Game Buzz is a weekly opinion column designed to take an irreverent look at one of the biggest news stories to break in the past week. Every Friday we’ll be bringing you another slice of reaction to topical gaming news, and inviting you to agree, disagree, shout assent, vent rage, scream and complain to you heart’s delight. This week, we respond to film critic heavyweight Roger Ebert's recent reassertion that video games can never be called art...again.
I envisage a time not far from now when this entire debate will simply become irrelevant. We probably won't have found an answer to the 'Are games art?' question, we'll just simply have accumulated such a degree of cultural capital that we won't care any more. It's a question that proves fearsome as well as tiresome, a question charged with emotion for many. For those on the defensive it is a weapon brandished desperately to try and vindicate a higher level of appraisal for the form, to elevate gaming above mere virtual playground antics and enjoy a cultural stamp of legitimacy on this much maligned medium. Others fear it, hoping that the question, like a noisy drunkard on the night bus, will move on eventually and stop threatening to 'gentrify' this subculture.
So why are we dredging up this topic again? Well, because one of the most outspoken critics of the video game industry is at it again. And because rather than simply react in anger ('How dare he belittle my beloved video games?!') I'd like to posit that his methods in this case are flawed. He wrote a column this week entitled 'Video games can never be considered art' in response to a request from a reader of his to watch video footage of a talk given by Kellee Santiago, President of thatgamecompany (the guys and girls behind such titles as flOw and Flower), a talk that argues video games are already a primitive artform, and one that is constantly evolving.
Ebert was clearly not particularly impressed and, whilst he entertains Santiago's points, her examples of Braid, Flower and (perhaps foolishly) Waco Resurrection, and is (almost overly) polite towards her efforts, his line of argument has clearly remained unchanged:
'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. [...] She shows stills from early silent films such as George Melies' "A Voyage to the Moon" (1902), which were "equally simplistic." Obviously, I'm hopelessly handicapped because of my love of cinema, but Melies seems to me vastly more advanced than her three modern video games. He has limited technical resources, but superior artistry and imagination. [...] 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."'
Ebert is a big deal across the pond, and his opinions carry a certain weight, but he's got this one utterly wrong. This isn't a new stance he's taken, he first came out with it a few years back now, incurring the wrath of many an epistolary gamer and a wide amount of critical backlash from the gaming media. But I suppose this new column serves as a personal vindication of his own stance - he has ceded to a reader's request and opened himself up to gaming...and apparently gaming has been found wanting.
This is, of course, ridiculous. For starters, the man is a film critic. By his own admission cinema is his true love and so it's reasonable to accept a certain amount of stubborn bias. What we must also take from this is that his critical discourse will be entirely influenced by cinema. If he'd played any of these games I might be slightly more sympathetic, but viewing footage of a video game is a far cry from what gaming is all about. This is not cinema, Roger, and you can't judge gaming by the same criteria as you might film.
Ebert circumvents this by posing the question, why should we care?
"Why are gamers so intensely concerned, anyway, that games be defined as art? Bobby Fischer, Michael Jordan and Dick Butkus never said they thought their games were an art form. Nor did Shi Hua Chen, winner of the $500,000 World Series of Mah Jong in 2009. Why aren't gamers content to play their games and simply enjoy themselves? They have my blessing, not that they care."
His point is one of competition, that video games more closely resemble sports than art precisely because you can 'win' at a game. For my part, I perceive this to be a pretty narrow-minded assessment. Ebert spends all of his time trying to define what art is but doesn't stop for a moment to consider what actually entails a video game. Sure if we were to look at something like Tetris one could see how Ebert's argument might well hold up, but gaming has and is evolving, faster than maybe those such as Ebert realises. Even the online flash freebies (especially the online flash freebies) are challenging what it means to be a game these days with multiple endings, often no endings at all, offering instead a journey for you to invest in, a journey still sculpted by designers and artists.
Part of the issue, I think, came with Santiago's choice of games. The three of them all boast some inherently arty feature be it Braid's watercolour soaked visual and temporal mischief or Flower's relatively abstract concept that allow for a heightened level of purely visual appraisal. But graphics don't equal games, gaming is a wholly experiential medium and, as such, is arguably incomparable to any other for of art. We're still working out what the hell the rules are when it comes to video games, especially with developers such as thatgamecompany and Quantic Dream.
We've come a long way from simply chasing leaderboard scores and, whilst that makes up for much of the gaming sector (and why the hell shouldn't it), gaming has also, from the word go, embraced the potential for spinning a damn good yarn. I spoke a week or two ago about how the predominance of violence in video games was a symbol of the medium's relative immaturity. Point scoring and killing things are two easy ways of exhibiting player control. But game developers are beginning to really explore and open up the narrative possibilities of gaming, and I'm not just talking about Heavy Rain but games like Mass Effect, Bioshock and Modern Warfare too.
Ebert's issue is also one of interactivity, he believes that player control is what bridges the divide between games and sports as well as the competitive aspect. But this is because his professional medium is effectively sealed off. A far greater comparison for games would, I feel, be promenade theatre or a piece of performance art such as The Masque of the Red Death which hit London a few years ago in 2007. Essentially allowing a theatre company (Punchdrunk) to take over Battersea Arts Centre and transform it into a decadent maze of interactive madness, punters turned up and were treated to a criss-crossing interactive series of narratives over 5 floors of an abandoned archive building. Much like a game such as Modern Warfare 2 there were triggered setpieces, linear paths that the theatre company coaxed you down, manipulating your journey through the evening.
That was seen as a mould breaking evening of theatre, but it is a level of interactivity that gaming achieves and surpasses on a regular basis. Player control and choice is simply the logical progression of art such as this: it in no way diminishes the role of game designers or their works but rather transcends traditional forms of critical artistic interpretation, further breaking down the barriers between artist and audience and progressively inviting us to think, to engage, to emote and to wonder. Ebert says that no living gamer will survive to see a time when this medium attains artistic vindication. But he's wrong, gaming already is the future. We're just waiting for everyone else to catch up.