Games as Art, Roger Ebert, The Entirety of Human Culture, and Other Light Topics

Strap in everybody, I’m motivated to type some words!

This week, the excellent Misdirected Mark podcast tackled the topic of roleplaying games as art:

Misdirected Mark–Games As Art

In the discussion about the episode, the following article was posted. It deals primarily with the video game industry, but touches on all games, in general, and generally comes to a definitive conclusion that games are not art. Sort of:

An Apology for Roger Ebert

The Wind Up

I’m not going to spend too much time recapping what the fine podcasters at Misdirected Mark said, other than to point out that, from the functional definition they were working from, yes, games can be art. There are different definitions of art, but that doesn’t preclude the ability of games, or the act of playing games, to exist in multiple definitions of the term art.

The article in question, written by Brian Moriarty in 2011 and given as a presentation (Moriarty is a professor teaching video game design, as well as a former employee of LucasArts), does a very fine job of citing the reasoning for the author’s opinion, and laying out the thought process behind those opinions. That’s good, because simply citing an opinion without any basis for discussion doesn’t  do much for the overall discussion of a topic.

The Catechism of Saint Roger

The article also cites Roger Ebert. You may not know this about me, but I live a scant few miles away from where Roger Ebert was canonized. At least one of his critical miracles was first performed on the nearby campus of the University of Illinois in Champaign. I actually have a fondness for Ebert, which I may have written about somewhere online. That said, my fondness for Ebert has to do with his ability to elaborate his opinions. As some wise person online may have said, the best way to utilize reviews is to engage the arguments in the review and to use them to highlight those elements of the work that are important to you. Therefore, despite my respect and admiration for Roger Ebert, I can’t say that he is incapable of error.

The article in question begins by citing Roger Ebert’s authority on the question of video games as art. Spoilers–he doesn’t think they are. That said, even in the article the progression of Ebert’s opinion is mapped out. He states emphatically that they are not, and over time, concedes that he doesn’t think any currently are, but that it is possible that someday one might be. That’s an important distinction, because while the author cites Ebert as an authority, Ebert changed his position to one that allowed that the form or structure of video games was not antithetical to games being art, just that no current developer had found the proper means of expressing a game in such a fashion. Roger Ebert’s final word, then, wasn’t that games cannot be art, but rather, that he did not believe that any video game produced in his lifetime was art. He did not support the absolute position of games being unable to achieve the status of art.

It also becomes apparent towards the end of the article that the author is shifting their burden of proof, by changing the definition of art being used. At some point in the article, the discussion changes from art to fine art. As a supporting thesis, there is a digression towards the concept that most media that produces fine art does not routinely produce fine art, and instead produces a majority of products that aren’t able to be considered fine art. That is a lot of words spent to essentially say that “because most things produced in a given medium won’t be art, most games wouldn’t be art, even if games, in general can be art.” That’s kind of a smokescreen that doesn’t address the actual thesis, which is that games, as an absolute, cannot be art. Or fine art. Because the metric shifted towards the end of the article.

Ancient History

Another argument brought up in the article was an appeal to history. The author, much to their credit, did the legwork to attempt to find if any recorded history references games as art. That said, I have to admit I’m a bit dubious that we know, in complete certainty, that in the 200,000 years that humans have been on this planet, no society has ever considered any game to be art. Or fine art. Either way.

There are actually two flaws with this argument. One is the assumption that you can easily find all references that have survived to the modern day regarding a culture’s stance on games and art. Most scholarly searches are still going to be limited by what people have preserved and passed on from those societies. I’m not sure that “are games art?” is one of the primary questions that people look for when unearthing the secrets of the past. If scholars from the last century or so haven’t looked for the answer to a particular question, it’s going to be hard to find an answer to that question. That means that the supposition is that “no culture has ever thought this to be true” is based on the assumption that everything from every culture from which we have artifacts has been neatly quantified and categorized for easy reference.

The second flaw is that in 200,000 years, only those cultures to have anything worthwhile to say about art are those cultures whose records survived to the present day. That’s even harder for me to accept. We know of the existence of cultures for which we have very little cultural reference, and the number of societies that existed that we have no record for is likely much higher than that. How can I make a supposition based on a lack of evidence? I can’t say for certain, but I can say that if you go back 100 years, there were many societies we didn’t know existed, that we now know about. Modern societies are not the sum aggregate of all human knowledge, just the repository of what has survived mishap and misfortune and managed to be passed down to later generations, often is fragmented and mistaken form.

So, to sum up, I trust that the author did research. Probably a lot of research. I just don’t think that a lack of evidence for previous cultures having a stance on games as art can be used as a definitive statement about the objective ability of games to be art. Or fine art.

Dogs Playing Cards (or Are They Playing ART?!?)

The author also spends a good deal of time discussing kitsch art (which is where the distinction between art and fine art starts being more sharply drawn in the article). The short form is that kitsch art isn’t challenging and uses mundane and known elements to create art, so it can’t be fine art. Full disclaimer, this part of the article comes really, really close to pressing one of my current hot button issues. That may be where some of the passion and energy from this article comes from. I’ll freely admit that.

Kitsch art drawing on the mundane or the previously existing to elicit a response reminds me a lot of the current internet trend of identifying a trope that is used in a work, and then using the fact that one can identify the trope as proof that a work is derivative, inferior, or bad.

Remember when I mentioned humans being around for 200,000 years or so? You know how long humans have recycled ideas for stories and art? About 200,000 years.

Context is always important. It’s not if anyone has ever used a given plot or trope before. It’s using that trope with that plot with these additional flourishes at this particular point in time that makes something what it is. That doesn’t mean that it’s not possible to overuse elements together, or to create a work that is, indeed, obviously derivative of another work. It only means that the reuse of elements has nothing to do with the ability of the work to be great or meaningful, because it’s really damn hard for human beings to come up with 100% new material to work with.

Complaining about the reuse of recognizable or previously employed elements in art as a way to say it can never be fine art is like saying there is no difference between carbon and gold. I mean, they are both made up of sub-atomic particles, they just get rearranged in new ways. I’m totally not going to be impressed by a reboot like gold, just because it has flashier special effects.

Nostalgia and Examination

I do have my own take on why it may be hard to find a culture that has defined games as art. We often cite the truism that an artist isn’t appreciated in their own time. Part of the reason for this is that our appreciation of something sometimes exists in a kind of super-position. Remember all of those things you loved the first time you experienced them? Remember how many things that we experience later in life, and then wonder why we were so amazed by it when we were younger?

Its not the best functional definition, but fine art is art that transcends the original context when it was experienced. You can come back to it later and still see that it has an impact on you. It wasn’t just that time and place, but the time and place that went into the development of the art crystalized a timeless moment that carries forward. Context may be important for the formation of the art, but fine art makes that context broader and more relevant even when evaluated beyond the origin of the work.

The problem is, you need perspective to disengage from artwork to evaluate it in this manner. Games, by their nature, do not allow you to disengage. If the art is meant to be played, to fully experience it, you play it. But, if you play it, you aren’t disengaged from it, and you can’t gain perspective on it.

The article mentions chess, but one of the problems with chess is, every era where chess is common, chess feels like a contemporary game, because chess is played. It feels like an ongoing element of life, so it’s  hard to look back and say, “wow, remember when people played chess–its amazing what that did for their society and perspectives on life.”

I appreciate the original author’s point of view, and the time and effort that went into the article. I really appreciate that he had so many points that were there to be engaged and discussed. It was entertaining, and I feel like it was a worthwhile effort to create my counterpoints and challenge why I felt compelled to cite those counterpoints. It was a very artfully written article. I’m just not sure if it was fine art.

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