Thursday, June 17, 2010

Video Games and the State of The Arts

I am not the biggest fan of video games.  I don't stand in line on Black Friday to get the latest marvel of the digital realm, nor do I follow the goings-on at E3 with bated breath.  I don't play them now and my childhood was similarly bereft of the usual suspects of 80's childhood gaming.  My dad thought they were a waste of time and money and therefore I made most of my favorite toys out of wood and words.  My Pac was unmanned and my space was not invaded.

So it feels odd to stand before the critical firing squad on their behalf, but here I stand nonetheless.

A few months ago, legendary film critic Roger Ebert unleashed a bit of a tempest in the internet teapot by pounding on his bully pulpit about how video games were not an artform and never could be. 
"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."  -Roger Ebert
Though I often disagree with him, I have a great deal of respect for Roger Ebert within his field.  I follow him on Twitter and value his cultural commentary and wit.  And it pains me to see him wander so far down a dubious path.

I suppose that it's worth noting and to his credit that this constitutes a baby step back for Mr Ebert from his original blanket statement that video games can never be art and simply that no one now alive will live to see it.   Which sort of amounts to the same thing.

I am not a video game designer nor a film critic.  I am an artist, an accomplished designer, sculptor and painter.  I studied at the Colorado Institute of Art alongside many who were studying game design, so I am quite familiar with what goes into creating a game.  At the time I didn't think they were "art", but then I was a snob and pretty much felt the same way about my graphic design classes.

Where Ebert falls off the radar, in my opinion, is when he looks at the current video games and believes he can determine that no future game will ever attain the heights of artistry. That the current state of video games is below even the most rude cave painting.  Not even a scribble.  The latest assault was launched in response to a TED presenter's ill-conceived argument in favor of the "art" of video games and then eviscerating her own point by ending on an argument about marketing.

I'm a big fan of most of the TED speeches on the whole but this one was ill-conceived and defensive.  (I've appended it below for you to make up your own mind about it.)

I am ready to stipulate from the word go that nothing currently on the market constitutes what I would call art. There are no games currently on the market that I would hold up against the likes of Robert Frost, Mark Twain, Allen Ginsberg, Michelangelo, Picasso, Bach, Schubert or any Great Master of any field you care to name

It doesn't matter because frankly that's not the standard for any artform.  Who has ever held up a Picasso beside Huck Finn?  It's a ridiculous notion that the apple must conform to the standards of the orange.

Humanity has spent thousands of years trying to figure out what art is, how to define it.  The nearest dictionary I have currently at hand  defines art thusly:

"1. The human effort to imitate, supplement, alter or counteract the work of nature.  2. The conscious production or arrangement of sounds, colors, forms, movements or other elements in a manner that affects the sense of beauty; specifically the production the beautiful in a graphic or plastic medium."
-American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language
(c) 1980 -  William Morris, editor
Considering Mr Ebert doesn't settle on a specific definition of what is or is not art beyond "we know it when we see it" (sort of like pornography, I suppose) and the blanket "it's a matter of taste", we have to go with someone's definition, so it behooves me to use the most authoritative one I have at hand and that one was prepared with the help of contributing editor for the visual arts John Walker III, noted art historian and former chief curator of the National Gallery of Art, in Washington, DC (he died in 1995).

Possibly because Mr. Walker was born the same year as my grandmother, this definition is a bit old fashioned in its obsession with evoking only the beautiful and perhaps because Roger Ebert was born not long after my dad, his view on video games is similarly dim.  But here's the thing: Mr Walker doesn't get to tell me what is or is not art any more than my dad did or Mr Ebert does.  I'm as big a fan of dictionaries and the lexicographers who compile them as anyone, perhaps more, but this is the first time it has ever occurred to me to look that word up in the dictionary.  They don't get to tell me what constitutes art.

I think the reason I have the most problem with Ebert's thesis is that he confesses almost proudly that he has never played a video game and has no intention of ever doing so.  My dad said much the same thing about comic books and well read though he was in other areas his refusal to interact with the subject matter made his opinions similarly invalid on the subject.

Blind men do not get to be critics of the visual arts.  Deaf people are not taken seriously as critics of symphonies.  No critic of a field of which he or she is ignorant gets taken seriously, nor should Mr. Ebert.

As a film critic, I would not presume to argue with him on the relative artistic merits of any given film.  I may disagree with him, but only insofar as my personal preferences differ from his.  But by wandering from his field of expertise to cast a value judgement not only upon the present but upon the future potential of video games takes him from the realm of elder statesman to just another crank.

There is nothing I have seen in the current crop of video games that is art.  The important caveat here is "that I have seen".  Just as there is nothing Ebert has seen to convince him otherwise either.  And there never will be because he prefers to sit on the sidelines and be a curmudgeon.

Ultimately, I think that Ebert's denigration of games as an artform - whatever his qualifications to do so - and especially the backlash and debate that was spurred are what mean that even if they are not, they can be.  And ultimately the will be.  Just as culinary ethnologist Sidney Mintz defines cuisine not by whether or not a food is consumed, but by whether or not it is debated, I'd wager that in the long view, the same can be said of art.  Perhaps the debate itself is proof of the potential for video games to rise above their current rung on the cultural ladder.

Above my desk is a framed quote from futurist Alvin Toffler that says  "The illiterate of the future will not be those who cannot read or write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn and relearn."

The central problem with the artistic arguments of my dad, Ebert and even Walker is that they hinge upon a static definition of art.  No such thing exists.  Words mutate and change, meanings coelesce and evaporate almost daily and anyone who clings to a single definition - especially one that seeks to capture a concept so dynamic as "What is art?" is begging to be left behind.

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Pages to Type is a blog about books, writing and literary culture (with the occasional digression into coffee and the care and feeding of giant robots).