“Video games can never be art” said Roger Ebert, the most renowned film critic and owner of the most highly regarded opposable thumb in American history. No writer has ever had such a profound understanding of movies, and through them, the meaning of art. So when Ebert denounced the medium in 2005, it added fresh oil to an already greasy fire that continues to burn today.
Kellee Santiago, a video game designer and producer, performed a TED talk in 2009 where she addressed Ebert’s claims and defended the medium as an artform. Ebert, in turn, released an essay responding to this talk. Ebert says in the article, “I propose to take an unfair advantage. She spoke extemporaneously. I have the luxury of responding after consideration.”
Well, I suppose I, too, propose to take an unfair advantage: Ebert died on April 4th, 2013, and has no way of defending his stance further, unless ‘ghost writing’ becomes a literal term. Still, his sentiments have been echoed by many others, and must be addressed.
Video games as artform has become an ever-growing battle, like many mediums before it. Photo credit: Colin North (c) Tickld, Limited 2016
Before anything can be said, it’s important to know going in: what is art? Santiago’s definition, as taken by Wikipedia, is: "Art is the process of deliberately arranging elements in a way that appeals to the senses or emotions."
An even briefer definition is presented in Ebert’s response, also from Wikipedia: “art is more concerned with the expression of ideas”. Evidently, what makes ‘art’ can be twisted in many ways. So where does this leave us with a definition? We’ll be extremely vague, and say it’s when one person expresses themselves in a way another person can feel it.
Gamers, too, are just trying to sing their song. Photo credit: Colin North (c) Tickld, Limited 2016
The most common criticism of video games as an artform comes right from its name: 'game'. Ebert argues that the structure of games themselves (such as rules, challenges, winners and losers) prohibit the form from being art. Michael Samyn, co-founder of the art game developer 'Tale of Tales', believes that because humans possess a biological need that is only satisfied by play, which in term is manifested itself in the form of games, that games are nothing more than a physiological necessity. Because an outcome must be reached, it cannot be art, because everything is done to reach the goal of the game. Indeed, all that matters in Super Mario Bros. is reaching the flagpole. How can any meaningful expression come when you’re tied down by rules?
A gamer, an artist; or both? Photo credit: eSports Gaming Events, Toronto, Ontario.
Well, it can be done. It becomes a case of using everything about the game to express yourself. Bill Simmons, in an essay about LeBron James, talks about how the truly great players develop such a high understanding of the game of basketball itself, that it rises above just winning titles and trophies, above putting the ball in the hoop. The player becomes an artist, showing up in every arena with the intent of creating something that people will remember. It’s performance, as Simmons says, forged by genius and competitive drive. For athletes, the game becomes their tool.
Video games, despite many suffering from the limitations that games offer, provide the same source of expression. The Smash Brothers is a nine-part documentary series that shows the history behind the video game Super Smash Bros. Melee, a fighting game. It chronicles the players, the tournaments, the rivalries, prize money, and titles won and lost over a ten year span. Yet, the documentary closes with one player remarking: “Smash Brothers is an artform. It’s not actually about being the best”. The four-hour long series presents itself as about competition and glory, when you realise it’s about the players. You can watch two people play the same game, and recognise different style and emotion by how they play. The TV becomes a canvas, and the controller is your paintbrush.
The kind of competition that brings people together. Photo credit: Joseph Chow, EvenMatchupGaming.
Art, to many though, requires the recognized presence of an author. Ebert remarks in his essay “ Is not a tribal dance an artwork, yet the collaboration of a community? Yes, but it reflects the work of individual choreographers. Everybody didn't start dancing all at once.”
Brian Moriarty gave a lecture titled “An Apology To Roger Ebert”, in which he argued that “the audience's interaction with the work wrests control from the author and thereby negates the expression of art.” To which I would argue, what if the author uses that audience interaction to make an even stronger work of art?
The mind of a few represent the many. Photo credit: Colin North (c) Tickld, Limited, 2016
Think of using a stencil. You place on the paper, trace it carefully, and it comes out beautifully, but you’re stuck with the shape of the stencil, it can’t be changed. Making video games is the same idea. The choices in the game are carefully constructed, so that the player never feels restricted, and the author still has total control over the material. It's connecting the dots and seeing what the end result is. The player feels satisfied with their experience playing, while the author’s vision remains intact.
Once considered taboo is now considered a treasure. Are video games to be the same? Photo credit: Colin North (c) Tickld, Limited 2016
So where does this leave video games as an art form? Ebert points out that no one can cite a game worthy of comparison with the great poets, filmmakers, and novelists, and he is absolutely right. The medium is also less than 50 years old; you might as well hand a newborn a paintbrush and say “Mona Lisa, please and quickly.” It’ll take trial and error, but as video games grow, so will their artistic quality.
Wonderful street art, as not-done by a newborn. Photo credit: Colin North (c) Tickld, Limited 2016
I firmly believe that video games will not only be considered a respected art form in time, but also at the forefront. In the past, we’ve always been restricted, despite the best intentions, in our connection with the artist. In a painting, a book, or in a movie, it’s always been us here, them there. Video games introduce that final element: immersion. You can experience their ideas yourself. When the player makes decisions, good or bad, it hits the message home harder than ever. When watching a horror movie, you could yell “Why would you go in there?!” when a main character went ahead and got themselves killed. In video games, you chose to go in there. It’s a new level, a layer of depth that has yet to be explored.
There’s potential for video games to make a real statement as an art form in our lifetime and beyond. Instead of debating whether it should be considered as such, let’s just focus on making it to that flagpole.
The sculptors of tomorrow? Photo credit to eSports Gaming Events.
A big thank you to the people at EvenMatchupGaming and eSports Gaming Events for letting me in their venues and for the wonderful photos.