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Videogames as Art: Too Much Dessert?

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If you have been following film critic Roger Ebert’s Twitter page and journal over the past few weeks and months, you are probably aware he has sparked an interesting debate concerning the idea of videogames being “art.” In his online journal, Ebert claims, “I remain convinced that in principle, videogames cannot be art.” This, not surprisingly, prompted some (more) outrage from gamers. I found myself being one of the very few that actually agreed with Ebert.

It is true that videogames have become very sophisticated over the past decade and many games contain some impressive narratives. Bioshock, Grand Theft Auto, and the Metal Gear Solid series come to mind in this regard. But, I still maintain that even the best, smartest game can not even come close to rivaling the creative expression and narrative talent of a great novel or film. Consequently, I feel I should throw my hat into the ring, being a gamer myself who sympathized with Ebert’s perspective.

Rather than just trying to explain why he is right or wrong, I want to address the implications the question of videogames as art has brought to the surface, namely: what we value individually and as a culture.

After all the negative feedback he received, Ebert went on to a second journal entry, saying, “I was a fool for mentioning videogames in the first place.” Well, I don’t think he’s a fool, he was just saying something he believed even if it was unpopular. Perhaps his first misstep was trying to define art. What art is exactly and the difference between art and high art — if there is such a distinction — is the subject of much study, debate, and schools of thought. There is no single easy answer and that’s how it should be. The most common thing I read and hear is, “art is subjective.” Well, that’s not wrong, but it’s one of those pre-packaged, easy responses which fail to take into account many factors.

When you get right down to it, everything is subjective. You can only truly view the world from your personal perspective. How then does something come to be accepted as true? The answer is consensus. A colorblind person would never truly know that the sky is blue, but they can accept that it is blue because so many other people have agreed upon that fact and the science behind it.

An individual may think Moby-Dick is trash and not worth reading. That is their subjective experience. However, you have to take into account that Moby-Dick has become a classic of American Literature — it has been studied and analyzed for years by scholars and academics. People have come to a consensus that it is a great book because of its masterful use of language, symbolism, and theme. Not everyone agrees, but that is nothing new. It is also interesting to note that Moby-Dick was critically reviled when it was originally released. Eventually, the best ideas float to the top.

The best analogy I can think of is how the Theory of Evolution came to be regarded as scientific fact. It’s not just because Charles Darwin said it was true; it has been studied, tested, and proven by other scientists using the scientific method. Evolution is in our textbooks now, much the same way high school students are required to read To Kill a Mockingbird and 1984. What if popularity had a say in whether evolution was “true” or not? Well, popularity does get a say and I think we all know how that’s working out.

Videogames are very popular. Why shouldn’t they be? They’re awesome! I’ve been playing videogames all my life. I will be happy to divulge my gamer credentials upon request. Let’s just say I’ve seen my fair share of sunrises after having lost myself in Vice City or finding that last heart container. However, they’re just entertainment, a diversion. I can’t stress that enough. That is what they are designed to be. I don’t require videogames to be more than entertainment. At the same time, I don’t require art to be entertaining.

I think the problem is that the line between art and entertainment has become so blurred that not many seem to be able to tell the difference any more. It’s easy to see why; they often come in the same package.

Take a movie like Pulp Fiction for example. On the surface, it’s an enjoyable movie to watch. It’s funny; it has a lot of action and an intriguing, unique plot. But, at the same time, there is a lot of artistry involved. Don’t believe me, read Ebert’s amazing analysis and writing on the film. I first read that analysis of Pulp Fiction after my initial viewing of the film back when I was in high school. I decided then and there that I was in love with film.

I’m not saying there is no artistry in the development of a videogame. It takes many talented, creative, and artistic people to create a good videogame. They are just not at the same level. Videogames have only been around for a little over 30 years — film, a little over a hundred. The novel has been around somewhere in the neighborhood of a few hundred years and some would argue much longer than that. Simply put, if the videogame truly is an artistic medium, it’s like an infant surrounded by wise, seasoned veterans.

If videogames are to ever be taken seriously as an artistic medium, ‘fun’ and ‘playability’ would have to become ancillary to artistic intent and creative expression. That doesn’t sound very enjoyable now does it? I’d prefer game designers keep the fun factor as top priority. When some art sneaks its way in, as it did in Bioshock or Shadow of the Colossus, you won’t hear me complain, but that is not what should be first and foremost.

As the debate has continued, Ebert posted an online poll asking what people value more: a great videogame or Huck Finn.   My father read Huck Finn to me as a child and I studied the book at length in college. I know why it’s a classic; I know why it has value — it is a book worthy to be read for the purpose of instruction and personal edification. Mark Twain did not write the book for readers to take to the beach or have something fun to do on a Sunday afternoon. Still, many more voted for a videogame over Huck Finn.

The problem with the poll is that it was too specific and people took it too literally. It should have been phrased in the way it was.  Nevertheless, the poll elicited responses like, “I read Huck Finn in high school and didn’t care for it,” or “I get much more enjoyment from a game than a book.” That is where my jaw dropped in disbelief. The poll was indicative of a larger problem. People were saying they didn’t like Huck Finn because it wasn’t entertaining.

This is what our culture has come to value — entertainment. Where is the craving for meaning? We are obsessed with Soma and Centrifugal Bumple-Puppy. If more people could be bothered to pry themselves away from Call of Duty and turn off The Real Housewives of New Jersey now and then, maybe the previous sentence would carry more meaning.

I’m sorry if Huck Finn isn’t as gripping as a Harry Potter novel and not as fun as vanquishing Olympians in God of War, but it’s filled to the brim with morality, insight, and wisdom. However, you have to want to read and think about those things in the first place.

Are videogames art? It doesn’t matter so much. The fact is, videogames are designed to be fun and entertaining above all else. There is nothing wrong with that in and of itself, but, they should never be treated as a substitute for the substance present in the literary canon or classic cinema. You have to eat your vegetables before your dessert. So, gamers, put down your controllers for a little while and maybe pick out a Pulitzer Prize winner. It may be a little boring, but it will be good for you. I promise.

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About Daniel Haymes

  • victor j

    So basically, you agree with Ebert but not really because you acknowledge that video games can be art but that they shouldn’t for your enjoyment’s sake. While I disagree with Ebert, I actually have to agree with you. Look at Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty.

    That is the most artsy mainstream game I’ve ever played. I don’t even think it’s postmodern storytelling has ever been rivaled in video gaming even by the Indies. And guess what? It remains the most shat upon MGS game to date.

    Sure, there are some people who understood what it was (these fans hang out in the dark corners of fansites like The Snake Soup) but even the current fanbase of MGS base probably prefers the other titles over it and hasn’t gotten over playing as Raiden–one of the numerous things that was used to convey a message.

    I don’t know if you played MGS2 and hated it, or even found yourself in the minority of people who understood it, but either way I recommend reading the translated gameplan for it. Link is in my name. It kind of proves your point about how far away from gameplay the video game developer has to focus on in order to be able to make it art. If you haven’t played it, rent it or buy it at a used game shop for $5. You don’t need the rare “Substance” version with extra missions if it’s art you’re looking for…

  • Amanda Lee Bittle

    Nice piece. You do a great job of picking apart multiple issues that often get lumped into one. I.e., video games CAN be artistic, but that is not their main purpose, and they cannot replace art that exists “for its own sake.” So, one can appreciate the artistic elements of a video game while recognizing that other, more important elements are at work, as well. It’s not “art”, it’s a combo platter.

    Perhaps it’s all a case of excessive multi-tasking. After all, who has time for the MOMA *and* the PSP?

  • Daniel

    @ victor j. I actually loved MGS2; I’ve played it numerous times. When it came out, I realized that video games could be so much more than what they had previously been. They could draw you in to an engrossing narrative with deep implications.

  • Daniel

    @ Amanda. You’re dead on about the excessive multitasking. We’re surrounded by limitless entertainment. Finding something substantial has become very challenging. And to find it you have to be up to the challenge in the first place.

  • Michael Rivera

    “If videogames are to ever be taken seriously as an artistic medium, ‘fun’ and ‘playability’ would have to become ancillary to artistic intent and creative expression. That doesn’t sound very enjoyable now does it?”

    Funny thing is, this is already happening. There are already a number of games that put theme and artistic expression ahead of pure “fun factor”, and guess what? They are still pretty interesting. Just like artistic books and films, these games keep their players engaged simply through the virtue of the ideas they are trying to express, not some silly action sequences. They can afford to go against the current rules of playability because, like other art, they provide their audiences with something more than simple entertainment.

    I guess that’s why I found this article a bit ironic. In one part, the author makes a jab at people who dismiss great books because “they are boring”, yet on the previous page he notes that game designers should “keep the fun factor as top priority”. Why the double standard? It’s like saying that films should only focus on being summer popcorn movies and leave the heavy topics for books. There’s no reason one medium should be prohibited from trying to create art, especially if it has all the tools to do so.

  • Andrew Howie

    “If videogames are to ever be taken seriously as an artistic medium, ‘fun’ and ‘playability’ would have to become ancillary to artistic intent and creative expression. That doesn’t sound very enjoyable now does it?”

    You assume that “videogame” must connote “fun” and “playability”–that videogames cannot, in principle, be as “serious” as novels or film. Who is responsible for the propagation of this either-or fallacy? You seem to be unfamiliar with the ways games communicate. Some beautiful games don’t use narrative or characterization at all! You must not become stymied in critical paradigms and trends inherited from film or novel criticism. Games can have more (or less) meaningful layers than more homogeneous media. They must be viewed holistically.

    I recommend that you read the work of Ian Bogost. Try his excellent book Persuasive Games, in which he analyzes several non-commercial videogames in the context of procedural rhetoric. One game which is particularly interesting simulates the management of the McDonalds corporation. It forces the player to make the following trade-off (albeit with a much less simplistic progression): to follow ethical business practice and fail financially or to conduct business unethically to the detriment of the environment and public health, succeeding financially. Thus, the game, through artistic devices, frames a nuanced argument about the state of the fast food industry.

    “I’d prefer game designers keep the fun factor as top priority. When some art sneaks its way in, as it did in Bioshock or Shadow of the Colossus, you won’t hear me complain, but that is not what should be first and foremost.”

    Thus your statement about what “should be” is exactly and exclusively what supports your conclusion–namely, that a “videogame” cannot be “art.”

    You adopt Ebert’s flimsy argument about videogames “in principle” without understanding that the only limiting factor on the creative possibilities of videogames is the player base, consisting of individuals like you, who scorn or ignore the avant-garde in non-commercial (and often commercial!) games, instead opting for only a mindless, unstimulating timekill from games. The more nuanced your view, the more you will profit from videogames. I can read Don Quixote without penetration, solely for its superficial layer of humor and whimsy, or I can plumb the depths of its dark, existential core, and be changed. In either case, the auditor has all (or most) of the interpretive power.