Videogames aren't art and we shouldn't apologise for it
23rd Jan 2012 | 11:59
Back in 2010, veteran film critic Roger Ebert announced on Twitter that games could never be art, inadvertently declaring war on every gamer who ever legitimised their pastime by claiming it as an artform.
It was one man against millions, but Ebert had won before the battle even started - since the millions were fighting on a battlefield built by Ebert.
When Ebert says games aren't art, he's coming at it from a film critic's perspective, and from that perspective he's absolutely correct. Ebert's argument breaks down to two neat halves - quality and authorship - and on both points games come up short. Ebert, you see, is looking for the Mona Lisas and the Stanley Kubricks that videogames don't have.
"To my knowledge," he said back in 2005, "no one has ever been able to cite a game worthy of comparison with the great dramatists, poets, filmmakers, novelists and composers." He's right, too. And he's right when he says "videogames by their nature require player choices, which is the opposite of the strategy of serious film and literature, which requires authorial control."
This all comes back to "auteur theory" (author theory), a cinematic movement that started in 1950s France with critics and filmmakers such as François Truffaut. At the time, there was a widely-held view that movies could never be art because of the industrial, collaborative nature of their production. In response, auteur theory claimed that individual filmmakers could be identified as authors - placing film alongside accepted artforms such as painting, sculpture, music and writing.
A director can be called an 'auteur' if a film is recognisably his or her vision regardless of the film being touched by so many other hands. When you can tell a Martin Scorsese movie is a Martin Scorsese movie - despite the sundry investors, execs, producers and Hollywood jackasses involved - you can tell the director is an auteur. Only a tiny number of movies pass the auteur test; practically all games fail. Ebert wins, because we let him choose the rules.
At first glance it's a model which seems perfectly applicable to videogames, but in fact it's difficult to apply auteur theory to even the indie-est of indie games. Some of the best games with the clearest stylistic, artistic, and creative visions of the last five years have been the work of dozens or hundreds of individuals, all contributing in a way that could never happen on a film set.
Portal's commentary tells a story of gradual iteration and refinement with contributions from everyone, right down to random crazies from the street. Valve love testing and spend months NDA-ing people and letting them loose on the Portals and Half-Lifes and Left 4 Deads to make sure players look in the right direction when something explodes, or respond to the art cues so they don't get lost. (Hollywood tests rough cuts too, and I'm sure plenty of critics would argue that any director who opens his film up to such a test isn't an auteur.)
Warren Spector underlines how collaborative games development can be: "What I try to do is make what I call 'the creative box'," he said at Gamescom 2010, talking about the making of Epic Mickey. "Here's the box that defines the game we're making. The team can fill the box with anything they want, but if they try to put in something that doesn't fit, I say, 'No! Not in the box!' I've put a couple of things in that box, but most have come from the team."
BUT IS IT GAMES?
But what about the tiny one-man projects and small-team indie games that are so clearly the work of an individual? Perhaps we can apply Ebert's rules and walk away happy that they're the work of a single author, but it doesn't mean they're going to win this argument. Art games such as Rod Humble's PC title The Marriage are to Gears of War what avant-garde shorts are to Hollywood blockbusters. The experience of playing The Marriage is so different from the experience the overwhelming majority of gamers enjoy, it's simply too easy for opponents to remove it from the debate altogether.
It's curious just how often games-as-art advocates point to titles like The Marriage or PS3 exclusive Flower when they're attempting to prove the legitimacy of their pastime, as if the key to proving that games are art are somehow held within the least interactive; least 'gamey games'. But if you're going to fight, you need firm ground on which to stand. Ebert can point to huge mainstream flicks such as The Godfather and exclaim "art!" It would be nice to have an equivalent 'art' blockbuster which more accurately reflects traditional gameplay values that we hold dear.
But even if you find one - an undeniable 'gamey game' made with the absolute control of an auteur - Roger Ebert can throw the player's authorial control in your face. That's a cheap shot. That's the very thing that defines games, after all. The best games you've ever played all fail Ebert's standards for what is and isn't art, but don't blame him. We're the ones who've spent decades comparing games to films in a desperate grasp at legitimacy instead of creating legitimacy on our own terms. When critics said that film could never be art, Truffaut wrote tens of thousands of words to say otherwise, setting out his own rules and giving film critics the guidelines they follow some 60 years later - guidelines Ebert can use to win any fight.
FRAMING THE QUESTION
Recently, journalist and critic Ekow Eshun joined the argument on very different terms. "The things we consider art are the things that allow us to ask profound questions about who we are, how we live and the state of the world around us," he said on Radio 4. "I think most games don't get to that place. Videogames are entertainment. Lots of books, TV shows, and films aren't art. That doesn't make them bad; it makes them enjoyable."
Put another way, it's OK if games aren't art. But if they ever can be, we need to define art by rules written for games, not for movies - and that's a hard task in a world as wide as videogames. That we can even discuss the likes of Gears of War, Dance Dance Revolution and The Marriage as if they were in any way related to one another is astonishing given how different the three are, yet all are borne from the same gaming lineage which began just 30 years ago. We've gone from monkey to a thousand different flavours of man in the time it took film to go from shooting trains entering stations to editing narrative with sound.
Games move too fast and any comprehensive definition of what games are is too vast for your argument to have meaning so long as you're playing by the rules established by books, paintings, and movies. Ebert was right - by his terms games aren't art, so let's define our own.
Here's one place to start: don't think of games as art, think of them more as machines. The two aren't mutually exclusive. Like games, modern industrial design is collaborative and invites the consumer's participation in both the initial design and the finished product. Both are art and design wrapped around technology and invention.
Videogame and industrial design are both reductive, scientific, artistic, and businesslike. From afar the process and motivation behind industrial design seems so cold as to be positively Vulcan, but it's a process with a strange kind of warmth. Industrial design is so utterly focused on the end user's experience that very few artistic pursuits are as in tune with their audience. Industrial design loves consumers in the same way game design loves gamers. Apple's entire business is built around flawless industrial design - reliability, ease of use, comfort, familiarity, art.
Sexy, sleek MP3 players aren't exhilarating and they don't make our hearts beat faster; cars do, though, and in some ways games journalism reads more like car journalism than film review.
A review of a car is as much a mechanical breakdown as it is an emotional one, and trades in the same language and themes as many game reviews. When Jeremy Clarkson talks about a new Ferrari on Top Gear, he's telling you about top speeds, horsepower, how it moves, how it handles, and how it makes you feel when you control it.
It's the same when critics talk about games. Game reviews are as much an objective assessment of the mechanical facts as they are a subjective opinion piece. We talk about framerate, graphics, sound quality, size and control schemes in the same breath as we talk about how the game handles and how it makes us feel. Car design as art is contentious too, of course, but at least Clarkson and his like aren't contorting to fit the criteria defined by a bunch of film buffs generations ago.
If games are machines, and machines can be art, then the games-as-art argument might well take care of itself.