Video Games or Art?

(… or, Why I’m Not Getting Off Roger Ebert’s Lawn)

Real avatars

Now, those are what I call avatars!

Roger Ebert, who posts on Twitter almost as often as Tila Tequila, still can’t help but seem like a bit of an old curmudgeon sometimes, and his crusty views never sound crustier than when it comes to his opinions on video games. A recent blog entry recently ignited fresh debate about whether video games can ever be art, and if it even matters.

Let me first deal with the pesky view that the whole debate is foolish. There are a lot of people who work on a lot of art, and, yes, it is insulting to tell them that what they are doing isn’t art. Such a claim brushes off their creations as inconsequential ephemera, and no one working hard at something wants to think that the finished work will be nothing more than tomorrow’s landfill filler. I wonder if it would bother Mr. Ebert to think of his reviews as little more than throwaway, parasitic advertisements, clinging to literary life like barnacles on the bottom of the more illustrious vessel of modern cinema. I wonder if he would take issue with the idea that what he does could never be art.

If I were him, I would definitely want to believe that movie reviews could be art, and I would do everything I could do to fight the perception that I was a vulture of the creative profession.

But all this is a time-honored ritual. Every major art form has to suffer some name-calling. Cinema itself was a novelty when it first frightened audiences with images of trains pullling into stations. Early film stars like Mary Pickford actively hoped that the films she was in would be burned because she feared how foolish they would look to future audiences. She wasn’t alone in wanting to incinerate film: prints were often destroyed and recycled after their run at the cinemas because the silver content was valued more highly than whatever artistry there was in the frame. As for novels, it only took a few hundred years before prose earned an appropriate level of respect. Novels originally were read primarily by women and were disregarded as frivolous, easy literature. Free verse–that low form of poetry where the poet audaciously ignores the rules of iambic pentameter and doesn’t bother to rhyme her or his lines–wasn’t always as highly-regarded as the stuff that today intimidates almost everyone from between the covers of The New Yorker. Back in the day, if it didn’t scan, T. S. Eliot certainly wasn’t going to dance to it.

In the world of music, there’s the patronizing attitudes toward rap, hip-hop, and, further in the past, rock music itself–all forms that at one time or another were considered passing fads. But we don’t need to start so recently. In the book First Nights, which describes the atmosphere surrounding the premieres of what are now five extremely famous and well-regarded pieces of music, Thomas Forrest Kelly (no relation) describes how the “symphony of the late eighteenth century had been essentially a curtain-raiser played at the beginning of musical events–a sort of wallpaper music that prepared the way for more important things to come: operas, concerti, oratorios.” He quotes a reviewer of that time who describes symphonies as “a necessary evil (you have to start with something!) and therefore to be talked through.” The same year that review was written, Beethoven premiered his Symphony No. 1. Twenty-four years later, he would premiere the Ninth, widely regarded as one of the best pieces of music ever written and the very piece that defined the width of the modern-day Compact Disc.

How anyone as intelligent as Roger Ebert would, after all of this, dare to put his name to such a bold claim about an emerging art form is beyond me. It’s my suspicion he just wanted to get people talking (and more on that in just a second). He writes in his post that he believes “no video gamer now living will survive long enough to experience the medium as an art form.”

I think he enjoys sounding like Clint Eastwood from Gran Turino when it comes to interacting with his younger followers. He wants the firestorm.

I mean, really? Say a fifteen-year-old lives another measly fifty years (early death because he–yes, he, let’s play up the stereotype, shall we?–didn’t exercise and only ate Doritos). That would still give a would-be Beethoven of Video Games (known hereafter as the BVG) over twice as long as Beethoven took to go from “wallpaper music” to the Ninth Symphony. It seems willfully short-sighted on Mr. Ebert’s part to claim that our unfortunate gamer won’t in half a century see a lot of advancement and innovation. In the last thirty years, we’ve gone from Pong (which is still awesome, thank you very much!) to Halo, Oblivion, Grand Theft Auto 4, Bioshock, and God of War III, the last of which easily doles out more engrossing and involving man-vs-Greek-God conflict than the recent Clash of the Titans remake (not to mention more wit).

I also will go on record and say that Final Fantasy VII was the first game that I played and thought was absolute, inarguable art (I’d love anyone reading this who agrees to give a shout-out to that masterpiece below). The game dragged me into its story to such an extent that by the final battle, I felt my very soul was on the line. It was as moving an experience as I’ve ever had watching a film, and I’ve never forgotten it. Is it to be dismissed simply because I was playing a character, and instead of seeing action sequences on a screen where I had no control, I was seeing them on a screen where I did? While we’re at it, someone tell me what is so very different from watching a friend play Call of Duty: Modern Warfare and watching The Hurt Locker, this year’s shockingly overrated Oscar-winning Best Picture?

With video games and movies now sharing so much of the same creative requirements (both forms need scripts, actors, original music, and computer graphics), is the only difference between them interactivity itself? It would be funny if that were true, because Mr. Ebert recently lashed out against a recent effort to involve members of the viewing audience by allowing them to tell characters over the phone which direction to run (I’m actually going to agree here and say that having the movies call the audience’s cell phones sounds like a horrible precedent), but I think there’s a much more serious difference between video games and films.

The difference is the discourse. We don’t just need the BVG, we need the Roger Ebert of Video Games. We need the Pauline Kael of Video Games. We need critics to up the ante on how video games are talked about. When film was thought of as disposable, it took people like Henri Langlois, who created the Cinémathèque Francais, which was an early force of good in terms of film preservation (before it burned down, Inglourious Basterds-style, thanks to all the silver nitrate prints–but it’s the thought (and the rebuilding) that counts!), to elevate film to a real art form and help launch the careers of filmmakers like Francois Truffaut and start the French New Wave. Critics who raved about Citizen Kane when its very existence was threatened by the mogul it infamously criticized helped to ensure that that film ended up on every Greatest Films of All Time list under the sun and was never forgotten or destroyed.

We (and by that I mean people who care and value video games) would do well to consider renaming the form, however. Video games? I mean, is it any surprise people mock it? Heavy Rain creator David Cage recently cited the need for a new label, claiming that his title wasn’t adequately described by the term. Indeed, Heavy Rain plays like a modern noir film more than it plays like your average hack-n-slash title. I like the challenge of coming up with a better word for what developers are making, and I’m all for turning the discussion about them into something more than technology-focused banter focused on frame-rates, weapon types, and multiplayer features. The language needs to be kicked up a notch if we’re ever going to convince developers to try harder, to try to take that mantle of BVG. And where’s the IMDB of the gaming world?

On other hand, there are already plenty of video game museums sprouting up everywhere like this one in Beacon, NY, so at least we have that covered. Even if some might considered these arcades more than museums, at least someone’s changing the rhetoric.

I think Roger Ebert was really trying to do: It was a nudge, a prod, a challenge to game developers everywhere to make art before all the players here leave to go to the great game lobby in the sky.

I get excited when I think of where games are now and where they might go in my lifetime. We’re in a bit of a formative phase–a collective Wild West of video gaming–but even that has merit, because there are no expectations or rules.

There’s a lot more we could do, but I am completely convinced a lot more will be done in the years and decades to come.

Until then, players, play on.

“I am for an art that grows up not knowing it is art at all, an art given the chance of having a starting point of zero.”

– Claes Oldenburg, sculptor and modern artist

as seen quoted on the wall of the Experience Music Project in Seattle

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.