This round was set off by film critic and writer extraordinare Roger Ebert revisiting his long-ago assertion that "Video games can never be art". He seems to have been inspired by this TED talk (unwatched by me, as of this writing) about the artistry of video games to write a thorough rebuttal. Now, I adore Roger Ebert -- I think he is one of our greatest living writers, and he is often an excellent critic of culture as well as of film, but he really missed the mark on this one, and the entire Internet seems to have risen up to prove him wrong. Some of the choice responses:
Are Video Games Art? -- An actual scholarly journal article from 2005, by Adam Smuts. Very readable. Not only does it tackle this question, it gives us this compelling reason to care:
Despite the cultural prominence of video games and technology-based art, philosophical aesthetics has completely ignored the area. Scholars in other disciplines, such as film, have taken the lead in the conceptual debate. This is unfortunate, since seldom are there questions in the philosophy of art that have direct, real world consequences. Philosophical inattention to video games has a de facto effect on the multi-billion dollar industry by inadvertently making hasty censorship attempts easier. The fact that philosophers have not raised the question of whether video games can be art lends credence to the assumption that they are not.
In other words, if video games never qualify as art, then they have no redeeming value and there's no reason not to censor or limit them. It can be an over-arching decision rather than considered on a case-by-case basis. This is a problem. Smuts goes on to describe some of the common objections to games as art -- their competitive nature, the levels of player interaction required, etc. -- and then to refute them quite neatly. In particular, he argues that video games are the first art form to truly involve the audience (the player) in the creation of the art. This is a fascinating take and one I am totally on board with. One could argue that art can never exist without someone to view it, but this is literally true of video games -- if there's no player, the story can't move forward, and it's just a screen showing a pretty background.
Video games can so be art, so gnah! -- Livvy Jams. Livvy, a pop culture blogger and former game reviewer, takes on the task of presenting a better defense of games-as-art than the TED speaker, and in my opinion succeeds. She discusses on the player-as-participant as well as the game production process, which involves writers, concept artists, designers, and animators: all people we typically think of as creators of art.
Art isn’t just a component of video games. It’s necessary to enhance the gameplay. [...] Players need the art to believe the first-person gameplay. They also need a unique reason to choose one FPS over another (enter the Quake vs. Unreal debate). Games like BioShock demonstrate that it’s infinitely more interesting to shoot things in a setting that’s entirely alien, where surprise is just around corner. What impressed fans and critics about this game wasn’t just the graphics; it was also its Randian underwater environment and dystopian story. This means a lot of effort when into conceiving this world, and that’s not the work of marketers or project managers. These are storytellers at play in an interactive digital medium.
Ebert responds to this one, in a way that leads to speculation on his motives. More on that below.
Ebert Says Video Games Can Never Be Art. -- from Tapped, the group blog at The American Prospect. This one is short and sweet: Adam Serwer says that Ebert is choosing the wrong points of comparison.
Ebert makes a similar mistake to the one journalism experts made when they dismissed blogs as "not journalism." Ebert essentially mistakes medium for content. The Weekly World News is no more journalism for being a newspaper than, say, Talking Points Memo is not journalism for being a blog. If you imagine video games as the vehicle for a narrative, the relevant comparison is no longer Michaelangelo -- it's genre fiction or comic books. [...]
Video games, like film, are a hybrid medium. But the nucleus of both is often the narrative. There is music in film, and the visual presentation matters, but I would find it as impossible to compare The 400 Blows to the Mona Lisa as I would trying to compare the performances of Alvin Ailey to the buildings of I.M. Pei.
He goes on to speculate that, eventually, games will have their "Watchman": an achievement so profound that the potential of games to be art can no longer be seriously questioned. Which reminds me of our discussion regarding the "Citizen Kane" of videogames. Are we still waiting?
And then there are responses by counter example, such as Cracked's list of games that qualify as modern art and this nice, thoughtful video (which appears to be a take on Ebert's original article):
Interesting side note: most of these links, I found on Ebert's own Twitter feed. I do admire a man who freely shares the words of those who disagree with him, although I wonder at his apparent unwillingness to walk back his statements in the face of such intelligent rebuttal. Also at his eye-rollingly snarky responses, like this one, and especially this: is he trying to piss us off? I wonder.
So I think you all know where I come down on this one: video games are art. I think anyone who has ever played a game would know this, which is why Ebert keeps getting the "you're too old to understand" response from his critics. His age in and of itself is irrelevant -- there are plenty of older gamers -- but the ubiquity of video games is somewhat generational. I think if Ebert would sit down and play one of these games, or watch someone else do it, he might come to understand. I myself didn't start playing games until adulthood, but I have no problem seeing the artistry in games. I work in a school that offers game art as a major. If the work these students are producing isn't art, I don't know what is.
Now, the question of whether video games are good art makes for a more interesting discussion. The Final Fantasy games include beautiful graphic and artwork, but there are those that argue that the stories are simplistic and not much more than a vehicle for the gameplay. I would disagree, but I think the argument can be fairly made. And there certainly other games out there that are pretty but weak on story, or vice versa, or not particularly good at either. But does that then follow that those games are not art? Are bad movies still art? How about poorly-written books, or a simple painting? Is XKCD art? (Hint: "yes".) A lot of this comes down to how one defines art, and although I'm not at all qualified to come up with a definition, I am comfortable in saying that bad art, mediocre art, boring art is all still art. Art doesn't have to try for brilliance to qualify. Some games do try for brilliance, and a few of those succeed. But those are not the only games that I would call art.