Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Games Aren’t Art After All

(This article was my entry in Call for Writers 2009 at the Gamers With Jobs website. There were over 100 submissions, and mine was not chosen. The winning articles are here and here.)

Roger Ebert was right. At first, I smoldered with rage like all other gamers when he denied our hobby admission into the family of arts. Who was this guy, a film critic who gave three-and-a-half stars to The Phantom Menace, to judge a pastime in which he doesn’t partake? How can he say that games are not an art when there are masterpieces such as Planescape: Torment, Grim Fandango and ... others, I’m sure?

Ebert amended his position to say that games can be art but not high art. Maybe he didn’t need to. The harder I have to look to find games that surprise me, and the harder it is for gaming journalists and podcasters to talk about anything except unlockables and achievements, the more I agree with Ebert’s original view. Games lack, and perhaps will never have, the qualities with which true art affects people and society.

Games are missing textures. I’m not talking about what happens when your graphics card overheats. I mean those perceptible things that reveal the pain and process of creation. For example, you can step close to a painting to see the brushstrokes and details. You can figure out where the painter spent the most effort and the repeatedly painted-over areas that gave him or her the most trouble. There is hand-drawn art in video games, but it is scanned, edited, and often lost in the action and scenery.

Others arts have textures, too. While watching a film, you can observe how the camera angles and lighting create a particular mood or direct your attention to something. You might be willing to watch an otherwise mediocre film to appreciate an actor’s standout performance. While playing games, on the other hand, you don’t tend to notice camera angles and lighting unless they hamper your vision. Acting performances in the form of voice work and motion-captured movement are usually unnoticed or not good enough. Even Tachyon: The Fringe isn’t worth playing just to hear Bruce Campbell.

Games are missing the shared experience of art. In an art gallery, you observe not only the sculpture, but also how people step up to it, linger, whisper about it, and hesitantly move on to the next exhibit. Even while quietly watching a theatrical or musical performance, you’re sharing a moment of reverie with the audience. Your reactions become magnified around other people, and you’ll laugh a little louder at the mistakes or funny moments than you would alone. Gaming, by contrast, is a solitary experience for most. You’ll sometimes be sharing the couch and controllers with a few others, but your loud reactions are usually inspired by the player’s antics rather than what the game is expressing. Even “massively multiplayer” games are shared experiences only in an interactive, collaborative sense rather than an emotional, intellectual one. You don’t see many architectural tour groups in World of Warcraft.

Games don’t have the social relevance of art. Real art is a reflection of its time and people, a reflection that ripples forward to touch future generations. Picasso’s Guernica and Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture capture the feelings of war’s participants and victims. How does Call of Duty 4 portray modern warfare? It does so in MTV/CNN style (back when MTV played music videos and CNN told news) with cardboard characters and a clichéd ending. Sure, that AC-130 gunship level was clever and some of the explosions were life-affirming. But will the game tell our children what modern warfare does to people? No.

Even those who aren't familiar with the arts can at least identify legitimate examples. If you ask someone to name some important paintings, he or she will tell you about the Mona Lisa and The Scream. In music, it’s the "Die Hard song" (Beethoven's Symphony No. 9) and the "fireworks song" (1812 Overture). In movies, Casablanca and Gone With the Wind. In games ... Pac-Man and Grand Theft Auto.

That’s not to say that Pac-Man and Grand Theft Auto don’t have artistic elements. Pac-Man, having a canvas of limited size and a palette of few colors, made the most of early 1980s technology with iconic characters, cool blue maze lines, and just a few sound effects. The yellow chomper and his ghostly pursuers became the new "Kilroy Was Here" blackboard graffiti across the world. And while you’re cruising in Grand Theft Auto, you might, now and then, observe how all the sights and sounds coalesce into a living, believable, satiric vision of the American city. But the person on the street knows about Pac-Man and Grand Theft Auto because of their notoriety in pop culture, not for their artistic merit. They’re not the great games; they’re what the kids are playing.

Perhaps because they see the problem with calling games an art, gamers have asked, “Where's our Citizen Kane?” I ask, “Can we have a Citizen Kane?” Can we have a game in which we can appreciate the textures of those “rosebud” lips and the pieces of a shattered snow globe? Can we have a game that lets us exchange a knowing wink when someone talks about a momentary glimpse of a girl that changed his life forever, or that lets us share a somber silence when we understand what “rosebud” means? Can we have a game that reflects on a man’s life and his times, makes us reflect on our own lives and times, and compels us look for these reflections in every subsequent game we play? If we can, we’ll not only have our Citizen Kane. We’ll have art.

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