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Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Ultimate Geek Fu

"Video games can never be art."

Thus proclaimed leading film critic Roger Ebert last April. I guess those of us who play video games should settle back and accept this as gospel. After all, Ebert is bound to have spent entire minutes looking at video games, perhaps even playing video games. This wealth of experience makes his opinion unimpeachable, at least as far as Ebert is concerned. And, really, he's not even using actual experience with video games to build his point. He simply watched a 15 minute video of a woman claiming video games already were art.

There is a part of me that is ready to simply ignore Ebert's opinions. Most of what I've read by Ebert that is unassociated with film has been poorly considered or, in the case of his political musings, mere regurgitation of left-wing pundits. But his defense of this opinion is so weak, I can't resist.
She [the woman in the video Ebert watched] begins by saying video games "already ARE art." Yet she concedes that I was correct when I wrote, "No one in or out of the field has ever been able to cite a game worthy of comparison with the great poets, filmmakers, novelists and poets." To which I could have added painters, composers, and so on, but my point is clear.
Ebert's first big point here is that even video game people don't believe any video game compares to the works of the great masters. Wow. So, if a painting isn't worthy of serious comparison to the Mona Lisa, it's not art? If a poem isn't on par with the best of Robert Frost or Emily Dickenson, it's not art? Yet this is the standard to which Ebert insists on holding video games. Video games have only existed in public form for about 40 years. Last time I checked, thousands of years passed between the first cave paintings and the Mona Lisa. There is much that is artistic yet unable to stand even the briefest comparison to the work of the grand masters. So what if no video game can withstand that comparison? That doesn't mean the best video games cannot withstand comparison to lesser works of art.
One obvious difference between art and games is that you can win a game. It has rules, points, objectives, and an outcome.
Is Ebert seriously arguing here that art has no rules? If that's the case, why does virtually every review of some "modern art" monstrosity eventually tell us how the artist "breaks all the rules" with his supposed work of art? Is he telling us that no competition can ever be art, because I could have sworn figure skating was supposed to be athletic artistry or artistic athleticism or something along those lines. And what about art contests? Are the paintings entered in those competitions not artwork while the competition is going on and then suddenly become artwork once there's no chance of winning?

I took part in a storytelling competition a few months ago and the judges awarded storytellers points in four categories, based on each storyteller's performance. I'll argue long and hard that storytelling is an art form, so what's the deal with points and a winner? Why can't art have an outcome? Is there some kind of rule against it? No, wait, art doesn't have rules, according to Ebert. Hm...

Also, I'd argue every movie ever made has had an objective. That objective might be to entertain, to make money, to deliver a message, or something else entirely; but films very definitely have objectives. Any artwork that does not have an objective is about as "artistic" as a paint-splattered drop cloth; a bunch of colors mixing with each other for no purpose whatsoever.

But Ebert's worst mistake comes when he wraps up his "arguments" claiming video games will never be art.
Toward the end of her presentation, she shows a visual with six circles, which represent, I gather, the components now forming for her brave new world of video games as art. The circles are labeled: Development, Finance, Publishing, Marketing, Education, and Executive Management. I rest my case.
"I rest my case." So, Ebert claims video games not only are not art but cannot be art simply because the creation of a video game involves departments such as Development, Finance, Publishing, Marketing, Education, and Executive Management. That list of departments reminds me of something else... I'm positive there's another popular form of media that has departments with similar, if not exactly the same, titles. Oh, of course! That other form of media is...movies! Oh, they may not have an Education department, and in movies "Executive Management" is called the "Executive Producer," but we're talking cosmetic differences here. Apparently, it's possible for art to be produced by a corporation provided Roger Ebert makes his living from the "art" in question; which leaves video games out in the cold.

I contend that the primary motivation for art is evoke emotions. Now, there's more to art than just that, but "art" that doesn't inspire some kind of emotion in you is an utter failure as art. Over the years, I've watched thousands of movies. Some of those movies included scenes during which the main character had to choose to sacrifice one of the supporting characters for the greater good. If such a scene is well written and well acted, it can be quite an emotionally powerful scene. But no movie affected me as much as when I faced with that same choice while playing the science fiction adventure video game Mass Effect. With two supporting characters in life-or-death situations, I had to choose which character was going to die. This had nothing to do with points or objectives or winning. It had to do with evoking emotions in a way impossible for a movie or a novel or any other form of artwork. Only a video game could actually put me in that situation. (Well, a pencil-and-paper role playing game could, also, but I rather doubt Ebert would be willing to call one of those "art," either.)

In the long run, I don't really care about Ebert's opinions (no, not even about movies), but I seriously hate it when people make such ignorantly sweeping pronouncements.

Let the arguments begin!
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