Friday, October 12, 2007

Are video games art?

Film critic Robert Ebert has the opinion that video games are not art. Writer and video game designer Clive Barker disagrees. Ebert has a summary of the debate and a detailed response to Barker's comments here. The key exhange is this one (Ebert's choice of fonts in all cases; hyperlinks removed):
Barker: "I think that Roger Ebert's problem is that he thinks you can't have art if there is that amount of malleability in the narrative. In other words, Shakespeare could not have written 'Romeo and Juliet' as a game because it could have had a happy ending, you know? If only she hadn't taken the damn poison. If only he'd have gotten there quicker."

Ebert: He is right again about me. I believe art is created by an artist. If you change it, you become the artist. Would "Romeo and Juliet" have been better with a different ending? Rewritten versions of the play were actually produced with happy endings. "King Lear" was also subjected to rewrites; it's such a downer. At this point, taste comes into play. Which version of "Romeo and Juliet," Shakespeare's or Barker's, is superior, deeper, more moving, more "artistic"?
Believe it or not, I find myself agreeing with Ebert this time.

The key observation to make is that interactivity in entertainment certainly predates the computer age. I think we can presume that the world has had no shortage of Lego pyramids or paint-by-numbers Mona Lisas, but despite decades of labor expended, none of them has moved into the higher echelons of works of art. One real difference between Michelangelo's David and, say, a plastic version requiring the assembly of puzzle pieces is that the original statue is a product of both technical greatness and greatness of conception. For a single man to apprehend a work of art on a gigantic scale to be enacted in a fabulously expensive and risky medium is greatness of conception. Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet", a real play expected to be performed before a real audience, is more of an artistic risk than "Romeo and Juliet: The RPG for your PC".

It's easy to see where the video game falls short of being art then. Explicitly elevating interactivity to the center of the mass gaming experience makes greatness of conception hardly greater than the conceptions of the "average man" (or, if you prefer, the "average teen") of the gameplaying public. Of course, Ebert hits this point himself when he wrote (hyperlinks removed):
I treasure escapism in the movies. I tirelessly quote Pauline Kael: The movies are so rarely great art, that if we cannot appreciate great trash, we have no reason to go. I admired "Spiderman II," "Superman," and many of the "Star Wars," Indiana Jones, James Bond and Harry Potter films. The idea, I think, is to value what is good at whatever level you find it. "Spiderman II" is one of the great comic superhero movies but it is not great art.


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