Thursday, December 30, 2010

Video Games and Art


I should preface this by saying that I do not consider myself a gamer. There are maybe four video games that I've really gotten into.

Roger Ebert has famously and repeatedly written that "video games can never be art." To my knowledge, he wrote most extensively about that subject here. I've been thinking about his article for a while now. He makes some good points, but for some reason I couldn't bring myself to agree with him.

For Christmas I gave my brother some popcorn in a New Orleans Saints tin as well as The Hunger Games.  He sent me a text the other day, "Guess which of your presents I finished." I texted back that he must be done with the popcorn. For one, he has a voracious appetite for popcorn. He was also really busy working on a major project, so he didn't really have time for the book. Also, I suspected that when he finished the book he'd have a lot more to say about it than just "I'm finished." Turns out, he had just finished the popcorn.

But then I thought about his phrasing a little bit more. One does not "finish" a good book like that. It sticks with you, it gets in your head. After I read Dune, I couldn't look at a glass of water the same way for months. Every year when April shakes up what remains of winter, it brings me back to the first time I read Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. I'm not "finished" with those books.

But before I thought of either of those examples, I thought of an example from a video game—Final Fantasy VII. Every time I sit at a campfire, I always think of the scene in that game where the group is seated around a fire in Cosmo Canyon, and I think Barret says something about how the flames pull out deeply rooted memories. Then I started thinking about how the music and images of that game have stuck with me years after I first played it.

Central to Ebert's argument is that video games cannot be art because you beat them. You don't beat a novel or a painting or an opera. Well, I think it's safe to say that I did not really beat FFVII. It's one of the few games I've played through, and I must have played it start-to-finish half a dozen times. I play it for several reasons. First of all, it's fun. But it also looks beautiful, there are some fascinating characters, and the plot is sprawling and involved. And aside from the usual themes of life, death, and love, the game also explores the significance of colonialism and environmentalism, and identity and memory. It gets real.

But Ebert has bigger issues with video games. He writes, "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 [sic]poets."  I have several problems with this. First, comparing art forms is a little silly. "Show me a piano sonata with character development as profound as even a low-rate novel!"

There are bigger problems, though. In the linked article above, he counters the argument that video games should be spared scrutiny because the medium is in its infancy. Ebert cites the beauty of cave paintings and the sophistication of early cinema. But the real test of art is time. We just can't know now if a video game made today will be timeless. I know that must be a hard pill for a film critic to swallow.

And now I'm actually going to get to the heart of the matter. Art is not like gold. No matter what we think of gold, whatever name we call it, whatever form it's bent in to, it will always be gold. It's as unchangeable as any other element. But the definition and properties of art are entirely dependent on what we assign it.

I'll turn to Prospero's last soliloquy from The Tempest. At this point in the play, Prospero is reconciled with his brother, the king, Ariel, and Miranda. Yet out Prospero comes to tell us that whether he returns to his home in Naples and is absolved is entirely up to us. He says, asking for applause:

But release me from my bands
With the help of your good hands
Gentle breath of yours my sails
Must fill, or else my project fails.

I don't think Prospero is just talking about his fate, or the fate of the play itself. This was the last of Shakespeare's plays, and I think Prospero is speaking about the entire body of Shakespeare's work and fiction in general. Prospero is trying to clue us in that the fate of any work does not lie in itself, but in how others perceive it. The author's intentions and best wishes are inconsequential if the audience wholly rejects what they have seen. The opposite is also true. I doubt that Shakespeare intended for his works to have the kind of force and presence that they have today. There was just no parallel in his age, aside from religious texts, to what his influence would become. And on top of it all, plays weren't considered art in his day.

There may come a time when we see video games in an entirely new light. I don't think Pong will ever be looked at like the Epic of Gilgamesh, but maybe Final Fantasy VII will be considered to be on par with "Le Voyage dans la lune." And some educated and refined people may never develop a taste for even the best video games. But that's okay. Lots of people don't like opera.

3 comments:

  1. Michael,
    I have to tell you that a lot of what you write goes over my head. I think on a 5th or 6th grade level. But this post I totally agree with and think what you said makes complete sense. Great post my friend, and yeah I bet that popcorn was gone real fast.

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  2. The biggest flaw with Ebert's argument is that he doesn't actually play video games. He watches other people play them and then passes judgement. He is missing a fundamental element of the whole scenario. Video games are interactive; they require audience participation. Not playing video games and just watching them is akin to reading the screenplay for a great movie. You get a feel for the art but you are not experiencing it in its intended form.

    Ebert is right in the fact that video games will never be art, to him. He will never experience video games as art because he will never really experience video games as they should be. He doesn't have the skill or dedication required to do so. He will never perceive the form in it's fullness.

    That kind of arrogance is baffling to me.

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  3. I'm glad y'all like the post. Also, I can feel Will's passion on the issue! I really agree with you. He should really play a game before he writes a sweeping treatise on the nature of the medium.

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