Monday, March 9, 2015

"Are Videogames Art?" was Always the Wrong Question

The debate has been over for a while now. Videogames are art.

I knew it was over not when the National Endowment for the Arts added grants for games, or even when the US Supreme Court ruled that videogames are protected speech. I knew it was over because of a newspaper clipping my grandmother sent me.

It was from a column called "The Arty Semite," and it discussed the then-upcoming Biblically-inspired game El Shaddai: Ascension of the Metatron. (Full post here.) It didn't make the argument that talking about heavy stuff like the Bible sure is artistic. It didn't claim that this represented a step forward in the expressive significance of videogames. It just said hey, here's an interesting upcoming game. In a column about the arts.

In other words, my grandmother sent me a newspaper clipping that took it for granted that games are art. That's how I knew.

Why was this debate so long-lived and vitriolic? "Are videogames art?" seems like such a straightforward question. The problem is that it's really two very different questions. The first is, "Is the medium of videogames capable of artistic expression?"

This is the more useful question, and also the simpler one. It's a matter of definition - if your definition of art precludes interaction (as did Roger Ebert's) then videogames can't be art. Period. It's not a judgment on videogames, or an insult, or anything remotely offensive - it's just the logical implication of the terms involved. It's just what the words mean.

My answer to this first question is: "Yes, duh, of course the medium of videogames is capable of artistic expression. Games can be beautiful, they can impart emotion, they can convey messages. What more do you want?"

The second question is, "Have any videogames yet been made that can be considered profound works of great art?"

This is a much less useful question, though it's a lot more fun to argue. One side gets to hold up their favorites - Bioshock, Shadow of the Colossus, Papers, Please, This War of Mine, whatever - and talk about how awesome they are. Meanwhile, the other side gets to cross their arms and turn up their noses and act unimpressed. The debate rages back and forth, but as it's founded on subjective value judgments, it never accomplishes anything.

The problem is that when a proponent of videogames-as-art engages with this question, they have already lost. Partly because all the other side has to do to win is remain unimpressed - but worse than that, this question is merely a distraction from the one that matters.

Think of when film was new, back before any of the classics. Imagine two people of this time debating whether film is art by discussing whether any films had yet demonstrated artistic greatness - and concluding that none had, and therefore film was not art.

To us, with our modern perspective, this is clearly ludicrous. What people haven't yet done in a medium doesn't change what it's capable of. The same is true now. Even if you conclude that no, there haven't yet been any great artistic videogames, that doesn't mean that there never will be, and it doesn't justify condemning the medium.

Personally, my answer to this second question is: "Yes, people have done some amazing things with videogames. I find Braid just as moving as Bach, Flower as gorgeous as Starry Night, and Portal every bit as elegantly constructed and innovative as Citizen Kane."

Which brings us to a very similar question that is also often asked: "Where is the Citizen Kane of videogames?"

This question is also a red herring, but in a different way.

Citizen Kane, in this question, is not actually serving as a great movie. It's serving as a movie that everyone knows is great - whether they've seen it or not, and whether they know anything about it besides that it's great (and the fact that Rosebud is his sled, even if they don't know who the "he" in that sentence is). It's the movie that everyone living in our culture today grew up hearing was great, because our culture has decided it was great.

"If enough people find a work Great for them, it eventually gets elevated into The Canon and kids are forced to suffer through it in school. . . . Video games are young. There is no canon, no room of musty old dudes with tenure saying what you are obligated to love."
Jeff Vogel, Games As Art, the Toughest Standard, and Not Having To Worry About Ebert Anymore.

The "classics", in any medium, are not the objectively best works of art in history. They are instead the most famous works, and supposedly they are famous for being good. They are the works that our society has decided to hold up as applause lights, as go-to examples of greatness. In most conversations, saying "Citizen Kane" doesn't actually mean the movie about a newspaper magnate and the people who knew him. It's just shorthand for "film that we all know is great."

Nothing can be a "classic" in its own time. Opera, Shakespeare, the symphony - these all started as popular entertainment, and only became highbrow culture over time. Film is in the middle stages of this transition, television in the early ones, and videogames are just getting ready to start. My classmates and I grew up studying Shakespeare - how long is it until kids grow up routinely studying Blizzard and Valve?

"Ultimately, what’s generally considered True Art by academics and critics is a simple matter of the age of the creation."
Lore Sjöberg, Alt Text: Are Videogames Art? Time Will Tell

The value of classics is that they serve as social proof for a medium. When someone complains about a film they find offensive and puerile, they can't effectively claim that film is valueless because we all know Citizen Kane is great. But when Rapelay comes out, it's very easy for non-gamers to accuse videogames in general of being terrible. Gamers may know otherwise, but because we don't have a Citizen Kane to point to (not because of lack of quality, but because of lack of history) non-gamers don't know otherwise.

That's why games are in far, far greater danger of sweeping censorship than other media. Every medium has its crap. The value of a medium is determined not by its worst examples, but by its best. Once the world at large understands that there are great videogames - even if they don't know anything more about them than they know about Citizen Kane - then games will be safe.

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