my sentiments up nicely. Actually just read that, explains everything more concisely and in a less confusing manner than me. :)


3 thoughts on “Games = Art?

  1. After viewing and reading both arguments I think that both of their arguments were poor. The first being poorly presented and the second being uninformed and also poorly presented.

    With the way that both presented themselves I would say that if one is not art, then other is not. If one is, then the other is.

    In order to start an argument myself on this I would first have to talk to the person with the definitive definition of “art”. Until then… I have said my peace.

  2. Exactly, everyone defines “art” subjectively, based on their own view. You cannot argue against or for it if you don’t accept their definition as the one being correct.

    I agree that Santiago’s presentation is a bit hard to follow and Ebert is really acting like a grumpy old man rather than a critic. All this is apparent at first sight, I honestly don’t know why I felt it needed additional commentary. Ah, well. :)

  3. Pingback: “Games = Art?” revisited « Don't mention ze WAR!

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