Of course, Roger Ebert wasn’t the first person to instigate that debate, but categorically declaring from his lofty pulpit at the Chicago Sun-Times that “Video games can never be art” was bound to make his name a shibboleth for some time to come. And, indeed, the debate goes on, despite Ebert’s prudent (if not quite wise) decision to retire from the field. He relents saying,
I would never express an opinion on a movie I hadn’t seen. Yet I declared as an axiom that video games can never be Art. I still believe this, but I should never have said so. Some opinions are best kept to yourself.
I may have considerably more experience with gaming, but so far I’ve tried to heed Ebert’s advice. My experience with the debate is that the people on either side of the issue tend to want the pivotal term, “art,” to entail different things, and those things may well be incommensurable with one another. That sort of basic semantic disagreement often ends up being terminal. So it’s with certain misgivings that I enter the fray, but I think that the discussion could benefit from a certain amount of clarity.
For the moment, though, I plan to skirt the issue. What you won’t read in this post is an explicit argument for whether or not games (in general, but video games in particular) should be considered art, with whatever that entails. Before we can reasonably address that question, I think we have to start a step back and ask what it would mean, in the first place, to say that games are art.
In particular, it seems to me that we could broadly interpret the term three different ways, as well as stake out more or less reasonable territory within each of those broad interpretations. Defenders of the “games-as-art” position often contend that to deny games the status of art is little more than a covert form of snobbery. Art, in that sense, is supposed to be a transcendent quality, and a lot of the things that we might mistake for art in all actuality lack the essence that makes a thing art.
To some extent, it’s unfair to ascribe that position to someone like Ebert. Not that he doesn’t make it easy to mistake him as a cultural elitist. Speaking of game designer Kellee Santiago, he writes:
She begins by saying video games “already ARE art.” Yet she concedes that I was correct when I wrote, “No one in or out of the field has ever been able to cite a game worthy of comparison with the great poets, filmmakers, novelists and poets.” To which I could have added painters, composers, and so on, but my point is clear.
That would seem to put him squarely on the side of those who argue that, since a Red Dead Redemption doesn’t move them the way a Botticelli painting or Barber concerto does, it would be watering down the meaning of art to list them in the same class. Indeed, much of “Video games can never be art” proceeds by comparing Santiago’s examples of artistic games to presumably better examples of work already recognized as art. It may be impossible to disentangle Ebert’s argument from that position, but I think he’s right in declaring early on that his long-term prediction (that games will not evolve into art over time) is based on a principle, rather than a judgment. The strength of his argument ought to stand or fall with the soundness of that principle.
The argument that art is whatever the well-bred or well-placed arbiters of culture most respond to is really only the base end of an interpretation of art as social lever. At its worst, it’s exemplified by the proverbial art gallery trainspotters who loudly, inevitably, and with an air of finality wonder aloud, “Yes, but is it art?” not because they’re worried they’ve mistaken a fire exit for an installation piece, but because they want to cast doubt on the long-term relevance of a piece. But that’s just the low end, and the term can also be used to distinguish works that really have shaped cultures, not to mention their history. Distilled down to its essence, the premise is that art, at its best, changes us, both individually and collectively. Picasso’s Guernica, then, is exemplary art, because its social and personal impact is well-established and far-reaching.
That conception of art may well start to go wrong when it’s used to exclude from the category of art works to which the speaker feels no particular attachment, but we shouldn’t let the abuses define the underlying premise. It’s a teleologically-minded conception of art, which defines art by the aesthetic heights to which it can, at its best, help us to ascend.
Meanwhile, there is a tendency among those who contend that games are, in fact, art to hinge everything on a basic appeal to aesthetic content. There are a number of variations on that theme, but two in particular look especially reasonable. One is inclusionary: If making pictures and composing music are both arts, and they both go into the construction of a game, then how could the final product not be art? The other, which came up in the discussion over at Emily Short’s blog, is intentional: If I set out to make a game a work of art, why wouldn’t it be one?
Both of those lines of argument seem to converge on a premise defined by its modality. Here, art is an extension of the its cognate “artifice.” The basic idea is that anything that we do for aesthetic reasons should be considered art.
In point of fact, we do often talk that way. Most people don’t consider themselves artists, but are nevertheless happy if you tell them that they’ve arranged their living room artistically. We might say of a particularly talented fencer that she’s “an artist with the foil.” We talk about the art of cooking, grooming, of meeting people, or living well. To the Japanese Buddhists, nearly anything could be done in the spirit of Zen, and thus elevated to a -do, meaning “way,” or “art.” Thus we find that not only calligraphy and flower arrangement are arts, but also archery and motorcycle maintenance. Not for nothing are bushido and judo called martial arts.
I don’t think there’s necessarily anything wrong with either the modal or teleological conceptions of art. I certainly wouldn’t argue that under no circumstances should a person use the term “art” to indicate the way in which Mishima’s The Temple of the Golden Pavilion moved them, or to characterize the technique that goes into manufacturing a car. But I don’t think either use of the term is really applicable to what’s at stake when we ask whether or not games are also art.
In that context, the problem with the teleological conception is its applicability. For one thing, it invites a lot of subjective discrimination of that sort that I above identified as the worst tendency of those who espouse it. But even when we attempt to use it in good faith, all sorts of problems arise, not the least of which is the question, if movies are art because the best movies elevate us, then what are the movies that don’t? Ebert’s argument was that video games can’t be art, even in principle, and the reason, apparently, is that something about them prevents them from ever aspiring to the sort of transcendent power that movies can attain, even though the vast majority of movies do not. But if both movies and games achieve their respective effects by mostly the same means, how can one evoke that transcendent feeling and the other not. One can imagine a game that is almost exactly like La Strada, except that during one scene the player must press a button at the right time in order to keep the movie going. Does the act of staking the movie’s conclusion destroy its status as art? Or is it not a game, despite requiring the viewer’s strategic interaction, because we already know La Strada to be, as a movie, a work of art?
The modal conception suffers from the opposite problem: it’s too applicable, applicable in fact to nearly everything humans do, and thus fails to bring anything to the table. Anything pertaining to the senses can provoke an aesthetic reaction, and with anything that humans themselves make or do, aesthetics will at some point become a consideration. If drinking a glass tea can be an art form unto itself, then why is the title worth fighting for? In the context of this debate, it wouldn’t be. Those who do fight to win video games recognition as an art form behave as though there’s something more at stake to the term. So while they may mount a modal defense, I think it’s clear that they want the return to be more than just modal.
More on the third interpretation in my next post.