Saturday, May 1, 2010

An Open Letter to Roger Ebert

Dear Roger,

May I call you Roger? I ask only because I've seen a bit of what some people have been saying about you on the internet.  It's mostly not very friendly, and I thought maybe you'd like to see at least one video game player on the web greet you in a friendly manner.

Having said that, Roger, you wrote something recently that made me sad. Very, very sad.

It's been common knowledge in gamer circles for a while that you don't think video games are art. All things considered, that's a reasonable perspective for someone of your generation to have. Many of us happen to disagree with you, but for the most part we are content to let it slide. We young turks, you see, we think we know better, and we are usually too busy staring at glowing screens to get very worked up about it. Since you happen to make your living in part by staring at glowing screens, I'm sure you understand.

Roger, you really ought to know better. History is replete with examples of things which were originally classed as "not art" or worse, yet now are taken completely for granted as art works. At the very least, one would expect a lifelong student of the arts such as yourself to draw the lesson that, in the eyes of history, it is a very risky proposition to say something is "not art," especially when a passionate minority thinks otherwise. Conversely, I can think of no significant medium that, having once been regarded as an artistic endeavor, has been subsequently downgraded to a less prestigious status. It's clear that art, as narrowly as some would define it, is in practice a category which is prone toward inclusion and expansion.

Anyone who is even remotely familiar with your work would readily acknowledge that you are very, very knowledgeable about art. Not only are you inarguably the nation's most well-known film critic, you are among the most famous and well-regarded critics of any artistic medium in the world. Your understanding of aesthetic and cultural issues pertaining to film is excellent, and you are in all other respects an admirable and commendable human being.

But when you post pictures like this on your anti-gaming tracts, well, it really feels like you're trying to insult us.

You're on track to go down in gamer lore alongside truly reprehensible bogeymen like Jack Thompson if you keep this sort of thing up, Roger. That probably doesn't bother you too much, given your otherwise lofty reputation and low regard for the opinions of gamers, but all the same you really don't deserve it. I just don't like the idea of you being despised by an entire sub-culture. Gamers like movies, too, and I know you wouldn't want potential readers to dismiss your critical work on the basis of unrelated opinions. Why encourage needless scorn?

So that's why I'm going to offer my own interpretation of the Video-Games-As-Art Question, and thereby explain why exactly I believe video games to be one among many of mankind's various domains of artistry. I hope my insights are, in some manner, persuasive.

What is Art?

To begin, I would define art as the product of an artist. This definition may sound trite, but consider this: no human has ever successfully built an ant-hill, because an ant-hill is necessarily the product of an ant. If I were to evaluate whether the raised earth structure in my back yard met the criteria of being or not being an ant-hill, I would really only have to ask myself two questions: is it a hill, and was it made by ants?

Because art is uniquely the product of thinking beings, the definition of art is therefore dependent on the definition of an artist. If we were to list the attributes of an artist, we might come up with something like this:
  • Artists are creative.
  • Artists are expressive.
  • Artists are skilled.
  • Artists are reflective.
  • Artists are aesthetic.
To clarify, when I say an artist is creative, I mean that an artist creates something, which need not be tangible. When I say an artist is expressive, I say that an artist takes something internal and makes it external, be it an emotion, impression, idea, or message. When I say that an artist is skilled, I mean that an artist uses his or her physical or mental abilities in the act of creation. When I say an artist is reflective, I mean that the internal state that gave rise to expression is a reflection of the external influences upon the artist. When I say an artist is aesthetic, I mean that an artist makes decisions with questions of mood, quality, beauty, ugliness, etc., in mind.

All humans possess these attributes to some degree. I propose that when a person acts in such a way that these attributes are clearly observed, then that person is an artist. I further propose that when an artist acts in such a way that all or most of these attributes can be observed, then the artist makes art.

This definition is necessarily and purposefully over-inclusive: it covers just about everything that people do that is not necessary for life. We can make our lives easier by making the first of many possible distinctions, and I'd like to start the most unobjectionable, namely, by excluding the trivial. I could make the argument that the bottle of gravy in my cupboard is a work of art, on the basis that it was created, that its label expresses something (in this case, that it is full of delicious gravy), that it was made with some skill, that it reflects society's love of delicious food covered in gravy, and that it was purposefully designed to be visually appealing.

I could make this argument, but I'd be wasting your time.*  There's just no point in talking about a bottle of gravy as art, because nobody's taste lies primarily in food containers.  Other things are more impressive, and so more worthy of our attention and consideration.

*Please forgive me for wasting your time.

Hopefully, you now have some understanding of what it is that I, and many others, consider to be art. I'd like to modify that definition a bit with a few more qualifications.

First, art may be utilitarian, but it is not defined as art by the presence or absence of utility. Second, art may be commercial, but it is not defined as art by the presence or absence of commerce. Third, art may be entertaining, but it is not defined as art by the presence or absence of entertainment. Fourth, art may be beautiful, ugly, or neither, but it is not defined as art by any particular aesthetic sense. Fifth, and finally, art may be good or it may be bad, but it is not defined as art by its quality, however that word may be defined.

Our tastes may define what art we consider worth our time. Some have no patience for "unskilled" art, or pedestrian art, or commercial art, or ugly art. But that doesn't give them the right to categorize these art forms out of existence.

This is, of course, only one of many possible ways of defining art. You are free to disagree with it entirely, but I think you will find it useful in evaluating and appreciating the rest of my argument.


Undeniable Artistry Within Games

Let us turn now to the question of video games. Using my definition, I assert that if video games are made by artists in the manner that artists make art, then they are works of art. I think you'll agree that this is fair, at least insofar as it is a consistent application of my definition.

As it happens, a typical video game development company is staffed by artists, and often retains the services of outside artists. In producing a game, visual elements need to be composed and designed: this calls for the use of traditional tools like pencils, pens and brushes, alongside modern tools like computer software. Using these materials, video game makers develop concepts into concrete images, which are incorporated by the programmers into the final product.

I'm sure you're quite familiar with the visual aspect of video games. It nearly goes without saying that video games are a visual medium; that's why we call them video games. But just to get all our ducks in a row, it's worth remembering that the visual aspect of game design is a rich and impressive field. As graphical technology improves, we often see games praised for their increasing realism, but other styles flourish as well. Even old-fashioned styles like sprite graphics can be appreciated for their artistry: though they are primitive in every sense of the world, they have been used effectively to convey emotion, and remain popular among many enthusiasts (myself included) for their charm and simplicity.

It's true that the most artistically striking visuals in games are usually found in full motion video "cut scenes," which derive their artistic sensibilities from the movies and, for all intents and purposes, are movies. A skeptic might see this as evidence that games, if anything, are derived from (and hence subordinate to) movies as art. This is a facile hypocrisy. Movies, after all, derive their aesthetics and compositional rules from static visual media like paintings and photography.

The movies, in fact, are one of the best examples of mixed media artwork in existence, combining drama, visual arts, music and others into what is generally considered a single work. For games to include movies is not artistic parasitism, any more than a film can be called parasitic for using music to enhance acting.

So there is art in video game graphics; of that there can be no doubt. We also find art in video game music. In fact, music that was originally written for video games is increasingly being recorded and performed outside of its original context, by groups of musicians ranging from symphony orchestras to enthusiastic Youtube prodigies. Certain melodies have embedded themselves so deeply in popular culture that they are recognized far beyond the limits of gamers and even the people who put up with them. Uncertain as I am as to whether they've penetrated to your particular plane of existence, I offer a humble example.

Of course, the quality of video game music has nothing to do with its status as art, any more than the quality of graphics has anything to do with the same. Both, however, have reached a stage of exceptional quality in composition and in execution, and have been at that level for some time now. It's a sad fact that when establishing the definition of art as encompassing one particular endeavor or another, we instinctively appeal to quality for the purpose of fortifying our convictions. I prefer a simpler rule of thumb: if a six second video clip is a movie (and objectively, it is), and movies are art, then the six second clip is also art. Quality is far too subjective to be used as a criteria for classification on any basis apart from quality itself, which is plainly absurd.

Writing and story is the one aspect of the video game art ensemble that is most commonly, and most justifiably, singled out for qualitative criticism.  To put it simply, much of it is utter crap, at least by the usual standards of the written word. There are many reasons for this to be so. Games are a mass market-medium, and so are usually written to appeal broadly. Gamers typically appreciate flexibility and non-linear progression, so vagueness or mutability is often required. Many games are adaptations of movies, books, and other existing intellectual properties, and these seldom turn out to enhance the script of the original. Independent game developers, though somewhat isolated from these concerns, are usually intensely focused on technological or visual aspects of their craft, less so on writing. These conditions, taken together, are not a recipe for Tolstoy.

Still, the classical masterpieces of narrative excellence exist as islands in a vast sea of unmitigated awfulness, and it wouldn't be fair to call books a lesser form of art simply because so many books are written to be disposed of as quickly as possible. Movies could easily be criticized for debasing the literacy of the public: why read Sherlock Holmes when you can watch Robert Downey Jr. act out a facsimile? Whatever the relative quality of the average film story compared to the average game story, it's almost guaranteed that the audience will be doing a great deal more reading of the story in the latter case.

And besides, great writing does exist in games. The makers of Grand Theft Auto have been writing deep, brilliant, and scathing satire for years now, along with incidental background narratives to more fully realize the worlds they have created. The makers of Portal took a relatively simple concept and morphed it into a complex examination of science, ethics, and survival. The makers of Bioshock built an elegant, Art Deco dystopia to house a highly literate, compelling tale of hubris and redemption. I won't claim that any of these are as good as Shakespeare; by now, it should be clear that such comparisons are thoroughly beside the point. These stories possess quality on their own terms.

Considering all of the work that artists do to make games such an enjoyable experience, it seems perverse to say that the product which their efforts are directed toward is not itself a work of art.

The Problem of Game Play

I take issue with the assertion that games are necessarily something you can win. This is clearly not true, even when we consider only traditional, non-electronic games. An informal gathering of kids playing basketball or racquetball or anything else immediately becomes un-winnable the moment nobody is keeping score, and I am entirely unaware of any international body that prescribes the rules, regulations, and criteria for winning of a game of catch.

Furthermore, if we assume that anything you can win is not art, then we have a glaringly obvious exception to explain away. Dance is an art, but ice dancing is also an Olympic sport, one of many to be evaluated at least partially on the basis of aesthetic criteria. If we accept that ice dancing is art, then the ice dancer is an artist. If we accept that it is an athletic sport (which is a kind of game), then the ice dancer is also necessarily an athlete. One might claim that the dancer is making art by dancing, while simultaneously making "not-art" by competing against other dancers, even though the dancing and the competition are composed of the same physical actions. To this I say bullshit. The competition is intrinsically part of the artistry of the moment, and cannot be separated from it.

It is not at all unusual to make competition out of art. Simon Cowell built an empire out of what is essentially a Karaoke contest, and after the humiliating auditions of the hoi polloi are taken care of, the participants are expected to be taken seriously as artists throughout the entire process. A Kelly Clarkson opens her mouth and sings a song, creating a work of art; America promptly tells her "you win!" and rewards her with fame and other fabulous prizes. In another vein, we speak of oratory as a form of art; the art of the spoken, as opposed to the written, word. When we put two orators in a room and have them speak in turn, we call it a debate and it becomes a competition: when does the skillful use of words to move or persuade stop being art?

The issue of winning or not winning is a red herring to distract us from the truth that games and sports really are art. It's true that you won't find many athletes, coaches, or other such people who consider what they do to be art, or themselves to be artists (you can find many video game creators who disavow the same). All the same, they are surprisingly willing to use aesthetic, artistic words to describe skillful planning or execution. A clever play devised by a coach and implemented by a quarterback is called "beautiful." A distance runner who moves swiftly in fine form is called "graceful." When a chess player devises a path to victory from a difficult position, we call his solution "elegant." And in these and many other cases, amazing instances of skill are not infrequently described as being "like a work of art." Just how alike can art and non-art be?

Athletes (by which I include chess players, etc) are artists who make art spontaneously, and that is OK. Many conventional artists create works of art without fully planning the result beforehand, and spontaneity is actually considered a worthy quality to possess.  Steps don't need to be planned out in advance for artwork to be moving or appreciable, and the artist does not necessarily need to know how things will turn out.

For an athlete to protest that he does not consider himself an artist hardly matters. Jack Thompson doesn't consider himself a self-righteous idiot, but he is one all the same, because he meets all of the requirements of a good definition of self-righteous idiocy. His own definition simply happens to exclude himself and the things he does. Similarly, sportsmen use a definition of art that excludes themselves and what they do, for no other reason than the fact that it is different from what a painter does. It is undeniably different, but only in medium and message, and art is neither medium nor message. When we are conditioned to regard art as something that other people do, we are of course inclined to think that we can only be artists by emulating those people, but this is a fallacy.

Now, a typical baseball game is not expressive in the same way that a painting is. A baseball game can tell only a few kinds of stories, and they generally have to do principally with the game at hand. But on the other hand, a painting cannot really "tell" a story, either. A painting is a single image, and a story implies a sequence of more than one event. A painting can only suggest a story, because it is not a narrative medium. Likewise, a baseball game can suggest all manner of ideas.  Effort to score and win is an expression of civic or national pride.  A home run may manifest the beauty of well-honed technique and power. Even the relative ages of the players is potentially evocative, as when a talented young rookie breathes new life into a team filled with aging warhorses.  Playing well in sports or other games is essentially a kind of performance art.  Simply by being there and playing his heart out, the rookie makes a story: that is art!

Video games are ideally positioned to wed the more traditional arts with the spontaneous act of creation that comes from competition or exploration. Whether a video game can really be won or not, it's in precisely this integrative quality that artistry comes most naturally to the medium.


The Illusion of Control

The idea that a single genius controls the destiny of a work of art is very appealing.  It's appealing because it's easy to understand: the artist conceives an idea, realizes it by arranging elements, and makes a thing.  If we look at art as a form of intellectual property, this point of view is also useful in establishing who the work "belongs to" (even if the actual legal principles indicate something differently).  Serious attempts at disqualifying games as art almost always point to the lack of total authorship in games: the experience always varies from audience to audience, because the audience is capable of influencing its progression.

When multiple ideas from multiple minds come together to create a single product or experience, we call it a collaboration, but we're always careful to give as few people priority as possible.  For example, we typically say a film is "by" its director.  Therefore, The Godfather is by Francis Ford Coppola, although he had many collaborators.  We could just as easily say that the performance of the character of Michael Corleone is by Al Pacino, but the performance is a "subordinate" part of a work that is generally attributed to Coppola.  So there's something of a conflict here: the performance is one of the most important parts of the movie, but it doesn't belong to the director!  His only claim to it is to have arranged it along with other things that were done by people other than him.  He has complete control over that arrangement (at least as much as can be had when your resources are controlled by studios, or when you're dependent upon anyone else in the slightest), but at best his control over the elements themselves is limited.

Once the elements are arranged, the film is printed, and the movie is playing on screens around the country, the director's tenuous control over the experience is lost.  The movie will play to audiences who will use it as just another element to build their own experiences.  However meticulously a director tries to control the emotional experience in viewing a film, the experience will vary markedly on the basis of the audience's intentions.  The experience of watching The Godfather varies depending whether you're watching it alone, on a date, or in a college course on Cultural Depictions of Italian-Americans in 20th Century Popular Cinema.  The ideas and emotions that are an integral part of the experience of viewing The Godfather are dependent on the context in which it is viewed, and who controls that context, if not the audience?

We don't need to be that abstract to find examples of audience control "intruding" on an artist's authority.  We might say, for example, that a musician has absolute control over the sounds that make up his performance.  But in the midst of a rock concert, his sounds become intermingled with the sounds produced by the audience.  These might seem like separate things, from a certain conceptual view, but when your ear is trapped between them it can be tough to tell where one begins and the other ends.  In any event, the experience of a rock n' roll show is not the same without the audience: they become partners in the crafting of the moment, and wise musicians welcome that partnership, rather than stubbornly insist that their art belongs to themselves alone.

Artists can even create art while deliberately abandoning control over certain aspects of the process.  The Beatles famously took odd recordings of sound, chopped them up, arranged them randomly, and stuck them in the mix of Tomorrow Never Knows without quite knowing how they'd come out.  It would be next to impossible to replicate the recording exactly a second time, but all the same the song is considered a milestone in the band's artistic development.  In this case, the Beatles surrendered their artistic control to the laws of probability and chance, relying on these to complete the experience they had conceived.  Is it any less artistic to delegate a measure of control to the audience?

The only difference between the makers of movies and the makers of video games is the point at which they willingly concede the inevitable appropriation of their artistic control by the audience.  The director produces a series of images and sounds that will play the same way every time.  The game developer produces a series of images and sounds that will play differently, but eventually end up in much the same place.  The director wants to hold your hand: the game developer backs off.  The game developer gives the audience explicit permission to do to the game what it does implicitly to the movie.  If that's the distinction between art and non-art, it's a poor one, and really quite delusional on the part of those who advocate for greater control.

How much "control" over the work an artist wishes to claim is the business of the artist, of course, but artists never really do claim that absolute authority they may wish for.  Their willingness to embrace or push against that limitation is a dynamic that makes art interesting on a deeper level. 


Nothing is Diminished

In all honesty, Roger, I think the biggest difference between our positions is grounded in culture.  Your ideas about art were forged from a lifetime of watching movies.  By the time Pong came out, you were deep in the world of film, and had no time to bother classifying as art or not-art what were, at best, childish diversions.  By the time people began calling those things art, you were old enough to wish not to be bothered with them.  Asking you about video games is a bit like asking Frank Sinatra about Led Zeppelin; it's just not fair to either party.

But at the same time, I would hope that you would be more open to the idea that games might be art.  At the very least, you could grant that art, being notoriously difficult to define to the satisfaction of all, might be defined in such a way as to include video games.  If that's too far, then perhaps we could draw the line at disparaging us for thinking so?

I can assure you, gamers do not call games art because we are self-serving, or in denial about wasting our lives away.  We call it art because it is an important part of our culture.  It may sound difficult to believe, but there are games that matter as much to us as Citizen Kane or Casablanca do to you.  And here's the best part: this by no means diminishes the greatness of film, or any other art form.  Art is not the preserve of the great against the many; it is an expansive, inclusive category of the creative works of humankind.  Every second we spend talking about what isn't art is a second that could have been put toward appreciating artistry, and it's that appreciation that is the end and goal of all art.

I won't recommend any games to try and change your opinion, because I know you're a very busy man, and old prejudices are hard to get over.  I do hope, however, that you may come to appreciate where I and others like me are coming from, and this whole silly controversy can disappear forever.

David Miller

1 comment:

  1. I still think it's rather weird that Ebert denounces the gameplay aspect, which is basically what makes gaming so much different and unique from other mediums. Obviously film is different from gaming, and a film critic judging games is a rather strange thing for people to be so riled up about. He doesn't know squat about games and gaming, so I find it odd that he denounces games being art so boldly and egotistically.