18 April 2010

Hi, my name is Mike...

and I'm a gamer. Not so much now as in previous years, perhaps - I spend my time now more with Goethe than The Covenant, more with literary theory than with the pixels and framerates of my (relative) youth. Still, though, I identify heavily with that genre, with that paradigm.

Which is why I can understand why so many folks are getting their hackles up about Roger Ebert's latest blog post, titled 'Video games can never be art', which is a response to a TEDtalk by Kellee Santiago. A few quotes to give y'all the gist if you don't feel like clicking through:

Having once made the statement above, I have declined all opportunities to enlarge upon it or defend it. That seemed to be a fool's errand, especially given the volume of messages I receive urging me to play this game or that and recant the error of my ways. Nevertheless, I remain convinced that in principle, video games cannot be art. Perhaps it is foolish of me to say "never," because never, as Rick Wakeman informs us, is a long, long time. Let me just say that no video gamer now living will survive long enough to experience the medium as an art form.


One obvious difference between art and games is that you can win a game. It has rules, points, objectives, and an outcome. Santiago might cite a immersive game without points or rules, but I would say then it ceases to be a game and becomes a representation of a story, a novel, a play, dance, a film. Those are things you cannot win; you can only experience them.

She quotes Robert McKee's definition of good writing as "being motivated by a desire to touch the audience." This is not a useful definition, because a great deal of bad writing is also motivated by the same desire. I might argue that the novels of Cormac McCarthy are so motivated, and Nicholas Sparks would argue that his novels are so motivated. 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).


Santiago now phrases this in her terms: "Art is a way of communicating ideas to an audience in a way that the audience finds engaging." Yet what ideas are contained in Stravinsky, Picasso, "Night of the Hunter," "Persona," "Waiting for Godot," "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock?" Oh, you can perform an exegesis or a paraphrase, but then you are creating your own art object from the materials at hand.

Kellee Santiago has arrived at this point lacking a convincing definition of art. But is Plato's any better? Does art grow better the more it imitates nature? My notion is that it grows better the more it improves or alters nature through an passage through what we might call the artist's soul, or vision. Countless artists have drawn countless nudes. They are all working from nature. Some of there paintings are masterpieces, most are very bad indeed. How do we tell the difference? We know. It is a matter, yes, of taste.

Yup. So. On one level, I agree with Mr. Ebert. The three games Ms. Santiago cites in her speech - Waco Resurrection, Braid, and Flower - are perhaps not great art. On another, though, I find it highly disingenuous to disqualify an entire medium from the possibility of ever creating any work of art because three cases which one person chose in an attempt to make a specific point are not great art, or, if you prefer, are not works of art which appeal to your particular (I will concede often highly refined) sensibilities.

Do I think that video games are art? Heck no. Do I think that films are art? An equally strong heck no. I believe that specific games can be art - I will leave for the moment the question of whether they can be 'great' art - in the way that specific films can be art. I also believe that there are specific films which have achieved the level of 'great art', and that there is perhaps no video game which has, as of yet, achieved that same level.

No medium, and especially no medium which is still relatively new, can be defined according to those works which with it have thus far been produced. This is, I think, where Mr. Ebert and Ms. Santiago differ. Mr. Ebert, as I read his argument, is claiming that, because no video game has yet been produced that strikes him as a great work of art, the medium itself is incapable of producing any work of art whatsoever. Another quote, from near the end of his post:

The three games she chooses as examples do not raise my hopes for a video game that will deserve my attention long enough to play it. They are, I regret to say, pathetic. I repeat: "No one in or out of the field has ever been able to cite a game worthy of comparison with the great poets, filmmakers, novelists and poets."

Ms. Santiago is arguing, yes, that the three games she cites are pieces of art - but she is not attempting to compare them with 'the great poets, filmmakers, novelists and poets' - she is, as I understand her argument, comparing them to the first acts of speech beyond shouted warnings, to the first scratchings on cave walls. She is not claiming that these are great works of art, but only that they show some of the medium's potential for use in new (and, perhaps, better) ways in the future.

I'd say again: a medium is not art. It is what is done with a medium - the specific works that are produced through it - that becomes art, or becomes great art.

Eh. I'm biased, and I'll admit it without qualms. Watch videos, think about it, tune in, tune out, drop in, drop out, switch on, switch off, explode. Have a great day, y'all. I'm gonna go read Hebdige.

Ms. Santiago's TEDtalk:

And, finally, three video game trailers.

Shadow of the Colossus

Assassins Creed II


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