My entry into this discussion comes two years after its height, but it is relevant as a precursor to an upcoming column I will be writing that addresses the presentation of storylines and plots within WoW. But in order to justify some of the statements I will be making throughout this upcoming column, I must state my case that video games can indeed be art.
Video games by their nature require player choices, which is the opposite of the strategy of serious film and literature, which requires authorial control…. the nature of the medium prevents it from moving beyond craftsmanship [however elegant or sophisticated] to the stature of art. To my knowledge, no one in or out of the field has ever been able to cite a game worthy of comparison with the great dramatists, poets, filmmakers, novelists and composers.
This was a statement made by Roger Ebert in response to a question asking him why he had been receptive of comic books and animation, but not video games. And though he acknowledges “a game can aspire to artistic importance as a visual experience,” he still treats the medium with unwarranted disdain. To any video game buff who can appreciate a great storyline with insightful treatment of meaningful themes, it’s almost insulting to have this sort of argument presented by a well-respected critic of any field. And it’s certainly a setback for video games as a medium ever being treated with any sort of respect from critics in general. But as gamers, we should take heart in the fact that Ebert’s argument is a sinking ship.
Ebert assumes all video games require player choices, despite the fact that a large percentage of video games do not require choice so much as they require the execution of actions by the player. In his naivety, he doesn’t understand video games actually provide the largest amount of tools for conveying artistic expression over both film and literature. The pure and simple fact that game developers can choose to either guide players through linear stories or force them to make choices as part of dynamic ones gives them the ultimate “authorial control.” But never mind that the mere act of providing players the opportunity to choose, or forcing them to choose, can have artistic ramifications in and of itself.
It is equally ignorant of Ebert to imply that there are no profound works amongst video games. Certainly, to his knowledge, no one has been able to cite a game worthy of comparison to great entries from other fields. But that’s probably because he knows no one who can name them. Honestly, I’d find it difficult to believe no expert in the field would mention Metal Gear Solid as an interesting treatment of moral ambiguity. Or Planescape: Torment as a complex handling of cognition and mortality with existentialist undertones. Both of these games had their moments in the limelight before Ebert made his comments. And subsequently, after his statements were made, we’ve had BioShock addressing utopian and dystopian concepts presented in almost Orwellian fashion.
That said, I’m of the opinion that there are definitely lines to be drawn between art and entertainment, however subjective they may be. I certainly believe the 1960’s Batman TV series is merely entertainment, while Batman Begins is an artistic representation of themes involving existentialism, justice, fear and morality. But to extend the generalization across an entire medium that has potential to actually outdo other mediums in opportunities for artistic presentation is folly in the most grandiose sense of the word. Especially when a video game can be structured like a movie with the simple added element that the player must control the actions of the character to succeed in progressing the storyline.
But if it’s the case that video games provide the most flexible of mediums for artistic expression and authorial control, why are there so many people who perceive otherwise? Perhaps it is because video games also provide the largest opportunity for the production of pure entertainment. Often developers will rely on the fact that games can be enjoyable without a great storyline. So they let the progression and subtle details of their stories falter in light of the fact that a lot of people won’t care, so long as the gameplay itself provides amusement. Michael Swaim wrote a great article listing games with ridiculous premises but great gameplay proving “you don’t have to be Tolstoy, or even coherent, to design a hit game.” So the percentage of games with great artistic expression is considerably lower than that of movies and literature for this reason. So perhaps this is why there is such a large amount of prejudice held by outsiders that video games cannot be art by definition.
However, in picking Ebert’s argument apart and providing examples of games with a high degree of artistic value, we show that video games have the potential to contain great and meaningful stories that treat abstract concepts and themes with the intelligence they deserve. That is something even Ebert admits. But it is upon the shoulders of video game developers to continue this trend and create more masterpieces that establish video games as a medium deserving respect for more than being simply conduits of entertainment, but also for insightful artistic expression.