Are video games art? Ebert says no.

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Image by Patrick Brosset, links to Flickr

What is art? That’s a question that comes up every so often in regards to modern art installations. For those unfamiliar, installations are typically more than a show at a gallery. Usually it’s a showing by a single artist with an over-all cohesive theme that’s been put together specifically for that specific space. At the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York, there’s currently an installation by Marina Abramović entitled Marina Abramović: The Artist Is Present where Ms. Abramović sits at a table where guests may sit across from her, while models (some nude, some clothed) pose around her. While this is hardly controversial, it’s an excellent example of an art installation.

When I was in high school, I spent much of my time at The Performance Studio, a dance studio with space for a gallery. I took part in several performance art pieces that combined the spoken word and dance, and got to see quite a few installations go into the gallery. Some were simple- with sculptures and paintings of the abstract. Some were a little unsettling (the one with headless children’s dolls and started girls’ dresses that had been painted black come to mind). But it was all art.

Many things have been accepted as art. Buildings are art. Music is art. Writing is art. Movies, naturally, are art. Roger Ebert, maintains that video games are not art. Not only that, he says they can never be art. The linked article is interesting, but inherently flawed. As Roger Ebert is not a gamer, he is critiquing a TED talk by Kellee Santiago to support his belief. Having not seen the discussion, I cannot vouch for her arguments, however, seeing what games she mentioned- I can see why she might not have won him over.

I am a casual gamer. I grew up playing educational games (nearly all the Carmen San Diego games, Oregon Trail, various mystery games) and began playing on consoles once I was in college (my first console was an n64 and I spent much of my time playing GoldenEye, Perfect Dark and Ocarina of Time). I branched out into MMORPGs and was addicted to Warcraft for a couple years, until I realized I couldn’t both play World of Warcraft and have time to write. As an artist, I think this gives me a bit of perspective that Roger Ebert lacks.

What makes something art? Is it purely the aesthetic quality? If it were, nothing would be art- while I might love a Picasso, someone else might claim it looks like something a child scribbled. But we have agreed that aesthetics do not make art. Is it the statement? The story told? Art is purely subjective. Roger Ebert acknowledges in his comments that he would consider a chess board art (though he does not comment on the game itself).

I propose that video games are a different sort of art. A fusion of movie and installation art piece. Not all games are meant to be so, just in the way that many movies made aren’t meant to be art- just entertainment. So lets exclude sports games, as well as most war simultation games. While they’re designed to immerse the player in specific environments, most of the time there isn’t a specific narrative required to follow.

However, there are hundreds of video games which follow narratives and invite you to join in. And indeed, many which have multiple endings depending on how you proceed. The Final Fantasy series of games, while serialized, mostly take place in different time periods in the same sort of land but with different storylines. There are characters, whose motivations influence the way you play the game. The game design (here used in place of ‘art’) is specific to the game, and the storylines typically have an underlying message about the environment, science, self-discovery. World of Warcraft is a game that is epic in scale, where the individual experience is based entirely on the choices of the player. It could be strictly hand to hand combat, or quests done “in character” to immerse one’s self in the history of Azeroth. While it’s game I haven’t played, Shadow of the Colossus (links to Wikipedia, which does contain story spoilers) was mentioned regularly by gamers seeking to disprove Ebert. It’s a game that is not without narrative, but completely outside of the realm of typical storylines. There are no set quests, other than defeating the colossi, nor are there supporting characters to give hints or villages to give sidequests. It is essentially about the experience and the visuals, as well as the puzzle of defeating the enemies (which differs from colossi to colossi).

Is the video game only art to the person who created it? Or is it, like installation art, art because it is being experienced? I say that it is the latter. Even in games like The Sims, it’s a sort of installation piece. You direct the players who perform their tasks for you. Will they happy, or will they be sad? The choice is entirely up to the player.

For better or for worse, video games are art, even if you don’t understand the lure of the medium. I might not understand why anyone would want to see a woman stabbing herself in the hand inside the confines of a theater, but acknowledge that it is art if she believes it so. We’re reaching an age where video game writers are finally being honored for their work by the Writer’s Guild- a sign that they’re finally being taken seriously by their peers. Games are created with the same vision a director provides for a movie- a concept turned to concept art, realized by designers. As games are created to become more immersive and the art more specific and spectacular for each game, it’s going to be much more difficult for a non-gamer such as Ebert to deny that it’s been art all along.