Leonardo, Donatello, and Nintedo: Video Games and Art

And here we see an original Shigeru Miyamoto...

April 22, 2010

Roger Ebert is an institution. He’s been doing his job for a long time and is an authority on film. However, he does make mistakes from time to time. He gave a one-star review to Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas but gave three stars to xXx. But this isn’t about that. It’s about video games.

Oh yes. Video games are not art, Ebert says. For the past few days, the internet’s been abuzz with talk of a blog article Ebert wrote regarding video games’ validity as art. It’s basically the argument that art doesn’t have points, you don’t win art, and no game like chess or basketball would describe itself as art. Hence, he claims, video games cannot be art.

Before I go any further, I do want to make it clear that I am not a hardcore video gamer. I play D&D, the sport of kings! The last video game system I owned was a Super Nintendo. I game mostly on my PC, and even then I’ve only bought a handful of games over the years.

That being said, I think Ebert is 100% wrong. His argument is like saying that painters don’t work in cubicles, so they can’t say they “work.”

It’s important to first define art.

But we can’t.

Philosophers and artists have tried to define art for thousands of years. As a society, we’ve had the art versus porn debate, we’ve had the fights on freedom of expression, offensiveness, and whether splotches on a canvas count as art. We’re not going to figure that out in this article.

So… why do I think Ebert’s wrong if I don’t even have a basis for my argument?

Because art, according to Ebert himself, is subjective. For me, art is anything that requires skill to achieve and brings a measure of joy and reflection to a person. That’s the standard I use. That joy doesn’t even have to be instantaneous or far-reaching. It doesn’t have to move you to tears. Horror movies certainly aren’t designed to give you fluffy bunny feelings, but they do bring enjoyment by scaring and giving us that rush of adrenalin and endorphins after we realize we’re safe.

Pure complexity isn’t a good benchmark for art, either. Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen had some of the most intricate and detailed CGI work of all time… and I think we all know the two-and-half hour joke we ended up with, right?

Given that, are video games art?

Yes. Oh yes. They can certainly be art.

A video game has to have some aesthetically pleasing elements. It must be a joy to look at and hear. Staring at contrasting colors and wildly flashing lights would be annoying. Even 8-bit games had their moments of visual impact.

Likewise, few would argue that modern games don’t have pretty, pretty graphics to look at.

One of my favorite changes to video games in the past few years is the music. I’m going to date myself, despite the nostalgia for 8-bit music, I can’t help but be awed at the production and power in modern game soundtracks. It’s practically cinematic.

Okay, so video games pass my aesthetics test. What about reflection? A game must have some sort of story for that to happen, right?

And it’s at this point that I have to make a bit of a leap. Not all games have a story. Take, for example, The Game. It has nothing resembling a story, yet it has a theme. Play it and see if you can win.

Many games, though, do have a storyline. If you looked hard enough, you might be able to find theme, characterization, and all the literary elements your English teacher tried to teach you. It’s there. Some of these games are practically movies. The only difference is that, well… you’re in control of the action scenes.

Where does this leave us? A good game requires skill to create. A great game has all the qualities of a movie or carnival ride. In the end, the experience is only part of it. If you never played the game, it would exist. That code would still have valleys and vistas and ruined urban landscapes and Mount Olympus.

Saying that video games aren’t art because of the way someone interacts with them is like saying that the Last Supper wouldn’t be art if it was painted in a bar. Because art isn’t shown in bars, you know? I think Ebert makes the fundamental mistake of confusing the art and the audience. In on itself, the sound and images of a good game, even an 8-bit game, can be very appealing. The sensations the great games create are just as real as those we get from a rollercoaster or a movie.

That’s not to say there aren’t bad games or even such a thing as bad art. However, I think we need to take each example in stride. After all, it would be unfair to judge every piece of music based on a Jonas Brother CD just as it would be unfair to judge every game based on Bible-themed games.

But then again…

That’s my point of view.

2 Replies to “Leonardo, Donatello, and Nintedo: Video Games and Art”

  1. Indeed! Our collective definitions of art have been expanding so much over the last few century alone (to encompass, radio, television, people standing around, nails in walls that are art, a fake drug store that is art, performance art, etc, etc, etc) that it would be hard to not count video games. I have the feeling that seeing a fake drug store interior wouldn’t move me on an emotional level as much as a fraction of the games I’ve played. Baldur’s Gate, I’m looking at you when I say that.

    This is not to say, of course, that emotion = art. I would not say my family is art, though 1) I love them and 2) with our broadly expanding definitions a family could constitute art. Signing off for now.

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