Roger Ebert is entirely responsible for this debate about whether games are art. If he hadn’t stoked the flames of gamer fanboys by saying that games can never be art, life as we know would be dramatically different today; we’d live in a world where people cared ever so slightly less whether games should be considered art. And I’d be a millionaire. Damn you, Ebert, damn you.
The problem with answering the question “can games be art?” is the question itself. Asking if games can be art assumes games are something inferior to art, that art is something we all ought to aspire to create, because art is nirvana, heaven, 72 virgins, enlightenment, ecstasy, 72 virgins, etc.
But why is art the pinnacle of creativity? As I write this keep in mind I am one of the very nose-elevated vest and monocle wearing curmudgeons I am now condescending to and pretending not to be. Believe me, the view is awesome from up here. I love art. I adore it. Specifically I love books, music and film that aspire to be art. A beautifully turned phrase, an unexpected chord progression, a closing scene that leaves all the questions you thought were important unanswered. It’s sublime.
Art is not without limits, though. However noble an endeavor it is, art is only one part of the human experience, and whatever it teaches us about life it only does so cathartically, or to be less euphemistic, it enlightens us vicariously. In art there is no direct contact with the internal workings of a piece. We form images of characters described to us on a page, we imagine their actions being carried out; we marvel at the musician’s dexterous fingers while marveling at the composer’s composition; we immerse ourselves in the visual language, color and camera work of the film auteur. But we have no say on the outcome, and beyond our emotions, nothing is at stake. Perhaps that is the beauty of art, that it guides us safely through the most harrowing, traumatic, joyful and tragic of moments without leaving any lasting damage. But often what distinguishes art from craft is that art is metaphysical, constantly looking itself in the mirror and saying out loud to no one in particular, ‘am I getting fat?’ What art is has to change constantly, as that is what art is.
Until video games, there was little risk of ever confusing games for art. Traditional games have been around as long as human civilization, and probably as long as prostitution (on the eighth day the Lord made prostitutes. It’s in the Bible. I’ve read it.) Native Americans played lacrosse, the Mayans played some sort of game in a ball court where the winning team captain was decapitated by the losing team captain (why isn’t this game around anymore??), the Romans had gladiators, the Chinese have Go and Chess. No matter how brutal some of these games were, the greatest players all had a lot more going for them than brute strength or dumb luck. When we watch someone like Michael Jordan, Gary Kasparov or pre-beard Tiger Woods do what they do, is it not as sublime as reading Joyce, listening to Chopin, or watching Bergman? The difference here, I think, is that with the exception of dance, art has been defined as primarily a mental, intellectual, or emotional experience. And even in dance the ‘art’ of it is not its physicality, it is the emotions created by the careful composition of movements and gestures, usually set to music. In a game, because we focus primarily on its physicality (chess being the exception), does that somehow rob the game of its ‘art’? Is Jordan’s seemingly superhuman ability to move a ball down the court and into a basket less meaningful because there is no narrative to it, nothing for us to latch on to other than the spontaneous emotion of witnessing the moment as it happens?
There are good reasons to consider the players both artists and the art, but the games themselves, because they are nothing without their rules, cannot be. This is all besides the point I’m trying to make, however—the question is not only a waste of time, it is the wrong question to ask. (I’m almost at my point, I swear.)
Games go Virtual
The invention of the transistor lead to tiny computers that could fit in one’s home and cost only thousands of dollars; a watershed moment in the history of games. As technology has advanced, so too has the complexity of games, and not just in terms of programming code, but in how we play them. Think about it—until, let’s say the Atari 2600, all games ever played involved sets of rules, a scoring system, and clearly defined win and loss states—i.e. the traditional game. With the advent of the home console and faster PCs, however, we began to see games that mix traditional game elements with complex themes, stories, philosophies. Now this had been going on to some degree with Dungeons and Dragons, but D&D has never been popular enough to bring the games as art question to the attention of mainstream media. In the new medium of electronic games this question was not raised either, until much more recently. And, once Roger Ebert decided to take a stab at the question, video gamers would not let the question die.
But it’s time to let the question die in peace. Ebert’s response doesn’t matter because the question doesn’t matter. The modern video game has surpassed any art medium we have today in terms of complexity, sophistication and potential. It has the potential to tell stories as rich as Lord of the Rings, fill our souls with the most transcendent music, astonish with its ever growing visual splendor. Potential I say because we haven’t got there yet; not even close. What is holding the video game back is what gives it its potential—that it gives us control. This is something no book (not even choose your own adventure), song, dance, film, painting, photograph, or sculpture can do. A video game has the power to be so much more than these things because it gives its viewer not just to power to determine the outcome, but the responsibility of accepting the results of that outcome. The question really ought to be (and this is my point), can art be a game?
At the risk of turning my nose of at myself high enough to get a nosebleed, I posit that video games, though none have come close so far, are a medium superior to art for conveying a deeper understanding of the human experience. I think we get caught up on the word ‘game’ too much. We ‘play’ games and often describe them in terms of how much ‘fun’ they are, a limitation that does not burden film/music/novels/etc. Games are considered child’s play, despite an aging demographic currently sitting somewhere in the 30s. The interactivity, as I said, is another limitation as many worry that violent games will teach their children how to commit acts of violence without understanding the consequences of said violence. This fear may or may not be unfounded—the evidence is scarce, but in some situations it has proven to be an invaluable tool for helping people get their lives back. Soldiers who have suffered PTSD, civilians as well, have benefited from reliving their traumas in the controlled virtual environment of a video game. Their stories point to a larger truth—video games, simulations, simulacra, whatever you want to call them, can create much more powerful, visceral human experiences than art does.
It is unfortunate that so few games have really tried to deliver a serious experience. I have heard LA Noire described uncritically as a ‘not fun’ experience, which interests me only so far as what it says about the state of how we evaluate games. Heavy Rain is another example, one that makes the experience both thrilling and horrifying, and seldom ‘fun’. I haven’t played LA Noire, but Heavy Rain, despite its faults, on several occasions had me reacting to situations with as much as anxiety as my character was probably feeling. Watching it as a film we might question the hero’s choices; but being him, we suddenly see we would have done exactly the same thing. Far more powerful, in my opinion, than the catharsis of seeing it happen on screen.
The video game industry, if we compare to the next youngest, film, is a baby. I am not surprised or disappointed that most games are so immature, because a lot of them are fun to play. I don’t want to detract from the value of fun, only remind that games can do so much more. So who cares if games are art? Let’s care if art is games.