Video games, art, and Roger Ebert: A scenic cruise on the off-topic sea.

By | April 23, 2010

Still from Cory Arcangel's Super Mario Movie Last week, Roger Ebert, who is possibly the smartest guy in America, made a blog post extrapolating on a statement he once made that video games “can never be art”. He was moved to do so because a reader had pointed him at an unfortunate TED Talk on the subject. If, unlike me, you do not harbor starry-eyed dreams of actually being Roger Ebert when you grow up such that you scour his blog regularly for tips on making this happen, you can find the original post here. Also: you should read his blog regularly, okay?

[Speaking of blogs you should read regularly, my husband has also weighed in on this on Bitmob. His new-ish blog deals exclusively with video games, so if you dig critical writing about gaming, do check it out.]

Also last week, while Ebert was tangling with the gaming public, I had the rare good fortune to be in the right place at the right time to check out the Cory Arcangel exhibition at the North Miami Museum of Contemporary Art, and this has kept the subject on my mind. Cory Arcangel is an artist who uses video games in his work, but their use is as dependent on their corruption as it is on their original forms; the art is interesting because the components are familiar, while Arcangel’s use of them is unexpected. (For example, the stranded Mario pictured above is a still from his mind-bending Super Mario Movie.) Arguably, this could make his work a teense inaccessible to people without the proper context, but as someone who gets the backstory, I enjoyed it.

Now, you and I can pick over the various established definitions of “art” all day long, and Ebert spends a good portion of his post doing exactly that. For the purposes of this post, all I require is your agreement that, however else it may be designated, art inspires an emotional response from the people who view or otherwise consume it. Sure, this is as true of bad art as it is of good art. And the emotional response may be positive, negative, or ambivalent. But even if this isn’t part of a formal definition of art, it’s certainly a part of how art operates in human lives. What kind of response we expect, or enjoy, is unique to the individual, however I think we can agree that whatever interest we have in art stems from a desire to be moved.

My favorite art tends to affect my perception of reality, and to enable me to lose myself, however briefly, in the work. With film, this is somewhat of a given; films are supposed to draw us into their worlds. Indeed, the source of most of my disgust with Avatar was its failure to capture my full attention and prevent me from checking my watch every fifteen minutes. (I am quite aware I’m in the minority there.) Confronted with more static visual art, the challenge is greater, but works ranging from John White Alexander’s Isabella and the Pot of Basil to, unexpectedly, Damien Hirst’s Away from the Flock have in equal measures managed to elicit this response from me. The art I enjoy tends to be diverse; my requirements are that it shakes me up, makes me think, and/or engages my imagination.

Back in 2008 I saw an installation by Luisa Rabbia, who at the time was serving a residency at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum here in Boston. The installation, Travels with Isabella, Travel Scrapbooks 1883/2008, consisted of a collage of altered vintage photographs from the Gardner collection, embellished with animations by the artist, added music, and displayed as a film of these interconnected images scrolling continuously from right to left. I found the experience rapturously hypnotic and I completely lost myself in it. So much that I went back twice to see it again.

It was only after the exhibition had closed that I figured out why.

This two-dimensional, side-scrolling work was eerily reminiscent of the 8-bit video games of my (misspent?) youth, and though this may have been far from the intention of the artist, my response was rooted in my distant memories of feeling similarly hypnotized by controlling the actions of a frantically leaping plumber on a small TV screen. The unflagging progression of new visual worlds appearing from the right side of the screen, more spaces and environments to see and understand and navigate was similarly intoxicating. Even though I am aware of the brain’s in-built response to this sort of camera movement, regardless of medium, all I could associate it with was Super Mario Brothers. Whether I like it or not, my perception of media as an adult is inextricably infused with my early experiences of playing video games.

In my lifetime, the ubiquitous image of the blank-faced youth staring open-mouthed at a screen with game controller in hand has taken on significance as the inevitable downfall of civilization… or at least the corruption and stupifying of our future. Funnily enough, take away the controller and this is probably how my face looks when I am absorbed in a piece of art. When we experience good art — be it a painting, a song, a film, a dance, a book — we can lose ourselves in it. There is nothing else, in that moment, except the art, and our experience of it. Now, Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring or Fellini’s 8 1/2 may be considered art partly because they have reliably demonstrated their ability to elicit an emotional response in many people, and there is some cultural agreement that yes, these things count. But art is not the brushstrokes on a canvas, nor the flickering of light through celluloid. Art is more than the sum of these parts; something happens between the work’s production and its consumption that makes it wonderful. Arguably, that thing doesn’t happen via some magical intervention from without. Rather, it happens in the mind of the viewer.

Says Ebert:

I repeat: “No one in or out of the field has ever been able to cite a game worthy of comparison with the great poets, filmmakers, novelists and poets.”

He’s not wrong. It’s difficult to make a case that an individual game, by itself, can legitimately be called art even by the most forgiving definition, partly because we lack the established critical language and conversation about gaming that we have for things like film and music. But the gamers defending their media have a point as well, because a video game played by an engaged and invested individual can certainly evoke similarly-powerful emotional responses as experiencing art can. Ebert’s post set off a flurry of defensive posturing in the robust gameblogging community (even eliciting a response from Kellee Santiago, the TED-talker who inspired his post), and though I freely admit I have read very little besides Ebert’s original post and one or two other responses, it seems much of it condemns of Ebert’s qualifications to determine the art-worthiness of a medium he has admitted he does not consume. Gamers rebel against Ebert’s declaration because being told video games cannot be art would seem to invalidate the mammoth emotional import of their unique experiences of gaming. Those who assert that Ebert’s inability to understand the “art” in video gaming stems from his lack of game experience are right, though it’s not simply a matter of showing Ebert the “right” game to change his mind. A game has to be experienced; it can’t be demonstrated at a distance. Compare seeing Bob Ross painting happy trees on PBS and seeing the otherworldly reproduction of light in a Rembrandt in person.

Truth is, a great many contemporary video games borrow heavily from the conventions of filmmaking. The critical difference is that film is a passive experience: the audience simply sits and consumes whatever the filmmakers are communicating. Video games, on the other hand, are necessarily interactive. Without this interaction, games have no impact at all. Thus Ebert sees Kellee Santiago displaying random static screenshots from various games, and he continues to be unmoved. As well he should. Being shown a picture and told what a game is about is no substitute for actually playing it; the thrust of the media is entirely lost. Is listening to someone recap the plot of Citizen Kane a fair approximation of actually watching the film? Hell no. Ebert isn’t just being obstinate here; Santiago has utterly failed to make her case in way that is accessible at all to people who aren’t already singing in her choir.

That said, the euphoria, heartbreak, terror, and sadness that can imparted by gaming are not limited to games that mimic film. Last month, as anyone who follows me on Twitter is probably aware, I spent a weekend with over 50,000 other geeks at the inaugural PAX East, a unique gaming convention that focuses not on the business and industry and profitability of producing games — something Kellee Santiago spends far too much time on — but on the gamers themselves, and the social community of gaming. One of the attractions was a “lounge” in which people could form groups to play Rock Band, a game involving the use of controllers shaped like musical instruments, in a nightclub-like environment. I spent quite a bit of time hanging out in this lounge; frankly, the extreme postmodern implications of being in a fake nightclub where fake musicians played fake instruments as part of a video game was damned irresistible. At one point, a cluster of young men took the stage, nerdy and socially-awkward even by the loose standards one finds at such a convention. They shuffled to their places, all four primarily concerned with staring at their shoes. When the song began, however, they were changed; no sooner did the first notes hit the air than these kids became jumping, preening, shouting rock stars. I was gobsmacked. The joy, the passion, the energy of those kids — somehow, it only came to the surface as a result of the game.

Ebert asks:

Why are gamers so intensely concerned, anyway, that games be defined as art?… Why aren’t gamers content to play their games and simply enjoy themselves?

Art also has the power to be transformative. When gamers argue that games they play are art, they are really arguing that games are intense, legitimate, emotional pieces of media; they are stories and experiences that have affected them, and that their lives are improved for having played. Legitimacy, for better or worse, is part of our mainstream cultural understanding of what constitutes art, and denying the art in a media can sound as though one is denouncing its value. Those who would defend the art of video games could argue these media are, as in the painted canvas or printed page, more than the sum of their parts, and it is an individual’s interaction with those parts that makes a game like an experience of art. They have a personal stake; the “art” they’re protecting belongs to them, as much as it does to the game, even as the game is privileged over their own contribution. They are not passively consuming this media; they are creating it, every moment they play. The games themselves are a factor, but do not need to be “art” in order to have substance. In debating whether video games are themselves art, we’re overlooking the possibility that video games may have the potential turn their players into artists, and I suspect that is where their greatest value lies.

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