Monday, April 26, 2010

Game for art's sake

For the past several years, film critic Roger Ebert has been conducting an occasional virtual debate on the merits of the video game as art. It all started with Ebert saying that he didn’t consider video games an art form in the same was painting, poetry, or cinema. This in turn led Clive Barker to call Ebert a name, which resulted in Ebert writing more on the topic, and on, and on. The latest volley in this pong of words comes in the form of Ebert’s recent entry on his excellent blog wherein he critiques a presentation given by a video game designer who believes that video games are in fact art. Ebert remains, for the most part, unmoved and he explains himself in terms which suggest that the problem isn’t the games or the art works in question, but the definition of art itself. I added my few bytes to the discussion in a reply to Ebert’s blog, but as I was reply number 3061, my vanity demanded its own space… thus…

This article, if anything, only underscores our already flimsy "catch-all" definition of "art." It's almost as bad as our definition of "pornography."

Those who defend the "video-game-as-art" argument tend to focus on how "cinematic" a good video game can be. True. I recently played Halo: ODST and found the scenes varied in lighting in ways that often appear to be in emulation of film-noir. The score, too, was often equally evocative. But beyond this imitative aspect, the game is ultimately a game. If art is going to be located in the video game, it has to meet it at where it specializes, namely, at the point of interaction.

A definition I have enjoyed for a long while (at least since my brief days as a philosophy undergrad) is that art is information + finesse filtered through interpretative subjectivity. The "information" is just the stuff of a game. The rules, the elements of play, and in the case of the video game, it is the visuals. "Finesse" is what the artist brings to his or her medium. It is what the sculptor brings to the clay, what the painter does with the canvas, what the actor does with the words of the page, what the writer does with ink and paper, et cetera .

In the world of games, the gamer himself or herself is the one who brings the finesse, not the designer, developer, or marketer. When confronted with a challenge in the game world, the gamer has a variety of (often very limited) options. How he confronts these challenges seems to be where the actual enjoyment of the game lies and where it stands the best chance of achieving something like an "artistic" imprimatur. A "sick" fighting move, a particularly arduous run-jump-spin-roll move, a certain panache in dispatching a squadron of enemy fighter planes... each activity, in its own way, may allow the player/artist to forward a unique expression of excellence.

And, as thousands of youtube videos can attest, particularly worthy game play can be uploaded and screened for an appreciative (or critical) audience. This is the subjective aspect that all audiences bring to any art form.

At present, however, I feel that the "finesse" aspect of these games is pretty paltry, anodyne and, frankly, not that interesting to anyone who has sat dry-mouthed while reading Proust or while watching "The Hurt Locker." The best art tends to have more channels for personal expression than the model I propose here for video games. But I definitely think that the potential is there for a true expression of the individual within the game world.

The limiting factor at this point seems to be two fold: 1) gaming is so wedded to industry that designers are not in a position to think beyond the interests of capital, and 2) the medium itself requires such technical prowess and up-front expense, that an avant-garde, underground, or "indie" movement cannot flourish in the same way as it does in other, more conventional art forms.

Will it always be thus? I don't think so. Eventually, technology always trickles down to the masses. Yesterday's $8,000 digital camera is today's $250 Best Buy special. This allows for the furtive 14 year old imagination to explore her world, take in information through her aperture, and, through finesse, generate something new. If such an "aperture" were scaled for the artistically-minded video game designer, then we may actually start seeing something like a true, audience-generated video game arts movement. Until that point, however, we are still in zoetrope mode as far as video gaming is concerned.

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