It wasn’t long ago that Roger Ebert made the assertion that video games could never be categorized as art. The statement had such a backlash that Ebert had to retract his initial claim and restate it thusly: “[N]o video gamer now living will survive long enough to experience the medium as an art form.” This, too, has come under fire, and Ebert modified his claim again: “[G]ames could not be high art.” That is an assertion I can agree with. However, the idea of what is “high” or “fine” art has a lot of stigmata attached to it: it is elitist, exclusive, pretentious, presumptuous, and conformist. So say the people who do not study art.
Video games are like drugs. They produce an inaccurate view of reality. The more one immerses themselves into the world of video games, the less able to interact with the world around them the players become. See my post “Theory of Mind in Literature” to understand how this works and why this is a problem.
Keep in mind that I have a rather low opinion of contemporary “art” when I make these claims. I have seen more value in simpler expressions of things I would consider to be “common” art than in what gallery owners hold up as worthy to show. The main problem with this is the difference between personal expression and artistic expression, and knowing that there is a difference between the two. Also, the definition of art tends to be open for interpretation, as Ebert’s discussion on the subject points out.
Few people who study art, though – and I mean the people who study art and art history, not the people who only study the processes by which to produce artistic works – more often than not share similar perspectives. (Another aside – study need not occur only in a classroom. Go visit a gallery, read some books on your own, and try to understand something rather than viscerally react to it.) Generally speaking, Kellee Santiago, who made a grand presentation arguing against Roger Ebert, is close to the mark when she says, “Art is a way of communicating ideas to an audience in a way that the audience finds engaging.” Close. This may include many things that are absolutely not art: advertisements, text books, mnemonic rhymes, and others. Some people might find a bus schedule to be engaging. As you can see, this definition is a bit broad and could use some narrowing down. I would add that the communication MUST be done through the artistic medium as opposed to some other, for the sake of communicating the idea as accurately as possible.
Here is an example. To simply ask, “What kind of god would create evil and suffering in the world?” only states a question. Should the person asked try to answer it? Is it only asked rhetorically? Or is the point only to illustrate the fear and confusion behind the question itself? However, something entirely different occurs when we read Blake:
In what distant deeps or skies
Burnt the fire of thine eyes?
On what wings dare he aspire?
What the hand dare sieze the fire?
And what shoulder, & what art.
Could twist the sinews of thy heart?
And when thy heart began to beat,
What dread hand? & what dread feet?
What the hammer? what the chain?
In what furnace was thy brain?
What the anvil? what dread grasp
Dare its deadly terrors clasp?
When the stars threw down their spears,
And watered heaven with their tears,
Did he smile his work to see?
Did he who made the Lamb make thee?
Tyger! Tyger! burning bright
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Dare frame thy fearful symmetry?
Suddenly, the question becomes much more complex and intriguing. Why is God not mentioned explicitly in that poem? Why is it so childish in its form and rhyme? There is power there, gravity and seriousness in those words that are lacking from a simple verbal communication.
For video games to become high art, they would need to do more than simply elicit emotions. Any Maxwell House commercial can do that. Also, they would have to do more than simply be crafted and constructed into a pretty package, whether we’re talking about visuals or story. They need to explore the medium itself and express ideas that could only come by means of the medium.
They would also need to relate a world view that the audience can or will experience in real life, not just in the mind of the creator or within the context of a fantasy world. Most contemporary art, especially cinema, fails on this standard. For something like a video game, that explores the realm of fantasy fiction regularly (or even, perhaps, exclusively), that task is even more difficult. Rod Serling once pointed out that the audience will only believe the unbelievable if human nature stays constant and rational within the context of the story. (If you have the Twilight Zone DVD set, it’s during the audio commentary to the episode “Walking Distance,” I believe.)
On a side note, I wish more film makers understood that concept. Visual effects have become so easy to create that things are starting to get out of hand. There has also been a push towards emotion over logic (Spock be damned), so much so that characterization is based only on emotional responses to things rather than through a character’s rational mind that consists of emotions, logic, and the capacity to regulate the two. For example, when Batman stopped being wholly, completely in control of his emotional state and started to just emotionally react to everything around him, we lost him as a cultural icon. But I digress…
Video games elicit emotions without rationality. They promote “messages” without the internal ability to scrutinize them. They exhibit craft without the capacity to use the medium itself as a necessary method of communication. Simple entertainment is not high or fine art; it is just simple escapism. Escapism does nothing except allow temporary relief from the mundane world and prevents engagement with it. For these reasons, video games may be considered “art,” but will never be considered…