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It may not be art, but I know what I like.
June 23, 2008 10:03 PM   Subscribe

It's been almost a year since Roger Ebert responded to Clive Barker on the debate over whether games can truly be "art." In support of Mr. Barker's position, here are some of the most artistic moments from games in recent years - the tragic, the trippy, the Saturday mornings, the darkly comic, the downs and the ups, and the rare phyrric victory.

For the record, I revere Roger Ebert as a film reviewer, but just disagree with him on this count. I apologize in advance for not including Ico, Shadow of the Colossus, Deus Ex, Bioshock, or any number of other great games which I simply haven't played enough to know the parts to exhibit.
posted by Navelgazer (126 comments total) 14 users marked this as a favorite

 
Way, way too much Final Fantasy and console gaming in general in those examples. Needs more Fallout and, particularly, Torment. Final Fantasy leaves me numb, when I'm not laughing at it.
posted by Justinian at 10:11 PM on June 23, 2008 [3 favorites]


I should point out that I agree with you, and that Roger Ebert is on the wrong side of history here. Hey, he's old, who can blame him. I'm sure there were people a century ago lamenting motion pictures and explaining how the medium could never be high art.

I wonder if Ebert has considered that analogy.
posted by Justinian at 10:15 PM on June 23, 2008


I thought about putting in the bit from Torment where you have to die in order to progress, but it felt disingenuous having never played it myself. Still, Justinian, if you've got things I'm not thinking of, please tell me. I've largely been a console gamer, so my experience is limited.
posted by Navelgazer at 10:19 PM on June 23, 2008


Bad choice from Portal. In fact, bad choice from a lot of the games. Cut scenes are not games, they're just really low budget movies.
posted by empath at 10:22 PM on June 23, 2008 [5 favorites]


Yup, Planescape: Torment, Ultima VII, Monkey Island, Grim Fandango. Ah, the golden age of PC gaming... And of course, there are numerous examples from the Interactive Fiction world. Any of the yearly winners could be considered 'art'.
posted by RGD at 10:23 PM on June 23, 2008


It's really beyond argument that games are art, even something is simple as Tempest 2000 shows amazing artistry.
posted by empath at 10:26 PM on June 23, 2008 [2 favorites]


Choose Your Own Adventure books are art too. These just come with moving graphics.
posted by dhammond at 10:28 PM on June 23, 2008


There's no debate here, Ebert is just wrong on this issue. It's as simple as that.
posted by EatTheWeak at 10:28 PM on June 23, 2008


I recently thought of an alternate ending to GTA IV, I guess now is a good a time as any to transcribe it. You could call it "art"

So, Niko decides to take revenge on Dimitri for double crossing him, but in order to do so he must infiltrate his ship, the Platypus, which is teeming with henchmen. Well, when our hero reaches the bowels of the tanker he discovers that the Platypus is really a giant robot powered by heroin. Dimitri straps into it's control center, and begins to destroy the city with vigor.

Luckily, the United Liberty Paper, a secret government, whisks away Niko at the last second before the Platypus transforms into a 500ft tall walking juggernaut. With the city under attack, Niko is the only one who can fly a F-14 Tomcat equipped with missiles that shoot guns to take on the heroin powered menace. Once Niko straps on the flight suit and powers up the plane, the theme to Top Gun begins to play, and the battle begins....

Only to end...in a stalemate! With Dimitri's Platypus out of heroin, and Niko's Tomcat out of missiles that shoot guns, there is only one way to settle the conflict, a Disco Danceoff. Dimitri has moves, but Niko has a groove all his own, and totally beats his Russian ass.

As the sun sets on Liberty City, Niko reflects upon his adventure, only to conclude that freinds and family are the true meaning of Christmas. THE END.

posted by hellojed at 10:29 PM on June 23, 2008 [7 favorites]


What you've done is the equivalent of showing a clip of the sled in the furnace at the end of Citizen Kane as an example of why film is art. Just because they have emotional resonance for you or those who've played those entire games, that doesn't mean that they're a good way to illustrate the depth of the medium. Also, I'd argue that most of your videos are cutscenes (mostly end-of-game), which aren't really differentiated from film.

As for the "art or not" discussion, you're really venturing into defining art as much as defining whether or not video games are art, and that's a well-trod and long-contested discussion. I've seen some convincing arguments in the art v. craft debate; my personal biases consider some video games art, but I'm willing to consider the other side of the argument.
posted by theclaw at 10:31 PM on June 23, 2008 [2 favorites]


Ebert's position can be summed up thusly:

I have seen all of Uwe Boll's movies and so games cannot be art.
posted by empath at 10:32 PM on June 23, 2008 [4 favorites]


I had an art history prof in college who specialized in photography and used to talk about how ridiculously long it took the mainstream of academic art history to even recognize photography as a visual art... general textbooks from really not that long ago would not even have a section on it.

I always felt like Ebert sort of started out with the prejudice that games were not art in that article and came up with a pretty BS justification for the opinion. A guy like Ebert has a lifetime focusing on the best cinema has to offer: looking at games all he sees is the equivalents of wretched summer blockbusters. Honestly the game market is even worse than media in general in pandering to kind of an immature audience, and it's a really young medium, so you have to dig a little deeper for the gold. He's just the wrong person to address the subject. If you asked some literary critic in the 1930s who'd been dragged to the talkies a few times by his nephews to judge the artistic validity of cinema you'd get a crap response.

Barker, meanwhile, has been toiling in the field of speculative and horror fiction pretty much his whole career, and can probably better relate to working in a medium widely discounted as having artistic potential. It's interesting, Barker came up twice for me this evening, I was just reading this article on our own NOT HERMITOSIS-IST's blog at AMC. I don't think I'd thought about Barker again since that response from Ebert came out originally.
posted by nanojath at 10:32 PM on June 23, 2008 [3 favorites]


That's a tough question, Navelgazer. I'm not sure that one can or should point to individual scenes in a game in the same way that you could in, say, a novel. This probably deserves more analysis than I have time to give it here; I think that in a game like Torment or (particularly) Fallout the whole is more than the sum of its parts. To an even greater degree than in a novel.

But I'm having a truly hard time expressing exactly why I think that. It has to do with the interactive nature of it, certainly, but I that's a facile observation without more to back it up. I wish I could give you a better answer.

So I apologize for sniping at some of the examples without a clearer understanding in my own mind of what makes great games art. I will admit to an innate bias against consoles as I do think they have dumbed down gaming to a large degree. That is not to say that console games are somehow innately inferior; they are not. But as you increase the size of your potential market there is a natural inclination from a business and monetary standpoint to appeal to as wide a market as possible. And if appealing to as wide a market as possible is your goal that is often antithetical to being "great art".

Note that I think modern computer games are mostly crap as well.
posted by Justinian at 10:33 PM on June 23, 2008


Art? Needs more Bioshock.
posted by gottabefunky at 10:33 PM on June 23, 2008


hellojed, sounds good, but needs more Tetris. And Zergs. And Carthaginians.
posted by theclaw at 10:37 PM on June 23, 2008


RGD has provided a good starting point for some computer games to look at. I'd go with Torment, Fallout, the first 3/4 of Bioshock (too bad it fell apart... so close), Ultima VII, Grim Fandango, A Mind Forever Voyaging, Trinity, Planetfall, etc.

Note that a game doesn't have to be "great art" in this sense to be one of the best games ever. Wizardry 7 and 8 were the absolute pinnacle of old-school party-based RPGs and are among the greatest computer games ever, but they are not "high art" in the sense that Ebert means any more than Monopoly is.

I think everyone knows that Ebert is wrong. I don't even consider the question as to whether a narrative game like Torment can be art as an interesting question. Here's a far more interesting question:

Is a brilliant but non narrative-based game like Civilization IV great art?
posted by Justinian at 10:40 PM on June 23, 2008


Needs more Rez.
posted by threetoed at 10:42 PM on June 23, 2008 [1 favorite]


Hey, thanks nanojath! I was debating whether to go ahead and mention the interview myself-- it's worth being a little self-linky to help save what might be one of the most interesting American horror movies in quite a while.

I usually avoid criticizing Ebert because he's one of those people for whom a vast and adoring public is practically already holding a candlelight vigil. He may be very knowledgeable about film, but I disagree with so much of what he says and the way he says it that I find myself getting excited when I actually read a review of his that I enjoy.

So it's not really surprising that I think he's dead wrong about this. There are moments in even average video games that are more effective artistically than many movies out there.
posted by [NOT HERMITOSIS-IST] at 10:44 PM on June 23, 2008


When, at the end of a long toil of playing Karateka, you reach the damsel in distress at the end, and you find to your initial shock and dismay -- and then a flash of insight and appreciation for the plot development -- that you cannot just rush right up to her as you have been to all the opponents throughout the game, you will know games can be art.
posted by darkstar at 10:46 PM on June 23, 2008 [1 favorite]


I think GTA IV puts makes the idea that games can't be art absolutely ludicrous. That game encompasses every form of art and creative activity man has ever invented--from drama, to architecture, to painting, to dance, to music... even stand-up comedy-- in some form or another. If games can't be art, than none of those things are.
posted by empath at 10:49 PM on June 23, 2008


And though they may not be lauded by most hard-core gamers, many of the graphic adventures surely qualify as possessing the essential characteristics of art.
posted by darkstar at 10:50 PM on June 23, 2008


Can't they just agree that (some) video games occupy a zone between traditional art where you do nothing but simply experience that which is presented and being an an active participant in generating the content which you then immediately experience?
posted by Burhanistan at 10:53 PM on June 23, 2008


I think everyone knows that Ebert is wrong.

Not so fast there.

I'm a game developer. And even I'm not sure I consider a game to be art. At least not as quickly and reflexively as most. They are certainly artistic and require artistic skills of different types in great abundance, and many games are certainly more "art" than others (e.g. Portal vs. Tetris).

To pose an analogy ... do you consider the following things to be "sports?"

* Track and field events
* Gymnastics
* Horse races
* Motor sports (cars, motorcycles, etc)
* Figure skating

Certainly, all of them require athletic skill and mastery of one kind or another. But are they sports? I could argue that they are not. For example, none of the above require players to engage in defense or competitive point scoring (i.e. the object of the events is merely to just go faster, jump higher or impress the judges greater than the other guy).

So, it's a semantic question of what makes a sport a sport. And that's also what we have here -- a semantic question about what makes art art. There will be no winners and losers here.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 10:56 PM on June 23, 2008 [7 favorites]


Game playing is no more art than reading is.
posted by empath at 10:59 PM on June 23, 2008


essential characteristics of art.

Which are? I don't mean to single you out, there's a lot of "I know it when I see it" in this thread and I'd like to know what people consider 'art' and what characteristics video games have that qualify them as art.

Emotional response and storytelling seem to be the major components so far; is that a fair assessment?
posted by theclaw at 10:59 PM on June 23, 2008


Would Ebert consider a documentary to be art? It seems to suffer from the same problems that videogames do (that is, not being under the complete control of 'the artist')
posted by empath at 11:01 PM on June 23, 2008


Someone should make an unauthorized videogame version of "Valley of the Dolls".
posted by Burhanistan at 11:03 PM on June 23, 2008


I like to bring perhaps a little postmodernism into my "videogames as art." Let us consider "The Orange Box": Half Life 2, Portal, and Team Fortress 2. Portal, as widely acknowledged, takes place in the Half Life universe. In Portal your nemesis is the AI GlaDOS. Half Life and Portal are widely accepted to take place in the same universe as, in Portal, GlaDOS vaguely references the invasion of Earth that took place before Half Life 2 and, in Half Life, Portal's Aperture Science is becoming an important part of the plot.

Now, GlaDOS is voiced by Ellen McLain. The AI is shown to have different voices as its personality is altered. The computerized voice of Half Life's Combine Overwatch is also performed by Ellen McLain. One may assume that, as the Combine's strategy involves subsuming, modifying, and perverting the native populace and resources of a victim world, the Combine have copied and reprogrammed GlaDOS to serve as the AI controller for the Overwatch. The intonations are not the same, but GlaDOS was shown in Portal to readily change vocal style when reprogrammed in the final batle.

Now, I can bring even more into it. In Team Fortress 2, the anonymous controlling voice that says "Success," "You failed," and otherwise goads you in your eternal combat is also voiced by Ellen McLain. TF2 is rather fourth wall-breaking in its artificiality. The pointlessness of the eternal battle of RED and BLU is readily acknowledged, and it all takes place in an almost cartoonish milieu - one map even has cows that upon examination are actually plywood cutouts. The various TF2 characters all have standardized personalities. In Portal, GlaDOS at one point references an Android Hell where noncompliant combat androids are sent. This is TF2, and the players in TF2 are the disobedient androids, their intelligences disconnected from physical reality and inhabiting a simulation. They are forced to indefinitely battle for pointless objectives in an obviously artificial landscape until needed for service in reality. This serves as both punishment for disobedience and further battle training. It is important to consider that the endurance of a TF2 character is far beyond that of any human. A player with a rocket launcher will willfully shoot it as his feet in order to jump high. Furthermore, players are readily healed by healthpacks or a healing beam. Upon death, a player controls a new body within about twenty seconds. These are not traits of humans, but are traits of artificial intelligences inhabiting bodies or simulated bodies with enhanced durability and perhaps some sort of nanotech repair system.

In short, if Gordon Freeman is fighting beside an android Heavy Weapons Guy in HL2 Episode 3 that's going to be pretty awesome. SO MUCH BLOOD.
posted by TheOnlyCoolTim at 11:10 PM on June 23, 2008 [23 favorites]


Emotional response and storytelling seem to be the major components so far; is that a fair assessment?

Well, that's why I raised the question of games like Civilization IV. A game that uses a narrative to evoke an emotional response is an easier question than one where you just play game mechanics for fun.

A narrative-based game is little different than a novel in terms of whether it can be art. I don't see how you can make an argument for a novel having the potential to be art while excluding the possibility that Planescape: Torment can be art. The damn game is essentially an interactive novel. Now, wrong-headed people may argue that it doesn't succeeed at being art, but that's not Ebert's argument. He is saying it lacks even the potential to be art.

And that strikes me as an argument that is impossible to maintain.
posted by Justinian at 11:12 PM on June 23, 2008 [1 favorite]


But are they sports?

Uh, yeah. All of those things are sports.

Semantic shemantics...
posted by nanojath at 11:13 PM on June 23, 2008


It'll be art when I dip my testicles in paint and smoosh them against the screen.
posted by mazola at 11:17 PM on June 23, 2008 [2 favorites]


They've got a Wiimote accessory for that now.
posted by nanojath at 11:25 PM on June 23, 2008


Game playing is no more art than reading is.

And? The book can be art, but the acting of reading it isn't. A movie can be art, but the act of watching it isn't. The game can be art, but te act of playing it isn't.

I like Planescape: Torment as the best eample of a computer game that is high art. It is a work of superb craftsmanship meant to provoke an emotional response. There can really be no argument that it's high art. It's not even an opinion.
posted by ten pounds of inedita at 11:36 PM on June 23, 2008 [1 favorite]


Emotional response and storytelling seem to be the major components so far; is that a fair assessment?

Dunno. A Harlequin romance has storytelling intended to yield an emotional response (often, presumably, successfully), whereas lots of experimental film has no story, and doesn't appeal (at least directly) to any clear emotional response. Does that mean Harlequin romances are art, and experimental films aren't?
posted by ManInSuit at 11:48 PM on June 23, 2008


In my opinion, for what it is worth, the guideline for art in a game is the same as for books, or movies, or anything else...

Immersion.

If the author of whatever work I am currently experiencing can make me think, make me care, make me wonder what is around that next corner, or what that next painting is, then I consider it art.

I think art should be defined, to some extent, by having influence over the beholder. If it is just soup cans, or the latest bleeding edge game, or some cinematic opus, it is what I feel and think that defines it for me.

So, as far as I am concerned, gaming IS art. Not all gaming, like not all movies or all books, might meet that criteria (Space Bunnies Must Die, I am looking at you!), but some do. I just don't think a keyboard/mouse or a controller should be a defining factor.
posted by Samizdata at 12:06 AM on June 24, 2008


I'm not sure why anyone is ever reluctant to call anything "art". Just because you admit something is art, it doesn't mean you think it's good, worthwhile or special. Come one, most art sucks.
posted by spaltavian at 12:15 AM on June 24, 2008 [1 favorite]


And we are back to Use Boll... (grin)
posted by Samizdata at 12:17 AM on June 24, 2008


Erm... Uwe, even...
posted by Samizdata at 12:17 AM on June 24, 2008


I think the video game side hurts itself in this debate because they keep pointing towards pretty graphics or cut scene driven narrative as their defense. If that's all it took then I'd make a breakout clone that played Casablanca during the end credits and call that great art.

Honestly, I'm not even sure video games should aspire to be art in the sense that Roger Ebert means. Using a video game to tell a story puts huge restrains on the interactivity of the whole thing. Letting players use the game to create their own story and explore a new universe is where the far more interesting aspects lie. Will that be art? Maybe, but in a very different way.
posted by Gary at 12:27 AM on June 24, 2008 [1 favorite]


I'm more than happy to view video games as the democratically accessible low-art variant of participatory installation, and as a constant commentary on the pliability and persistence of narrative in human consciousness, and I can't imagine why anyone would disagree with that. But my diploma says "film and digital media," so I may be biased.
posted by Ambrosia Voyeur at 12:37 AM on June 24, 2008 [2 favorites]


A Harlequin romance has storytelling intended to yield an emotional response (often, presumably, successfully), whereas lots of experimental film has no story, and doesn't appeal (at least directly) to any clear emotional response. Does that mean Harlequin romances are art, and experimental films aren't?

Okay, I'll take the bait. Harlequin romances may be intended to yield an emotional response maybe, but that doesn't mean they succeed--many are campy and ridicules, just as experimental films may at first seem dry and cerebral but evoke a sharp visceral reaction. Or maybe a sappy tv ad hits a nerve--recalls a deep pain, while an arty foreign film strikes you as laughably self-important gives you a fit of the giggles. I think art is what grips you, what transports you, regardless of the source. Different things work for different people at different times, and maybe Roger just can't imagine getting immersed in a game. His loss really.
posted by tula at 12:54 AM on June 24, 2008


Cool Papa Bell wrote: ...that's also what we have here -- a semantic question about what makes art art. There will be no winners and losers here.

Agreed. And I believe that a lot of the insistence that video games are art comes from the connotations attached to the words "games" and "art", the notion that the latter, in general, is of higher cultural value than the former. Inasmuch as the arguments arise from people trying to assert or diminish the cultural value of video games, this is a silly debate. Many video games are worth one's time, much art is not. But in the end, though a game may incorporate art and art may be interactive, I find that a game is a game and art is art, and nothing I've ever experienced has confused me as to where the line is.

The word "game" means something and the word "art" means something else, and the relation between these is significantly different than the relation between the word "art" and words like "play", "painting", "sculpture", "opera", "literature" etc. But maybe the design on the playing board of a board game is more pleasing to look at than something selling for several thousand dollars in a gallery; maybe the story in a video game RPG is more resonant than the film produced for 200 million dollars playing at the cinema, maybe I spent more time enjoying Mario Kart Wii today than reading Joyce's "Ulysses" (I did). It remains that video games aren't art. So what?
posted by millions at 1:00 AM on June 24, 2008 [2 favorites]


empath: I think GTA IV puts makes the idea that games can't be art absolutely ludicrous. That game encompasses every form of art and creative activity man has ever invented--from drama, to architecture, to painting, to dance, to music... even stand-up comedy-- in some form or another. If games can't be art, than none of those things are.

But you're doing your argument no good there. Those individual things are art, but for a game to be art, it just can't include other kinds of art. It has to bring something more. If a game is art, but it can be easily seen that the artistic aspect could be better expressed in a non-interactive form, then I'd say it's a point in Ebert's favor.

I'm solidly of the opinion that video games can be art, but that most games fall miserably short of that goal for the same reason that blockbuster movies fail: they are ruined by their status as commercial products. Somewhere along the line the artistry is killed in development by pandering interests -- if it was even there to begin with.

Katamari Damacy, Planescape Torment, Ico, Shadow of the Colossus, even Super Mario Galaxy are obviously art. FPSes, racing games and fighting games may be art, but it's in a radically different way, related solely to their designs (being their primary aspect that isn't composed of other artforms). Most games of these types are probably not art.

By the way, one should not underestimate Ebert's opinion here. He is definitely NOT clueless when it comes to video games! I remember seeing him and Siskel discussing Tecmo Bowl on TV back in the NES days. The consensus then, if I remember right, wasn't that it was bad; it was basically that it was too good, they realized that game's addictive nature, , and thus potentially that of other games, and it made them wary.
posted by JHarris at 2:24 AM on June 24, 2008 [1 favorite]


Needs more Rez.

I have no sword in the art/not art fight (I lack the vocabulary and the education to join that conversation; while I believe that anything created to entertain, to educate, to immerse, or just for the joy of creation is art, I'm sure it's far more complicated than that), but I wanted to highlight that quote. Because Rez is beautiful.

There is nothing like Rez. I take one controller in my hand and place the other in my lap so that I can feel the vibrations of the music. I sit as close to the television as I can so that there is nothing else in my vision. I put on my headphones so I can hear nothing but the beat. And I play. And as I play, as the music and the movement and the vibration come together, as I immerse myself more and more deeply in this thing that was created for the love of music and life and interactivity, for a few minutes I experience pure joy.

It doesn't last, and I can't play it too often or it becomes just another game. I don't want to chase the high score, I don't want to hit every target, and I don't want to ever find it mundane. Every few weeks, all I want is the most beautifully pure experience I've ever had from anything. Books, films, and music can capture me from time to time, but nothing has ever swallowed me whole like Rez has.

Plus, it's like an £8 download on the xbox 360. Score.
posted by ArmyOfKittens at 2:49 AM on June 24, 2008 [2 favorites]


Katamari Damacy is art, and I'm unclear on how that's even open to debate. The only reason anyone questions it is because there's a controller attached; if it played itself, they'd call it video art and not even think about it.
posted by Pope Guilty at 3:31 AM on June 24, 2008


But you're doing your argument no good there. Those individual things are art, but for a game to be art, it just can't include other kinds of art. It has to bring something more.

This is what pisses me off about discussions about video games as art. People always try to fit video games into other art categories, (most commonly narrative art, even though for the majority of games narrative absent or secondary to the enjoyment of the game). Everyone agrees that novels, music and paintings are art, but these structurally they have nothing in common with each other. What they do have in common is that they were intentionally crafted with the purpose of evoking a emotional experience in the viewer. Video games obviously also do this. The counterpoint to narrative or melody in video games is game play.
posted by afu at 3:35 AM on June 24, 2008 [3 favorites]


There is all this debate about whether video games should be considered art, with very little discussion on determining a definition of art itself.

I think it all depends on how exactly you define art. I've heard some people argue that sports can be art, and if you buy that, video games are surely art; but if you think of art as things like the works of Dostoevsky or the films of Ozu, then video games might not be considered art.

Ebert's strongest point is that art must be created by an artist, and the inherent interactivity of games takes control away from the artist and gives it to the player, thereby undermining the worth of the piece. A response to that might be that the freedom of video games isn't a complete freedom, and that the limits of the experience are ultimately decided by the game designer, which insures authorial control.

It's definitely an interesting debate, but as so much of it seems to be based off of semantics, I don't think a satisfying conclusion will ever be reached.

Also, using that cutscene from Final Fantasy VII is a horrible example. Using a cinematic sequence to extol the virtues of video game as art seems rather misguided. Not to mention that in the context of the game, Aeris's death is completely insignificant at that point. How many times in the game had she already died in battle, only to be revived by a Phoenix Down spell? Why have any attachment with these characters when our only connection to them is poorly written and poorly translated dialogue? If we are going to keep arguing for value of video games as art, let's please stop using games like FF7 as examples.
posted by wigglin at 3:42 AM on June 24, 2008 [1 favorite]


Interesting that people are flocking around Katamari Damacy as an example of video games as art. If we decide that this game is art, then shouldn't we also include a visually pleasing television commercial as art as well? Or maybe a brightly colored Japanese game show?

If the definition of art is merely: visually interesting and cutesy things, then that opens all sorts of things to be included, things that might not traditionally be thought of as art. Something to keep in mind.
posted by wigglin at 3:57 AM on June 24, 2008


I don't think anyone would seriously argue that all games were art, so we have the premise "some games are art" or even "some parts of some games are art" which is really hard to disagree with as a gamer.
The problem with the word "art" is that it's not just a classification, it's also a value judgment, and although we can point to plenty of examples of creative, funny, touching, interesting moments in hundreds of games, that won't mean anything to someone who views video games as something that pimply teenagers do and not worthy of being taken seriously.

Most people who don't play games seriously or aren't friends with gamers don't take games seriously. Even people who play games for six hours a day may just see them as a way to kill time, no matter how good the games they are exposed to are. There is a strong parallel with the world of graphic novels, but that's a whole other plate of beans.

In that kind of environment, where video games are not viewed as a legitimate pastime for anyone but children, there is no chance that video games would be labelled art by any mainstream authority. Whether games are sufficiently creative, sufficiently narrative and so on doesn't even come into play.

The argument about games being art isn't even about the qualities of games individually, or as a medium most of the time - it's about the personal views of an individual in a totally irrelevant way.

Can you imagine the social circle Roger Ebert hangs out in, for example, not looking down on him for talking about how fun it was playing halo3 with his buddies over a few beers?
Yet this man can go and see Catwoman or Elektra at the movie cinema and no-one will bat an eyelid, because he's seeing all the medium has to offer, for better or worse.
Games on the other hand will be totally disregarded by most people, especially in the older generation. It doesn't matter *what* is in a game, some people just will not accept games as art, not because they are missing some requirement but because they don't respect it or even acknowledge it as a legitimate medium.

The gaming world's "Casablanca" could come out tomorrow to critical acclaim by everyone that played it, but nothing would change until after games achieved mainstream legitimacy - and only after that happens would the artistic merits and opportunities of the medium be acknowledged.

To call something art is inextricably coupled with the implication that it is good. The fact that most people won't acknowledge that some games are art seems regrettable but inevitable. Regardless of how watered down you make your premise, until games are respected as a medium of entertainment or even expression they will not be viewed as artistic except in isolated incidents in certain individuals.
posted by Dillonlikescookies at 4:53 AM on June 24, 2008 [5 favorites]


Ebert: If you can go through "every emotional journey available," doesn't that devalue each and every one of them? Art seeks to lead you to an inevitable conclusion, not a smorgasbord of choices. If next time, I have Romeo and Juliet go through the story naked and standing on their hands, would that be way cool, or what?

Someone has not read Umberto Eco's theory on open narratives which would argue that Romeo and Juliet is a great work of art because it is open to multiple interpretations. (Is it an ode to true love, or an example of teen infatuation and rebellion?) But reading deeper into Ebert's argument is that its a very limited and dare I say, quaint point of view that art is the transmission of the opinions of the artist to the audience. That is, art is communication.

But we know that communication just doesn't work that way. You don't have to be a radical postmodernist to realize that there is something a bit more complex going on behind human communication than just the transmission of an "inevitable conclusion," from speaker to audience. And much of what has become recognized as "high art" since the 1860s includes works that challenge the notion of a conclusion passed from artist to viewer. Impressionism explicitly avoided the notion of a conclusion, and surrealism intended to evoke the individual subconscious reactions of the viewer.

I don't want to say that Ebert's view of art is "traditional" because traditional arts are often very participatory in nature. Heck, even in "high art," Mozart, Beethoven and Bartok all wrote pieces explicitly for performers and students of music.

wigglin: Interesting that people are flocking around Katamari Damacy as an example of video games as art. If we decide that this game is art, then shouldn't we also include a visually pleasing television commercial as art as well? Or maybe a brightly colored Japanese game show?

Yes, and yes. But then again, I don't feel that saying that commercials and game shows are art devalues Shakespeare, or that we can't make value judgements within a broader field.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 5:12 AM on June 24, 2008 [1 favorite]


To be fair, he's discussing videogames as not being high art, which is a bit harder to argue against. I have not played many videogames compared to the people here weighing in, and very little modern games, but I think Ebert could benefit from playing The Dark Eye, as well as a handful of others. I'm not rooting for Doom here. Some of the more horrific games, I think, with a sense of revelation and betrayal at the end, stick with you if you bother to involve yourselves with them.

I will admit to not knowing what the heck "high art" is. Any time critics or artists start talking about "What ... is ... art?" I want to buy a gun, just so I can start cleaning it.
posted by adipocere at 5:43 AM on June 24, 2008


I miss Portal. Why did it have to be so damn short?
posted by rokusan at 6:08 AM on June 24, 2008


I think it's probably fair to say that they're art in the sense that the next Will Smith movie is art. That is, their purpose is mainly to entertain, not to say something deep about the human condition. And that's fine - a videogame based on Three Colors: Blue would probably be really dull and unpopular. I'm sure there are a few exceptions which the games as high art crowd are going to bludgeon me over the head with. But if I want depth and emotional resonance, I'll look towards a Hanif Kureshi book; if I want to be entertained I'll play GTA IV. I don't think many reasonable people would disagree with this position.
posted by rhymer at 6:22 AM on June 24, 2008


And we are back to Use Boll... (grin)

> You cannot use Boll here.
posted by papercake at 6:43 AM on June 24, 2008 [3 favorites]


rhymer: That is, their purpose is mainly to entertain, not to say something deep about the human condition.

What do Monet's haystacks or Dvorak's 9th Symphony say about the human condition?
posted by KirkJobSluder at 6:43 AM on June 24, 2008 [1 favorite]


Also, using that cutscene from Final Fantasy VII is a horrible example. Using a cinematic sequence to extol the virtues of video game as art seems rather misguided. Not to mention that in the context of the game, Aeris's death is completely insignificant at that point.

I think if you'll ask around, you'll find that for a great many gamers, Aeris' death was in fact a watershed moment in the evolution of games as art, but YMMV. In any case, I worried about including mostly cutscenes, but the problem with picking and choosing moments for this post was that, while most truly transcendent moments in gaming come during the midst of gameplay, those are also highly subjective (and nearly impossible to find good examples of on youtube.)

The moment in Shadow of the Colossus, for instance, when it dawns on you that what you're doing might be actually very wrong, for instance, will come at a different point for everyone who plays it, as will the point where you truly get lost in the choking, smoggy gang world of San Andreas.

Here's a question, as regards Shakespeare and Mozart, et al. Are the works themselves, written down and open to infinite interpretations, art by themselves or simply craft, a blueprint for the art of performance which can be created by performing them?
posted by Navelgazer at 6:47 AM on June 24, 2008


I think it's probably fair to say that they're art in the sense that the next Will Smith movie is art.

Note that Ebert in his response says that many/most films don't qualify either, even ones he enjoys as 'entertainments' like Star Wars, Harry Potter, Spiderman etc.

He's not being unfairly biased against videogames.
posted by rokusan at 6:47 AM on June 24, 2008


Ebert needs to get his Gordon Freeman on.
posted by cowbellemoo at 6:56 AM on June 24, 2008 [2 favorites]


Games will be high art once enough PhDs finish their dissertations; get tenure-track positions at a university; and start publishing boring essays that suck the life out of the subject.

You're right that "ART" (with a capital "A" and a flouncy flourish under the "T") is a value judgement. And a meaningless one. It's always a safe bet that if the well-fed, safe, critical establishment doesn't like something...it bears closer examination.

No one would argue that paintings aren't "art" (with a small "A" at least) although there are countless shitty, shitty paintings in coffee shops, hung by desperate wannabes, all over the world.

You could argue that PacMan with its emphasis on scoring points is strictly a game, but all the examples people have listed above are clearly something wholly other. "Interactive Computer Simulations with Open-ended sandboxed environments" is hard to say, though.
posted by device55 at 7:12 AM on June 24, 2008 [2 favorites]


I'm not sure that one can or should point to individual scenes in a game in the same way that you could in, say, a novel.

I think, actually, that comparing games to novels is more appropriate than comparing games to films. It's pretty tough to point to an individual scene in even the best novel that can encompass the feeling of the novel-as-artform. You have to read more of the book than you can easily cite to get that feeling, same as with a game. Films are where it's really easy to have one standout representative artsy scene.
posted by Solon and Thanks at 7:14 AM on June 24, 2008


I'm with device55 here, once there are enough endowed chairs dealing with electronic arts including (but not limited to) "video games," the intelligentsia will feel free to talk about games as art. I also agree with Solon about part of the artistry of good games being the difficult-to-summarize "feel" or "mood" good games create. The original Resident Evil succeeded spectacularly in creating a feeling of tension and danger. The tasks were difficult but there were generally logical and contextual keys to unlocking them. The game was a masterwork of mid-90's console gaming that was the result of fantastic creative and technical ability. If that ain't art, I don't know what is.

Also, let's drop the whole pretentious view of art as being "deep"– Monet painted pretty pictures. Why did he paint so many plants and flowers? Because they are pretty and he liked them, not to satisfy some 21st-century art professor's theories. Tchaikovsky, to quote Eric Idle, was an old poof who wrote tunes; he was also an incredible artist that created music that stirs the soul of listeners hundreds of years later.
posted by Mister_A at 7:25 AM on June 24, 2008


Linking to a bunch of youtube clips in support of your argument is fundamentally flawed. You're just capitulating to the Roger Eberts of the world, who can now feel free to evaluate games exactly like they evaluate films (and no doubt the games will come up lacking.) The interactivity's the thing.

Anyway, I don't understand why gamers are so concerned about Ebert's opinion. I don't look to Ebert for criticism of the new Lil' Wayne album (or whether hip-hop is "art") or that Murakami exhibit (or whether cum lasso is "art"). And I don't look to him for criticism of video games. Pretty simple.
posted by naju at 7:35 AM on June 24, 2008


Forgot to mench: "Victory" link is dead now. Pulled.
posted by Mister_A at 7:41 AM on June 24, 2008


...and not one mention of Jericho. Horrible game, surprisingly complex story.
posted by oninochuck at 7:46 AM on June 24, 2008


What Ebert means by making the "high art" distinction is interesting. Wikipedia redirects me to high culture, which it defines as "the set of cultural products — mainly in the arts — held in highest esteem by a culture, and the culture of ruling social groups." The article goes on to list philosophy, literature, music, visual arts (especially painting), and "traditional forms of the Performing arts, now including some Cinema." Our elite art culture has only recently admitted the likes of Ebert himself into their exclusive club, and thus it is the adherents of film who are most vested in casting video games as merely hoi polloi -- or as Ambrosia Voyeur phrases it, "the democratically accessible low-art variant of participatory installation."

Which all to say that this is just an awfully convenient way for Ebert, as one such culturally-privileged arbiter of Fine Taste, to declare "video games are not high art because I and others like me have said so."

What is more interesting to me is what those who are less ideologically invested in guarding their turf from encroachment might have to say. One of my college senior thesis seminars was on Beckett, and when I had first encountered some of his late formalistic plays, such as Quad (video excerpt), I likened it to Tetris at the time. But today I would liken it more to Rez in its geometric and synesthetic concerns (and Beckett's Play has the tenor of Katamari Damacy, including the dark undertone); I think even Beckett himself might make that connection had he been alive long enough to encounter Rez for himself. Already, there's no doubt to me that some of the formalistic ideas that Beckett was reaching for in Quad resonates more strongly within contemporary culture in Rez, due to issues like simple audience reach. And I don't think Beckett would have cared one whit about the "high art" line that contemporary critics are using to divide the two.

At some point, it all comes down to cultural relevance. Mine is the generation that when asked to consider a tale of morality and the consequences of one's actions, we're more inclined to refer to Planescape: Torment than a Dostoevsky novel. Or when called upon to describe an experience of melancholy isolation, we're just as likely to conjure up the scenes of cultural incongruence from Lost in Translation as we are of the pair's alien afflictions during their journey in Ico. Being educated in the Great Books doesn't preclude me from recognizing a Great Game when I'm playing one -- if anything, it intensified the recognition. Sometimes it's about the sheer joy and beauty of the game's mechanics and process, as in Shadow of the Colossus, Katamari Damacy, and Rez. Other times it's in the narrative that the interaction drives, as in Planescape: Torment, Ico, and even an indescribably flawed game like Pathologic. But to those who are actually familiar and experienced with video games, we already know that by no relevant definition of art -- whether it's aesthetic value, the conveying of ideas, emotional resonance, cultural relevance, or any other metric -- can the best of video games be rightfully excluded from the best of art. And that's going to become more and more obvious as the old guard inevitably dies out.

KirkJobSluder described Ebert's view of what art is as "quaint", and that's essentially it. Ebert's view that video games isn't "high art" like cinema doesn't make him wrong; it just makes him dated. He didn't come of age in a time where video games is becoming an increasingly central cultural touchstone; in terms of annual revenue, video games has already equaled Hollywood. In another generation or three, Ebert's opinion of video games will be filed alongside those of others who defined art in terms of the tastes of the existing cultural elite. He's on the wrong side of history.
posted by DaShiv at 7:50 AM on June 24, 2008 [4 favorites]


I'd like to sit Ebert down to play Emily Short's IF game Galatea.
posted by EarBucket at 7:54 AM on June 24, 2008


Too many cutscenes, console games, out-of-context moments, etc... loved the idea of the post, but it's poorly executed.
posted by autodidact at 8:14 AM on June 24, 2008


Video games are more like toys than they are like novels. Toys can be art, but aren't likely to be. It may be that the cleverness and perfection of a beautifully designed toy makes you laugh out loud with delight -- but really, how often does even that happen? And is it, then, art, or just craftmanship at a high level?

I find the very greatest works of art to be compelling, memorable, expansive and moving. I find the very greatest video games to be addictive, catchy, big and draining.
posted by argybarg at 8:17 AM on June 24, 2008 [1 favorite]


I've recently been rewatching the Discovery Channel's Rise of the Video Game, and in the first episode someone makes the point that once a video game has made you cry, there can be no question that it is truly art.

I've played a lot of games, and while I do consider many of them true art, only one has made me cry. Specifically, the opening of Kingdom Hearts 2. I still get chills watching it now. Some may dismiss the KH games as a kiddy mix of Final Fantasy and Disney, but the themes of friendship, responsibility and growing up are truly touching. I think what did it for me is the shot of an older Kairi staring out into the sea around 1:52, mourning her lost childhood and absent friends.

Other games that spring to mind as art are - Katamari Damacy, Shadow of the Colossus (which I still haven't played, although I saw a pair of sculptures inspired by it in Montreal last weekend; if it can inspire "true" art, it's got to be at least somewhat arty, right?), Super Mario Galaxy, and BioShock.
posted by yellowbinder at 8:22 AM on June 24, 2008


Something that really pops to mind the more I read his argument, is that Ebert makes many of the same arguments that were made about photography and cinema. Photography "tended to involve" tons of formula portraiture, and early cinema "tended to involve" lots of cheesecake and gimmicks.

And why are we talking about this just in terms of "video games" rather than just "games" (including go, backgammon and chess) or "interactive media" which would include a host of interactive art installations?
posted by KirkJobSluder at 8:27 AM on June 24, 2008


Folks like Ebert (who I normally adore) use terms like "video games" to evoke PacMan and Pong in order to reinforce their argument without having to use annoying things like critical thought reason.
posted by device55 at 8:42 AM on June 24, 2008


And for the record, I will kick your ass at Pong.
posted by device55 at 8:43 AM on June 24, 2008


If we got game developers to write up long bullshit artist's statements about how, say, their tetris clone explores racism and the patriarchy, would that be sufficient?
posted by TheOnlyCoolTim at 9:06 AM on June 24, 2008


Also -- the best 'popular' games criticism blows away the best pop movie criticism, imo. I'd take Kieron Gillen over Roger Ebert reviewing anything.
posted by empath at 10:08 AM on June 24, 2008


There's no reason "high art" has to be political or comment on human nature. That's a fallacy. In the postmodern era, all it has to do is express something true about its own form. I'm not sure how hard a line Ebert sees between art and entertainment, but I find none at all. It's a case by case basis and it's, of course, one of the most subjective endeavors of judgment.
posted by Ambrosia Voyeur at 10:09 AM on June 24, 2008


The problem with this whole argument is that it's a what is art argument which is pretty much unanswerable.

One thing I would note though is that plenty of people who do not paint or visit art galleries consider paintings great art. Whereas hardly anyone who doesn't play videogames considers them art (or, for that matter has any real interest in them).

This to me seems the crux of why everyone on the pro-videogame side gets so hot and bothered. Those who do not play games consider them a childish diversion and tend to dismiss them out of hand. Outside the gaming world, people just aren't interested. I very much doubt this will change anytime soon.
posted by rhymer at 10:30 AM on June 24, 2008


Let X be any noun or verb.

Q: Can X be Art?

A: Yes.
posted by rusty at 10:52 AM on June 24, 2008 [1 favorite]


There are three types of debates:

1) In which people define basic terms before debating them:
X is an attempt to Y.
Debater 1: X fails at its attempt to Y, because...
Debater 2: X succeeds at its attempt to Y, because...

2) In which people have an emotional, stream-of-consciousness, word-association discussion centered around a topic:
Topic: X
Discusser 1: I like X.
Discusser 2: I hate X.
Discusser 3: X reminds me of the time when...

3) In which people are really engaging the the second type but pretend they're engaged in the first -- or really believe (because they're confused, not dishonest) that they're engaged in the first.
Topic: X
Pseudo-debater 1: X totally fails.
Pseudo-debater 2: X totally succeeds!

In my experience, three is the most common form of "debate," and it's pretty worthless -- as debate. It's worthy as a Round-robin discussion, much like form two, but it's less noble than two because it's not honest. People who are genuinely interested in a debate can get suckered into three, because it's superficially in debate form. (Why does our culture insist on framing so many non-debate discussions in the form of a debate? An argument is not necessarily a debate. Ranking things is not necessarily a debate.)

When I read this debate, it sounds to me like Ebbert and Barker are saying, "let's have a debate about BLEEBS."

Ebbert starts by saying, "video games are not BLEEEEBS."

Barker counters by saying, "video games are too BLEEEEEEEEEEEEEBS!"

Because they never took the trouble to define "BLEEBS," they don't notice that one of them is talking about BLEEEEBS while the other is talking about BLEEEEEEEEEEEEEBS. The intellectual content of their debate is nil, because they haven't defined what they're debating about.

(I'll play armchair-psychologist for a second and suggest that these are two two REAL positions:

Ebbert: I love traditional art, and I feel threatened when people push non-traditional stuff in the "art" category.

Barker: I like video games. You're somehow saying they're bad! That makes it seem like I'm bad -- or not as worthy a person as you -- for liking them as much as I do!)

It may be difficult to define art. It may be impossible to define art. That's too bad, but that's not license to go ahead with the debate anyway. If you can't agree on basic terms and definitions, you can't have a meaningful debate. You can only have a form two or three discussion. And I recommend two, because at least it's honest.

Barker admits that he can't define art. Fine, then why is he debating with Ebbert? Ebbert has made a specific claim about video games not being in a category he calls art. Barker has responded by saying, in effect, I don't know what art is, but Ebbert is wrong? I don't understand Ebbert's category. But I do know he's wrong about his category. How does that make sense?

Meanwhile, Ebbert is insisting he's right that video games are not art -- or high art or whatever -- but he's not explaining what he means by art. He's assuming we all share the same definition. If he's not assuming that, then his "argument" simply boils down to "I've made up a category called art, defined it the way I personally want to define it, and via my definition, video games don't belong in that category." And who can argue with that? On the other hand, who cares about that? Ebbert is dishonest or confused, because he's writing as if he's NOT making a subjective claim. Fine. If you're not making a subjective claim, have the guts or the ability to define your terms.

It's as if he's saying, "Look, there's this thing called Art. We ALL agree on what art is, so I'm not going to bother defining it. Okay, now that we have that over with, let's debate about whether or not video games art art... I say they're not, because..."

The people in this thread who are saying things like, "Ebbert is just wrong!" are being equally bizarre in my book. If I say, "One plus one equals five," it makes sense to say I'm wrong, because I'm making a claim about terms that have almost universally-agreed-upon meanings. If I say, "Crub plus moob equals plepp," how is it sensible to say I'm right or wrong?

All of this is a shame, because there are some really interesting discussions that COULD revolve around the subjects of video games and art. Here are a few points that I think are worth discussing:

-- Let's define "High Art" to mean art that lasts. "King Lear" is High Art not only because many connoisseurs thing it's great. It's High Art because many connoisseurs have thought it great for hundreds of years. "Citizen Kane" hasn't been around for hundreds of years, but connoisseurs have though it great for many decades. How likely is it that any of today's video game will be loved in a hundred years? If you think they will, what qualities in those games will make them be likely to endure? If you don't think any video games will have that kind of endurance, do you think this is due to lack-of-depth in the games themselves? Or do you think it's due to lack-of-depth in the video-game form? In other words, even if there are not High Art games today, do you think it's hypothetically possible to construct one?

-- Let's define "High Art" as a particular emotional experience. There are entertainments, which give you a fleeting thrill (like sex or chocolate); there's art, which gives you a longer, more-involved experience; then there's High Art, which elevates you to some sort of spiritual plain. Many people would say "King Lear" or Beethoven's 9th Symphony are do this. What features within them contribute to this "spiritual" feeling? Can/Could video games do this? How?

-- Narratives (stories) work. They work in the sense that they seem to hook into something really deep and fundamental in human nature. They also work in the sense that the narrative form has endured for thousands of years. It's endured virtually unchanged, and yet it still seems to work. Thousands of years ago, Aristotle wrote notes about the story form which still seem to hold today. Are there other forms -- non-narrative forms -- that have this kind of staying power? What about hybrid forms, forms that are part narrative and part something else? Video games -- to a greater or lesser degree, depending on the specific game -- don't entirely follow the traditional narrative form. How will this impact their ability to rise above being just a trend?

Personally, I feel like I've been inside a closely-related debate for years: straight-narrative theatre vs. improv. Improv, for those who participate, is much more like a game than a traditional story. There are rules, but within those rules you can -- via interactivity -- control the outcome.

Actually, you can remove improv from the table and still have the debate: watching a play vs. acting in a play. It may seem like performing "King Lear" is a rigid activity. But any actor will tell you that even within the rules of a traditional play, you have tons of wiggle room. Whereas in the audience you have much less. You do, of course, have the power of individual interpretation. But you can't affect the actions on stage.

I will make two claims about this debate:

1. There are a significant emotional differences between straight-forward narrative and improv (or play-watching vs play-acting).

2. To me, straightforward narrative is more powerful in this sense: in general, it endures longer in my mind.

I might get totally wrapped up in an improv, a part I'm acting or a video game I'm playing. But that's SO about being in the moment. Once the moment is over, it's gone. I never think back to old games of Quake or Tetris. (Maybe that's just me.) But I do think back -- and to some extent relive -- stories I was told years ago.

I think it's possible for games and improvs to give you that experience. But I think it happens much less often than with narratives. (I suspect this has something to do with the well-honed narrative form. It's had thousands of years to evolve into something powerful.)

I don't think that makes one form better than the other. Each is good at affecting me in different ways. If you want to call one way "art" and the other way "entertainment" then so be it. But that's just labeling.
posted by grumblebee at 10:59 AM on June 24, 2008 [5 favorites]


I'm not sure why video game enthusiasts are so pressed to establish their hobby as "art." Is chess art? Poker? A playground? How about baseball? Well, why not? They all share things in common with paradigmatic instances of art, like paintings or symphonies (many more people have been moved to tears by the World Series than by video games, for example); they also share things in common with video games. Moreover, who cares? The debate, as much as there is one, is essentially an argument about the definition of a word. The world is not carved up into neat, clean categories. There is no "art" and "not-art," only degrees of perceived similarity. Words are ways of talking about the world--they are not the world itself. You'd think hard-to-classify examples like video games would help make clear just how rough the fit is between our words and categories and the "real world," rather than further reify them.
posted by decoherence at 11:04 AM on June 24, 2008


If it's a medium, it can carry art.

Narrative != story.
posted by davemee at 11:05 AM on June 24, 2008 [1 favorite]


In the postmodern era, all it has to do is express something true about its own form.

Everything expresses something true about its own form. The jar of olives I'm about to open expresses its jarry, olivey, nature. The air I am breathing expresses truths about PV = nRT. I think that definition is so wide as to be useless, though I would be interested in finding something that expresses falseness about its own form. I think such a thing would probably have to involve paradox, and I mean a good paradox, not just some whinging statement about "the paradox of the blah blah blah in contemporary blah blah blah society"
posted by TheOnlyCoolTim at 11:08 AM on June 24, 2008


I'm not sure why video game enthusiasts are so pressed to establish their hobby as "art."

I agree. But I'd add puzzlement as to why traditionalists are so pressed to deny games are art. What does it matter what's art and what's not?

Is this debate anything more elevated than the old generation hating the new generation and vice versa?
posted by grumblebee at 11:12 AM on June 24, 2008 [1 favorite]


There's no reason "high art" has to be political or comment on human nature. That's a fallacy. In the postmodern era...

It's a fallacy IF you define art the way postmodernist define it.
posted by grumblebee at 11:19 AM on June 24, 2008


Seconding what grumblebee said, I do think the more interesting and fruitful debate would be which, if any, video games might still be around in a 50 years or a century. That both result in a prediction (and hence makes the debate about something much more than words and categories) and also nicely captures the thing that video game enthusiasts are trying to argue for when they try to make the case that their favorite game is "art." Without that sort of timelesness that acknowledged "great art" has, that significance to people's lives that transcends the merely topical or new, it would be tough to make the case that a game rises to the stature of something like King Lear, or even Singin' in the Rain (and by this same reasoning, of course, you can dismiss the vast majority of paintings and novels which don't mean anything to anyone anymore).
posted by decoherence at 11:24 AM on June 24, 2008


rhymer writes Those who do not play games consider them a childish diversion and tend to dismiss them out of hand. Outside the gaming world, people just aren't interested. I very much doubt this will change anytime soon.

Given that the age of the average gamer is 35 and that PwC expects the video game industry to be a $68 billion business by 2012, I think it will change a lot sooner than you expect. Heck, GTA IV made more in its first week than any film has ever made in its opening week.
posted by joedan at 11:28 AM on June 24, 2008


It's a fallacy IF you define art the way postmodernist define it.

So, you'd like to pretend we're in the modern era or...?

It's important to discuss art from our present moment, which is postmodernism or beyond. Now, I understand that there wasn't some moment when the modern era clicked over into the postmodern, but if you want to discuss "what's art" from the perspective of classicists, as if we were contemporaries of Mozart, then Folk Art goes right out, Outsider Art, Dada, Cubism, etc. etc. We have a longer view than that.

I do argue that some sense of self-referentiality or some nod to the ontologies of a piece's function, formal history or context are one thing that clearly elevates a piece from functional entertainment object to the realm of art. I believe that was accomplished during modernism, maybe specifically Duchamp, and is a genie out of the bottle. The simple question to apply: Is it artful? And, as someone who loves art, I see many things as artful, from Chip's Challenge to Portal and most of the Wii catalog. The joyous exploration of technologies that engage people in narrative (not story) or form new realisms, is clearly artistic endeavor, in my opnion.
posted by Ambrosia Voyeur at 11:34 AM on June 24, 2008


So, you'd like to pretend we're in the modern era or...?

Not necessarily. It just seems to me like you're making a bunch of "this is a done, cut-and-dried deal" claims about things that are really a matter of personal taste and opinion. For instance...

It's important to discuss art from our present moment, which is postmodernism or beyond.

Wow, that's a packed statement!

WHY is it important to discuss art from our present moment? To whom is it important to discuss art that way? What do they gain by doing it? What do they lose by not doing it?

In what sense is the present moment a postmodern (or beyond) moment? Do you mean that it just IS or that many academics view it that way?

When I read a story that's not self-referential -- or that doesn't seem self-referential to me -- what moment am I in? I'm not in the present moment?
posted by grumblebee at 11:50 AM on June 24, 2008


I do argue that some sense of self-referentiality or some nod to the ontologies of a piece's function, formal history or context are one thing that clearly elevates a piece from functional entertainment object to the realm of art.

I can't tell if you're saying something fascinating or banal. It it's the former, then you have to complete (what seems to me) an unfinished statement.

What you're saying is banal (and tautological) if it's "I define art as work that is self-referential." It's banal because you're just labeling something.

I'm guessing you're doing more than that. Usually, people use "art" as a rank. "Art" is better (or more valuable) than non-art. So are you claiming that self-referential works are better (or more valuable or more "spiritual" or "higher") than non-self-referential works? If so, then your statement is unfinished because you haven't said why or how?

Unless you just mean you personally like them better.

They're certainly more trendy in academic circles than non-self-referential works.
posted by grumblebee at 11:55 AM on June 24, 2008


but if you want to discuss "what's art" from the perspective of classicists

Personally, I reject all such discussions. I don't see the point of them, and generally they don't have much intellectual meaning (though they may have emotional "I hate you because you don't like what I like" meaning).

I think there is a ton of meaning in closely-related discussions. Discussions such as...

-- What works are worth preserving? (Since we have limited time and resources.)

-- What works are worth pushing on people (e.g. which works should be taught in school)?

-- If you're a particular sort of person, which works are you likely to be moved by?

-- Are there any techniques an artist can use that will enhance his ability to move many people?

-- Are there any reactions to particular works that are close to universal?

-- As an artist, if you're trying to create a particular effect, what techniques will help you do that?

But just discussing "what's art" is so vague and open to multiple interpretations (in the same discussion), I can't see the utility.
posted by grumblebee at 12:02 PM on June 24, 2008 [2 favorites]


grumblebee: Well actually. I think Ebert has laid out his definition of art, although you have to sift through his blather about bodily functions in order to get there. High art is:
1: It's an expression of an artist and not participatory.
2: It leads you to an "inevitable conclusion."
3: It can be distinguished from "entertainments." (ie. ballet is art, circus is entertainment.)
4: It helps "consumers become more or less complex, thoughtful, insightful, witty, empathetic, intelligent, philosophical (and so on) by experiencing them?"

The trouble is, it's trivial to find "high art" that breaks one or more of these rules. 1: The Notre Dame is fundamentally participatory, it is meant to be walked through and used as a place of worship. 2: Romeo and Juliet is open to multiple interpretations. 3: Duck Soup (off of Ebert's list of "Great Movies") is built on lowbrow vaudeville. 4: Bad baby studies aside, can it really be said that Mozart minuets do this? So my argument is that Ebert is just rationalizing a prejudice.

grumblebee: Are there other forms -- non-narrative forms -- that have this kind of staying power?

Duhhhhhhh. Music and abstract painting are both non-narrative, and as old as humanity. I'd argue that dance isn't necessarily narrative.

decoherence: Oh, there are a bunch of troubles with timelessness as a criteria. To start with, few people thought that the impressionists would be as influential as they were. Their primary patrons during their own period of activity were fellow starving artists, and nouveau-rich Americans looking for a way to look cultured on a budget. The other problem is that many groups and cultures have been politically locked out of the avenues of publication and discussion that keeps works alive within a culture.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 12:07 PM on June 24, 2008 [3 favorites]


Trying to demonstrate that videogames are art by showing people videoclips or screenshots of the game is exactly like trying to demonstrate that movies are art by having people read scripts. If you haven't played the game, you haven't experienced it any more than if you'd read a verbal description of a piece of music.

Criticizing the interactivity of games for not allowing the creator to present a single, unified story is like criticizing sculpture because the viewer can look at it from any angle and let his eyes roam from top to bottom or side to side or whatever.
posted by straight at 12:12 PM on June 24, 2008 [2 favorites]


postmodernism or beyond.

We could be beyond postmodernism? I want to see an ever-increasing rate of change, a goddamn singularity of criticism.

Actually, some of the transhuman/singularity ideas and stories do get a bit postmodern. Also, games are important here as evidences of simulated realities which lead us to question the nature of our own reality.
posted by TheOnlyCoolTim at 12:16 PM on June 24, 2008


dang, grumblebee. I'm smart about art but I'm not super fast. Lemme catch a breath here and turn off Sesame Street...
posted by Ambrosia Voyeur at 12:18 PM on June 24, 2008


Ebert's strongest point is that art must be created by an artist, and the inherent interactivity of games takes control away from the artist and gives it to the player, thereby undermining the worth of the piece.

This is the place where Ebert is wrong. The key is in determining this is to realize that even though they are interactive, games are still not a null-quantity. You can't do ANYTHING with a game, you can only do the things that are open to you. It's the types of choices that are offered, and their implications, that can make video games art.

Games like Final Fantasy, thus, can be art because for all the illusion of interactivity there's really a fairly linear path, but that's a poor example. Even wide-open games like SimCity don't let you make ANYTHING; you're still limited by your money supply, and the whims of the sims, and other things, and you're still just making a city. And Spore isn't art by Ebert's definition, but it makes one of the most powerful statements in gaming, that life at small scales and large has a kind of similarity. (Katamari Damacy, to respond to a previous comment, is also like this.)

On whether games can be high art, well, they can be that too, but not yet. High art is usually not considered to be high when it's just getting off the ground. Remember: Shakespeare's plays and opera were both popular culture, once.

I think if you'll ask around, you'll find that for a great many gamers, Aeris' death was in fact a watershed moment in the evolution of games as art, but YMMV.

Guh.
posted by JHarris at 12:21 PM on June 24, 2008


grumblebee: Well actually. I think Ebert has laid out his definition of art, although you have to sift through his blather about bodily functions in order to get there. High art is:
1: It's an expression of an artist and not participatory.
2: It leads you to an "inevitable conclusion."
3: It can be distinguished from "entertainments." (ie. ballet is art, circus is entertainment.)
4: It helps "consumers become more or less complex, thoughtful, insightful, witty, empathetic, intelligent, philosophical (and so on) by experiencing them?"


This is fine as a list of qualities, but what's the next step?

I assume Ebbert isn't just listing qualities. Like Ambrosia Voyeur (if I understand her correctly -- even though she lists totally different qualities), he's making a value judgment based on those qualities.

He's saying "If a work has these qualities, it's better than if it doesn't."

If he's not saying that, he's saying nothing. If he's not saying that, he's saying, "I'm going to list some qualities a work might have, and if it has those qualities, I'll call that work 'art.' Art means that a work has those qualities."

Okay, and I say Blart means it has some other qualities. And Glart means it has still other qualities.

Assuming he IS making a value judgment, is it just personal? If he just saying "Here's a list of qualities a work has to have in order for me to like it." Or maybe he's being trendy: "Here's a list of qualities a work has to have in order for this or that esteemed group of people to like it."

IF he's saying something more profound -- works with these qualities are OBJECTIVELY better (e.g. they enhance society in a way other works don't -- then he's got some proving to do.
posted by grumblebee at 12:22 PM on June 24, 2008


straight: Criticizing the interactivity of games for not allowing the creator to present a single, unified story is like criticizing sculpture because the viewer can look at it from any angle and let his eyes roam from top to bottom or side to side or whatever.

Bingo. It bothers me that this is all treated as something new and unique to "video games" when artists have been considering audience participation for many centuries now.

TheOnlyCoolTim: Actually, some of the transhuman/singularity ideas and stories do get a bit postmodern.

In that transhumanism/singularity theory is even more loaded with crap than what passes for postmodernism these days?
posted by KirkJobSluder at 12:24 PM on June 24, 2008


In that transhumanism/singularity theory is even more loaded with crap than what passes for postmodernism these days?

I was thinking more about the weird shit in say, Stross' stories than anything Kurzweil goes on about.
posted by TheOnlyCoolTim at 12:29 PM on June 24, 2008


I'm not sure why video game enthusiasts are so pressed to establish their hobby as "art."

Because occasionally, all too rarely, a game will rise above mere fun to become wonderful, sublime, beautiful. Whatever you want to call it. That thing that we more often associate with great music, great literature, great paintings. I can't define it, but it is, to me, self-evidently the same sort of thing.

The hope is that if these rare games that deserve to be called great are more widely recognized and praised, we might see more of them.
posted by straight at 12:40 PM on June 24, 2008


straight, can you name a few? If you're right, I would like to experience what you're talking about.
posted by grumblebee at 12:52 PM on June 24, 2008


In what sense is the present moment a postmodern (or beyond) moment? Do you mean that it just IS or that many academics view it that way?

I can't honestly answer that question because I'm pretty sure I'm "one of those academics" on this matter. I believe old modes of evaluating art and discussing the ontology of art are generally valid, but in a discussion of digital arts, how can they be applicable? This form didn't exist until so very recently, that it's very hard, as I think this thread has shown, to find apt comparisons between video games and any other historical art form, or apt models for their very analysis, except experimental arts in the digital/installation neighborhood, and that subbject is not familiar to most participants.

I admit, I think it's totally important to evaluate art from a historical perspective that valorizes what Dada, Punk, Folk Art and other Anti-Art or Is It Art movements of the 20th century have done to broaden the definitions of what can be viewed as art, if ONLY because the use of those kinds of pieces in association with statements or contextualizations of "This Is Art" is in the cultural parlance to stay, and argument against that creates what I think of as dialectical static, an impediment to understanding. But I happen to believe that they are, or can be, Art, and I can't tease that belief apart from the aim of enabling discussion of Art. Art is not merely conveyance of narrative, political or apolitical, and it isn't merely control over human reaction to the sublime. It dances in the web between these two things, playing upon all our faculties. It's intellectual, emotional, physical and cultural.

When I read a story that's not self-referential -- or that doesn't seem self-referential to me -- what moment am I in? I'm not in the present moment?

I'm not using self-referentiality in a strict sense of the term. Strict self-referentiality is a cheap trick of narrative, which of course, I really enjoy, because yeah, I am that trendy academic type and I specialize in a particularly postmoderny hip thing: found footage. A better word choice may be self-posession. A work which makes cogent use of the features of its form has, in my opinion, inherent artistic property. The films at the top of my estimation are those which use their form to tell some story but also comment on themes of or changes in the art form which they represent: like 2001 for use of the big screen to say something about imagination, or Peeping Tom for use of the camera's perspective to say something about voyeurism, or Space Ghost: Coast to Coast for its postmodern flattening of spaces and weirding of realisms. It's harder to see thoughtful consideration and expression about the boundaries of the screen or about color film stock or the distribution apparatus in SuperBad. But, as I said, that's super subjective and may be a matter of context. Many's the film whose artistic merits are appreciated only years later.

Works that excel within a form but don't break ground, and can be reiterated are what I would call genre works. There can be wonderful genre works, like Stagecoach, but it's often when the genre boundaries are played with or used to examine what the genre conventions say about the culture that created them, that I (personally) get out the capital A. McCabe and Mrs. Miller or even, personal favorite here: The Quick and The Dead. Ha. Raimi and the Coens do a fun thing that climbs up a pile of Camp to reach for Art, which I call genre-fucking. They RUIN genres for evermore (or at least for a while).

Anyway, I digress. Use of or adherence to genre is only one rubric by which a work can be measured, but it is a big one - it's a manageable and familiar granular level of context, basically.

But just discussing "what's art" is so vague and open to multiple interpretations (in the same discussion), I can't see the utility.

Well, then you're not cut out for work in philosophy, and no offense there! Discussing the boundaries of concepts and the ontologies of our existence - what is art, what is it to be human, what is reality - is not a utilitarian activity exactly, it's decidedly a modern indulgence, but it often does generate intellectual or artistic inspiration.
posted by Ambrosia Voyeur at 12:53 PM on June 24, 2008


Well, then you're not cut out for work in philosophy, and no offense there! Discussing the boundaries of concepts and the ontologies of our existence - what is art, what is it to be human, what is reality - is not a utilitarian activity exactly, it's decidedly a modern indulgence, but it often does generate intellectual or artistic inspiration.

Sure, discussions of "what is art" can generate inspiration -- they do this because "what is art" is a vague question. As such, it's wonderful for brainstorming. That's what I was talking about when I brought up the three forms of debate. I have no problem with "Hey, everyone go round the room and give your definition of art." What bothers me is pretending that vague question is well-defined enough for the sort of debate Ebbert and Barker are "having."

A work which makes cogent use of the features of its form has, in my opinion, inherent artistic property.

This interests me, because taken on its own, it's my definition of art, too. Or it's a definition of the type of art I like best. We differ here:

The films at the top of my estimation are those which use their form to tell some story but also comment on themes of or changes in the art form which they represent...

I don't really care about trends in art. While I'm watching, say, "2001," I don't want to be thinking about other movies it's "commenting on." If I'm thinking about other movies, then I'm not totally wrapped up in the world of "2001," which is always my goal.

To me, a "work which makes cogent use of the features of its form" means that the work is so well-suited to its form that it can't be told (without greatly diminishing it) in another form. "2001" is a great example (at least to me), because it wouldn't work as well (in fact didn't work as well) as a novel. You'd have to waste so many words describing stuff that the movie can just show you. It wouldn't work as a piece of music, as a play, etc.

I've always thought "Henry V" is a perfect play, but it's not a perfect movie. I enjoy the Olivier and Branaugh films, but it's stupid when the Chorus says "Work your thoughts! Work!" when my thoughts don't have to do any work at all, because I can see everything via movie magic.

To me, "The Great Gatsby" is the perfect novel, because you have to be inside the narrator's head for it to work. I've never seen any adaptation of it work, and I don't really think it's adaptable.

I'm wondering what the video game equivalent would be. It would have to be...

1. A great experience -- something that moves you in a profound way.
2. An experience you could only have via the video-game medium.

First-person shooters can move me (I remember getting scared when a monster jumped out at me during Quake. And I thought, "Wow! A video game just scared me. I didn't think that was possible.") But I always feel like they'd work better via some kind of super-advanced amusement-park experience. Something like laser tag, only better produced and more controlled.
posted by grumblebee at 1:14 PM on June 24, 2008


All games should be considered art. The art is not in the playing of a single game, but in the concept of the rules and tools of the game. The game of Go with it's simplicity, and near infinite possibilities in game play is definitely art, at least as much as anything by Sol Lewitt. But Go wasn't created by an artist - it likely evolved over time as people played it. Still, I would call it collaborative art.
Now drawing an analogy with music, it's a given that a composer is an artist, and that the composition is a work of art. Those that perform the composition are also accorded status as artists, unlike those that perform the work of a game designer (machinima not included).
The violin maker is considered a craftsman, however - not an artist.
I see the parallels with videogames like this: The game designer is an artist. Just look at Will Wright, Ian Bell, Shigeru Miyamoto, etc. The programmers, graphic designers, and all the people actually building the game are craftsmen, at least in the endeavor of getting a game produced.
Unfortunately, I don't think today's video games come close enough to offering enough possibilities for players to be considered artists. Virtuosos, perhaps - but I think the day is coming soon where art will be possible through game play. Spore's creature creator is a step in this direction, as is the open-ended environments provided by the MMORPGs.
Imagine a game world created the way spore's creatures are, and experienced the way World of Warcraft is (minus the scripted repetitive quests). I think the resulting game experience would be art as much as the game design.
posted by bashos_frog at 1:19 PM on June 24, 2008


I'm with yellowbinder, or at least whoever he's quoting. Asking whether videogames are (or can be) art is like asking whether animals have souls. It's the kind of thing only people who don't spend a lot of time around them aren't sure about.

Me, I love a good credits sequence. I mean, a good credits sequence. Classic example; there are others. It's not just the closure-- everything has that. What other medium has a special timeslot for telling you how proud it is of you?
posted by jinjo at 1:28 PM on June 24, 2008


Discussing the boundaries of concepts and the ontologies of our existence - what is art, what is it to be human, what is reality - is not a utilitarian activity exactly, it's decidedly a modern indulgence, but it often does generate intellectual or artistic inspiration.

I think there are some key meta-questions about discussions like these. (Assuming, again, you're not just using them as pegs for brainstorming or fun, round-robin discussions.)

If our starting point is "What is art?" or "What is human?" we can't already have a working definition of "art" or "human." If we did, there's be nothing to discuss. So how can we discuss "what is art?" without a definition?

What's the difference between "What is art?" and "What is zub?"

I'm not saying there's definitely no difference. I'm saying that it's worthwhile asking IF there's a difference (and if so, what), because the answer to that question will tell us if debating the nature of art is worthwhile.

I think it CAN be worth debating a category if all participants have SOME common ground about that category. Is that true about art? Even if we don't all mean exactly the same thing by the term, do we all mean roughly the same thing? If not -- if you mean a four-legged creature and I mean a type of cheese -- how can we gain anything via debate other than schoolyard "no it's not" "yes it is"?

Another key meta question is "What is the goal of this debate?" I don't necessarily mean "goal" in a utilitarian sense. But "because we're interested in art" is circular and unhelpful. "What is art" is so broad. It's too broad really. It needs a context. I don't share your context (postmodernism), AV, but I understand your desire to pin the discussion down to SOME context.

So why are we -- we being the participants in a given discussion -- trying to pinpoint the meaning of art? Are we trying to help ourselves appreciate certain works more or less? If I prove to you that some work you love is not art, will you love it less? If you'll love it just as much, what will it mean to you -- if anything -- for it not to be art?

Are we trying to help artists create better works?

Are we trying to help curators know which works to preserve?

Are we trying to help schools know which works to teach?

Are we trying to come up with a framework that will link multiple works together into something greater than the sum of its parts? If so, what of works that don't fit into this framework? Will we start appreciating them less?

Are we being descriptive? Are we just trying to pin down what we already like and why we like it?

Having read this whole thread, I still feel like this issue is so vague and devoid of context that the best parsing I can give the Ebbert/Barker debate is "Do you think certain video games are as-good-as Shakespeare plays and Beethoven symphonies?"
posted by grumblebee at 1:30 PM on June 24, 2008


To me, a "work which makes cogent use of the features of its form" means that the work is so well-suited to its form that it can't be told (without greatly diminishing it) in another form.

That's a great standard that is even more foundational that mine.

I don't really care about trends in art. While I'm watching, say, "2001," I don't want to be thinking about other movies it's "commenting on."

That is not at all what I'm saying. Ugh! Homage? Trends? No, no, I'm talking about doing something with the form at hand so great as to draw out new understandings or new expressions about the ontology of the form, of its language. I guess I have to admit that avant-garde works are my favorites. But if you want to be protected from thinking about the meaning or the accomplishment of the art as you experience it, then we are at odds. I like having the option; I like that Brecht existed, and Lacan.

A lesser but apt example from cinema could be eXistenz - a film framed and stylized like a video game, about a video game, which sets out to obey the laws of realism of a video game, more than a movie. The foil it creates expresses the differences in the two schools of narrative.
posted by Ambrosia Voyeur at 1:41 PM on June 24, 2008


On preview: grumblebee, I'm not at all moderating a discussion on What Is Art. I admit that I think I already know it when I see it; I think I'm like anybody else, trying to control the discourse and the development of language, the language being Art. I'm arguing for my own point of view, for its evolutionary advantage. It's not an exploratory mission to a hidden summit, which we can all climb together, it's a tug of war.
posted by Ambrosia Voyeur at 1:46 PM on June 24, 2008


But if you want to be protected from thinking about the meaning or the accomplishment of the art as you experience it, then we are at odds. I like having the option; I like that Brecht existed, and Lacan.

The interesting thing here is that you can't be both within a world and without at the same time. On some level, we know that movies (novels, etc.) are contrivances. But I like forgetting this fact -- for as long as possible -- while I watch them. The more I can forget, the more I'll be sensually affected.

If I'm sensually overwhelmed, which I like to be, then there's a certain amount of intellectual work that's impossible. To put it simply, you can't think while someone is pointing a gun at your children.

This is where we really get into matters of personal taste. I like to be sensually tickled to the extent that I can't be if I'm aware I'm experiencing a contrivance. I want a movie to hit me in the gut as much as real life and dreams. Other people don't like that. Or they like it, but they like other thinks as much (or more), and that's fine.

I am capable of appreciating the craftsmanship behind works I don't enjoy. For instance, I don't care for political cartoons, but I can still admire the technique behind a good one. From this vantage, I must say that most Brechtian works (not generally those by Brecht himself) are pretty shoddy. I neither like them nor admire them.

I think such works are VERY hard to make, because if they're well-made, you want the audience to SOMETIMES get involved with the story in a dream-like way and SOMETIMES not. You know they can't do both at once, so you don't try for that. Instead, you attempt to make the dream and non-dream talk to each other in stimulating ways.

This means you have to be really skilled at crafting both immersive art AND alienating art. And few people are.

Brecht was. He was a skilled story teller (of the traditional mold) and also a skilled innovator in terms of form. As was Shakespeare. Too many artists try to leap straight for the Brechtian without first mastering traditional storytelling and avant-guard techniques.

I think I've only seen maybe ten or so Brechtian-style works in my life that seemed well-crafted to me.
posted by grumblebee at 1:57 PM on June 24, 2008


I'm arguing for my own point of view, for its evolutionary advantage. It's not an exploratory mission to a hidden summit, which we can all climb together, it's a tug of war.

Yes but is there any way of arguing such points of view besides what I always see people do, which is making lists of features and then proclaiming those lists better than other people's lists (without defining better)?

Because if the Ebbert/Barker way IS the only way then you're literally right -- it is a tug of way. It's not about rational argument. It's about which gorilla can thump his chest the loudest.

I actually have a ton of respect for chest-thumping. What I can't respect is chest-thumping that's dressed up to look like rigorous argument.
posted by grumblebee at 2:01 PM on June 24, 2008


I do think there's a more rigorous way to do this. I've been doing it for a couple of decades.

I have defined the rules for crafting a certain kind of work. My rules aren't perfect (I'm continually defining them), and -- like I say -- they only kind of work. Me being me, I'm talking about sensual, enveloping works.

My claim is that if artists follow my rules, they'll tend to create sensual, enveloping works. And, from a critical point-of-view, you can judge works by how well they follow my rules.

Now, there are a few of ways to criticize my system. First, you can claim my rules don't work. In other words, you can show ways that my rules DON'T tend to create sensual, enveloping works. (Which is all I've claimed they do.)

You can also criticize the goal. You can say, "Well, maybe your rules do produce such works," but I'm not into works like that.

That's fair enough.

But at the very least, I would promote my rules as tangible. They are both graspable conceptually and practical. Whereas I fault the sort of aesthetic debates we're having here as being un-conceptional (too vague) and impractical (they don't give you much in the way of critical sense or artistic technique).

It seems that the ultimate goal of the Ebbert/Barker debate is to decide whether or not to label video games art. Okay, as king of the world, I say they ARE art. Now how is the world different than it was before in any interesting way?
posted by grumblebee at 2:10 PM on June 24, 2008


It is a rarity, certainly. I would call Lars Von Trier the big name in Brechtian films these days, and boy is he a love/hate director. But it's important to note that other theoretical attributes besides A-effect can be found in films, but as I mentioned, but they do usually run counter to suspension of disbelief and comfort in contrivance. Often, they give pause without stripping enjoyment. Sci-Fi pulls this off a lot. eXistenz, Videodrome, Strange Days, The Matrix - all films that explore in some way the ontology of the relationship of viewer to film, as it occurs, without being a drag. It's not an either/or scenario. I assure you, I can turn off my brain and _just watch_ films of all sorts but I totally had a blast last night discussing what the commentary on sexuality in Gremlins is.
posted by Ambrosia Voyeur at 2:10 PM on June 24, 2008


It's funny how personal context plays into this:

I would say that some works are unquestionably alienating, in the sense that there's almost no way you could watch them and not think about the fact you're watching a contrivance. An example that pops to mind is Felinni's "And the Ship Sales On." [Spoiler follows.] At one point, towards the end, the camera pans to reveal that the ship is just a set. You see the technicians, the boom mics, etc.

On the other hand, I saw "The Matrix" and "Videodrome" (but not the other films you mentioned) without being alienated. (Actually, I was alienated from "The Matrix" by some bad acting, but I don't think that's what we're talking about.)

AV, someone with your context might be amazed that I could watch "Videodrome" (which I love, by the way) without being alienate. It's a film ABOUT video. In fact, the first time I ever saw the movie, I saw it ON video. Yet I still wasn't alienated.

I was so gripped by the sensual effects in the story, I didn't think about how the story related to the medium on which it was being told.

My guess is that -- as an academic who is deeply entrenched in your specific aesthetic -- you bring a certain amount of baggage to a movie that makes you cling to any POTENTIAL a-effect in the film. In other words, if it's possible for a film to alienate some viewers but not others, you'll be alienated.

Which is not a criticism of you or the movie.

Certainly, I have my own baggage, which runs in the opposite direction from yours. (One of my favorite plays is by Brecht, even though I hate being alienated. When I've read the play and seen good productions, I've never once been alienated.)

What interests me is how people tend to discount their own baggage. People who feel the way you do or I do tend to think the particular effect a work has on them is 100% intrinsic to the work itself. It rarely is. Perhaps it never is.
posted by grumblebee at 2:24 PM on June 24, 2008


I assure you, I can turn off my brain and _just watch_ films of all sorts but I totally had a blast last night discussing what the commentary on sexuality in Gremlins is.

You probably don't mean to do this, AV, but when I've had this discussion with people in the past, they usually say something like, "Look, I can be like you. I can get into ________." And to fill in the blank, they bring up "Gilligan's Island" or "Star Trek" or some other bit of fluff (apologies to fans of either).

Though I keep saying "sensual," I don't turn off my brain when I watch the movies I like. (And if you can enjoy "Gremlins," you're much better at turning off your brain than I am!) My brain is constantly making predictions and asking questions: what the hell is Rosebud? What would I do if a murderer came at me in the shower? If I was Hamlet, would I kill myself or kill my stepfather?

If a world is sensually right, I will keep asking these questions on repeated viewings, even though I know what's going to happen. If I'm engrossed enough, I forget that I know. It seems possible that Hamlet might kill himself.

My point is that -- for me, at least -- there's not all the smart, intellectual, avante-guard films in one camp and everything else in another camp. Via my aesthetics, both "Star Wars" and "Romeo and Juliet" are chiefly sensual experiences -- yet "Star Wars" is a poorly wrought one and "Romeo and Juliet" is a masterpiece.

Naturally, in the end this comes down to matters of taste, but I can point to very specific differences between the two works. For instance, the dialog in "Star Wars" is cliched and unbelievable. The movie seems to want to be a sensual, thrill ride experience, but for me, the bad dialog and acting throws me out of the movie. It makes me aware that it's a contrivance, and not in an interesting way that I can admire, even if I don't care for it.
posted by grumblebee at 2:33 PM on June 24, 2008


Movies and games are both media, not necessarily art, just like paintings or music.

Actually, having gotten into Metal Gear Solid 4 recently, I'm of the opinion that games are movies.
posted by Durhey at 3:10 PM on June 24, 2008


Man, it's almost like this Roger Ebert character has never played Rebel Assault.
posted by turgid dahlia at 5:11 PM on June 24, 2008


Here I make a post in the expectation that people will share their favorite "artistic" video game moments, and instead we get a 100+ comment discussion into the nature of art. You guys kick ass sometimes.

I think that if we are to try to define "art," then at least my starting place would be, "that of human creation which exists first and foremost to convey an idea or emotion." That seems a broad enough definition to include all that we comfortably associate as "art," without the inevitably biased and arbitrary value-judgments that tend to go along with it. Of course, even here the question of whether video games fit has no easy answer. Ico and Shadow of the Colossus certainly fit the bill, but what "idea" could we claim that Pong or Pac Man were attempting to convey? And even if we decided that a crude table tennis simulation was simply presenting the "idea" of ping-pong, would this count as its primary objective? Maybe and maybe not.

I think that the evolution of Narrative into gaming marks the logical tipping point, of only because Narrative is already understood as an art form. Well, maybe not fully understood, but accepted and studied as such anyway. Narrative works are fundamentally divergent from non-narrative works such as painting, sculpture, and even music. Though "accepted" forms of narrative art such as theatre and cinema will often include non-narrative art in their telling, it would of course be folly to point to these things as justification for why the larger medium must be considered art. If Star Wars is to be considered "art," and it should be, it's not because we accept the John Williams score to be art, but rather because of the ideas and emotions evoked by the whole. The music is not the art of the movie; the story is.

Of course, video games weren't born out of the storytelling arts, the way that fiction and theatre and cinema were. Video games were born out of games a "medium" with a history almost certainly reaching back far further than storytelling, and always a very separate entity. Video games simply took in narrative as one of their standard elements as they grew larger and more involved. This is why I'm conflicted about looking to narrative as evidence of video games as art - it seems a lot like pointing to the score as proof of cinematic art. On the other hand, video games now have truly reached a point where comparisons to film are undeniable. Story will be there in all but the purest of puzzle games and simulators, and will very often be highly complex and engaging. Final Fantasy, Zelda, Metroid, Mario and all platform and adventure games to come afterwards owe as much to Joseph Campbell as any film, but is the narrative the primary focus, or is gameplay?

Gameplay I have much more trouble classifying as art. It requires far greater skill, passion and craftsmanship, not to mention subtlety, than most people are willing to give credit to, but it rarely if ever seeks to convey an idea or emotion by itself. Go is extraordinarily sublime, but sublimity alone does not make something "art," by my understanding of it, at least. A game of baseball may be sublime, but is something other than "art." So now the question is one of whether the gameplay is in service of the narrative, or the narrative in service of the gameplay, and we're back again to subjective value-judgments.

I know that my ex-girlfriend, a game designer, sees the story as paramount, and makes her gameplay as good as it can be so that people will be most engaged in the story. I doubt that's everyone in the industry, but I also am sure she's not alone. It's easy to joke that Michael Bay only makes movies for the special effects he can display in them, but I bet he sees it the opposite way, i.e. that he's got great gifts towards special effects sequences, and can use them in telling his stories.

So then, where do video games fit in the spectrum of the narrative arts? Robert McKee (whom I turn to way too often, perhaps) has a theory that the three major narrative arts - film, theatre and novels - each have a "level of conflict" which they are uniquely suited to play to. Film exists primarily on the external conflict level, because it is a primarily visual medium without the inherent constraints of stage and text which keep them from adequately depicting something like war or inclement weather or the like. Theatre is primarily verbal and aural, and thus most naturally suited to the interpersonal level of conflict, while text allows the writer to delve directly into the characters thoughts without gimmicks such as dream sequences or soliloquy.

Video games, while still an astoundingly young medium, have proven to be uniquely gifted in unusual ways at all three levels. The external conflicts are obvious, and are about as old as the medium itself. MMOs have brought the interpersonal dynamic with other players into the fold with exceptional results. In recent years, dedicated developers have begun to manipulate the player to focus and reflect on the avatar's choices, and even in a game like Psychonauts, delve directly into character's minds. Still, it doesn't quite seem the same, and they don't effect us on those levels exactly.

My proposal is that perhaps video games operate on a fourth level of conflict - that of with the audience. None of the other three levels is in a vacuum, or else film, stage and text would be insufferable. A film about a war with no insight into the characters' intentions or how they relate to one another would hold no interest. A book about someone's internal thoughts without insights into the external and interpersonal stimuli which produce them would be nonsensical at best. And I'm not sure that even Beckett could write a play where the character interrelate without betraying their inner desires and the forces which shaped them.

It's also absurd to believe that the audience doesn't bring anything into their own experiences with those three revered, "high Art" media. We don't exist in a vacuum either. But video games are interactive by default, and thus better than the others at forcing the "audience" to engage at a personal level. With this in mind, gameplay emerges as simply the tool to tell the tale. A writer engages with his words, the actor with his mannerisms and delivery, the director with his lights and camera and editing machine, but those are not his art - the story and ideas and emotions within it are. The developer engages with his gameplay, and then delivers an experience which the player, by virtue of the human mind, will make into narrative whether the developer does anything with it or not.

The great developers have instinctively known this. Miyamoto says that he created The Legend of Zelda because he loved wandering around the woods near his home as a child, and wanted to convey that feeling of mystery and discovery. That alone makes it art to me, but there's story there as well, without which the game wouldn't work. The story works better, though, because when Link defeats Ganon, you feel his pride and sense of accomplishment, because it is yours as well. You knew how long it took to find all of the dungeons and acquire the sowrds and shields. You just sat on your couch the whole time, but Link's journey was your journey, with a sense of empathy that the other narrative arts have spent their entire existences trying to create.

That is why I decided to be okay with all the cutscenes in the original post. If you've played through FFVII, Aeris' death can hit like a boulder because you've built up a relationship with her as the player, instead of just watching Cloud do the same. If you've played through Sly 2; Band of Thieves, then the ending is both a relief (coming after a punishingly difficult last world and final battle) and bittersweet because your friend is now paralyzed. If you've played through Okami, Issun's denial of entrance into the final area creates a very real feeling of sudden alone-ness, annoying as he was throughout the game, and his "return," once you've lost your powers and the final boss is about to trounce you, brings back every character you met throughout the game, redeems Issun in a way which completely makes sense, and gives you the power to go on. It gave me tears when I was playing.

In a hundred years or more, these all may seem like cave paintings of bison compared to whatever gamers are plying then, but I doubt many people will deny the artistic capabilities of the medium.
posted by Navelgazer at 5:12 PM on June 24, 2008 [4 favorites]


Games aren't art because they are sold to teenagers for $49, and no famous actors attend their viewings.
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 5:23 PM on June 24, 2008 [1 favorite]


Holy crap Navelgazer.
posted by turgid dahlia at 6:21 PM on June 24, 2008


I'm still in the camp where Is It Art is not about effective narrative, though that's grand, too. It's very nice that there are cinematic and literary and musical and design successes in video games, but those are not Video Game Art, they are accoutrements. The BEST video game Art are games that altogether excel at expressing the essence of their form, and become thus objets d'art. The art must be in the design of the gameplay. This also jives with my personal gaming preference for puzzle games, to an extent, because I do find that gaming narratives are often a distracting, frustrating, awkward embarassment. Portal is a good example: surprising, engrossing, expressive of its technological ouvre and reflective of certain themes of the gameplaying experience itself (discoveringand adapting to a new physics, isolation, disorientation). This distinction, Is It Art, is also really maddeningly context-specific, and whereas I think one of my old favorites, Chip's Challenge, is totally Art, I doubt I would have been able to argue that back in 1995 or whenever, when the iconography of the desktop and the audio landscape of .wav files were viewed as natural, lush and progressive.
posted by Ambrosia Voyeur at 7:01 PM on June 24, 2008 [1 favorite]


AV, as one film school grad to another, I agree with you. I don't want to draw even a blurry line to separate Ico as art and Pac-man as not art.

I too love Chip's Challenge, even though it has no narrative element of it's own. THis is what I meant by the human mind creating a narrative anyway. Chip's Challenge is just a series of puzzles, but the way I (and probably you) view it, this character of Chip is progressing through a series of increasingly dangerous and difficult areas. The gameplay manages this, because the gameplay is the tool the developer uses to engage the player, but the gameplay is not art in and of itself, but rather the stuff that the art is made of.
posted by Navelgazer at 7:09 PM on June 24, 2008


According to AV's criteria, Peggle would be the Mona Lisa of Video Games...
posted by empath at 7:17 PM on June 24, 2008


The difference between games and cinema/drama/prose is a matter of agency. In all other narrative forms, you are observing the actions of an other. In games, it's yourself. The games that approach closest to 'high art' are those that seek to exploit that difference, playing with the emotional palate that offers -- achievement, paranoia, guilt, fear, embarassment. I think guilt is the emotional key that is the most subtle and probably offers the most opportunity to touch people in ways that no other medium can. It was touched upon the bioshock videos above, but I think we've only begun to see how far affective that can be.

Catharsis takes on a different flavor when you're not observing a tragic hero, but being one. GTA IV, for example (SPOILER) allows you at the end to make a decision between two actions, and before you make the decision, two of your friends call you and make fairly passionate, emotional pleas to choose one path or the other. The kicker is, that the game is set-up in a way so that whichever of your friends you value more dies, and as a direct result of the choice that you take, right at a moment in the game where you're expecting a great reward for finally making the right choice.

Depending on how involved with the story you are, that's a pretty unique feeling to take away from a narrative experience, and it's something that would not have been possible to reach without a lot of game design decisions that have been made in the game. (Particularly the 'dating' system).

It's the kind of moment in gaming that opens up vistas of possibility in the minds of future game designers I think.
posted by empath at 7:29 PM on June 24, 2008


I don't understand why gameplay itself isn't an artform, separate from the graphics or the sound or the story. Is ballet only an artform because it's pretty? Would it be art without an audience?
posted by Pope Guilty at 8:50 PM on June 24, 2008


Because gameplay isn't primarily done as a means of expression.

Though, I can think of instances where gameplay COULD be art.

Something like the "Let's Play..." series from the Something Awful forums, for example.
posted by empath at 9:16 PM on June 24, 2008


Ballet without an audience is practice.
posted by empath at 9:17 PM on June 24, 2008


Would skin flicks without fucking be porn?
posted by turgid dahlia at 9:22 PM on June 24, 2008


Empath: Agency is the word missing here, you're right. I first saw this happen in Ultima IV, where a blind reagent seller would not be aware that you were stealing from them (it signalled certain things to the game engine, though). Film and linear text, as mediums, are completely passive - the 'experiencer' of these media accepts from the outset that nothing they do will influence the (clear) artifice unfolding before them. Games force you to understand situations and take on the role of the main protagonist.

Case in point: I am fully equipped to operate a portable teleporter. I know the intricacies of it, I know how to move my person around and what surfaces it operates on. This experience was expertly conveyed to me through Portal (and to a degree, Prey). While structurally, Portal was sublime, and carried me through a number of learning and operational excercises in an entertaining manner, at no stage was I able to experience anything outside of the framework of the game. This was a deliberate choice on the part of the developer; should another source of conversation be introduced (glados is read-only, remember) the whole experience would fall apart, the super-limited vocabulary of Portal would be laid bare. At the same time, it's what prevents Portal from being elevated to 'Art', because it provides no space for the experiencer to introduce anything of themselves or explore ambiguity. There's lots to talk about and think about, but the outcome is always very binary - I completed the game, or I didn't complete the game.

Videogames, as they are, are the natural extension of traditional games, and I think we need to understand them in that continuum than as a established medium in their own right. Is chess an art form, and does it have practitioners? The state of the art right now is in twitch, fast, hardware-driven games, but this manifestation is disappearing as pervasive devices are becoming more interesting than just fast devices; compare location-based gaming with another one-on-one fighting games (only with more hidden moves and polygons). Nintendo acknowledged this with the Wii, that there comes a point where improving the poly count doesn't have a return on the experience. Ultimately, a game is a simulation (sometimes of something that doesn't exist, but still a simulation) and series of rules operating within a framework. From that perspective, they are absolutely in line with modern concepts of what big-A arts are, at least, arts practices.

Also, I'd add - most films have little do with big-a Art and much more to do with big-$ revenue. Pot, kettle. Commence blackcalling.
posted by davemee at 3:44 AM on June 25, 2008


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