Video games can never be art – Roger Ebert’s Journal

I had, of course, heard that Roger Ebert had made statements to the effect that games can’t be art, but hadn’t bothered to track them down. Here is his sustained argument, Video games can never be art which takes as its foil Kellee Santiago’s TED talk on the subject. One way to read this debate is that it becomes a matter of definition. If you define art in a certain way then yes, games aren’t art, by definition. And Ebert seems to feel that either games can never be art, or it will take so long that we will all be dead by then (which is more or less the same thing.) Santiago, by contrast, argues that one shouldn’t judge the artistry of a genre in its infancy. I will have to think so more on this, but here are some first reactions:

  • Ebert’s definition of art from Plato, that it is the” imitation of nature,” does not, to my mind, define games out of the picture. One could respond that games imitate different features of nature like movement, flow, and interactivity. Ebert goes on to argue that art “grows better the more it improves or alters nature through an (sic) passage through what we might call the artist’s soul, or vision.” Again, I don’t think this definition excludes games in principle. What it does is reiterate a Renaissance belief in the vision of a genius, which even Ebert realizes excludes all sorts of art (like cathedrals.) The particular way we interact with games tends to hide the genius of creators – we don’t look on them with wonder at their creation. If caught up in them we play as if we were in the fictional world. Ebert may be right that our relationship with games is not a sacred one of visionary transformation before FINE ART, but that is a questionable and historically constructed relationship. I can imagine a future where games and their designers are treated with such reverence.
  • If Ebert is going to draw on Plato and Aristotle he should be open to another sense of art as craft. The painter who imitates nature uses technique to craft a believable representation. That craft or techne is what Plato and Aristotle were interested in, not some sacred relationship through genius. Plato was concerned with the effects of performing the poets (as opposed to listening to them) which is how epics were consumed – they were acted out – and he worried about youth playing disreputable characters. Video games are criticized in very similar ways – that they habituate youth to doing nasty things like killing zombies. Plato wanted to banish the poets and would probably have similar concerns about game designers today. Fine art, however, has been safely neutered so youth don’t really get to do more than wear tights for a Shakespeare play which no one seriously considers dangerous. In that sense games are the inheritors of a craft of imitation and context for player imitation that Plato called art. Art is no longer the art Plato warned us about. Games are now the dangerous imitation of nature. As for Aristotle, he was concerned with the place of craft in a hierarchy of knowledge and games are clearly technical productions that fit the class of crafts.
  • Ebert is right at the end to suggest that it shouldn’t matter to players that games are not art just as chess players don’t worry about it being an art. Perhaps we just need to define our terms and create a supercategory of fictions (imaginative things that we make). The fine arts and games are all members of this category. There are better and worse games just as there are better and worse plays. There are serious games that are meant to be high culture and there are potty performances that appeal to the worst in us. We have developed traditions of interpreting, playing and judging both games and fine art.
  • Why does it matter that games be an art? I suspect this says more about the maturing of gaming than it does about art. Gamers and game studies want the respect of being high culture for all sorts of reasons from academic acceptance to acceptance as a past-time. We used to treat games as something children played and adults were encouraged to get serious. I was certainly encourage to drop (or hide) my passion for military simulations (war games) when I entered high school and realized there were all sorts of cool women I wanted to talk to (who would laugh at my passion). Things have changed – boy culture or nerd culture is triumphant and it rightly wants to shed the association of its values with adolescence. Where I stopped playing games this generation is unafraid to be openly associated with gaming. The only remaining barrier is the perception that games, while they may be an adult pastime, are not serious art capable of bettering the soul (which is what we tell ourselves that the fine and performing arts do.)
  • Which returns us to the question of transformation? Can a game change your mind, influence your imagination, or transform your life the way we think high art can? I would argue that they can, but they do it in a different way than the fine art or philosophy does. Monopoly doesn’t tell you about capitalism or show capitalism at work. It creates a context in which you play as if a certain view of capitalism were true (that acquiring property and bankrupting people is the goal.) If you are changed by Monopoly it is not that you think “Oh, the designer had an interesting view about Monopoly that has changed my mind.” Instead you take on the habits or world view of a monopolist (or someone who is appalled by monopolies). It can change you, but in ways we aren’t trained to talk about the way we can talk about the transformative vision of Michelangelo. With time we will develop the critical traditions and feel just as comfortable asking about the world imitated in a game and its assumptions. Asking if games are art is one way to open this up. One day we will wake up and find there is a canon of what were transformative games. Until then we can play without thinking too much.