Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Video games as art

Roger Ebert recently argued that not only are video games now not art, they never will be, or at least won't be in the lifetime of any gamers now alive. I see three arguments implicit in Ebert:

  1. Video games are, in fact, of fairly low artistic value.
  2. Video games involve significant user interaction and hence are not sufficiently expressions of an individual or collective author's vision to count as art.
  3. Video games have rules and objectives.
Now, first we need a distinction. We use the word "art" in two ways: we use it as implying high artistic value (the evaluative sense), and we use it as describing the kind of thing we're dealing with (the generic sense). Thus, in the evaluative sense, my children's drawings, precious as they are to me, are not "art". But they certainly are in the generic sense. The question whether video games are art is, thus, ambiguous between these two senses. To be art in the generic sense, an item can have very low artistic value. Hubert Lanzinger's "The Standard Bearer" is art in the generic sense, though of absurdly low artistic value. Argument 1 addresses the question whether video games are art in the evaluative sense; arguments 2 and 3 address the question whether they are art in the generic sense.

Take the generic sense first. It seems that a sufficient condition for x to be art in the generic sense is that it be appropriate to judge x on its artistic value. This is a low bar, and intentionally so. Industrial design counts as art. One might want to raise the bar by requiring that the primary axis of evaluation be that of artistic value. But that (a) is mistaken and (b) likely not to have much effect anyway. It is mistaken, because Dante's Divine Comedy would still be art in the generic sense even if it were primarily intended for the moral improvement of the reader (maybe it even was!) and that were the primary axis of evaluation. (In fact, one might think that for any human creation, the primary axis of evaluation is the moral, since that is always what matters most, on Socratic grounds.) Moreover, one could always slice more finely and get around the "primary axis of evaluation" condition. Thus, instead of asking whether the Mac Plus's primary axis of evaluation is that of artistic value—obviously not—we would ask about the non-functional features of the shape of its case or something like that, and if we narrowed it down enough, we could get to something where the primary evaluation should be artistic (unless, as I think, the primary axis is always the moral).

Now, it appears perfectly reasonable to judge of the artistic value of games. For instance, Ishido (of which I once made a free PalmOS remake) is of higher artistic value than Pong. Nor is this just due to the availability of better technology by the time Ishido came out. After all, The Zork Series and Myst are of much higher artistic quality than Leisure Suit Larry: Box office Bust, even though the Zork Series was made in the late 70s and early 80s using a text-only interface, Myst was made in the early 90s with fairly static 2D graphics, while LSL:BOB was made in 2009 and uses fancy animated 3D graphics (I haven't played LSL:BOB, though I have played Zork, and I am basing my judgment of LSL:BOB on the reviews and this trailer). (I don't know if Myst is better than Zork—I am inclined to give a slight edge to Zork, but I think a lot of people will disagree.) If at least some video games weren't generically art, these judgments would be inappropriate.

What about Ebert's arguments 2 and 3. First, take 3. Here, I think the problem with the argument is that it is not clear why rules and objectives are incompatible with art. Each genre has its distinguishing features, and rules and objectives are distinguishing features of games. We might as well say that film isn't art because it has motion, or that some beautiful sword-like object is art if and only if it can't cut.

Argument 2 is interesting—it puts a heavy emphasis on authorship. However, the claim that I am defending is that the game, rather than the gaming, is the art. And the game, as such, has authorship, and the author (who may be a collective) guides the viewer's interaction with the games. This is true of many, and maybe all, forms of art. The great painter draws attention to certain features of the painting, guides the viewer's eye along certain paths. There are some things one only sees when one comes closer; others, when one steps further back. Without that interaction, which the great painter plans for (explicitly or implicitly), the full appreciation of the game is not possible. Or think of a formal garden or (to use one of Ebert's examples) a cathedral as a work of art—the viewer must physically walk through the work, along certain predefined paths, to fully appreciate it. Or take a bard who carefully watches his audience's reactions, and adapts her poetry, with certain outlines, to the audience. This not only does not transform her work into the generic realm of non-art; it does not even decrease the artistic value of her performance. The video game in an interesting way combines features of the garden and the bard's performance: like in the case of the garden, the artist is no longer involved during the enjoyment of the art, but had set up the experience earlier, and like in the case of the bard, there is a dynamism and change. Interactive art is no less art, in the generic sense.

The evaluative case is a matter of degree. I've seen works in respected art galleries of lower overall artistic value than Zork, Myst, Ishido and the flash games from Amanita Design (one can get Samorost 2 with the by-donation Humble Indie Bundle right now). Some of these are by respected artists. Do I think the best video games equal in quality the best works of other genres? Maybe not, but cross-genre comparisons may not be very objective. In my subjective judgment, the artistically best novels, poems, films and paintings are better art than the artistically best video games. However, note that novels, poems, films and paintings have all been produced for a significantly longer amount of time than video games, so the comparison is not fair. I am also inclined to think that the artistically best video games are pretty close in artistic quality to some of the best individual short stories (not considered as parts in a larger collection). And I am inclined to think the artistically best video games may exceed in artistic quality all but the very best of secular sculpture. And, yes, I really like short stories, though I am not so fond of secular sculpture. But as I said, cross-genre comparisons are not very objective—here, they are mainly statements of my aesthetic feelings.

In any case, once one admits that generically, video games are or can be art, any evaluative prediction that it will never, or not in our lifetime, be great art is dubious. On what grounds could one say that some genre will never be great art? Well, first, the genre could be very narrow, so narrow that we can predict what could be done within it. Maybe some particular subgenre of science fiction or detective fiction is like that, though even there I would not express confidence that great art will not come from the subgenre. Even inductive evidence is not very helpful, because we know that great artists can transform a genre. But all that said, the video game does not exhibit that narrowness of genre. Video games can have almost any subject. They can range in form from very close to a live-action film, to something close to an animated film, to something close to a novel or short story (those the last genre has largely atrophied out with the end of Infocom), and the form and degree of interaction, as well as the amount of structure, can vary a great deal. The other way that one might predict that a genre cannot be great art is if it suffers from severe technical limitations. For instance, music made only by hitting one's teeth against each other without removing them from the jaws is unlikely to rise to the form of great art. But, obviously, video games do not suffer from significant technical limitations.

1 comment:

JonathanCR said...

A good analysis of the issues. On text games of the Infocom variety, you might like to have a browse of the Interactive Fiction Database at , where you can see that the genre is not only alive and well but is making a lot of inroads into the realm of self-consciously artistic work. Have a look at games by authors such as Emily Short, Adam Cadre, and Andrew Plotkin. If a short story can be art, then surely these can.