Can a video game be art?

There’s an interesting post by Roger Ebert about how video games can never be art over here. I generally find Ebert to be pretty dependable when it comes to a lot of artistic matters, and back when he was in his prime it often felt he had no peer. But there are a lot of reasons to doubt his position on this: he seems to think video games haven’t evolved past 1989, and are still mostly flashing lights with attack moves and points, and he apparently doesn’t hold much interest in the medium as a whole. I’m not sensing a lot of willingness in his argument to explore the potential and possibilities of what he’s attacking.

More to the point, I think that any attempt to label any medium (or substance, or tool) as validating or invalidating its product as art is flawed from the start. Art’s an inherently subjective and personal thing. We’re all hearing different frequencies. While one person might listen to a stool scraping across a linoleum floor and hear only an irritating whine, another might hear a lonely moan that’s reminiscent of a car’s brakes on a night street.

Some may wonder why this is worth discussing here at the Orbit blog. After all, we make mostly books here, not games. But it’s my feeling that any scrutiny of the nature of art or, more pertinently, the storytelling method, should be brought into light no matter what the medium. And I have a hunch that this probably appeals to a sizeable demographic here. I mean, if you’re reading this blog, you obviously show some internetty disposition, and since it’s this blog in particular, I can safely assume that you probably enjoy science fiction or fantasy. Given these assumptions, there’s a reasonable chance that you are, have been, or might well one day be a gamer. And besides, it’s this same line of thinking that leads people to disregard fantasy and science fiction as worth any serious thought.

I discussed this with a friend who’s a video game developer over the weekend. He quickly pointed out how slippery of a term “art” is; he chose to define it as something that’s, in essence, not necessary. It did not go beyond that, he said. There is no overwhelming prerogative to paint a painting, or to write a story. It’s not as necessary as fixing a car or having a meal. You didn’t have to do it at all, but still you did it. If you had to do it, what you did isn’t art.

There’s a second supposition that’s pretty predominant, which is that true art needs no reason: it validates itself. The motivations behind its creation are mysterious even to those who made it. This is pretty much in line with the above statement, in that there’s not a quantifiable necessity for art of any kind.

Of course, this idea of “true art” is suspect. We forget that quite a bit of the Renaissance was commissioned by extraordinarily wealthy men, and was not created out of some sublime, internal desire in the artist. Many of the great works of classical music were commissioned as well. I doubt if any people, excepting a few extremists, would claim that these are not true art, even if they were part of a significant financial transaction.

But forgetting all the patrons who’ve basically bought and sold art like any other product, and possibly with about as much sincerity, I think there is some validity to the statement about necessity. Even if you are a commissioned artist, and put your talents out into the marketplace, there is still great difficulty in explaining why you were commissioned at all, and why the buyer felt such a procurement was necessary, or even why you entered this line of work. Even more mysterious are the occasions where a commissioned artist goes well beyond the expectations of his patron or employer, and works to satisfy some internal standard that’s independent of their agreement.

Being that art is such a mysterious, strange thing with so few constant, quantifiable characteristics, it’s foolish to say one thing is art, while another isn’t. There is no lofty standard of art that can be denied to any medium. To do so is arbitrary and subjective, and sometimes even a little childish.

The real issue here, I think, is not whether video games are art, but whether they’re a new and different medium that, so far, has only been accessed by a very young generation. This is obviously the case, to me. And, like all new mediums that have arisen in the world, it has those who decry it as false, silly, puerile, or a sign of the fading times.

When it first arrived, the novel was considered a base form, a silly distraction for silly women. Television was (and still to an extent is) thought of mostly as the idiot box, or the boob tube, and incapable of approaching anything like subtlety or deep storytelling. Many of the Old Guard are still deeply suspicious of graphic novels and comic books. Even cinema, the passion of the man inciting this argument, was originally viewed with great mistrust. There was controversy over jazz and the blues, and there still is over rap. And Jesus Christ, do you remember when Dylan went electric?

Video games are already art. There’s self-expression and attention to detail in even some of the most mercenary games. I don’t think many would see Ico as a silly diversion for young boys. There are many young kids who (13 year old SPOILERS ahead) will never forget when Aerith died in Final Fantasy VII. (Steven Spielberg once said he’d consider games art when someone can say, “I cried at level 7.” That already happened back in 1997, Steven.) When my friend played Knights of the Old Republic, his roommates and their friends sat around watching, not playing, because it was just as involving as any TV show or movie. And Bioshock was one of the first to use the simple goal-orientation of most video games as a part of the narrative: the reason the player has to mindlessly fulfill each objective is because they have no free will.

I can recall playing Deus Ex as a kid, and being surprised at how it explored things as complex as Hegelian philosophy, personal and social responsibility, and even the goddamn Übermensch, all in a gritty, very-realized, and utterly sprawling world. Most surprisingly, the player could interpret any of these themes in game, and react to them how they felt, and change the story. I discussed it later with my mother, saying that its ambitions and themes approached a novel at times, and that possibly, one day, video games could be used for serious storytelling.

She very much came down against that, at the time. (I will probably hear about this later.) She pointed out that a novel utilizes the audience’s imagination more than any video game could, and leaves so much up to interpretation. It can encompass huge, esoteric, arcing stories, but still have time for the smallest details. You can reread a novel and find more and more each time. That’s what makes it great, what makes it literature. And video games will never be able to do that, she said.

But, of course, movies can’t do that, either. Movies present a fixed image with a fixed sound. The appearances and movements of the characters are not left up to one’s imagination. And your viewpoint is static, generally only able to see the story from one angle at a time, and you’re unable to access the thoughts and feelings of the characters. It’s a dead form, as it’s the same each time you play it. You might just have bigger speakers, or HD the next time around.

But is anyone going to say that movies can’t be art? Today they may even be the dominant method of entertainment, the only contestant being television, which features many of the same strictures.

What it comes down to is that different mediums have different strengths and weaknesses. Novels and the written word have immersion and imagination and interpretation on their side, but they lack immediacy, and force the reader to work quite a bit. Movies, on the other hand, are passive entertainment, but feature a combination of many great arts, from soundtrack composition to ambient noise creation, to realized visual wonders and cinematography. They have immediacy, even if what you are immediately experiencing is fixed, and so will always be the same again and again. And television has a much larger canvas to paint with than movies, being able to follow characters down rabbit holes and explore long, detailed storyarcs that can take a whole year or even more to tell. But, like novels, this requires audience commitment and work, and the producers often have considerably smaller budgets than movies. I find it to be less of a “dead” art than movies, since so much can change over a season or through a series, but it is still somewhat dead.

And then there are video games. I’m generally biased in favor of role playing games, since those are the ones that  attempt to integrate storytelling structure into its gameplay. I tend to think that this genre of gaming is most likely to convince people that games are art. Let’s discuss their strengths here:

These video games have immediacy, of a sort. The audience is immediately thrust into whatever world the game is set in, and you can immediately see the story unfolding before you. However, the story won’t be summed up in one hour, or two, or even three. Many games take fifteen plus hours of gameplay to be resolved, or more, if the player wishes. That’s a serious commitment for the audience.

And let’s not forget that this story is interactive, and forces the character to make choices and take action. It won’t proceed if you don’t do anything. So, it’s not completely passive entertainment, like the movies, but it is not as active as reading a story, and creating the setting and the characters in your head.

Games also have the visual and sonic strengths of movies and television (anyone who says the Morrowind theme isn’t as good as or better than most movie themes is not someone you should want to know), but the player can experience them from any angle, and interfere whenever he or she wants, possibly setting off a chain of different reactions.

So there’s replayability there. I can’t count the number of times I’ve replayed Deus Ex, or Bioshock, and should I get it, I’m sure I’ll play Arkham Asylum countless times. They all have fully-realized worlds with a deep, involving story that the player can approach from many different angles. As with Deus Ex, you can interpret and react to themes and ideas in-world.

These are the same tools and attractions that movies, television, and fiction regularly use to their advantage; they’re simply in new forms that require a new kind of audience. Some will not get it. Like I said, there are frequencies some can hear that others can’t. Some just can’t understand the potential depth that comes from assuming a persona in a fictional world. And this, the single-player RPG, is just one of a variety of gaming genres. We are capable of more.

There is a bottom line to all this that I’m excluding here: gameplay. Most game developers focus on gameplay first, story second. So that is a bit of a hit against them as art, since something that’s merely interesting gameplay is, on the whole, akin to a game of hopscotch: it’s an entertaining diversion, but I’m not sure if it’s art. It can sell copies for sure, though. But it’s when the developers go beyond, and include all the unnecessary and artistic things like labyrinthine worlds, complicated choices, involving dialogue, and meaningful stories that they begin to approach other forms of art, or perhaps the perfection of their medium. But that’s a biased judgment. Since I make stories, I like it when my games have them, too.

And if we’re going to mark videogames down because the majority of them don’t focus on story, then we can go ahead and mark down most television, movies, and maybe even books. Because a hell of a lot of them don’t seem to focus on any of that, either.