As many of you know, the name “Roger Ebert” has been flying around the internet with reckless abandon, filling angry gamer threads with venom at the mere mention of the idea that games can’t be art. Today, Ebert clarified his position by saying that, while he still holds that games aren’t art, he really had no right to make such a judgment since he isn’t a gamer. He was clear to say that games have the potential to become his idea of art, and that since he could create no definition of art that included everything he loved and excluded games, the subject would have to be left ambivalent.
I can imagine that most people would jump to the conclusion that Ebert was a some crazy old guy that hates games simply because they’re different and he can’t understand them (See: Congress), but this simply isn’t true. Let’s examine the most popular games of late:
Call of Duty: Modern Warfare, Halo, World of Warcraft, Gears of War, Dragon Age, Bioshock, Grand Theft Auto
While one might argue that Bioshock or Dragon Age is more artistically inclined than the rest of them, we all can agree that these “mainstream” games are less than art. And yet, when someone asks you what a video game is, what do you say? I’m doubting that it’s “Flower”.
Ebert fell victim to, well, gamers. Our fanatical dedication to games that are as far removed from art as my laptop is from Mars has enforced the image of a “video game” being gore-soaked nonsense. Ebert uses images from Clive Barker’s Jericho in the article, a move that he apparently got a lot of flak for, but the effect would be the same for any “mainstream” game.
One of my favorite games, Silent Hill 2, was a work of art in my opinion. However, one must step back and look at it from an academic standpoint, examining every monster and occurrence for symbolism and meaning in order to understand the beauty of it. I doubt that many people did anything like this, opting to treat it as “just another horror game” and swing wildly at anything that moved with a piece of wood. Thus, is it the game’s fault for being labeled as “not art”? No, it’s just interpretation. Much like many paintings in the halls of museums, they require consideration in a certain frame of mind, otherwise they are simply plants on a board.
As for the “artistic” games, Braid being the big one, ask yourself this: “Why was the game artistic”? Yes, it had a clever and thought-provoking story and ending, but the main appeal of it came though the time-based puzzle mechanics. In short, the art was in the game mechanics. Gamers have a certain appreciation for programming and mechanics that outsiders cannot understand. Whether its the ability to manipulate time or take cover behind chest-high walls, it brings awe into us when Space Marine #152423 ducks his head effectively behind that rock. Non-gamers simply wouldn’t understand this.
I think that Ebert is a brilliant, clever man that was forced to clarify time and time again a position that he had little stance on, much like a tightrope-walker being pelted with rocks. He simply fell victim to the public at large. There are few men that would admit to fault, and I’m glad that he was one of them.
Games certainly have the potential to be art in the classical sense, and perhaps pieces like Flower achieve such a goal, but it’s all in interpretation.