Roger Ebert vs. Game Designer: Can Video Games Ever Be Art?
We'd like to put forth the theory that video games can be art, but also to assert that both Ebert and Santiago are wrong -- or, at least, need some schooling in art history. In Ebert's defense, we think that he's simply looking at video games as a whole, from which vantage we wouldn't consider them to be art, either. Still, that's not to say that the video game format precludes a specific game from qualifying as art. Plus, Ebert seems to ignore the burgeoning scene of digital artists who utilize video games as their artistic medium. (Works by Cory Arcangel, Marc Essen and a host of others basically fly in this argument's face, but we're going to ignore that in order to make our point.)
Santiago begins her own errant sojourn with the least respectable resource possible (Wikipedia), lifting this definition of art: "Art is the process of deliberately arranging elements in a way that appeals to the senses or emotions." The definition is, of course, broad enough to include the visual arts as they are traditionally conceived, as well as graphic design, industrial design, feng shui, landscaping, and voodoo. (This definition also mistakenly eschews art that is created with the intention of assaulting, disturbing or even boring its audience.)
Ebert writes that, "Santiago concedes that chess, football, baseball and even mah jong cannot be art, however elegant their rules. I agree." Well, we disagree! Let's say that one definition of art is this: an object, performance or process that is intended to evoke an emotional or intellectual response in the viewer, while precluding utility. We're going to focus on the word "process" here, especially when we begin to think about forms of conceptual art, such as Happenings. Such art forms could be universally defined as the process of doing something designed to bring about an emotion or a shift in thought. So, why can't the process of gaming be considered art?
We could, by that loose definition, call performance artist Tino Sehgal's piece 'This Progress' -- "exhibited" at his recent solo show at the Guggenheim -- a game. Visitors walk onto the museum floor, and have no other option than to ascend the spiral rotunda. They are greeted at various times by other characters, who make demands of them, and then must be handed off by those characters to the next character. Finally, there is an end to the experience/game at the top of the rotunda. Aside from swordplay, there really isn't much difference between the basic operations of 'Zelda' and 'This Progress.'
The thing that Ebert is ignoring is the potential for interaction in art. He claims that an "obvious difference between art and games is that you can win a game." Well, why shouldn't you be able to win art? We're not saying that you can celebrate as victor after a viewing of Goya like you can after beating 'Donkey Kong,' but we're also talking about very different modes of expression. Recently, art has, largely with the aid of technology, become much less static. Interactive art allows the viewer to become an active part of the art-making process, and its ultimate meaning. If we think of "win" and "lose" as two teleological end points, they are merely two possible outcomes of experiencing and interacting with a dynamic artwork.
What we're trying to say is that the "game" is a medium like any other. Video games, as popularly conceived, do not take advantage of their own potential breadth. Most games, just like most images committed to film and video, are banal; they aspire to nothing but entertainment. But even the technical mastery behind cinematic images don't necessarily transform a particularly well-made film, say, into Fine Art. James Cameron can put another gajillion dollars into the next 'Avatar,' and it will still never reach the level of artistry that a Stan Brakhage or Maya Deren film does. That's because Brakhage and Deren decided to take the concept of film and turn it on its head. Cameron only aims to titillate and sell tickets, and filming in 3-D doesn't count as challenging his own medium.
Likewise, games that have been designed in committees, by huge developers, even with legions of highly-skilled animators behind them, will never be Fine Art. That is not to say, though, that the medium of gaming doesn't have the potential to be turned into art. In fact, on a very small scale, it has been. So, if we have to call the battle between Ebert and Santiago, we'd say the film critic bests the game designer any day of the week. But if Ebert ever played Arcangel's 'I Shot Andy Warhol,' he just might change his tune.