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The Art of the Game 2

More thought-provoking mail about games, film and the nature of art from rogerebert.com readers:

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All this hullabaloo about video games. I play them. I enjoy them. They have their place as a form of entertainment, more like sport than art. This is not to say that the people who create the projects are not artists. But the experience of playing a game is more about fast twitch muscles and the speed of your neurons.

One thing of note that must be said. In “Gamers fire flaming posts, e-mails...,“ the point is brought up several times (and I’m paraphrasing here) that “games are a billion dollar industry” or “they make more money than movies” etc. When did we start measuring merit in dollars? To be fair, one could ask the movie industry the same question. But honestly, there is another billion dollar industry in the United States that I wouldn’t consider art: pornography. Although, I guess the case could be made that it is an interactive form of entertainment as well.

Phil Thompson Fort Collins, Co.

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I hold a Ph.D. I am a professor of philosophy. I have also played videogames since Pong, and have played most of them on most of the systems over the last 30 years. I still adore them and spend too much time playing them. I am about to play one now. But to call them art along the lines of literature, architecture, dance, theater, movies, sculpture, photography, or any other generally accepted art form is risible.

The level of writing and number of solecisms in the letters of the defenders of videogames (VGs) should serve to as a prima facie vindication of Mr Ebert's view. Moreover, the defenders of VGs doth protest too much, methinks. But we can say more.

Videogames may be difficult to make, requiring great thought, skill, planning, and care, but so is an armoire made of okra. That doesn't make either one art. VGs may be entertaining, escapist, enjoyable, and absorbing, but so is masturbation, and that doesn't make either one art. What art does that VGs do not, and probably never will, is edify and ennoble (even in the form of subversion). Moreover, and as a result, art endures. We are reading Cervantes and Goethe, performing Shakespeare and Moliere, and listening to Mozart and Beethoven hundreds of years after their works were created, with no end in sight. We aren't playing NES games 20 years after their creation. Indeed, they weren't being played 5 years after their creation. My garage is full of old videogame systems that will never be turned on again simply because new and better systems have come along. By contrast, when you buy a Chagall painting, you don't throw away your Van Gogh.

Videogames, as the name vaguely suggests, are GAMES. Games are not art, unless tennis, chess, bridge, and Monopoly are art as well. So why don't we just enjoy the great games out there and not try to make them into something they're not just to assuage the guilt we feel for letting them take up so much of our time, or to aggrandize ourselves for engaging in such a putatively lofty pursuit?

Best regards,

Dr Barton Odom Adjunct Professor of Philosophy Tarleton State University Stephenville, TX

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I just wanted to weigh in about whether video games can "aspire to the level of art" as you put it. From Wikipedia: "In its most broad sense, 'art' is taken to indicate the assumption of an uncommonly high level of skill by a practitioner of a particular discipline."

This is, in fact, extremely well put. To "rise to the level of art" is an arbitrary distinction. Art is what goes into the process of creating the object of art. There is no reason that there could not be a Rembrandt or a Beethoven of computer programming. The medium certainly allows for the subtleties and complexities that could distinguish works of genius and inspiration from those of the formulaic and mundane. If you were to state that nobody could elevate playing tic tac toe to an art form, you would certainly be correct. The inherent limitations make it impossible to distinguish the greatness of the artist.

However, to declare that, "I am prepared to believe that video games can be elegant, subtle, sophisticated, challenging and visually wonderful. But I believe the nature of the medium prevents it from moving beyond craftsmanship to the stature of art,” is to misunderstand the nature of art and why we appreciate it. The level of elegance, subtlety, and sophistication and aesthetic creation that are possible in game-programming mean that by definition it can be a source of artistic achievement. A good rule of thumb: If a great genius can create a work of great genius in a medium, what can that be but a work of art? Is there really any argument that such an achievement can not be made in video games? I think not.

Joshua Glassman (not a gamer) Vienna, VA

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Just to chime in late on the gaming/art debate, I should point out that gaming might actually be compared to some forms of contemporary poetry. The L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets, for instance, denied that it was necessary for the author to control the semantic exchange that is ostensibly inherent to literature, and developed increasingly challenging ways of undermining the communicability and emotive value of language and literature. In a lot of contemporary poetry, then, it is not a representation of beauty or feeling that is meant to motivate reading, but rather the realization that a reading and a mis-reading are equally possible and equally valid.

Contrary to Roger Ebert's suggestion that real art is predicated on "authorial control" (which can never be complete, and always leaves room for resistance), several of fiction and poetry's most stirring and provocative recent works have denied the possibility of such control altogether (with varying degrees of success, of course). The inability of any medium and any communicator to ever have true authorial control and prevent his/her audience from playing with their meanings as if their art were a video game is, in fact, one of the most basic conclusions that follows from Derrida and deconstruction.

I would also hasten to add that, in a rather humorous inversion of the suggestion that video games need to take inspiration from the art forms of literature or film, several excellent poets write poetry that draws from or is based on video games -- Charles Bernstein, Christian Bok, and Darren Wershler-Henry come to mind immediately.

Neil Shyminsky Toronto, Ontario

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I recently read your comment on video games as an art form, and while I agree that many games lack the character development, narrative and overall emotional involvement of a great book, or movie, I must say this is largely a phenomena among American video game developers. Many games in this country come from Japan, and Japanese companies rarely make such ultra violent games as 'Grand Theft Auto,' preferring to put more effort into making something more unique. And while not all of these games are great, or even good, there usually far above what most American developers put out in terms of character development, storytelling and atmosphere.

Such games usually reside in the role playing (RPG), and adventure genre, and a couple of highly regarded titles are 'ICO,' and 'Shadow of the Colossus,' both for the PlayStation 2. Both of these games bring you into a beautiful experience, and the graphics style, character design, ambient music, and just the overall experience is incredibly artistic, and has been rightfully praised as such among the gaming community.

These games don’t get any press or even commercials, and are left only to those who frequent game magazines, programs, and websites. In Japan these games flourish; in this country, these games take a backseat to the “Grand Theft Autos,” “Mortal Kombats” and first-person shooters that American game developers produce in droves. These games give the media and many casual observers the impression that videogames are just mindless entertainment. I apologize if this e-mail has gone on a bit too long. I just wanted to inform you that there are wonderfully artistic, involving, even touching experiences in many games. You just have to look kinda hard for them. Michael Neri Ruiz Whittier,CA

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I firmly believe that America, as a nation, has lost the ability to appreciate art.

What is "art"? How do we categorize it? If the function of good art is simply to move us, to make us feel SOMETHING, then we must accept that art can come at us from virtually anywhere. The trick is to first empathize with the "art," to feel a personal connection to it, and as long as we, as an audience, are led to believe in the world in which the "art" exists, then begins the emotional rollercoaster of true artistic expression. Dali was a genius because he made us BELIEVE in melting clocks and spider-legged elephants.

Cinema, to me, has become an aimless medium; it's like a thesis paper, only without the thesis. How many movies playing down the road to we dare call "art"? "Summer blockbusters" are the worst victims of this. It'll be a cold day in hell before I refer to "War of the Worlds" as "art." Sure, it was loud, the visual effects were great, there were some top-notch performances by the actors, and a compelling score to boot. But after all that fluff, are we better for the experience? Has the film enriched us on a personal level? "War of the Worlds" falters to this question; entries like "Minority Report" and "Close Encounters" could make much better defenses.

On the subject of videogames, people (gamers and non-gamers alike) need to realize that the videogame is an artistic medium, just like cinema, music, or architecture. But, just like every other medium, the videogame market is saturated with crap, 95% of which you couldn't even begin to label as art. If one were to make an artistic spectrum from paintings to photography to cinema, I believe videogames would naturally be the next installment.

The starkness of the world in 'Shadow of the Colossus' is something that can only be understood when explored, and cinema is like a plot-on-rails next to the open-endedness of an epic videogame. When Aeris is stabbed in "Final Fantasy VII," it's not an unfortunate character development. It crushes the player, and spurs them onto a strange mix of disbelief and vengeance toward the main antagonist. This wouldn't be possible unless you play through the 20+ hours before this tragic scene, and begin to make emotional attachments to Aeris by fighting and toiling alongside her. Even videogame music guru Nobuo Uematsu has created scores that rival Hollywood's best.

Just because there can be good art from both films and games doesn't mean they should be artistically interchangeable. 'Resident Evil' the game can be an emotionally riveting experience; "Resident Evil" the movie was a sad attempt to bleed us eight dollars at a time. 'Mario Bros.' the game evokes a certain amount of nostalgia, while I try to put as much distance between myself and "Mario Bros." the movie as possible. Yes, plots and characters from universes like 'Halo' and 'Metal Gear Solid' are flashy and extremely compelling, but is the only argument for turning them into movies "because it'd be cool"? Don't we owe it to our favorite franchises to allow them the artistically stronger life immortalized in videogame form?

I mean, come on, did anybody honestly like "Doom"?

Christopher Kehoe Saint Paul, MN

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I read the responses to your comments about video games with interest, and see that you have not yet responded. I'm a video game player and also a movie critic; let me see if I can't mediate the discussion somewhat.

First, the big concession: You ask for examples, saving "I have recently seen classic films by Fassbinder, Ozu, Herzog, Scorsese and Kurosawa, and have recently read novels by Dickens, Cormac McCarthy, Bellow, Nabokov and Hugo, and if there were video games in the same league, someone somewhere who was familiar with the best work in all three mediums would have made a convincing argument in their defense." This is a high standard to achieve, and would be similar to someone in 1927 asking whether any products of the past 30 years of filmmaking had equalled Hugo. I know you, if asked, would cite movies that did do just that, but you are also speaking from a vantage of 80 years later. Did anyone in the first quarter of the century really think Greed was on equal footing with great literature?

I argue that games are an art form, and that video games are a subset of that form. You say, "That a game can aspire to artistic importance as a visual experience, I accept," which is an interesting concession given that movies aspire to artistic importance as a visual experience, and the best movies aspire to that more than they aspire to artistic importance as a narrative experience. Regardless, video games are neither a visual nor a narrative art form, although they can demonstrate both visual and narrative art, and many aspire to this. (Many movies feature great scores, but that is just one element of the whole enterprise; the movie is not just the vehicle for the score ... or, as I've just suggested, the story.) Games are an art form unto themselves, and what gives them artistry is the way in which the designer allows the player to explore the game's rules. This is true of all games, and also of video games. In video games, the designer sets up "the rules" and then creates situations that tax the player's ability to solve problems based on the constraints of those rules. This is true of Pac-Man, Tetris, Super Mario Bros. and Grand Theft Auto -- and it's also true of chess and poker. If something looks like a video game but doesn't create rules-based complications -- like, say, a flight simulator -- then it isn't a game. Now, whether a game can communicate the kinds of things that a novel or movie can is an interesting, and perhaps unresolved, question, as is whether you would curl up in an armchair with a game in the same way that you would a book, but surely you have played enough games of any stripe in your life to say that they are not, prima facie, a waste of time.

You say, "I did indeed consider video games inherently inferior to film and literature. There is a structural reason for that: Video games by their nature require player choices, which is the opposite of the strategy of serious film and literature, which requires authorial control." This is a canard; art can be intended to stimulate a response, but unless someone receives that stimulation, it's inert. Yes, film and literature require authorial control, but no more so than a video game. Authors are not obligated to divulge every facet of a narrative, or describe everything, or resolve every ambiguity -- there is an expectation that the engaged reader will apply her own intellect to the challenge, and a reader must be satisfied with whatever is left unsaid. In film, wasn't this what Andre Bazin advocated -- that directors present longer shots and compositions that let viewers decide what they want to look at rather than subject them to rigorous montage? The nature by which a video game engages a player is certainly distinct, but there is no forfeiture of authorial control, because the author created everything that there is to be beheld. If a game's author, by the nature of her medium, must sacrifice the enforced pacing of a movie -- Annie Hall will always run 93 minutes -- she is able to compensate with a more fully described world that rewards exploration. (Now, there's the issue of whether a player is capable of completing a game, but more on that in a moment.)

So imagine if Raymond Chandler's The Lady in the Lake had been a Choose Your Own Adventure book -- the story is putatively based on deduction, so letting the reader choose at some point whether Marlowe should investigate the Prescott Hotel or the Chess cabin is within the realm of reason. (This robs Chandler of authorial control insofar as it assumes that the reader's reasoning is comparable to Marlowe's reasoning, and furthermore, he didn't write it that way, and wouldn't write it that way ... but let's posit for the moment that he *could have* written it that way.) You might argue such a strategy would violate his qualifier of "serious" literature, and you'd be right, because we're changing the nature of the audience's interaction with the art object. It has turned from a novel into a game. However: Within that game would be a great story. It would also contain lesser stories, and bad stories, but a series of "correct" reader decisions would yield a great novel. This may seem like hairsplitting and strawman arguments, but let's think about "Mulholland Drive" -- this again requires a series of "correct" viewer decisions to yield a great movie. The decisions do not affect the way in which the celluloid unspools, but "Mulholland Drive" is not simply about putting forth a narrative for everyone far and wide to look upon and instantly absorb. You must struggle for comprehension. A video game applies a different strategy in its demands on the player, but does not sacrifice authorial control.

One problem with the experience of playing games is that, unlike film, you are not guaranteed to experience the entire production -- there is often skill involved, and that creates a kind of meritocracy about who enjoys games most. Let me say two things: First, a player may not be capable of beating a given game, but a viewer may not be capable of "beating" a given film, either -- consider "Mulholland Drive" again as an example. Good games, like good films, are not pasteurized so that everyone takes away an identical experience of them. Second, I played video games as a child and then didn't play them for about 10 years because I was put off by the complexity of their controllers. I've gotten back into them this past year, but that doesn't negate the fundamental issue that video games are designed for people that play video games, and this more than anything has hindered that industry's ability to produce games that might be creditably considered art on par with the work of the geniuses of film and literature. Some forces within the industry are trying to change that, but there can be no question that the overwhelming majority of video games rely, and indeed over-rely, on twitch reflexes and manual dexterity.

Now, I don't mean to impugn the manual dexterity of someone who could get Lloyd's of London to insure his thumbs for much more than the $1 million for which Betty Grable insured her legs. But even as someone who grew up with video games, I looked at the past 10 years of games and was entirely put off by my inability to use the controller to make something meaningful happen to my character. This can't be the issue blocking people as thoughtful as you from considering video games as an art form -- and I know you didn't say that it was, but I know that it is a high barrier to entry for anyone who would otherwise be receptive to the idea that games could be art.

I cannot recommend better video games to you than those that appeared in the Dec. 6 article on rogerebert.com: The experience of playing 'Full Throttle,' 'Pikmin,' 'ICO' or 'Shadow of the Colossus' would, I think, convince you of their creators' artistic seriousness and convey the creative and artistic genius at work in them. (Reader Chris Remo's suggestion of looking at 'Pikmin' while thinking of creator Shigeru Miyamoto's interest in gardening is a terrific one.) If you are curious but would like to actually see and play a quality video game with these thoughts in mind, I would be happy to drive down from Madison with my Gamecube and two controllers in tow.

Best, Sean

Sean Weitner Film Editor Flak Magazine

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