“To the question, ‘Is the cinema an art?’ my answer is, ‘what does it matter?’… You can make films or you can cultivate a garden. Both have as much claim to being called an art as a poem by Verlaine or a painting by Delacroix… Art is ‘making’.” - Jean Renoir
Roger Ebert famously remarked some years ago that not only were video games not art, but that they never could be. To put it mildly, this was a point of contention for many individuals. A few days ago, Ebert followed up with an article designed to make a token effort to consider video games so that he could maintain his original position: “Nevertheless, I remain convinced that in principle, video games cannot be art.”
The article proceeds to argue point by point against a video posted online that makes the case for video games being art. It shows a handful of games that Ebert finds unconvincing as forms of art. A flurry of responses emerged in both the comments and on various other sites listing game after game as examples of art. They’re missing the point embedded in Ebert’s conclusion: “in principle, video games cannot be art.” It’s the “in principle” that betrays the argument. Listing examples will not suffice, showing off game play videos will not suffice, making him play one of the many games that are inarguable visions of art on par with anything from other forms will not suffice. Art is in the eye of the beholder, and if that eye has already decided to be closed in principle, it can never be convinced of anything until it is compelled to open.
I wouldn’t have the slightest qualm if Ebert had simply stated that he did not find video games compelling as art, that they did not move him as art. But he had to take that extra step of telling everyone else what art can be. I don’t care for paintings, never have. I’ve looked at a hundred paintings in galleries and museums and they utterly fail to stir me at all. They are not art to me, but I would never argue that therefore oils and canvas are incapable in principle of being art.
“Why are gamers so intensely concerned, anyway, that games be defined as art?” Ebert asks. I’d posit that it’s for exactly the same reason that lovers of films once bristled at scions of the stage and literature saying that silly moving pictures could never really be art. We don’t appreciate our own little corners of art in a vacuum, indifferent to what’s outside our bubbles. Those who appreciate the art of video games do the same with film, literature, paintings, and every other mode of artistic expression under the sun. When a random idiot on the street insists that video games are not art, life goes on, but when a statesman of film insists in principle that we cannot be experiencing art, then it’s a point of respect to that statesman to elucidate precisely why he is wrong.
I cried at the end of Planescape: Torment, something that many who experienced it would understand. “Why? It’s just a silly game.” If you think that’s a legitimate response, then consider, why would someone cry at the end of Field of Dreams? After all it’s just a silly movie. Why would someone cry while listening to Hallelujah? It’s just a silly song. Why would someone cry at the end of Sandman? It’s just a silly comic book. Hamlet? A silly play. The Waste Land? A silly poem. Can a building be art? An arrangement of lights? The design of a landscape? They are all just silly things when all is said and done, but they’ve all been art at one time or another to one person or another. Art matters exactly because it is silly when stripped down to its components. I’m not trying to reduce the argument to the absurd and just say that everything is art, but to insist that to judge art on its delivery mechanism is as patently absurd as judging your dinner on whether it’s on a plate or in a bowl.
What really gets me is that it’s the film aficionados in particular who react with such vehemence to the idea that video games could be art, when it’s film as an artistic medium that most recently went through the exact same struggles for legitimacy. It might just be converts being the deepest fanatics, I suppose, but it’s also striking just how similar film and video games are as mediums. Mechanically, film is just video paired with audio, which is exactly what video games are. The only argument one could really have in principle between the two is that the former is static while the latter is dynamic. Video games must cede some control to the player, where a film is strictly passive for the watcher. If one was truly argumentative, one might point out that in principle, a film is nothing but a gelded video game. It’s video, audio, and (in theaters) no controller.
That idea of control is essential to understanding exactly how video games often are not just art, but an unprecedented sort of art. Ebert dismisses the idea of “winning” as having any part in art, proceeding to then criticize some of the games at which he looked as having no clear way to win, and no apparent score. You can’t have that both ways. I haven’t “won” a game or kept track of a score since I was dropping quarters into Donkey Kong. The power of art emerges from empathy, emotional and intellectual life bursting from mere dead flickering lights and printed words. But consider the profound intensification of that empathy when agency is added, when you do not just observe tragedy, romance, and comedy, but make the very choices that shape those elements of drama. In principle, that’s an entirely deeper form of art.
Steven Lloyd Wilson is a hopeless romantic and the last scion of Norse warriors and the forbidden elder gods. His novel, ramblings, and assorted fictions coalesce at www.burningviolin.com. You can email him here.