Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Video games "as art"

The "are video games art?" question seems to come up a lot lately. To my memory, the question became most popularized a year or so ago when Roger Ebert declared that video games could never truly be art. I remember the video gaming community was pretty jostled by this statement (a google search for the terms "Ebert" and "video games" returns an almost unmanageable amount of responses, rants, and articles responding to his statement). I remember him restating his position some time later with no more eloquence than he had managed the first time. And despite the amount of rebuttals, I don't remember anything particularly pertinent being said on the matter. To me, the very question "is it art?" coming from a critic announces a great deal of ignorance on their part. The amount of stuff that needs to be sifted through and untangled in order to get at where that seemingly simple question is coming from is overwhelming.

Most thoughtful people have probably dismissed Ebert's statements on the matter. This is probably wise. I've never really particularly liked Ebert's criticism, but have always considered him a pretty smart guy. To some extent, he has to be forgiven for any criticism he makes outside of his particular area of expertise. And he's really just articulating a pretty commonly held position. Most people who align with my critical perspective on art have no doubt rolled their eyes and moved on long ago. The reason I want to get some of my problems with Ebert's statement down, is that most people who have addressed it have addressed it by giving examples of "artistic" video games: Ico, Okami, Shadow of the Colossus. Unfortunately, these great games don't actually address Ebert's real problem, which is with the medium itself.

Essentially, the question is a thinly-veiled socio-political assertion. Do you ever hear someone ask: "can video games be culture?" or "can video games be a craft?" I'm pretty sure neither of these questions would spark much of a debate, or even be in any way taken seriously. So, even the question "is it art", applied to video games, assumes that cultural engagements and crafts cannot be art, leaving me speechless as to how to even approach the question. Is art some metaphysical thing that only the "elite" can approach? The question is really "is it 'high' art" or "is it controllable given our current hierarchy of art".

I'm not really sure how fair it is to accuse Ebert of consciously upholding these bourgeois assumptions about art. Actually, I think it's pretty fair, just not all that useful in addressing the problems of his statement.

This is all pretty late coming. He said all this stuff a long time ago. I guess it's all rumbled around in my head because I've never really read a good response. I just found Ebert's response to all the criticism, which was made about a year ago. It sheds light on a number of my concerns.

Essentially, he admits that video games "can" be art, but can never be (his words) "high art". He goes on to say that "high art" must be the sole creation of an artist, who is the sole conveyor and dictator of the meaning of the work. Shakespeare is, unsurprisingly, thrown around as the epitome of high art. His whole argument becomes more and more delightfully ironic every time he opens his mouth to clarify what he means.
Shakespeare was sole conveyor of the meaning of his plays? what was the actors jobs? Why didn't he write stage directions?

He suggests that interactivity degrades the work. He must be talking about a extremely specific type of interactivity, since not only is every piece of art in every artistic medium interactive, interactivity could easily be proposed as the defining characteristic of what art actually is. A book must be actively read, eyes interacting with words, in order for the plot to progress; a sculpture must be walked around in order to take in the full scope of the work (the sculptor often intends the work to be viewed from any number of angles and distances, all part of the piece); every work of narrative art must be actively followed, the viewer or reader piecing together story elements and interpreting symbolic actions. What is the difference when it's a video game? Buttons? My DVD player has buttons, I can pause a movie at any point I choose, changing the experience. If you have to use the bathroom during a film, does it cease to be high art?

The biggest thing Ebert seems to be missing when it comes to the interactivity point is that, in video games, every story arc has to be written and guided by the artist or artists making the game. He almost seems to think that it is possible to make choices in a video game that aren't 100% scripted. He asks if Romeo and Juliet would have been better if the reader could choose for them to "go through the story naked and standing on their hands, would that be way cool, or what?" Only, in order for this metaphor to be useful, that version would have to be written out by Shakespeare ahead of time. Walt Whitman created many different versions of Leaves of Grass. Which one is authoritative? Most Whitman lovers say that the best one is the first one, whereas Whitman obviously thought of which ever the latest one happened to be as the most authoritative. Does Leaves of Grass cease to be "high art" if you decide you like the 1855 version the best? Isn't that a tad ridiculous?

Yet another point he misses (this one less surprisingly since it requires having thought about the medium for more than 10 minutes total) is that, if anything, video games offer a more ridged, less interactive experience than does watching movies or reading Shakespeare. This might seem like an odd thing to say until you think about it alongside the experience of reading a Shakespeare play. Shakespeare requires active engagement with the text, often following along with a gloss. There are all sorts of puns and allusions that need to be picked out in order to get the full intended experience (if you believe that's possible). Yet, this is never necessary in order to enjoy the plays. You can move on to the next act without having completely understood the previous one. In fact you can misread the play come up with your own interpretation, and still finish the play. This happens all the time when people read pretty much anything. However, with a video game, if you don't solve the puzzles/obstacles/etc in the proper fashion, you will unlikely be able to move on to the next stage or level. You will be unable to complete the game until you have correctly interpreted the intent of the designer. You can't fake your way through Super Mario Bros. like you can with Shakespeare.

Just for a moment, let's assume that Ebert is correct to assert that upon interacting with a work of art (such as is necessary with a video game) the viewer becomes the artist. Why is this a problem (I mean, clearly he's no fan of Barthes)? Does collaboration degrade a work of art? Or just democratic collaboration? Essentially, he is suggesting that monarchical and fascistic meaning-models of art are "high", whereas democratic meaning-models of art are "low". I'm sure that Ebert's rebuttal to this accusation of fascism would be to point out that democratic control of a work of art does make messy any chance of the piece having a honed purpose. It's a fair point. I'm not necessarily arguing that adopting a "fascist" model for creating a work of art makes that artist a political fascist. However, that's not what is happening here. Ebert is actively denying that a democratic model for art can be "artistically" worthwhile.