Beating a dead horse: Are video games art?
This is not an article about Roger Ebert. As many of you are probably aware, Ebert has made the news a few times for comments that have been dismissive towards video games, claiming that they will never be art, like film and television. Naturally, he came under fire from the gamer community, but Ebert has remained steadfast in his opinion, claiming that games fall strictly under the purview of ‘entertainment,’ but not art. (As a side note, I love Roger Ebert. I disagree with this particular opinion, but in general I think he’s a very smart man.)
But as I said, this is not an article about Roger Ebert, nor his opinion on videogames. This is an article about games themselves, and the direction that they are heading in; about what makes them unique as a form of media, and what exactly the difference is between ‘art’ and ‘entertainment.’ While it seems likely that anyone reading this already enjoys games, and understands the appeal, many people want different things from their games, and it seems to me that the distinction between games and other forms of media, such as film, is an important thing to be aware of. Or, you know, whatever.
Let’s start with movies as our example, ‘cause everyone watches movies. Except maybe that weird girl who lived down the street from you when you were growing up and claimed not to know who Tom Cruise was, but I digress. Some films are masterpieces, beautiful works of cinema that have had love and attention poured into each and every frame, movies where it seems that everyone involved knew they were making something special. Others are churned out simply to make money, mindless spectacle designed purely to open up our eyes and wallets nice and wide. Many films fall somewhere in between these two extremes. My point is, you would be hard pressed to find anyone that thinks MIchael Bay’s ‘Transformers’ is a work of art, or anyone who thinks that ‘The Godfather’ isn’t. Everything is subjective. Now, this isn’t me knocking mindless blockbuster films, ‘cause I go and see them too, and I generally enjoy them. It doesn’t bother me that they aren’t art, but that’s because I don’t expect them to be.
The same sort of discretion needs to be used when judging games. There are many elements to games that determine whether or not it should be considered art, and I’m gonna look a little more deeply at some of these elements one by one.
Some games aim to be simply that: a game. There are rules, and a goal, and you can either win or lose, depending on how well you play. And the thing is, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. People love games. Chess doesn’t have a story, and nobody wants it to. (“I just have to know why that horse can only move in an L shape!!”) The reason that it has even become a discussion is that games in recent years have begun to emulate films, to put an increased importance on story, such as the Mass Effect series and the Assassin’s Creed games.
Let’s look at Mass Effect, since I apparently never get tired of writing about it. While the gameplay in that game is awesome, it clearly puts energy towards telling a coherent and engrossing story with a beginning, middle, and end (that no one liked). To me, the appeal of that game is that it’s an eighty-hour science fiction epic with me as the main character. Games are inherently engrossing, by virtue of the fact that you control the events. This makes them an ideal storytelling vehicle, because we are already inclined to care about the things happening on screen. Even though this effect is not as strong in Assassin’s Creed, since we don’t design the main character and make all of his choices for him, there is still an additional layer of immersion due to the fact that we are controlling him, like an extra layer of frosting on an already delicious cake. (I need to stop trying to make analogies.)
My point is that games can have great stories, which already means that they are capable of being art, but what about games that don’t put emphasis on their story? Can games achieve ‘art’ status if they aren’t story based?
When it comes to games, ‘design’ can mean a couple of things. It can mean the actual art (hmm) direction of the game, the design of the buildings, the characters, etc. It can also, however, mean gameplay design, the ease with which you are drawn into the game, the ways in which you find your way through the strange new world of the game.
I don’t think that anyone would argue that design of this nature is not art, but I also don’t think that anyone (Ebert included) is claiming that no artistry goes into gaming, but rather that the finished product is designed strictly to entertain, rather than to stimulate thoughts and feelings. While it’s easy to see where an argument like this comes from, games like Skyrim seem to easily refute it. Multiple times during my playthrough of that game, I was overcome by the grandeur of the world, and I’m not just saying that because I love killing dragons (which I do. Oh, how I do). The design of a game is pivotal towards evoking a visceral reaction, which anyone who has a favorite game will tell you is important. Sure, great game design can also be in support of mindless fun, but I would rather my mindless fun come with a sense of real wonder and excitement.
Let me break it down like this: A well-shot movie makes me feel something that poorly shot movie doesn’t, even if I can’t get into the story. The same is true of a well-designed game. It’s not just about ease-of-play, but about creating an experience.
I wanted to have another category here, but I sort of covered everything I wanted to in those last two. So, umm... How was your day?
So what is ‘art?’
Part of the issue is that no one will ever agree on what exactly ‘art’ is. If something entertains me, like a big-budget action movie, is it art? I don’t really know. But I sort of feel like the argument is a silly one to have anyways. Is it better to be ‘art’ than to be entertainment? Are they actually the same exact fucking thing? Do gamers even care whether there’s a distinction between the two, or we glad to exist outside the realm of film snobbery? Will I every stop asking hypothetical questions? Does it matter if I do? How long can I keep this going?
Ok, fine, I’ll stop.
So yes, it’s very difficult to figure out where entertainment ends and art begins, but my supposition is this: If even one game has evoked an honest emotional reaction from you, whether it be one of excitement, despair, joy, frustration, fear, or even indifference, then that means that Roger Ebert is wrong. But wait. This article isn’t about him.