You may recall an article by Roger Ebert this past April in which he claimed video games could never be art. The question has become sort of synonymous with the collision of tech and culture, and it serves as a rallying cry for people trying to justify their gaming addictions. The big problem with Ebert’s stance, though, is that he’s not a gamer. The New Scientist wanted the perspective of people who actually game, but who are still well respected in intellectual circles. The responses the magazine was able to elicit are disappointing, mostly mundane sidesteps of a question that I think people should take a harder stance on.
Here’s what Nick Montfort, a professor of digital media at MIT, had to say:
People tend to mean several things by this question. First, can video games be sold by art dealers, appear in galleries and museums and be an accepted part of the art world? They already are: just look at the creations of Cory Archangel, Mark Essen and Eddo Stern. Second, can video games tackle difficult issues and sensitively present us with different perspectives? They already have: see the work of Terry Cavanaugh, Jason Rohrer, Molleindustria and Tale of Tales, and commercial games such as Bully (also called Canis Canem Edit) and Indigo Prophecy (Fahrenheit). Finally, can video games present an experience of aesthetic beauty that is particular to the medium? Indeed they do: see Tetsuya Mizuguchi’s Rez, a game dedicated to Kandinsky and which I first discovered and played in the Museum of the Moving Image in Queens, New York. It’s a great time for those interested in this question to see what work is already out there.
I think he gives the best response of the bunch, but he gives it in that snide, I-know-things-that-you-don’t kind of way. Those are the questions people are asking, but why do we want the answers? To justify the amount of time that gets dumped into games and gaming?
I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that gaming is a less thoughtful narrative medium that the others we have available to us. Very few games that get made are telling an interesting story or challenging the player’s view of the world in any significant way, likely far fewer of them than books or movies. Games, for the most part, aren’t being designed with story in mind. They are designed directly for a consumer, and they come out of a booming business. If you’ve ever heard the saying “art from adversity” then you know what I’m getting at here. It’s not difficult to throw billions of dollars at a project and market it to expectant masses. There is no struggle, other than the struggle to meet artificial deadlines so you can hopefully keep your job at a top developer instead of packing up and moving your office ten or fifteen miles to the closest competitor. For the most part, video game design is a pretty cushy environment, so it becomes less and less likely as the world gets more and more enchanted by gaming that we will see Sophie’s Choice from someone like Activision.
It’s entirely possible that smaller development houses are turning out some good stuff, but I can’t honestly say that I believe development will reach a point that the smallest, most artistically minded pieces of work will be discernible from the crap like that Columbine game. That game has likely been the most contentious where the art debate is concerned, and I think it’s a good example of why games aren’t art now, and why they might never be. As much as that game wants to be a social commentary, wants to draw the audience in to what the Columbine shooters were feeling, it’s still a game, which is where games will fall short. As long as there is an objective to be met, a quota to reach, a number of infiltrators to be dispatched, games will be no more than a skinner box with an overpriced script, providing gamers with the thrill of objective completion instead of the challenge of a real story. That’s not a slight against games, it’s just the nature of interactive fiction. As soon as the reader has to be pandered to, has to be asked what decision to make, the story has been compromised by the intent of the audience. That’s not what art is about. It’s not about trying to please a viewer, trying to appeal to the artist’s desired protagonist. It is about creating something with which we can can resonate, something that makes us feel about the world that which we may never have felt on our own. The moment a game provides the player a choice, that decision is gone, lost in a player’s desire to “win” the game, to beat the system. Granted, that may change over time, but for now, games can’t be art, because games are designed to be beaten or, even worse, to siphon money out of the consumer. That’s not art. That’s as far from art as we can possibly get.