December 31, 2010
If you’re reading this, you’re probably already familiar with the debate. You know the back and forth between Roger Ebert and Kellee Santiago on the subject and you’ve probably made up your mind about which side of the line you stand on. For those who haven’t been following the drama, here’s a quick recap:
Ebert: vidya games will never be art. they r dumb an bad. poems, paint, poems.
Santiago: no wai! games r totally art now. they wernt before, but u kno… games r sooo much better than b4. have you guys seen Fl0w(er)?
Ebert: lol nub. u dont kno wat art is.
Santiago: no, srs! here I send u my game. u liek?
Ebert: no thx
Santiago: watevs, i alredy won. games r totes art. my next game also is an art.
I’m paraphrasing here, but you get the basic idea. I recommend reading the articles and watching the videos for yourself if you’re interested in the the “details” (i.e. what they actually said). At this point, it’s obvious that the conversation is going absolutely nowhere. In fact, the major mouthpieces have all but fled from the topic, though neither is willing to concede their point.
You can debate what makes something art, build detailed comparisons to existing works, cite examples from other media, and tear apart what the other camp says, but at the end of the day you haven’t changed anything. Nobody who’s ever put thought into the subject has really budged and no one is better off.
Before I continue, I have to admit that it was the offense I initially took to both Ebert’s rantings about games, which he admittedly knows little to nothing about, and Santiago’s triumphant story about having helped to finally validate games among other artistic media that inspired me to write about this.
In fact, Santiago’s 2009 TED talk bothered me quite a bit more than Ebert’s articles did because not only did she say that Ebert was correct in that games, to date, had not been art (going so far as to compare them to chicken scratches), but she then went on to say that she and a small handful of others were just now creating games that were artful, and then gave three examples that fundamentally offered absolutely nothing new. She ended her talk by needlessly ripping on mainstream television, in a tangent that surprisingly sounded a lot like Ebert’s take on video games as a whole.
Before I get flamed, I should say that of the games Santiago listed, I absolutely loved Braid and I thought Flower was very slick and pretty, though the controls were a bit clumsy. I’m not by any means discounting them as good games, I’m just suggesting that they weren’t revolutionary in any way. Braid, for example, offered 2D platformer gameplay with a time manipulation puzzle-solving mechanic. That’s all been done before, Braid just managed to capture that combination of elements exceptionally well. To say that this game and others like it have finally brought the industry to a new level is to willfully ignore the countless amazing games that came before it – games like the ones that Jonathan Blow, Braid’s creator, credits as inspiring his own work.
At first, I wanted to post a list of games from the past twenty years that I loved and that easily fit her loose definition of art, as if to say, “Do these games not also ‘deliberately appeal to senses or emotions’?” As you can imagine, that turned out to be pretty stupid. By the time I abandoned that idea, what I had was a chronological list of over two hundred titles like Max Payne, Loom, Ico, Myst, Abe’s Oddysee, Grim Fandango, Zork Nemesis, American McGee’s Alice, and even Super Mario Bros. that really meant absolutely nothing to anyone who hadn’t experienced them. While I realized that the list itself was useless, the exercise of building the list highlighted exactly the point I was trying to make.
“The chess pieces are the block alphabet which shapes thoughts; and these thoughts, although making a visual design on the chess-board, express their beauty abstractly, like a poem… I have come to the personal conclusion that while all artists are not chess players, all chess players are artists.”
When you ask anyone who has ever loved a game what their favorite game is, you never really know what to expect, but you can bet that game made their list for a reason. Maybe they loved it because it was artsy, but maybe they loved it because it told an fantastic story. Maybe they liked the character progression, or maybe the dialog made them laugh. Maybe it was that game that allowed them to share an intimate bond with another person, or maybe they fell in love with exploring a new universe. Maybe they just like killing time on their farm.
The point is, all of these experiences can be intensely meaningful to the person on the other side of the screen, board, stick and can, etc. – regardless of whether or not someone thinks it qualifies as art. In other words, my response to the question, “Is a game art?” is an earnest “Who cares, did you get something out of it?”
It’s my opinion that our job as game developers is to create meaningful experiences – to entertain. In some form or another, that’s why most of the developers I’ve met or worked with got into the industry in the first place. For me, games were one of the few subjects that my father and I really connected on, from Backgammon and Chess to Legend of Zelda and Quake Thunderwalker CTF, and that’s always been one of the main influencing factors in deciding that I wanted to make them. I love games and the experiences I’ve had with them and I want to create more of that.
We know that games have brought people together since at least the very beginning of recorded history and, given what we know about human nature, we can easily assume that they’ve been doing so since the dawn of man. In that context, the thought that anyone would seek to validate games by labeling them as art seems not only unnecessary, but detrimental – it distracts from the essence of what makes games so powerful. Games don’t need to be art to be significant because they are already tantamount to the human experience. I’m not saying there’s no room for certain games to be art or to not be art, but to let that define our craft would be to miss the point entirely.
Can a game be art? Hell, a game can strengthen families, it can build friendships, it can introduce lovers, it can change the way you see the world around you, it can teach you things you didn’t know about yourself. Games do all of these things and so much more every day all over the world on an immeasurable scale, as games always have.
I really want to drive that point home: games have always had the power to affect droves of people in a meaningful way. A set of rules can do that. That’s just a property of games. Stack up the sheer number of prides humbled by a game of Go or restless minds calmed by a few rounds of Solitaire and they easily outrank, by at least an order of magnitude, the reach of even the most famous works of art that history has to offer. By that measure, being art must be the least significant thing a game could ever do.
At this point you might be thinking, “…but if we concede that it doesn’t really matter whether or not games are art, doesn’t that mean we’d also be forfeiting all the potential cultural, legal, and financial privileges enjoyed by traditional artistic media?” Well, yes and no.
I would argue that as part of a global society in which games have long been more or less universally accepted, our efforts would be better spent talking about why games are so incredibly valuable and worthwhile by their own merits, rather than falling into the centuries-old trap of trying to get everyone to agree on what the hell makes something art.
When I hear people talk about certain specific games as being works of art, myself included, they typically mean that the game is an exceptionally good game based on criteria used to judge whether or not games are good, not that it’s exceptionally good at being some other sort of thing that’s maybe art but probably isn’t a game. In that sense, you have one group of people saying simply that that yes, some games are incredibly good games, and another group sort of butting in to argue that no, there are no games that are paintings.
To the point, the question should be, “If games are so important, why aren’t they offered the same recognition and consideration as art?” That’s a question that, sadly, I don’t have an answer to.
Maybe it’s because play comes to us so naturally that we’ve learned to associate it with childish behavior. Maybe it’s the nature of play being so deeply hard-wired into our genes that causes us to take it for granted and devalue the beauty in the architecture of a brilliantly engaging set of rules.
Whatever the reason, games typically aren’t regarded with the dignity they deserve. If they were, we might be in the throes of a heated debate over whether or not carving a sculpture or performing a dance could truly be considered a game. Wouldn’t that be something…
Posted by Thomas | 7 Comments