Thursday, May 20, 2010

Video Games Are Art. Kinda. Sorta. If You Squint.

I'm coming to the Roger-Ebert-Games-Are-Art-No-They-Aren't shoutfest a little late. But playing God of War 3 sort of got me thinking about it again.

I've gotten e-mails asking me for my opinion of Ebert's trolling, but, as much as I respect the guy, he makes it clear in his writings that he is totally uninformed about the art form/activity that he is writing about, and he has no intention of becoming otherwise. That he would call out computer games without, so far as I can tell, actually playing any is kind of stunning. I don't know what he's thinking. He never seemed like a flamebait kind of guy. But, unless he ever shows any interest in learning about the field, there's no point in engaging him in any way.

But this is another of those times when I think Tycho at Penny Arcade summed it up with uncharacteristic clarity, brevity, and conclusiveness.

"He cannot rob you, retroactively, of wholly valid experiences; he cannot transform them into worthless things."

I have occasionally obtained from computer games the mental and emotional stimulation that I get from quality works of art. Because of that, for me, there is no argument about whether video games are art. They have been art to me, and you can't tap two blue mana and counterspell my experiences.

I have had that engaged, moved, elated feeling when playing Shadow of the Colossus. And Planescape: Torment. And Dragon Age: Origins. And Portal. And Grand Theft Auto IV. (Don't laugh.) And Bioshock, a little.

But, while that is not an exhaustive list, it is pretty close to one. I've been playing computer games for over thirty years, and I can easily count on my fingers the number of successfully truly artistic moments I have seen in games. Have you noticed that rebuttals to Ebert always name the same handful of games? I mean, sure, most game have stories, but they're so flimsy and perfunctory and two-dimensional that even gamers can't seriously defend them as art. Even a bad story is art, I guess, so then all games are sort of art, I guess, but that's a pretty thin gruel. We should be shooting for a better argument then, "Yes. They are art. Crappy, terrible, crappy art, undeserving of the attention of thinking people."

And that is why criticisms about games not being art have such sting. The simple truth is that, for the most part, the people who make them have absolutely no interest in engaging the players in more than a very limited number of ways? The game industry is great at making adrenaline surges and not much else, and the incredible potential the medium has is pretty much entirely wasted.

I try really hard in my games to create stories and characters that really grab the imagination, as much as my limited budgets allow. For some people, I succeed. Enough to keep me in business, anyway. But it's lonely work, and I am grateful that people like Roger Ebert are jabbing at us and suggesting that maybe we could do more.

I'll write more on this topic and God of War 3 once I've played it a bit more. There are still a few Gods left that I haven't brutally slaughtered.


  1. I was recently thinking about this topic after I teared up playing 'Run Elephant, Run' from Armor Games, which is a trivial little flash game that no one would put forth seriously as art. But for whatever reason it triggered a response in me other than fight or flight... You're right, that can't be "counterspelled", even by the fact that someone else wouldn't have the same reaction.

    But I don't think Ebert serves a useful function here. By comparison, the vast majority of photographs taken are taken for purely illustrative or commercial reasons. (Vacation pics, advertisements, technical documentation...) But you'd probably have to go back to the turn of the previous century to find people saying "photography is not an art" being taken seriously.

    You also don't (AFAIK) have people out there saying commercial photographers ought to be trying to be more artistic. Like the scene in Apocolyspe Now.. if you want to fight, fight. If you want to surf, surf. :) I don't see why it should be any different for game development.


  2. Testify, brother! I said something similar here - - but you have a more useful and constructive take.

    The key point I keep coming back to is Ebert's "No one in or out of the field has ever been able to cite a game worthy of comparison with the great poets, filmmakers or novelists...". Even the *attempted* rebuttals, let alone the successful ones, are conspicuously thin on the ground.

    @Tony - the problem is, there are huge corpora of photographs which qualify handsomely as art. We just don't have an equivalent for games. Sturgeon's Law - '90% of everything is shit' - doesn't apply the same way to us. For us, it's 98%.

  3. @AK... I'd accept Sturgeon's Law as applying just on general principle, but not the 98%. The set containing all games is too big to play all of them, there's no way to randomly traverse it, and artistic merit, popular recognition, and commercial success are weakly correlated properties at best. 98% of YouTube entries may be crap in my experience, but when the only available metrics are popular ratings and views there's no way to extend that from YouTube entries I've watched to YouTube's entire library.

    From where I sit, there are plenty of games which rise to the level of legitimate art. (I know my viewpoint is skewed as of the last 200 or so games I played, most were Ludum Dare entries, without mentioning those in specific...) RE,R is a sonnet vs. PS:T's epic. TSE2 had honest-to-god plot driven character growth. Dwarf Fortress is approximately the earthly manifestation of the Platonian ideal form for art. :) (Ok, that last one might be a stretch). I play lots of games, and could spend all day comming up with games not usually mentioned which legitimately qualify as art rather than as 'crappy art' (or could be honestly argued as doing so by a rational person) but at best it would be anecdotal evidence. As I can't judge the body en toto, I can't approximate the percentage of games produced which do this.

    Ebert acceded that PotC was not art... why should there be an onus on AAA games to be art when there is none on blockbuster films?

  4. "The set containing all games is too big to play all of them..."

    Indeedy - but that's also true of films books songs and any other mainstream form. The first problem is that with (eg) films, you can chuck a pebble and hit twenty pieces of *acknowledged* good art. With games, you have to dig.

    The second problem is Ebert's Challenge - with (eg) films, you'd have no shortage of commentators ready to argue that (adjust for taste) Polanski's Chinatown and Hammett's Red Harvest are similarly powerful and intelligent treatments of similar themes. That doesn't happen with games. People claimed in droves (imo risibly) that Bioshock was gaming's Citizen Kane, but no-one had the gall to say it was really as good as Citizen Kane.

    "(Ok, that last one might be a stretch)" - I admire Dwarf Fortress tremendously but I think it's a fine example of a brilliant, fascinating game that doesn't stand up convicingly as great art.

  5. @AK.. Yeah, but imdb is effectively the library of congress for movies, and you can statistically sample that and then draw conclusions about content. And the library of congress is the library of congress for books. :) There's no central for database for games, we can't even say how deep the set is.

    With film you could quite easily throw your pebble and hit twenty pieces of inarguable crap also. It entirely depends on where you throw the pebble. And like photography, much film is produced for soley mundane reasons. News reel, Tech instruction, pornography, television, etc...

    I meant that DF being the platonic ideal of all art is a stretch, not that it wasn't legit art. :) In your article you linked, you asked for someone to say "[highly respected game] is a better treatment of [theme] than [minor work by respected, non-legendary artist]."

    Let's ignore for the moment the emergent stories, which are as much art as songs built on the fly by a musician.

    Dwarf Fortess is a better exploration of the effect of an environment on a group of people's skills than James Michner's _Journey_.

    _Journey_ was a novel published in 1988, about a group of Englishmen who traveled from England to Dawson City during the gold rush via the Canadian route overland from Edmonton. The major challenges facing the travelers were external (freezing and hypothermia, having enough food, etc). Unexpected internal challenges arise due to the social makeup of the group (3 nobles and a servant, IIRC) and the social class of the people they meet. The travelers succeed admirably for the first year of their journey but fall apart in the second. When the survivors reach Dawson, they are much changed. A major portion of this change was the acquisition of relevant survival skills and the discarding of behaviors not helpful to survival. Assuming limited a priori knowledge on the subject, the reader takes away a lesson in Canadian geography, some information about how the social classes interacted in the 1800s, and an appreciation for the deadliness of the terrain north of the arctic circle.

    Fortress mode in DF starts with 7 dwarves and a wagon of supplies dropped off somewhere in the wilderness. No relief supplies will be available for several months of game time. Failing to build a fortress suitable to the environment the dwarfs are in leads to fortress death in various hilarious manners. A major portion of the game is correctly allocating jobs (and thus selecting skills) suitable to the environment at hand. (It being pointless for example, to build a glass industry on a sand-less map).

    The DF player will probably play more than one fortress, in more than one environment. The reader of Journey will probably read it once. In illustrating that 'The surrounding environment will affect which skills a small group needs in order to survive', DF is more likely to be effective because it demonstates the point more times in more ways.

    That's kind of a throwaway argument on my part, I'm just illustrating that the DF is art argument is probably cogent, it surely could be better presented by someone else. I'm probably not familiar enough with minor works outside games-- I've not seen Red Harvest or Chinatown-- to pick out the best comparsions.

    I agree we don't have meaningful game criticism in the same sense that film does. I'm not sure that that's a necessary condition for a field to be art.

  6. Games are simply a young art form. The first computer game was created just fifty or so years ago; they didn't become common until decades after that; and only in the past decade or so has it been possible for a single person, with a narrative in his mind, to create a playable computer game, without extensive programming knowledge.

    Games also have multiple purposes, and the one for which they are most commonly used is fun. Fun and art are not mutually exclusive, but it's quite common to sacrifice one for the other, and in games, it's usually a sacrifice of artistic merit for an increase in pure entertainment. The games that keep coming up as examples in these arguments are the few games that manage to provide both: Shadow of the Colossus, Portal, etc. The really artsy games, the ones that often aren't even that fun at all, still are pretty much on the outskirts of things: Jason Rohrer's games, Tale of Tales' games, point-and-click adventure games, and especially text-based adventure games.

    The primary distinction I make is that games are an artform, by which I mean it is possible to create an artistic game. Just like it's possible to create an artistic movie. And just like movies, it's far more likely, taking the average game, that it's really not that artistic at all.

  7. Tony, +1 to you for that, although imo it isn't a critical comparison of two works of art. It's an (articulate, plausible) account of why games in general can be better educational tools than books. Which I already buy.

    But in any case, of course it's possible to make a critical comparison between a game and a film - that's my whole point! Bear that in mind, and think:in the millions of words splurged in defence of games as art, practically no-one ever tries to compare specific examples. The telling response to Ebert is not 'Dwarf Fortress is arguably art' or even 'Bioshock is our Citizen Kane.' It's '[this game] deserves to be discussed in the same breath as the Seventh Seal and Babbitt...and here, in the language of criticism, is why.' I don't think games can't be art. I don't think games are necessarily worthless. I do think, as Jeff points out above, we do well to be clear-eyed not partisan about the topic. Or to give up trying to be art, but then let's give up throwing darts at Ebert.

  8. Babbitt the novel or the film? The novel is at least partly about the possibility of failing at redemptive change, just like PS:T. But I haven't read it in years (or, come to think of it, played the game in years), and I couldn't put forth an argument to their parity in the language of criticism--

    -- speaking of, other than going to college for four years as a english or film major, what's the starting point for learning that language? (My education at college and after has been narrowly technical). I honestly looked several months ago, specifically in order to be able to have this conversation, but what I found was either hopelessly over my head or aimed at teaching high school students grammar.

    I have to head to work in a couple minutes, thank you AK for an enjoyable discussion and Jeff for sparking it.

  9. oh lor', Tony, I didn't mean you! I mean that prominent games bloggers and professional journalists should be prepared to step up and talk in specifics
    rather than generalities. Since you asked, I think the best way to learn the language of criticism is to read criticism, and I think film
    criticism is the most relevant to games because we've borrowed so many of our clothes from there.

    Babbitt the novel; now, PS:T. I love it to bits. I played a good quarter of it with my mouth hanging open in amazement. But it combines intelligent writing, zingy imagination, ambitious themes, extraordinary visual panache with, sadly, silly pulpiness, women falling out of their clothes, moments of grotesque overwriting, back-and-forth fetch quests and above all long stretches of repetitive combat. It's as if the best that cinema had produced was the Matrix, and that Smith fight was eight times as long.

    anyway, nice to meet. Jeff, I'll stop drowning your comments section now.

  10. If you take art to mean worthwhile and important then "games are not art" is an insult.

    If however you take art to mean the art industry then "games are not art" is a compliment.

    The art industry is nothing to look up to.

    Elmyr is my homeboy.

  11. Whether or not a game has a story with depth (or a story at all) shouldn't necessarily be a means of gauging a game's value as art. People forget that stories aren't a defining characteristic of games. Games are about interactivity and player involvement. Games as a form have a vocabulary that is unique. Yes, there is some crossover with film, literature, painting, etc, but there are ideas unique to gaming. These unique ideas are what needs to be explored in a discussion of games as art.

  12. I usually find those people who deny something as "Art" are artists themselves. They seem to want to keep feeling important by shutting out what isn't their own.

    People will enjoy video games regardless if they are considered Art or not. Is the industry really going to get a influx of new costumers because some Grand Poo-Bah declares Games are Art?

    Though these are always fun arguments to goad people with. :)

  13. Maybe it wouldn't matter for the commercial aspects of the industry, but for those of us who play and create video games, it would be nice to get some fair recognition. People who watch classic films and go to the opera are considered "cultured," but us game lovers are just nerds. Games are seen as having nothing valuable to contribute to society, beyond pure entertainment. That's where the sting is.

    I'd agree with Sam Kahn: games have unique artistic qualities to bring to the table, above and beyond their stories. Take TES4:Oblivion, for instance. The plot is attractive, but not very original: a lone hero finds the king's lost heir, recovers a powerful artifact, and saves the world from an invading demonic horde. It's probably just a variation on or amalgamation of typical fantasy plots that we've all seen before. However, none of the books and movies in which these elements appear have actually allowed me to LIVE those plots, as a character in the story. Oblivion did, and had a unique sort of impact on me as a result. Another unique aspect of Oblivion concerns the fact that, because of its open storyline and numerous sidequests, my experience of the main plot was nuanced, and ended up being different from that of anyone else who has played the game. It became my personal story. So even if its main plot line is a bit trite and simple, I would say that Oblivion is good art in every sense of the words. It's just difficult to make a direct comparison between it and seminal works of film and literature, because its essential nature goes beyond the story to include something entirely different. Is Oblivion as good as, say, the Lord of the Rings? I don't know if I'd go that far, but it's definitely up there. Then there's Myst III: Exile, which taught me something about forgiveness that I suspect a comparable book or film couldn't have taught; because, again, I wasn't just observing the story. I was involved in it. It gripped me almost like a real experience.

    Obviously, this isn't an academic defense. I'm just describing my personal experiences and reactions to the works I've imbibed over the years. But I would argue that art isn't and shouldn't be defined by the academics. Real art is defined by its ability to move people emotionally, make them think and introspect, and showcase truths about life. Correct me if I'm wrong, but don't those who study art academically today build their theories on a study of the classics, which are recognized by their ability to speak to people of all times? Scholars look at the classics and say, "What made this work so powerful?", but they don't decide what's powerful. The people do that. The works of classic authors and filmmakers who impacted the culture of their day, and continue to be appreciated by later generations, are now used as measuring rods for later works. Games are too young to have a good population of their own classics to be "measuring rods," especially since many of the older titles were little-known to begin with (since gaming wasn't so mainstream back then)and are slipping further into obscurity as technology advances. So I would argue that there's not a good basis for judging games accurately on academic grounds. The language of criticism can judge a game on its story alone, but I doubt it has developed enough to take the other elements into account.

  14. The answer to the question isn't really straightfoward, as it depends on how 'strict' (ie traditional) the definition is. If you're really referring to visually satisfying images, then a lot of video games aren't (though Flower is another thing altogether). If we take a more loose, heart-and-soul kind of definition like, say, Wikipedia's then art is more about emotive, creative mediums of expressions, then there are easily genres that could be classed as art. Heavy Rain and RPGs comes to mind when I think of the loose definition, and it is hard to doubt they fall under art.

  15. All discussion of artistic merit aside, Ebert's argument is that games, as an interactive experience, can't embody the authorial vision which he sees as central to art.

    I have a number of problems with this argument, but even taking it at face value, might it be possible to think of games not as art but as a tool for creating art? Each play session is an individual artwork created by the player through the medium of the game. Take a look at what this guy has done with Sim City:

    ... and tell me that's not art. Maybe not the greatest art of all time, but I've seen worse things displayed in art galleries.

  16. This comment has been removed by the author.

  17. The number of games that induce a real emotional response is very small. Of those, the ones that actually use the interactive medium in any compelling way, the ones that couldn't be equivalently "artistic" if you simply stuck together all the cutscenes, etc. is very close to zero.

    Braid might qualify.

    I'm not terribly impressed with Bioshock as a game, but I have seen it mentioned in non-gaming forums as a cutting satire of Objectivism. When you can point to a game as a sort of rebuttal to Ayn Rand novels, that's kind of neat. But again, BioShock really does nothing that couldn't be done in a non-interactive film.

  18. *sigh* I'm surprised this debate continues. To paraphrase: Video games contain art, but are not art themselves. Nobody would have batted an eye if Ebert said this about board games, table top games, card games, sports, etc. but somehow saying this about video games is a foul. Worse, all the counter examples are instances of great art in video games, but not of the game itself being great art. The best counter examples, in my opinion, come from the realm of interactive story (not interactive fiction) such as Façade and games by Chris Crawford. But, one can legitimately argue that interactive stories ultimately are AIs that produce art, not games that are art themselves.

  19. I have had that engaged, moved, elated feeling when playing Shadow of the Colossus. And Planescape: Torment. And Dragon Age: Origins. And Portal. And Grand Theft Auto IV. (Don't laugh.) And Bioshock, a little.

    But, while that is not an exhaustive list, it is pretty close to one. I've been playing computer games for over thirty years, and I can easily count on my fingers the number of successfully truly artistic moments I have seen in games.

    I notice you did not mention the pinnacle of the RPG series you have been ripping off for fifteen years now. Shame on you!

  20. Robert: if Chris Crawford and Facade are the best we can do for games-as-art, we're in *real* trouble.

  21. Robert: "To paraphrase: Video games contain art, but are not art themselves."

    Oh, COME ON. This is truly the goofiest sort of hair-splitting.

    - Jeff Vogel

  22. Just take a look at "The path". Everything about it makes it clear that it's main intention is to create atmosphere, emotion, and a challenge to the mind. It has all elements of a game, yet isn't about gaming, first and foremost. It is social commentary, psychological experiment, and is self-referential about its own medium. It's a nice example of what could be done within the gaming medium, if the intentions is a little more than just entertainment.

  23. Jeff, I wasn't splitting hairs, I was trying to express the underlying viewpoint of those who believe video games can not be art. Chess isn't art, but the pieces you play with can be beautiful works of art. Monopoly isn't art, but the board in all board games are filled with art. Figure skating is a sport, but often contains dance, choreography, costuming and music. Put another way, a picture frame isn't art simply because it contains the Mona Lisa. And the since the game half of video games can never be art, video games can't be art. So I can completely understand Ebert's position. But, personally, I think dismissing a Mona Lisa just because it's in some utilitarian frame would be a crime.

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