Why Video Games are Art
by Marque Cornblatt
Minor spoiler alert for Assassin’s Creed 2 and Call of Duty Modern Warfare 2
Roger Ebert and his POV.
In 2005 Roger Ebert famously stated that video games are not art. After an outpouring of online reactions debating the topic and chipping away at his assertion, he then went on to clarify his stance that video games could not be “High” art, arguing that the agency (participation) of the viewer removed the creator’s authorship of the work, and therefore games would forever be “less than” other art forms. In fact, he asserts that interactivity helps to define games as more akin to sports than art. This clarification not only failed to support his original claim, but actually opened a door to deeper discussion of the meanings of art, authorship, audience and agency.
Ebert’s frame of reference is certainly well informed by his vast and deep knowledge of movies, film history and contemporary definitions of narrative. But his perspective is severely myopic and overlooks many aspects of the art debate which don’t deal with narrative. Part of his problem may be larger than his personal experience. A quick survey of critical writing on video games shows a relatively recent interest in the topic. In a field only 30 or so years old, the critical theory was at first slow to develop, and until a few years ago, most literature on the subject dealt almost exclusively with the concept of narrative as the way to dissect and study games. Considering that the game industry grew up in the shadow of movies and TV, it makes a certain amount of sense that narrative would be the obvious entry point for study, but pigeon-holing games as the younger sibling to traditional media does not address the full scope of meaning within games, and (as is the case with Ebert), can severely limit one’s ability to fully understand their impact on culture.
Art and narrative are not the same thing, and Ebert’s presumption that interactivity is a hindrance to artistic expression is flat-out wrong. There are many, many games that can be cited to argue this point, but I will limit my discussion to a few recent popular titles, including Assassin’s Creed II and Call of Duty, Modern Warfare 2. But first…
What is Art?
I can’t answer that. Neither can you. Truly nobody can. Ebert is no better suited to answer that than anyone else. To my knowledge there has never been an accurate or concise definition of the word art. It might be spelled with only three letters, but its a big word, covering a wide range of cultural ideas and concepts. From the earliest prehistoric cave paintings through to today’s battling robot performances, the concept of “what is art” has been stretched thin in an effort to accommodate an ever-growing palette of materials, processes and ideas. However for the sake of discussing this topic clearly, the idea of art has to be defined within this context.
One of the best analogies I even heard came from a professor at SFSU. She stated that the world of painting (art) could be viewed like a multi-layered wedding cake with a huge bottom cake layer supporting a stack of smaller layers with a tiny top layer. This cake represented the different kinds of painting, and how they fit into the definitions of high and low art. The bottom layer was populated by paintings of family and friends and pets – examples of personal artistic and creative expression, but perhaps not the kind of work that critics would care about. The middle cake layers represent work that is more focused and professionally driven, like student work or medical rendering, but is still unlikely to cause an art world stir. The top and final cake layer – the smallest one – is representative of the exclusive, rarefied (some might even say elitist) world of museums and galleries and the highly commodified art that fills those spaces. For all its simplification, the wedding cake analogy works quite well. It validates all of the cake layers as kinds of art, but understands that there are varying degrees of cultural value associated with each.
Historically, any new form of creative expression has faced resistance from the art-world status-quo. Video, new media and other cutting edge technologies have all faced resistance as “art” even as they were adopted into the artist’s toolkit. Consider that now we generally accept the ubiquitous wall-mounted flat panel LCD screen as a fixture in most museums and galleries, but it wasn’t that long ago when a monitor wouldn’t have been there at all, except perhaps as an extension of the wall text. Now, any contemporary gallery without a big LCD is considered woefully out of sync. The traditional resistance to video and digital media as legitimate art forms is all but extinguished.
It may have taken years or even generations for new technologies to be uniformly accepted as an art form, but in an age of increasingly fast change, these barriers and debates are occurring at a pace to match. Photography had it’s detractors and deniers for years, as did film and later video. Now these media are universally accepted as art genres. To be clear, not all photography, film and video is art, in fact most uses of these technologies are NOT art, but rather commercial and/or industrial. Each of these technologies are used for activities and purposes outside the world of art, but the growing acceptance that one can use these media to create art is undeniable. But just as most paint worldwide is used to cover walls and buildings or even portraits of family and pets, a small amount is still used to make fine art. The same can be stated for games. Most are not art, and don’t try to be. However some games transcend that definition because of the one aspect that overshadows many other qualities in the art/not art debate.
From my perspective with (holy shit) 11 years of professional art study, the best and only definition of art I’ve ever found to be personally useful is essentially the one of intent. Not the creator’s skill or experience or chosen genre, but their intent. One person picks up a brush and paints the exterior of a garage, another person uses that same brush to create a portrait. What determines if the garage or the portrait is art? The intent of the painter is often the best gauge. This does not mean that intent makes for great or even good art.
By contrast consider the Cloaca, by Wim Delvoye. It’s a series of industrial machines assembled into an assembly line, the purpose of which is to literally create shit. Feeding food into one end of the line causes it to be treated by several chemical reactions which simulate digestion, breaking the food down and extracting nutrients and energy as it moves from chamber to chamber. The remaining output which exits the far end of the machine is literal waste. This machine has been set up and operated throughout the world. It is made from industrial components and offers little in the way of aesthetics beyond an ever-growing pile of smelly shit. Yet this machine, which has been displayed in museums and galleries through the world is undeniably considered art, even “high” art. While I admit an affection for the cloaca, I personally feel that a lot of art, even the most well intended, is not very good. IMHO, most art IS shit, and not by design. Very little stands out as good, and even less as great. But this discussion is not about good vs bad art. It’s about art vs non-art. Either way, it is the creator’s intent that guides our response, and it’s that response that ultimately answers the question of art for each of us.
What is Video Game Art?
The debate “Is it art?” remains challenging when trying to come up with a blanket statement addressing whether games are/are not art. Because the answer is both yes and no. Game CAN be art, and most game are NOT art. The difficulty (or trap) is trying to define the tipping point, that specific moment, quality or feature that can be isolated and defined as the transcendent element that makes a thing art. Narrative isn’t it. As Ebert has pointed out, games, like interactivity in general, have qualities that conflict with traditional ideas of artistic expression as a fundamentally one-way exchange, in which the artist creates the painting, novel, play or symphony and the audience is a non-participating observer. By comparison, interactivity and games offer the audience an active role in the story or game, and allow the experience to be directed not by the artist, but increasingly by the audience. This notion of “agency” is at the heart of many critiques of video games. However in a world filled with interactive art populating museums and galleries worldwide, the agency debate is becoming increasingly irrelevant.
While games are quickly becoming a culturally dominant form of storytelling, as an industry it still lags far behind TV and film in terms of telling sophisticated, subtle narratives. Many games, if not most, struggle under the weight of too many disparate goals, and frequently the game narrative gets the shaft. Creating a game with a cohesive story which is also visually compelling and fun to play can be a real challenge, and it becomes easy to disregard games with flawed narratives, low res graphics or complex control schemes as NOT art. However, none of these qualities directly relate to the issue of games as art.
Let me repeat that: Graphic quality, narrative cohesion and cutting-edge interactivity do not directly contribute to the idea that a game is (or isn’t) art.
While relying on such qualities to frame the art debate can be helpful, just as often reliance on these features can be misleading, especially when faced with games that have little or none, like Tetris. So do non-narrative games have a bigger challenge to be taken seriously as art, or less? Flower, the DLC from Playstation is a great example of a game with no narrative, vague goals, and little inherent meaning, yet its beauty and subtle charm make it a title frequently referenced in this debate as an example of games as art. It elicits this reaction not because of story, cutting-edge visuals or gameplay – it doesn’t really have them. Rather, it is because of the reaction within the player that the game inspires – a peaceful, meditative transcendence that strips away many conventions of the game genre in favor of a pure aesthetic experience. The game transcends Ebert’s videogames-as-sports analogy by removing all qualities of narrative, points and scores, winning and losing. With these elements stripped, the experience becomes instead purely aesthetic and emotional.
Call of Duty Modern Warfare 2 vs. Assassin’s Creed II
A great game to dissect for this discussion is the recent Ubisoft release, Assassin’s Creed II. It embodies many hallmarks of excellent game creation and has specific elements that seem to pertain directly to this debate. The game takes place largely during the early Renaissance in Florence and Venice and follows the adventures of Ezio, an assassin whose story seems ripped right from the pages of art history. The locations are accurately and faithfully rendered and the game world is populated by real historical figures. The narrative takes full advantage of these features to present a game literally dripping with historical, artistic and cultural significance. One of Ezio’s patrons in the game is Lorenzo di Medici, whose murder Ezio helps prevent in a scene taken almost verbatim from historical records. Another character in the game, who provides our hero with information, secret weapons and even a ornithopter ride is none other than Leonardo da Vinci himself. Throughout the game, as Ezio gains wealth and prestige, he is tasked with building his villa into a palace. One mini-game actually involves collecting oil paintings from vendors throughout the game, including many recognisable works by Renaissance masters. All of these visual and narrative touches create a game of unique cultural significance.
Plus, Assassin’s Creed is fun. The game is beautiful on every level. Gameplay is accessible, satisfying and epic. The story spans years but never gets old. In short, this is a near perfect game in every way. I can’t think of any major criticism to lay on it. Yet when I filter this game through the “Is it art?” debate, the answer I come up with is no, this is not a work of “high” art (to use Ebert’s definition). It is a perfectly produced game, which showcases the creative talents of hundreds of people, and even luxuriates in historical and cultural relevancy. And as much as I love this game, it fails on a fundamental level to move me emotionally. To be sure, the game is filled with jaw-dropping beauty, and plenty of “whoa” moments, but none of those images or moments effect me on a deeper emotional level.
Using the wedding cake analogy, this game would be positioned near the highest point in the middle layer (an excellent piece of commercial art), but would fail to reside in the topmost layer. Would those who worked on the game agree? Probably not. From their perspective, Assassin’s Creed II likely represents a crowning achievement in creativity within the game industry, and they would be right in feeling so. But was their intent to create a deep emotional experience. I don’t think so. Their goal seems to be creating a fun, beautiful and culturally rich (and financially successful) game. And by that measure they have succeeded.
COD MW2 is another recent game worth discussing. It was notable as the single biggest release of any property in any entertainment history. Economically it dwarfed every movie opening weekend ever. Although most critics and gamers focused on the highly polished multi-player aspect of the game, this essay is limited to the single player campaign.
COD MW2 is a great example of a popcorn blockbuster – an ultraviolent wargame, with a narrative modeled on the contemporary world politics, but ratcheted up to a level that would give Tom Clancy vertigo. The single player campaign is one of the most emotionally intense experiences ever presented in a game. The game dev’s clearly learned a great deal from the release of the original MW, taking the best parts of the early game, and cutting out the filler. The result is a short, emotionally draining experience that plays less like a cohesive story, and more like a series of epic set-pieces and vignettes, loosely tied together by voice over narration that plays during load screens. This VO narration is confusing, the voices all sound alike, and it does little to move the story forward. I found myself tuning out these cutscenes instinctively because paying attention to them and trying to keep track of mostly faceless characters was diminishing the experience. By contrast the game itself, the levels and maps, were so expertly crafted and presented that almost every scene had moments where I had to pause the game simply to give myself time to take in and process everything I was seeing and experiencing. Many of these were just like the previously mentioned “Whoa” moments from AC2, perfectly executed moments that could only be seen and experienced within a game, like stunning locations, ultra-tense stealth missions and perfectly rendered fight scenes.
But more than a few of these moments went beyond the “whoa” factor and entered into a whole different realm, when the ideas themselves actually overshadowed the game’s rich presentation. Moments like defending suburban Virginia from invading foreign forces, emerging from a bunker in DC to see the Washington monument blown to pieces, and literally fighting room-to-room through the White House. (to any gamer who also played Fallout 3, seeing the destruction of DC in MW2 works as a kind of meta-prequel to Fallout’s crumbling DC wasteland and helped to imbue these scenes with emotional weight).
Finally there is a scene in MW2 surrounded by some controversy. Potentially disturbing enough that there is an option to skip it, the scene places the player squarely in the middle of a mass murder, not just another gunfight or battle, but as a participant in the wholesale slaughter of hundreds of innocent, unarmed civilians. The player can choose to hold their fire out of distaste for the task (as I tried to do), but the character is compelled to participate lest they blow their deep cover with the bad guys. Ultimately, the player feels trapped and guilty regardless of how their in-game character behaves. Playing through this level the gamer is ultimately forced to reconcile the real world context of violence that videogames usually ignore. This is not an easy task for the designers, and although the scene is still handled in a way that would seem juvenile on TV or film, I consider it a minor milestone that they succeed in eliciting a real, emotional response from me. I have personally killed dozens ( maybe hundreds) of thousands of digital enemies in 3+ decades of gaming, and I rarely if ever stopped to consider them as tangible or real people in any way. MW2, and this scene in particular, resonated with me in a way that forced me to reconsider that unexamined position. During this moment in the game, my heart raced, I had to stop, pause the game, and really consider whether my actions were moral.
Does my experience make MW2 art? Probably not by Ebert’s point of view, but maybe anyway. Does the game serve the same purpose that art serves? Yes, without question. It was one of the most moving and emotional experiences I have ever had with a piece of fictional media – or entertainment of any kind. Did the game creators intend to present such deeply resounding experiences? I think they did.
As crazy as it sounds, even to me, maybe COD MW2, an ultra-violent, commercial piece of interactive fiction, has actually achieved the status that Ebert so firmly rejects. Perhaps we are seeing one of the first of many games whose intent and execution lift them up into the top layer of the wedding cake.