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Video games as art: A round-up

Remember this discussion of video games as art that we had a couple of years ago? The topic is back, with a vengeance, and you can bet I have some things to say about it. Lots of links, as well.

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.


( 17 comments — Leave a comment )
Apr. 21st, 2010 06:08 am (UTC)
Yes yes yes. (if movies are art, and interactive media art is art, then video games are art. done. finished. end of my argument. ^^)

I'll have something more intelligent to say after I follow all of these links during lunch tomorrow.
Apr. 21st, 2010 07:00 am (UTC)
(welcome to insomnialand!)

Disclaimer: I am jumping on the topic without having read/watched all the linked material, simply because it's of deep interest to me. I'm likely to return after getting through all of it.

I want to say more about this when it's not 2:30 in the morning, but seeing this immediately made me think of two articles about two different games that discuss all the work and artistry that goes into designing one level in each game.

One concerns a game that's already been brought up in at least one of your links: Psychonauts — tragically underplayed and undersold, one of my very all-time favourites, and frequently mentioned whenever the video games/art question rears its head. The whole game is artistically amazing (as well as intelligent and incredibly funny), if not always beautiful (and there is a difference, I think), but the article that jumped to mind talked about a particular level called the Milkman Conspiracy: The Milkman Cometh, or, how Psychonatus explores the art of insanity. The subtitle pretty much sums it up, and honestly, I am not sure how something that speaks about and gives insight into insanity in a way that's visually and interactively delightful can NOT be considered art? I am just sayin >.>

The other article is about a game that doesn't often come up in these discussion — though this particular level sometimes does. The game is Thief: Deadly Shadows, third (and so far last) game in the Thief series. The level is the Shalebdrige Cradle, and it is one the scariest levels ever created, as detailed in the article Journey into the Cradle. (The link goes to the author's portfolio, where a PDF of the article can be downloaded.)

I might be in the minority here (?), but I consider good horror and suspense art, and rare art at that. I've heard arguments that playing on fear is easy, and I can buy that this is in a sense true — but sustaining fear and suspense and mystery, to me, walks on a fine (and awesome) edge, as attempts at horror can easily tip over into the ridiculous, laughable, or unbelievable. I find horror to be particularly difficult to sustain in a video game where, inevitably, you WILL be able to DO something about the scary thing — shoot it, exorcise it, beat it into submission, run away from it. Having control can make it scarier, but it's also undeniably empowering — and in many unfortunate cases, downright BORING as it all just becomes another long slog of wading through corpses or zombies or whatnot. So, I don't know, if we can count a book or film that successfully and continuously terrified the audience as art, I would think a video game level would count as well.

These are just two examples that come particularly to mind, and examples in a pretty narrow sense, even: just two levels from two games, touching on two things I count as art. Art-in-general, even, not art as expressed in video games in particular. When it is not the middle of the night I can try talking more coherently about art and why video games count and where is our Watchmen/Citizen Kane. For now! Thank you for posting this >.>
Apr. 22nd, 2010 02:21 am (UTC)
Thanks for the links! I read the first article -- very interesting, and I've queued up the second to read while I'm traveling tomorrow. :)

Interesting thoughts on horror and suspense as a particular art form. It's certainly a different form of story-telling, and one that's often applied to games, with varying levels of success.
Apr. 21st, 2010 09:49 am (UTC)
Livvyjams Loves!
First of all, thank you for referencing my blog! Like you, I'm impressed at Roger Ebert's insistence on giving a voice to the dissent via his influential Twitter feed. He and I already back-and-forth via Twitter, so I thought he might at least react (even if only a little) to my post. But the other links, he had to find. And judging by his process of approving (and often responding to) comments, I'd say he's given all of these things a read or a view before posting them. So hats off to him, indeed.

Otherwise, what a thoughtful round-up you've written. I love your analyses of the rebuttals (especially mine!), and the time you've taken to aggregate these views and form your own conclusion. I'm glad to have discovered your site and look forward to future reading ;-)

Apr. 22nd, 2010 01:11 am (UTC)
Re: Livvyjams Loves!
Hey, thanks! :) I'm glad you approve.

Ebert's reactions frankly have me a little baffled. He's going out of the way to point out excellent rebuttals of his post, but without any indication that it's moved his opinion at all, and he keep making sneering comments about the hordes who disagree with him. Sure, some of the responses have boiled down to "shut up, old man", but it seems like, on some level, he's lumping it all together. It's a puzzlement.
Apr. 21st, 2010 02:54 pm (UTC)
Although I hadn't really thought about video games as art per se, I have long held to a very liberal definition of art.

My own personal prejudice is not in trying to accept anything done on computer as "art". My prejudice is difficulty accepting anything done on computer as "role playing". I've gotten better about that. But I still have trouble with the kind of electronic scenareos of World of Warcraft or PC games as "role playing". Perhaps for the same reason that I am artistically offended by "Cops" and subsequent "Reality Television". I can come to accept that technology has advanced significantly beyond my understanding of it, and that the technology is out there for a gm/dm/storyeteller/whatever to compose a scenareo and for people to play it through. But "X monster" with "Y hit points" drops "Z treasure" is just the barest rules framework in which role playing exists. It is not the roleplaying itself.

Disclaimer: I have never played "Final Fantasy" and cannot fairly render any judgement on what it does or does not constitute.
Apr. 22nd, 2010 01:00 am (UTC)
RPGs can be roughly divided into two categories: Western RPGs and Japanese RPGs (JRPGs, which is where the Final Fantasy games fall). There are exceptions and overlap, but in general Western RPGs are more about dungeon crawls, fighting, and developing characters, and JRPGs are more about telling a story. I would say that these are both aspects of more traditional role playing, but neither really provides the complete experience. I would add that I don't think this makes them better or worse than table-top or live-action role playing, just different.

I should also mention that I've never played World of Warcraft or any of the other MMORPGs, but since those games are played with other people rather than under previously determined conditions developed by a game programmer, those may at least have the opportunity to be more like what you think of as role playing.

Apr. 21st, 2010 03:49 pm (UTC)
Considering that I just got sucked in by Okami, a living, breathing Japanese watercolor which brings to life the gods, tropes, archetypes, myths and folklore of medieval Japan in a new medium -- hell YES, it can be art. I'm not just referring to the visuals and music. Like any good movie or stage production, they simply help tell the story and set the tone.

If that's not art, I'm a fish.

Again, it's not just visuals, although I'm seduced by the calligraphy-based game controls. Okami creatively weaves together traditional, known mythology and original story content in a manner reminiscent of Neil Gaiman crossed with Miyazaki.

Video game art is much like graphic novels and comics. It can be done well or poorly.

We also need to remember that it's an infant medium. TV in the fifties had an awful lot of amateurish-looking stuff that would never get on the air now (not that I think the content of much modern TV is any better, but even the drek has snazzier packaging).

Edited at 2010-04-21 04:41 pm (UTC)
Apr. 22nd, 2010 12:37 am (UTC)
Okami! That is a beautiful game, and definitely worthy of the title "art", for all the reasons you mentioned. (I need to finish that game...)

Actually modern TV is a great deal more complex in terms of storytelling than it was even 20 years ago. Once you have time to read again, I recommend the book Everything Bad Is Good For You, which is a readable and cogent defense of pop culture as brain food.
Apr. 22nd, 2010 03:49 pm (UTC)
Well now that's fascinating. The wikipedia article is stimulating the information-seeking sensors of my brain. Or, ya know, something like that.
Apr. 23rd, 2010 04:30 am (UTC)
You should totally read this book. I think you'd appreciate it. I can send you my copy if you want. Or, better yet, get it for your library (if you have the power to do such things). I totally got it for mine.
Apr. 25th, 2010 10:49 pm (UTC)
Silly Owlmoose. I'm a librarian I don't have time to read.

Or more acurately I don't have much time. And a huge line of intentions. Probably worth looking into though. Need to get that read. Along with Pretties. And The Time Traveler's Wife. And When I Am Old I Will Wear Midnight when it comes out. And all those Lone Star winners. And...
Apr. 29th, 2010 07:48 pm (UTC)
Ah well, have broken down & ordered it. Daniel X is

a. seeming pretty boring so far


b. being breezed through easily anyway.
Apr. 23rd, 2010 03:55 am (UTC)
Thank you for pointing out Okami as an example of art. I tend to be more literary-based (as I focus on the Humanities and Film in my academic pursuits), but Okami was truly creative and one of the finest examples of video game art. I haven't had a chance to play much of it, but this reminded me I need to pick it up.

On the literary end, I find it hard to believe that a game like Final Fantasy XIII cannot be art, when it so obviously starts playing with existentialist themes and making commentaries on religion and political campaigns. I could write an entire thesis on that game alone. Hell, I wrote a term paper on a single aspect of Final Fantasy VII (the nature of the religious hero, which I argued was Aerith, not Cloud, as Cloud was merely the avatar of her will), which my professor gave highest marks to (to my surprise, since she was in her 60s and I thought might not be receptive). I am most familiar with the Final Fantasy series, and from FF7 on (where FF's stories started to mature and grow self-aware), you can actually have a great academic time pulling apart themes and narrative (hell, I'm not even a fan of FF10, and could still have a good time pulling it apart and showing all its mythological themes in an academic sense--and I'm still in the beginning). This is a sign of art, of literature. It's a far cry from the "go here, slay a dragon, and go there, save a princess" type of video games that the Ebert-types seem to think it is. Be it traditional art or literary forms of art, video games encompass both.

Edited at 2010-04-23 03:55 am (UTC)
Apr. 23rd, 2010 03:35 am (UTC)
You know, there was a time when films were not considered art, either. These debates remind me of that. While I, too, greatly respect Roger Ebert, I also have to disagree with him here. He very simply has no idea what he's speaking about. A lot of artistic process goes into game-making, and a lot of it is not dissimilar from that which goes into film-making (one of my academic areas).

As a point of note, I have noticed some limited scholarship on games (here's a book on the Philosophy of FF--it's not very good, admittedly, and far too Western-biased, but it shows that it's happening), and video games as sources for academia is going to be one of my scholarly pursuits. My Master's thesis will include a variety of Japanese popular culture items (and the video game I chose to use is Final Fantasy XIII, as its themes play into my major, and I find its narrative better crafted than most video games).

I have had wonderful talks with Professors of Philosophy and Film (respectively) who were both over aged 70--they agree video games are worthy sources for study. These are real academics; I didn't make them up. Roger Ebert's opinion is definitely waning where it matters: academia. Of course, there are a number of academic prejudices to overcome (they still seem to hate the internet, sigh). But it will happen. We haven't found our Citizen Kane yet, imho, but I see that we're moving closer to it as developers experiment.

Also, I tend to dismiss a lot of people who criticize Final Fantasy games as too juvenile. There's a lot of mature, adult, and clever mythological themes being explored. I've also noticed philosophy (even Western philosophy) sneaking in (FF13 was practically an ode to Sartre's Existentialism). Sometimes the stories are a bit simplistic, and they admittedly have juvenile presentations, but that's often the nature of the fantasy/sci fi genre--Star Wars and Star Trek are also juvenile in presentation, but both possess a great depth of well-crafted themes to explore. Since roughly FF7, when the stories started to mature, FF has slowly demonstrated itself to be exemplary in its awareness of the craft of storytelling and mythological theme-making. WRPGs are still a bit behind (people often mistake "darkness" for maturity--a typical misconception), but I'm sure they'll eventually catch up. One of the most excellent games ever produced was a WRPG, however--Dreamfall, whose storyline would be a joy to academically dissect.

The problem with video game studies is much like the problem of television studies or film studies. They are popular culture, which means a great many people play them and have opinions. And these opinions are all fine and valid, but many of them are uneducated and worthless to academia. They are valid to players, but personal reactions are not enough for proper academic study--you have to back that up with evidence, knowledge, and understanding of what you're saying and analyzing. "I hated it/I liked it" is never sufficient. If we wish to present video games as a valid form of art and source for academia, then we need to make sure to separate the mass opinions from scholarly analyses, critical observations, and narrative awareness. I grow very frustrated with the vast amount of people who think that just because they have an opinion, that they are equipped to make critical, scholarly observations--which they are most assuredly not. Once we start to overcome this hurdle, we can move forward on the study of popular culture. Even at its most puerile, popular culture reflects the people who consume it, making it an extremely valid form of study for contemporary academic observations.

Wow, I sure do sound like a pompous windbag. But this certainly brought out my academic hat. >.> Good discussion.

(ETA: There's likely still typos left, but I tried to correct them! Okay, I promise I'll stop now. My apologies for the edited comment spam.)

Edited at 2010-04-23 03:43 am (UTC)
Apr. 23rd, 2010 05:19 am (UTC)
Heh, no problem. I understand the impulse to fix typos!

I'm glad you brought your academic perspective to this! (What's your field of study, if I may ask?) You make an excellent point about commentary by the general public versus academic criticism. They are not the same thing at all, and practitioners of the latter tend not to take the former very seriously. Sometimes rightly, sometimes wrongly, but it's a fact of academic discourse, and I think in emerging areas like game/television/film/fandom studies it's important for people who *do* want to be taken seriously to keep it in mind.

Of course, in any emerging art form, especially one seen as created for "the masses", there will always be those who don't take it seriously as a field of study -- I bet there were scholars who scoffed at the study of writers popular in their time such as Dickens and Austen who would be horrified to see those writings treated as serious classics today. In one of Ebert's tweets, he wondered if he could find any art history professor who would agree with him, and my first thought was "Well, of course you could. Probably quite a few. And they wouldn't be any less wrong than you are."

My undergraduate major was urban studies, and the department head was an anthropologist who was very interested in film as way of analyzing how we think about and look at the city. In one of my classes with him, we watched all kinds of popular films -- "Boyz in the Hood", "RoboCop", a Jackie Chan movie, "The World of Suzie Wong" -- and in a different class, I wrote a final paper on the "Back to the Future" series. I've often thought about looking at games in the same way: how do they depict the urban environment and influence how we think about it? Grand Theft Auto alone would probably feed an entire dissertation on the subject.
Apr. 23rd, 2010 06:02 am (UTC)
Well, some people do double takes, since I'm not personally religious, but I am Religious Studies. Which means I study religion as part of the Humanities and Social Sciences (we're interdisciplinary). Apologies if you know this, but I am frequently mistaken for a theology student, and that is most emphatically NOT what I do. I'm closer to anthropology/sociology/history combined with literature/film study, all academic. I mostly do it because I am fascinated by mythology, and this allows me to actually study mythological themes and a bit of philosophy. My graduate studies will mostly revolve around the interaction of American and Japanese culture, as well as very simply their interaction (the pop culture being one aspect, but my doctoral ambitions are to analyze the whole shebang, historical, social, political, religious, military, etc.).

I actually think a lot of the uncritical opinions are extremely good and even valuable to academic discourse--provided they're articulated well. The problem is that a vast majority of people with an opinion don't even analyze why they might have that or demonstrate any awareness of their cultural/historical/media context. LJ is one of the few places where what you mostly get is intelligent discussion. This is why I love LJ.

Unfortunately, you are right. In these early stages, academics have to separate themselves from the mass opinions and have to mitigate their use of such opinions. We have to be a little more elitist. I'm not sure if I entirely like it, but if I have to be a pompous windbag to get video games respcted and acknowledged, so be it. I'll take one for the team.

In one of Ebert's tweets, he wondered if he could find any art history professor who would agree with him, and my first thought was "Well, of course you could. Probably quite a few. And they wouldn't be any less wrong than you are."

So true! And I actually know a few art history professors who would strongly disagree with him. I'm actually very disappointed with him, because I love what he has to say about film and culture. Just this one thing...

Oh, your undergrad sounds great! I love that idea, and it's so true. Film gives us images with which we stack reality against, rightly or wrongly. So did and do books, lest the film haters pile on about the visual culture and how it kills us. People seem to think that pop culture means nothing, and that's patently untrue. It is both externalization and a source for internalization of culture.

BTW, thank you for that book link in these comments! That will definitely be showing up in my thesis, I think. :D
( 17 comments — Leave a comment )

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