Tales of the Rampant Coyote

Adventures in Indie Gaming!

Games as Art? I Thought I Saw That Horse Twitch!

Posted by Rampant Coyote on April 22, 2010

An actual chat yesterday

Me: I am surprised that Ebert jumped back to repeat himself on this subject. I guess he wanted the publicity it gave him last time.

Friend: Can’t blame him, really. It’s an interesting discussion point and gets him all kinds of free publicity all at once.

Me: I can blame him! He’s talking out his butt about stuff he knows nothing about! Oh, wait, I do that all the time. Nevermind…

But here are some more comments on the subject:

Orbit Books: Can a Video Game Be Art

Grumpy Gamer:  Roger, Roger, Roger

ThatGameCompany: Right. Moving on [My Response to Roger Ebert]

The money quote in the last one, by Kellee Santiago, is this: “It’s time to move on from any need to be validated by old media enthusiasts. It’s good for dinner-party discussion and entertaining as an intellectual exercise, but it’s just not a serious debate anymore. As a rapidly growing medium, we game developers have so many other issues deserving of our attention.

Okay, I can’t resist throwing in my own woefully under-informed opinions about.  Roger Ebert has forgotten more about movies than I will probably ever know. On the subject of movies, he’s definitely an expert. On the subject of other media — it’s questionable. On the subject of games, I suspect just about everybody reading this post is far, far better-informed than Mr. Ebert. Some of us have some small experience with art in other media – some of us may be artists, or musicians, composers, or at least taken a humanities course in college or something.

But does that make us qualified to judge games as art?

Hell, yeah.

Sorry if I’m gonna take the low road here, but the whole concept of being “qualified to judge art” to me is a big pile of steaming elitist snob BS. And that’s a view Ebert apparently espouses, when he argues that definitions are arguable, and when he later counters Ron Gilbert’s offer to have The Secret of Monkey Island go toe-to-toe on artistic principles with the Pirates of the Carribean movie by saying “Pirates of the Carribean was not art.”

I guess only critics – and only those critics receiving some kind of magical validation of public opinion – are allowed to be the gatekeepers of art, huh? I guess that makes their job sound more important.

But  I’m still calling BS on this.

In my last company we had job titles like, “Art Lead,” “Senior Artist”, “Art Director,” and “Artist.” For all these artists filling our halls doing their art thing, it does feel strange that we are categorically incapable of creating art. And if my fifteen-year-old pours her heart into creations in her art class (mind you, she’s getting pretty good!), should I inform her that her creations are not art because she’s not passed them through some validating Authority? And if by some chance her creations do get blessed with the sacred label of Art, do they lose that status if I pay her for her creations? Or – heaven forbid – put them in a game?

It takes some serious logical contortion for that to begin make sense.

And you thought trying to define “indie” was bad!

Maybe we need to separate the idea of game mechanics – the rules of the game – from the game itself. Which is, to me, like separating the paint from the painting. The game mechanics of chess may indeed not be art. But a beautifully designed chessboard? Absolutely. And don’t bother prattling on about the “craft” versus “art” distinctions.  In Brenda Brathwaite’s board game Train, the entire point of the game – it’s art and meaning and emotional impact – comes from the connection between the mechanics and the context, which are not fully revealed until the very end. Since it’s already been pretty heavily publicized already, I don’t know how effective that “surprise twist” may be anymore, but it was a pretty potent statement, and emotionally powerful for both the designer and the original participants.

I agree completely with Kellee Santiago. It’s fun to argue over this, and the number of angels that can dance on the head of a pin. But it doesn’t really matter. Like other upstart artistic media, it’s really just a matter of time and mainstream penetration before it becomes validated enough by the establishment so we can have our own critics acting all snobbish and pretentious and turning their nose up in the air over those other new media appearing on the scene.

Hell, I’m all ready and rarin’ to go to rip on those Facebook “Social Games.” Let me try it out. “Oh, pish-posh, those social games may make all kinds of money, and everybody plays them,  they aren’t art, you silly uneducated heathens!” Hah! I can do it,too!

So why do I bother? Why is it even worthy of taking note? Well, #1 – it’s fun to debate. But #2 – before our country had much bigger fish to fry, various government legislators were constantly slinging around all kinds of anti-videogame bills with the assumption that games were not a worthy form of expression deserving the protection of the first amendment. I guess the idea was to nip it in the bud before it became too established of a medium. As our country has proven that it will pass the most horrible of legislation if it’s marketed as being “for the children,” I have a vested interest in assuring enough public validation of the medium to protect it from trigger-happy Congress critters seeking some bullet points under “Family Values” for their re-election campaign.

Other than that, it’s hard for me to really give a fig what Roger Ebert has to say about a subject he knows nothing about.

Filed Under: Art, Biz, Movies, Politics - Comments: 7 Comments to Read

  • Kimari said,

    It seems like everybody is talking about games as art all over again… and this time, it includes me as well! (Yes, it even surprises me, I managed to avoid the whole thing in the past) [/shameless plug]
    But anyway, I think nobody has a real problem with the question “are games art” in itself. One can argue for it, one can argue against it, but what gets people’s panties in a twist is the reasoning behind the argument against games as art because it implies nasty things about our medium of choice.
    It implies that games can be entertainment and entertainment only, it implies that there can be no meaningfull message behind a game, it implies that we have no room for improvement, that the medium is stale and it will remain like this for all eternity.

  • T-Boy said,

    You know, I’d just wish someone would nail down a goddamn definition and then go from there, because this argument is beginning to get very annoying.

  • WCG said,

    For someone who “doesn’t give a fig” what Robert Ebert has to say about this, you certainly do post about it. 🙂

    Nah, I’m just kidding. But frankly, I fail to understand the interest. Who cares if games are “art” or not? And doesn’t that entirely boil down to your definition of “art”?

    OK, yes, we give “art” some leeway in legislation, since “art” is automatically supposed to have some socially redeeming qualities, I guess. But I’d prefer a free speech argument there, rather than trying to precisely define some nebulous term like “art.”

  • Rampant Coyote said,

    Heh – guilty as charged, WCG. My own hypocrisy astounds me sometimes. But as I said, it’s fun to talk about. More importantly, it gives me a topic to talk about, which is sometimes challenging in the middle of the week and all that I have been focused on is very dry, dry programming stuff. 😉 Games may be art, but the mechanics of creating them don’t always feel like pure creative expression.

  • DungeonHamster said,

    I dunno about art being squishy. The Oxford English Dictionary defines it as “skill in an activity regarded as governed by aesthetic as well as organizational principles.” Sure there’s something like 11 other definitions, but every single one includes the word cunning or skill somewhere in it. Art is always deliberately created and always designed, if we also accept an OED definition of aesthetics, “having or showing an appreciation of the beautiful or pleasing” (well, it doesn’t really have to be beautiful or pleasing, it just has to be designed according to those principles, so something designed to be ugly and unpleasing could also be called art without pushing this definition too far).

    The squishy part comes later. What do we mean by skill? Does the artist actually have to have skill, or do we simply mean using what skills the artist has? If the former, is badly done art even really art? Furthermore, accurately defining aesthetics requires us to define beauty. I happen to believe that there ARE universal principles of beauty, that beauty is at the very least partially objective, but I am very ill-equipped to even begin to attempt to define what characteristics of beauty might be universal. The only thing I’ve read on the subject (not that I’ve studied it much) that struck me as at all sensible and usable is Edmund Burke’s Enquiry into the Nature of the Sublime and Beautiful (it’s not long; I highly recommend it), but even that definition seems to narrow; for instance, I would include the sublime as a kind of beauty.

    Anyway, the point is that there seem to me to be two questions that need answering before any useful debate can be had on the subject: what is beauty, and does a work require actual beauty or simply attempted beauty to be art. However, regardless of the answer to those questions, it is apparent that very nearly any medium CAN be art, although some may lend themselves to it more readily than others. In fact, playing games can be an art as well as making them, even as dancing, not just choreography, is an art.

    Really, if all art requires to be art is attempted, not actual, beauty, than very nearly any movie, game, story, or anything else in any medium which exists more or less entirely for the purpose of entertainment could be accurately called art.

  • Rampant Coyote said,

    @DungeonHamster – and that’s pretty much where I come in on the art / not art equation. Sure, I might have a tough time admitting that some graphic designer’s slick corporate logo is art… but seriously, that’s a slippery slope that quickly results in the status of art being nothing more than opinion (or the “opinion of authorities”, as Ebert seems happy with, as he’s one of the authorities).

    And that just fundamentally rubs my indie fur the wrong way.

  • Tesh said,

    I’m oddly reminded of the kerfluffles that come up when trying to nail down a definition of “RPG” or heaven forbid, “MMORPG”. There’s an inordinate amount of fuss over just how to classify things. Perhaps it’s a holdover from the ancient notions that *naming gives one power* and the like. Arbiters of art and taste try to assume social power… but in truth, they only have what power we give them.

    There really are competing psychologies of those who want to be led and those who want to do their own thing. I find that gamers in general tend to lean to the latter, since games are inherently about giving the end user control.

    Ebert is part of an old guard of opinion makers who don’t want their assumed power challenged. In my experience, that’s the best time to ignore them and let their inevitable irrelevance happen naturally.