Essays on Technology and Culture

On Video Games as Art, Or On the Art of Video Games

Roger Ebert, well respected film critic, brilliant man, and great writer, has launched a missive claiming that ( Certainly, it’s one man’s opinion, and that’s fine. He’s never said we’re not entitled to disagree. I do find myself compelled to wonder just why he harps on it so. As he is a film critic, I suspect it has something to do with ( If you’re in film, no matter what side, it’s not hard to feel threatened by this development, either. Of course, the reactions from gamers have been pretty damn vitriolic, as one would expect from the group. [Gaming webcomic Penny Arcade makes a good point](, though tempered by calling Ebert’s writing on the subject “reeking ejaculate”. The man [seemed to take it in good enough spirits, though.]( As for myself, I’m forced to take a contrary stance to Roger, though I’m not exactly much of a gamer. Still, as someone with some training in writing and evaluating art… well, an undergraduate degree in English, I think I can shed some light on the subject.

Ebert asks of art:

> Does art grow better the more it imitates nature? My notion is that it grows better the more it improves or alters nature through an passage through what we might call the artist’s soul, or vision. Countless artists have drawn countless nudes. They are all working from nature. Some of there paintings are masterpieces, most are very bad indeed. How do we tell the difference? We know. It is a matter, yes, of taste.

Do we really know? If we knew, even if it’s a matter of taste, why are we still banging on about this argument in 2010 CE? One would think it would be figured out by now if we “know”. I’ll certainly concede Ebert on the point of imitation. Realism in the visual arts often leaves me cold. It’s the Impressionists, the Symbolists, the Surrealists, and other people who use reality as a jumping-off point for expression that really excite me. We’re getting what Ebert would call “the artist’s soul” as a perception filter in those works. Maybe video games lack that.

I suspect the argument comes down to the relationship between art and the audience as determining whether something is art or not. It would seem that the interactivity of a video game is the key thing that splits video games from being “art” in Ebert’s mind. It’s a major argument in his most recent essay on the matter:

> One obvious difference between art and games is that you can win a game. It has rules, points, objectives, and an outcome. Santiago might cite a immersive game without points or rules, but I would say then it ceases to be a game and becomes a representation of a story, a novel, a play, dance, a film. Those are things you cannot win; you can only experience them.

This seems to be the crux of the argument: art is experienced, video games are played. To put it differently, art’s purpose is left to the observer; a video game’s purpose is clearly stated. The stated goal of a video game is to score points, beat the boss, save the princess, etc.. By this same argument, one could claim a textbook is not art, as its purpose is delineated, but claim a novel is art, because its purpose is not… except in cases where the novel’s purpose is delineated, such as *Atlas Shrugged* or similar polemic works. ((*Atlas Shrugged* is used here, simply as an obvious example. As for its artistic value, I subscribe to Dorothy Parker’s view: “This is not a novel to be tossed aside lightly. It should be thrown with great force.” I love Dorothy Parker.)) When an artistic work shoves its prescribed interpretation in one’s face, it’s hard to take it on anything more than aesthetic value. Honestly, I find most polemic artwork to be lacking in aesthetics, too. ((Not to harp on here, but Ayn Rand couldn’t write her way out of a wet paper sack with a diamond tipped pen.))

Certainly a video game can captivate the player into a story. It can even create emotion. I recall vividly playing System Shock 2 and wincing as ghosts replayed a massacre of part of the crew in the ship’s dining hall. The sequence in the original Starcraft where Sarah Kerrigan is lost to the alien Zerg, and her resurfacing later in the game as a villain is considered one of the most shocking moments in gaming. Had these scenes been in a film, someone would praise it for its shock, horror, drama, and possibly acting. Of course, in a film, the watcher is passive, while in a game, the player is active—for the most part. It is worth noting that in these games, the scene is passive; no action the player takes can save Sarah Kerrigan.

The other question arises: what of open-ended games like SimCity, with its emergent narrative? The “game”, for those unfamiliar, is simply to build a “city”, with newer versions of the game being remarkably flexible as to what constitutes such a thing. SimCity 4 lets one create anything from a tiny little farming village to a massive, sprawling metropolis. There is no defined goal, no points to be acquired. The only constraint is money. One could, if they felt like it, leave the darn thing open, running, and not build a thing. ((I think somewhere, a too-clever-for-their-own-good installation artist is going to try just that. One may already have.)) The ultimate point behind SimCity, and many similar games, is that one can’t win. The experience is open-ended and there is none of the defined outcomes or even objectives that Ebert uses as an argument. A pre-emptive counterargument would be that SimCity and its ilk are less games, and more artistic tools in themselves; something used to create art rather than be art in itself. Of course, who says that a thing can’t be both. Industrial design, as an example, is commonly held up as a form of artwork. Take [the work of Dieter Rams](, or that of his spiritual successor, [Apple’s Jonathan Ive]( What they design may be considered “tools”, but they are tools that carry with them an artistic weight of their own.

Of course, there’s another side to the argument that I’ve not seen thrown out there. The game itself is simply the manifestation of the real art—that of the programmers. A clever algorithm for dynamically resizing textures on the go may not sound like art to the layman, but elegant code is an art all its own in certain circles, both on what it does, and how it looks—enter the [Obfuscated C Code Contest]( as an example of programming as an aesthetic. Massive amounts of applied art goes into games beyond the code, these days. Artists design characters, backgrounds and textures. Composers create soundtracks that have become hot commodities in recent years. Game design, in itself, can be considered an art; balancing story-telling, degrees of interactivity, difficulty curve, and a myriad of other things to create a compelling product.

As [Penny Arcade puts it in the aforementioned comic, “If a hundred artists create art for *five years*, how could the result not be art?”]( The argument needs to change from not whether video games are art, but to whether video games, as art, are quality art. Is the story compelling? Is the gameplay well thought-out and implemented? Does the game accomplish what it sets out to accomplish? This is already part of the established base question of video game criticism, though video game criticism still hasn’t left the level of a determination to buy the game or not. Film criticism and other art criticism work on that level, but also the larger level, exploring the aesthetic value of art, the meaning of art. Certainly, I’d say that most video games don’t hold up when given that level of scrutiny. That doesn’t mean one shouldn’t try to not only scrutinize games on that level, but also to make games that can stand up to such scrutiny. ((How one could do that would be an essay all its own. I will say that the examples cited in [Kellee Santiago’s TED Talk](, I’m inclined to say that they don’t stand up, even without playing them. “Waco Resurrection” does look like just another shooter, and not even a well-done one. “Flower” seems to barely be a “game” at all. “Braid” might come closest to having critical depth, though.)) That might be enough to convince the unconvincible skeptics of gaming as art.