Art for Art's Sake

April 25, 2010
A thought by James Berardinelli

Roger Ebert is the E.F. Hutton of the entertainment-based blogosphere: We he "talks," people listen. Some of Ebert's columns generate more notoriety than others, but his latest, published on April 16, has resulted in an unprecedented number of comments - supposedly around 4000 at the time I'm writing this (I'll take Roger's word on this; I'm not going to count). When he penned this entry, he knew he was courting controversy. He doesn't say anything new; he merely re-affirms a long-held perspective. The subject (for those few who haven't read it independently or clicked the link): "Video games can never be art."

I too have written about this subject before, so why not jump on the bandwagon once again with a partially contrarian perspective? Roger's blind spot in this area is that he's not a gamer and, as such, may not be aware of the latest and greatest developments. I have a little more experience and, one would hope, perspective. In the interest of full disclosure, let me be up front about that self-proclaimed experience: I play games on both the PS3 and the computer. (I also own a Wii and a Nintendo DS but don't often use them - those games fail to capture my attention in non-group environments.) My game-playing follows a sine wave. Sometimes I do a fair bit of it, sometimes almost none. For me, it's like reading - when I'm in the mood, I can consume a dozen books in a month, but there are stretches when I'm stuck on one novel for weeks. Recent games I have played: Uncharted 2 (on the PS3) and Dragon Age: Origins (on the PC). God of War 3 is in the pipeline but, with a baby on the way, who knows when I'll get around to playing it? Probably not until after the baseball season.

The most problematic aspect of the Ebert video game manifesto is his usage of the word "never." To be fair, Roger acknowledges this: "Perhaps it is foolish of me to say 'never,' because never… is a long, long time." Indeed, it is. Past performance is never a guarantee of future results. One cannot look at the current state of video games and divine what they will be like in 10, 20, 30 years. It's certain they will evolve; even those involved in cutting-edge development today would be hard pressed to project what a "video game" will be like a generation or two down the road. Granted, Roger is in his 60s; video games may not become what he equates with "art" in his lifetime, but that doesn't mean "never."

Video games have been around for about 35 years, give or take. My first encounter with one was in September 1977 in the lobby of a Hyatt Hotel. My father gave me a few quarters and I had my first experience playing with an industry embryo on my 10th birthday. The game: Pong. It required two players, and consisted of "paddles" knocking an electronic "ball" back and forth between them at ever-increasing speeds until someone missed. Pong gave birth to Breakout and Space Invaders. From there, as those big, bulky cabinet-consoles became more prevalent (at one time, they were everywhere, including in supermarket lobbies), other games came into being: Pac-Man, Donkey Kong, Ms. Pac-Man, Missile Command, etc. By the early 1980s, video games where everywhere, including in homes. In the early 1980s, more houses had Ataris than early-generation PCs. They had crowded out pinball machines in arcades. But they were still simple games, relying primarily on quick reflexes and repetition. In 1980, if you asked even the most ardent player whether video games would someday become an art form, he would have laughed at you. "Pac-Man an art form? Never."

30 years later, it says something that the question is even being asked. And video games have moved forward by several quantum leaps. Pac-Man is still played, but on cell phones and free nostalgia-based websites. Currently, the most complex video games boast photorealistic characters, gorgeously rendered locations, and cinematic storylines. They're not quite at the level of playable movies, but they move closer every year. The biggest and most innovative games also allow multiple paths to a finish line, and the climax can change based on decisions made. It's still a little like a "choose your own adventure" book, where the variations are limited, but things are moving toward more numerous branches on the tree. Gone are the days when video games are exclusively the province of those with dexterous fingers. Whether or not a genre wanders off into a realm of artistry or innovation remains to be seen.

Can any current video game be described as "art?" That likely depends on your definition of the word. Irrespective of what dictionaries and Wikipedia might say, "art" means something a little different to everyone. I have known people who believe it's limited to literature, painting, sculpture, and music, and who scoff at the conception that movies can be considered "art." It's on the fringes where arguments develop about whether something is "art" or not. I can't imagine anyone arguing against the Mona Lisa being considered "art." But Shadow of the Colossus?

For the record, I have played that game, which is the one most often cited as an example of a video game as art. Although I admit it's an impressive, immersive, and very atypical experience, I'm not willing to label it as "art." Maybe my standards are too stringent. Nevertheless, I think Shadow of the Colossus is a good indicator of how video games could, in the future, become art. Some of the seeds are present - they simply need to be tended and allowed to germinate. Had Roger made a statement that he didn't see any video games out there today that are art, I would agree with him. But today is not tomorrow, when cutting edge will become antiquated.

All that brings me to my final point: Does it matter? Really, what difference does it make whether video games represent "art" or not? The designation is almost meaningless; it's not a mark of quality. There's plenty of bad art out there. Labeling something as "art" or "not art" in no way validates or invalidates it. Some of the greatest human endeavors, primarily in the fields of mathematics and science, occur outside the realm of what is traditionally considered "art," yet are arguably more important to civilized advancement than anything with the high level of aesthetics normally associated with artistry. (Although there are those who consider an elegant mathematic equation to be a form of art in its own right. I wonder about Roger's view on that.)

When I sit down to play a video game, I don't ponder whether the activity I'm about to engage in is artistic or not. I do it because it's a diversion, reduces stress, and allows me to escape from the real world for a time - reasons not dissimilar to those expressed by many for seeing a movie, by the way. Art has its place, to be sure, but I don't want to live my life immersed in it. In fact, there are some kinds of art that I find boring (that's the Philistine in me speaking). I have been known to doze off during classical music concerts - not because the music isn't beautiful but because I have a limited tolerance for it. (I love rousing classical music, but I'm less enamored with the more sedate kind.) And I develop creative excuses to get out of going to ballet performances. "Art" does not equate with "good" any more than "not art" equates with "bad." Do in life what enriches and fulfills, whether or not it's artistic. When you're dead, no one will care.

Commerce may be the biggest stumbling block toward the evolution of the truly artistic video game. Video games are extraordinarily time-consuming and expensive to develop. Numbers like hundreds of thousands of man-hours are thrown about. In the marketplace, art often doesn't sell. As with movies, video games with flashy special effects and high-octane action become the chart-toppers. In that environment, it can be difficult for something more gentle and unconventional to achieve success. That doesn't mean it can't happen, just that it will be difficult.

The pitfall Roger falls into is spending too much time attempting to define art and establish its parameters. Doing so is an effort doomed to failure because "art" by its nature is a nebulous term. I have my definition. It's not the same as Roger's and it's not the same as the one embraced by the e-mailer who provided me with a list of four games that "are absolutely examples" of art.

As superficial as the debate seems, I understand why it has enflamed passions. Consider the following statement by Ebert: ""Why are gamers so intensely concerned, anyway, that games be defined as art? …Why aren't gamers content to play their games and simply enjoy themselves? They have my blessing, not that they care." For a generation raised on games, this sounds dismissive, and dismissing such a huge chunk of someone's upbringing invites push-back. By taking such an uncompromising stance against the possibility that video games could ever be art, Roger is - intentionally or not - setting himself up as an elitist. Movies, his first love, can of course be art. But what about video games, something with which he has admittedly only a passing, second-hand knowledge? Of course not. It is, I believe, the perceived attitude more than the argument that antagonizes people.

Not all paintings are art. Not all music is art. Not all movies are art, especially if they are made by Michael Bay. In each of these fields of human endeavor, "art" represents only a miniscule subsection, with the line separating "art" from "not art" being fluid and largely dependent upon individual interpretation. (If my kid brings home a drawing in crayon with stick figures, I may call it "art." My next-door neighbor will likely not be so open-minded.) 100 years from now, it would not surprise me for video games to be seen in similar terms: the majority are not art, but a small group are. And a debate like this will be a source of amusement to our children's children's children.