Tuesday, March 27, 2012
Are Video Games Art?
The question has been asked many times in recent years, but seeing and going over all my footage from the Art of Video Games exhibit has brought that inquiry back to my mind once again. The debate was first brought to my attention by Roger Ebert in an article a couple years ago. The critic attacked video games and egregiously denied that they are and can never an art form on any level, let alone that of paintings or fine cinema. Apparently he's been on and off the bandwagon ever since then. When I first read that article I found many holes in his argument and had always wanted to rebut his flawed logic, but I neither had the audience nor the means with which to impart my wisdom in the past. It is true that I agreed with little of what he had to say, but I have to agree with the message he was sending, at least in part.
Roger Ebert does start the article by conceding one important fact. He would consider that his game of chess may fit the definition of art. Of course, he clearly states it is the Wikipedia definition of art, so it really doesn't hold much water. Yet he does see the potential for games of any form to be art despite that a basis of his argument is that "One obvious difference between art and games is that...It has rules, points, objectives, and an outcome." He goes on to say that a game with no rules simply becomes a novel or play. I know for a fact that some people love watching video games like a movie, one medium that he defends as art. I have fond memories of my cousins sitting on the couch watching me play Shenmue, enthralled by its style and story. He makes the point that once you interact with a medium, then it cannot produce art. I find this hard to believe though since one can act in a play or movie, recite poetry, or sing a song. And how is there not a goal in any of this? The goal for writers, actors, and singers is to portray the emotion or story of their piece. Finally, he makes the statement that George Melies' "A Voyage to the Moon" is equally as simplistic as video games are now but vastly more artistic even though it uses limited resources. I honestly don't think he realizes how limited developers and designers truly are. They are bound not only by the hardware limitations of their games but also the nature of their medium (how much they can show at one time without lag, what they can and cannot use to make the game fun, etc.)
It is quite obvious that video games contain art. Video game companies employ huge art departments worth of people to design their games. In fact they hire more artists than programmers. (Although I'm not sure if MMORPGs create more jobs for network and server administrators than for the average game.) The art has grown more extravagant over time as well with hardware and graphics rapidly maturing in recent years to be almost photo-realistic. Music has become more elaborate as well. The "bleeps and bloops" that people like Tommy Tallarico have alluded to in the past have evolved into full orchestral numbers. Stories have also had to change with the times as now the most well-written plots make great games into the best games. Art, from the visual to the auditory to the poetic, has a huge impact in the video game world.
But can a medium that consists of art be art itself? If someone were to compile a book of the most famous and historic paintings of all time, is that book a work of art? The way I see it, the answer is "No." At it's heart the book is a logically arranged collection of artwork, which is much akin to video games. It is pleasing to look at and experience, but it doesn't require or bestow any artistic endeavor to put together a compilation of paintings. Now if such a book were arranged in a way that appeals to the senses in a unique way (and I'm not much of an artist so I wouldn't begin to know how that may be possible) then I would think of that book as art. Some games are definitely aesthetically stimulating in such a manner and only when that is the case would I call a game art.
I would consider games like Flower and Geometry Wars works of art, though Mr. Ebert would probably disagree with me on that point. Games with amazing storytelling capabilities like Shenmue and Heavy Rain could also be considered art in my opinion. However, it is hard for me to look at games like Postal or Doom and say they are works of art. Those games purely exist for entertainment purposes and appeal to baser emotions. The line is not so clear cut though: Grand Theft Auto may be fun for various inane reasons, but the series does tell some powerful stories of greed, corruption, and man's ability or desire to resist being on the right side of the law.
If games like Legend of Zelda and World of Warcraft can be massive, beautiful, well-conceived worlds in and of themselves, how can they possibly not be art?
ArgentStew, the Gaming Sage
You can find Roger Ebert's article here.