Video Games Can Never Be Art

This was a statement made by famed movie critic Roger Ebert.

And it affirms something to which I’ve long attested, that the film critic’s pathetic lot is to forever claw and scratch for recognition by other film critics, since no one else – namely those other film students who went on to actually make films – gives a damn.

 

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What is art?

This question is one that has been debated perhaps since the beginning of human history – indeed I would venture a guess that even the cave painters Ebert mentions in his post argued the validity of those works, unaware as to how they would inform historians of the social context in which they were created.  It is only at the modern heights of arrogance that could one claim to be able to answer this age-old question with any certainty.  And it is hardly possible to be any more arrogant than making a universal truth claim, let alone one expected to hold for eternity. The whole thing is laughable.

I have argued in the past that video games are the ultimate form of expression, and what is art if not expression?  Indeed video games are a convergence of art from just about every medium – audio, visual, literary – and their social impact is ever-increasing.  Ebert makes his statement by observing video footage of a few games offered up as art, already prepared to deny the possibility.  Aside from the sheer fallacy of denying art as a form of expression, there is also the matter of his evaluation not being made from the proper standpoint.  As I’ve argued in the past, what sets video games apart from film, television, music, books, and other mediums is their interactivity.

That one thing [that sets video games apart from other media] is interactivity. You can rip a page out of a book in frustration as a story takes an unfavorable turn, or you can yell your lungs out at movie screen as the stupid teenage girl wanders down the dark hallway alone towards the lurking killer, but chances are that you’re not going to change anything. In a video game, however, a person is given a measure of control over the characters and environment presented.

To evaluate any video game without playing it is as dubious as evaluating a piece of music by only reading the lyrics or reading the sheet music, or evaluating the merits of a film based on – insert laughter here – a critic’s review.

If the art is expression argument alone doesn’t validate video games’ status as an art form, then allow me to speak from a more personal place, because is not the meaning of art in any context entirely subjective?  I can attribute to two single moments in the games Chrono Cross (Playstation) and Lunar: Eternal Blue (Sega CD), the abstracts that would expand to become the cornerstone of my personal philosophy.  The former, in that one moment, had me question how color could correspond to sound, and the latter had me considering the relationship between creation and destruction, which I would later come to understand more abstractly as two forms of change.  In that art has often sparked philosophical inquiry and introspection – for the creator and the audience – video games clearly fit the bill.

Furthermore, my ethics – manifest in my sense of justice – if not founded in, was certainly bolstered by the lofty ideals of good vs. evil I found in video games as a child.  The evolution of video game conflicts from black and white conceptualizations of good and evil in the “old school” to the shades of gray now explored through the tough moral choices players have to make in the “new school” not only showcases video games’ increasing complexity, but also their increasing relevance to the real world.  Art, as a medium, is nothing without its flexibility, and its ability to evolve as a reflection of the surrounding social atmosphere.

My inspiration to write came from video games as well, at first little more than an emulation or reworking of video game plots, but soon thereafter the expression of a burgeoning imagination, forged in outlandish worlds and impossible situations.  Video games spoke to me in ways that other mediums simply did not, and if we are measuring art in terms of social or personal impact, then Ebert’s claim is not only false for me, but a personal slight to me and others like me, for whom games have been either a subtle or direct influence.  His claim invalidates me, personally – dismissing the countless hours in which I was visually, aurally, physically, and emotionally invested and engaged – as frivolous, or a waste of time.

This is saying nothing of how it invalidates the creators of video games – themselves musicians, painters, 3D modelers, programmers, writers, choreographers, actors, and more – each of which, outside the context of the video game itself, Ebert could hardly argue were not artists.

So, on what sort of project, exactly, could established artists from many different fields come together, only to miraculously create something that is not art?

To propose that such a project could even exist is to stand at the very apex of stupidity.

For someone who is without a doubt – no matter how one chooses to define art – not an artist himself, and one who has never been touched by the myriad forms of expression contained within a video game, Ebert only proves himself incapable of making such a judgment.  He also proves, for his increasing detachment from an evolving media culture, his sheer cultural irrelevance.