Do we want
to be art?
Before he passed away, one of Roger Ebert’s most controversial cultural stands was his assertion that video games–by their very nature–could never reach the same level of artistic achievement as the other more traditional creative mediums. There was in his argument a certain inevitable sense of “Bah, who needs the future!” humbug. It was the position of a person who had spent much of their life without something, so when it was introduced they fail to see the value of it (it is–for example–how I feel about Snapchat).
Personally, I disagreed with the certainty of his position. While I don’t feel that any game I have ever played had reached the level he discussed, I don’t believe this means I never will. That said, I often found myself rolling my eyes at his detractors who offered up specific examples of games they felt had already broken this barrier. This was because in many cases they either confused virtuosity for artistry (ie. where technical skill is mistaken for creative genius) or they named pretentious games that were fun to think about but dull as dishwater to play.
And it was in this response that made me wonder if I even wanted video games to be art. All for the same reasons I tend to avoid films and books that aspire to that level. It’s not out of a distaste for the kind of intellectualism that is part and parcel with this kind of ambition (or at least not completely), but instead because I find the effort to create “Art” often gets in the way of actually creating it.
For me, art is something that happens mostly by accident–out of the joy that comes from creation. The thrill is in the doing rather than the final product. All of the games I have loved are united in the way they celebrate the joy of being a great game. Their only ambition is to keep you playing as long as you possibly can–allowing you to reach that goal just before you become too frustrated and have to stop.
And art, by its nature, is often deliberately frustrating. It pauses when you want to move forward, it moves forward when you want it to pause. It defies expectations in ways that can be thrilling and ways that make you want to punch the person responsible. Fortunately, in the case of a movie that investment of time is usually pretty limited. Especially compared to some of my favourite games, which have taken nearly a full month of 40 hour work weeks for me to finish (I’m looking at you Dark Souls). We’ve already seen how made video game players can get when a game doesn’t end per their expectations. I can’t imagine their fury if games started pulling the tricks of narrative dissonance and deliberate withholding of emotional satisfaction we’ve grown accustomed to in film and arthouse cinema.
That’s why I believe that video games can rise the level of art, but I sure hope they don’t any time soon.
What do you think?