• CAMY is a former analyst for Rockstar.  His credits include Red Dead Redemption, GTA IV PC edition and several unannounced titles.  He reviews games from the clouds.

    KEITH is an expert player who puts entertainment first.  Madly in love with Bayonetta.  He reviews games from the trenches.

B Button Cancels: Are video games art? posted by on April 20, 2011

Miyamoto-san certainly thinks they are.

I decided I hated Roger Ebert after he made his now infamous assertion that video games were not, and never could be, considered art. It seemed so obvious to me that he was wrong (and a pretentious dick, to boot) that I never really stopped to consider the question.

Merriam-Webster defines art as:

“the expression or application of human creative skill and imagination, typically in a visual form such as painting or sculpture, producing works to be appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power.”

Beauty and emotional power, huh? What is emotional power? Is that what you’re feeling when you spike your controller on the ground in rampant disgust? Hey, it’s ok, we’ve all done it. Or maybe you haven’t, in which case don’t judge, don’t judge.

I recently considered Ebert’s comments again while planning out the first installment of B Button Cancels, the one you’re reading right now. Are video games art? It seemed like a softball of a question if I’d ever heard one, something to cut my editorial teeth on (plus I’d get to trash a famous critic, too–heyo). But I soon hit a snag. I realized that, by Merriam-Webster’s definition, one could consider a whole subset of novels and movies, not to mention games, as non-art–which couldn’t be right, could it? Where does one draw the line between something created for beauty and emotional power and something created for fun and entertainment? What is emotional power? Is it when you smile after watching the bad guy get his, in the end? Is it when you turn away from what you’re watching in horror? Or is it something more subtle, like the feeling of permanence and majesty that the Palazzo della Signoria conveys?

I think that most summer blockbusters like Transformers, or shitty novels that you chide yourself for reading but read anyway, are meant to produce emotions. Yes, they entertain, but they’re designed to entertain by creating emotions. It would be a sorry slasher film indeed that didn’t bring you forward in your seat to say, “What are you doing? Don’t fucking go out there, are you out of your mind?” You say that (or I do at any rate) because you are afraid. Ideally, you identify with the character and the fear you feel for them translates into fear for yourself. You experience the hero’s victory, in the end, as victory for yourself.  It’s called transference.  If you don’t believe me, look it up.  In other words, entertainment media are doing psychological work for you.

We're helping you cope with the terror of modern existence, mothafuckah!

Can they, then, be said to be art? Or are they merely tools, the equivalent of a massage chair for your psyche? Contrast them with works that are clearly Art with a capital A, that are meant primarily for beauty or emotional power, such as the film version of Pink Floyd’s The Wall or James Joyce’s Ulysses, both of which might entertain to an extent but are more focused on making you think, reveling in the minutia of their own artistry, creating catharsis and so on. We might say that these things are more profound, that they are deeper and that there is more too them than there is to Speed 2: Cruise Control.

It would be difficult to say that some films and novels, not to mention albums and so on, are art and that others are not. At that point you’re arguing about the quality of one thing over another, whether or not it succeeds in being beautiful or emotionally powerful. The film 300 is very beautiful indeed, one of the most visually striking movies I’ve seen, but it is not a very profound film, and although profundity wasn’t part of Merriam-Wesbters definition, I think we intrinsically agree that it is exactly what makes a movie or a novel become “Art,” the sense that it reveals a truth.

Saying that is of course not a far stretch from quoting Keats, and I feel confident in saying that if that’s the case, we’re on the right track. So let’s add profundity to our definition. What I would say is this: all of these things—movies, novels, and I will now include games—if they were created primarily to be beautiful, emotional powerful, or profound, qualify under the net of art. The rest are merely entertainment. How’s that? Too easy, right? Too easy.

Must be this tall to ride.

The problem with that assertion is that we’re making blanket generalizations about what something was intended to be. In other words, sometimes things are art that were not meant to be art. First example: cave drawings from Lascaux, France. These bad boys were not meant to be emotionally powerful, they were meant to perform magic, fucking magic, things like increasing the population of animals in the woods out back. The same could be said for a whole host of primitive idols and tokens. In fact, the whole history of human art is grounded in superstition and religion, not beauty and emotion. Like Speed 2 or Gears of War, these things were tools. So is Notre Dame de Paris. It brought heaven to earth, was a gateway to paradise, convinced the people living in little huts in the village nearby of how insignificant they really were compared to the majesty of God. Call that beauty and emotional power—and it is—but it was meant to do work, as well.

I'm just looking for a bathroom? Do you speak English? Eeenglishh?

Let’s take the prototypical adventure yarn, the type of thing you could easily convert into a blockbuster film or a blockbuster video game: Homer’s Odyssey. It’s about a man trying to get home to his wife, and on the way he is beset by war, horrifying monsters, battles of wits; goddesses come to his aid; he enacts bloody revenge in a cathartic final scene. It’s all there. Can we really say that’s not art, when we say that Shakespeare (also full of action and adventure, btw) is? I can tell you right now that the only thing the Odyssey is missing that Die Hard isn’t is a German going through a plate glass window.

Of course, no one would say that the Odyssey isn’t art. You can probably find papers written in every century since the moveable type printing press first made a few copies, analyzing its merit and themes. But no one writes papers about Transformers. And if we can prove that Transformers is art than that should stand in for all the shitty novels and movies out there (not to say that it’s shitty, I quite like it, but to generalize). I’ve already established, with our cave paintings, that we can understand as art things that were not originally intended as art, so let’s put aside our need to ask if the film was meant to be art or entertainment or any other thing. Is it beautiful? Well it’s lead actress certainly is, but beyond that I would say that all the animators who worked on it would certainly hope you thought so. Is it emotionally powerful? Certainly: we feel fear, excitement and relief when we see it, or the first time we do at any rate. Is it profound? Well, probably not, but let me at least establish that it has an attempt at profundity, which is to say, at least one kind of theme that is meant to resonate as truth.

This asshole's whole thesis is based on me.

Transformers is about two rival clans, the Autobots and the Decepticons, who are at war. War, mind you–something we can all relate to, am I right?  They’re fighting over a piece of technology called the All-Spark which is capable of vast acts of power and creation.  Whoever gets it will control the universe, or at least the fate of their race.  Man (in this case bot) is trying to put himself above the gods–same shit Aaron tried to pull with his golden calf.  So we can throw hubris on the menu.  And what is it the Decepticons use to hide their true forms, so they can insidiously invade human civilization? Cell phones and fighter planes, of course.  The All Spark might as well be a nuclear weapon; text BOOM to 54277 to arm that shit.  Is there an implication in this film that our own technology could enslave or destroy us? I think there is, and whether or not it’s profound, it’s at least there.

So: I can accept that The Da Vinci Code (film or movie) is art, if you can. Even if you can’t, actually. Any such work of fiction attempts to reveal some kind of truth through metaphor or do some kind of emotional work for the viewer/reader, or be awe-inspiring or majestic. Even heavy-handed Full House episodes where Danny Tanner kindly goes into Deej’s room to explain the moral at the end qualify quite nicely.

However (and you thought I was finished!) none of that necessarily applies to video games–because of one of Ebert’s defenses, actually.  What he says is so obvious that we might at first be confused, because the video games we think of today are such a far cry from Pong.  He points out that an:

“obvious difference between art and games is that you can win a game. It has rules, points, objectives, and an outcome. [Someone] 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.”

I would say that Ebert is half-correct, but half is in this case enough to give us pause. We probably wouldn’t consider the baseball game that we attend to be art, in the sense that we consider the paintings on the Sistine Chapel ceiling to be art. But he’s half-incorrect, too, as most of us know.  A game that is a representation of a story does not cease to be a game. How could it? Narrative and gameplay are so closely entwined in so many titles now that almost any given one contains elements of both games and stories.

So: just what the hell is a video game, exactly?

It’s a far more fundamental question, and one I will address in the next installment of B Button Cancels.

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