This latest ‘Elements’ article was born out of frustration. Specifically, frustration with a much greater critic whose work I very much respect: Roger Ebert. I’m referring to his latest (April 16 2010) blog post, entitled “Video games can never be art“, which, as an on-and-off gamer and all-the-time appreciator of good art, was troublesome to me.
First of all, I do question Mr. Ebert’s qualifications to make such a statement about video games, as he is not a gamer and is not plugged-in to the kind of creative thinking that fuels game-makers. Over the years, I’ve noticed the occasional derogatory statements crop up in his reviews that compare a film’s action-based narrative or digital world to a stereotypical video game. But, as I couldn’t cite which reviews in particular contained these statements, I suggest, rather, that you don’t take my word for it and look it up yourself. The point being, there is reason to believe that Mr. Ebert doesn’t hold a very high opinion of video games, period. That’s okay — to each his own. Seeing as he doesn’t seem to appreciate the medium in general, though, I don’t think it’s right for him to make such a damning statement such as “Video games can never be art” (Emphasis mine), when he’s most likely not aware of what, exactly, the average or dedicated gamer experiences. That’s like a voracious reader of popular novels condemning the entire film medium without taking occasional trips to the theater to see for himself. It’s not just an offensive condemnation, it’s a downright ignorant one.
Also, Mr. Ebert never takes the time in the article to himself establish what exactly art is. He argues with someone else’s views on art, but doesn’t provide a clear, quasi-objective definition of the term we can all agree on, and therefore never proceeds to logically justify his statements. Considering that Mr. Ebert is such a stunningly good and very intellectual writer, such a mistake is peculiar. He does concede, interestingly, that a video game could be art, but suggests that it’ll be such an achievement that it will happen far beyond the lifespan of those currently playing video games. Not only does this statement express, once again, very little faith in video games themselves, it reflects pretty badly on the ingenuity of their makers, and suggests that Mr. Ebert doesn’t know how creative they’ve managed to be with the medium in its short and stormy life.
It would seem that Mr. Ebert’s view on art is that it is something that stimulates a person to intellectually muse on the material’s relationship to the world and one’s self, as well as being subjectively pleasing. Also, it is initiated by one person, concerned with the expression of ideas, and, unlike a game, cannot be “won”. I find that this definition is far too particular and, ironically, severely limits artistic expression. A video game can stimulate a person to muse on world-self relationships, be subjectively pleasing, can be initiated by one person, can be concerned with the expression of ideas, but alas, most of them expect a player to win. How, exactly, does winning something in a video game environment negate its qualifications as art? I think, because video games are about 30 years old, definitions of art versus competitive gameplay are too outdated to handle its new paradigm. A video game is not always merely competition, like baseball or whatever. There are many different kinds of video games. Arguably, the most “artistic” kind of video game is the closest we may get to an interactive movie. A well-constructed postmodern video game, these days, has a clearly defined story, a distinct environment, established motifs, characters, etc. The only thing that differentiates one of these new video games with your typical movie is that you, the consumer, have control, and yes, the ability to “win” — or rather, complete the story, rather than it complete itself for you, as is the case in movies. Even in video games where there is less story and more control, such as the excellent ‘Metroid Prime’ games, I can personally attest to a psychological effect not far removed from my trips to a theater. In fact, these video games stimulate parts of my imagination a movie never can. They’ve made me a better filmmaker. It may be more fair to say, “Video games can never be movies” and “Movies can never be video games”, but they both hold the power and potential of art, story, moral arguments, characters, unique experiences, etc. They are both a sliding scale of quality.
There’s not a good reason for video games not to be art. What a good movie accomplishes for me is this: The ability to observe a series of complex interactions, challenges, triumphs and tragedies and learn from them. What a good video game, such as ‘Metroid Prime’, accomplishes for me is this: The ability to control a character that observes and participates in a series of complex interactions, challenges, triumphs and tragedies and learn from them. The more story-driven a video game is, the more this experience ought to be heightened, provided that the player can still make moral and practical choices. Of course, this does not make one or the other superior, in the same way that a film is not superior to a painting or a piece of music. They’re different experiences.
A great obstacle for video games is, of course, their realism or lack thereof. Seeing as how we went from a charming 8-bits to gaming in High Definition, nearly Pixar-quality glory in just about three decades, I’m willing to say, unlike Mr. Ebert, that I will probably see video games come into their own as an appreciated medium of artistic expression in my lifetime. Not only will this reap huge rewards for the people who had faith in it, but it will also strengthen the distinction between games and movies and will increase the focus on what a good movie is. 3-D technology is perfect for video games. All we need for good movies is a darn good story and people to tell it, even if it’s just in glorious black-and-white.