Games As Art

Gaming is a hobby.  To some, that’s all it is.  To others, it can be a subculture teeming with inspiration, beauty, discourse, and camaraderie.  Yet, to some others, it’s a medium of entertainment devoid of any semblances of the aforementioned things.  These people believe that video games, as a medium, cannot be viewed as “art.”  This is nothing new to anybody with even a passing interest in video games; it’s an argument that’s been on many gamers’ and dissenters’ minds for some time.  However, after years of listening to both sides, I’d like to give my two bits.

And Two-Bit Matthews, ladies and gentlemen!

The main problem, in my opinion, is that there really isn’t any definitive definition for what art is.  As a lover of poetry, which I consider to be one of the finest forms of art, I kind of developed my own definition for art:

Any form of self-expression that evokes emotion.

Simple and maybe a little too general, but who am I to limit art with a definition?  Art needs to be free!

Freedom!

Going by my own definition, I can easily say that the medium of video games is an art form, and I truly believe that.  There are plenty of games that evoke emotions in me, namely Professor Layton, the son of a bitch!  And, frankly, I find it hard to believe that anyone would consider the medium to be artless.  Needless to say, they exist, and the strongest voice for dissenters is none other than the pioneering movie critic Roger Ebert.

Roger Ebert: the man, the myth, the hater.

I’m not much of a movie guy or a critic, but this man gets a lot of respect from movie-goers and critics alike.  All I really knew him as was the dude with the guy that gave thumbs up or whatever.  After a little research, I’d have to agree that he deserves mad props for the things he’s done.  Basically, he’s been attributed for creating an audience who appreciates reviews and making the occupation “Film Critic” a thing.  He’s also one of the first people to state that movies are art.  That’s why I find it almost ironic that he’s so vocal against video games being viewed as art.

In his article Video Games Can Never Be Art, which was written awhile ago but still pisses me off to a surprising degree even now, Ebert blasts video games and gamers scathingly and states that video games cannot be art on two grounds:

1.) “No one in or out of the field [the gaming industry] has ever been able to cite a game worthy of comparison with the great poets, filmmakers, novelists and poets.”

2.) Video games are made for profit; therefore, they cannot be art.  “[The] brave new world of video games as art. The circles are labeled: Development, Finance, Publishing, Marketing, Education, and Executive Management. I rest my case.”

The first point really doesn’t make sense to me.  I don’t see why any art form should need to be compared to another art form to be considered relevant. That seems more like a way to stagnate art than to define it.  The most mature thing I can say about that point is that it’s bullshit.  The second point is tragically ironic if you consider that Ebert actually championed movies to be considered as art.  Because what movie is ever made to not make money? Of course, there are some directors out there making movies for the sake of art, whatever that means, but the same can be said for video games.  Case and point: Cave Story.

There’s something poetic about Cave Story getting a retail release.

Cave Story doesn’t need an introduction.  All I’m going to say is that it’s awesome, it’s one of my favorite games, and it’s a labor of love created by a single man named Daisuke Amaya, a.k.a Pixel, in his spare time!  There are certain games that people always cite as evidence that gaming is art: Shadow of the Colossus, Braid, and now Journey.  These are fantastic games and great examples, but I don’t see why they’re so often considered THE examples.  Is it their sense of isolation?  Their art style?  Their minimalism?  The way they tell their story?  It could be all these things, but, though these games are great, I believe Cave Story is our best argument for games as art because of a little thing called Auteur theory.

Auteur theory is “a way of reading and appraising films through the imprint of an
author, usually meant to be the director.”  Originally, people said movies can’t be viewed as art because too many people work on a single movie.  Who’s the owner, the artist?  To whom do we criticize or give praise?  Auteur theory states that, because the film’s director has the ultimate say in everything that goes into the movie (stage direction, cinematography, music, etc.), the Director is the owner and artist.  Thus, art!

Western civilization’s greatest work?

I know Auteur theory is used to critique film, but I don’t see why it couldn’t be used for video games, too.  Moreover, since there seems to be some reason to only consider art to be art if there’s a single artist to be praised or condemned, Cave Story meets that criteria.  So, I don’t see why Cave Story can’t be viewed as a work of art.  It definitely adheres to my definition of art, and, considering it was made by one person, it can be critiqued, according to Auteur Theory.

That’s all I really wanted to say about the subject of games as art because I could go on and on about it.  I definitely think games can be art, and more people should cite Cave Story when they’re dropping examples because of everything I’ve mentioned earlier and it tells its story in a way that couldn’t have been told through any other medium.

Shortly after publishing his article, Ebert, having been inundated by comments from surprisingly mature and eloquent gamers who disagreed with him, decided that his totalitarian stance on whether or not gaming is art was unfounded.  Since he didn’t want to and refused to take part in interacting with and appreciating the medium, then he had no right to make such a harsh accusation. Very wise, Mr. Ebert.  I’m glad we both can agree on something.

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4 thoughts on “Games As Art

  1. Hey, that was a surprisingly good read. I’ve only recently played Cave Story and loved it as well. And the viewpoint of a single person working on something giving it a closer point towards being art is a unique view I’ve never heard before in the “Are games art?” argument.

    I’d never of Ebert’s argument against it before, and felt suitably enraged when reading the points you presented.

    I believe art is something that someone uses to express themselves by doing something they love. Whether it’s dancing, painting, making a film, or making a game. And all of those tie in with bringing out emotion as your explanation of art describes, because expressing yourself can always be an emotional thing, so I believe it is really fitting.

    Even though the guy is a bit of a twit for other reasons, the guy who made Braid clearly wanted to portray something in his work, and it shows. And to go against one of Ebert’s points.. you can find money-makers and genuine love in every example of art form.

    Games:
    Money: Call of Duty
    Love: Cave Story

    Movies:
    Money: American Pie: Band Camp
    Love: The Darjeeling Limited

    • I’m glad you liked the post.

      That article from Ebert pissed me off when I first read it, and re-reading it didn’t help 🙂

      You know another game that was a labor of love: Mega Man 2. When MM1 first came out, it didn’t do so well. Inafune didn’t get the funding for the sequel, so he actually made a lot of that game by himself in his spare time while working on other projects for Capcom. He even had a bunch of elementary school kids design the bosses. He got the MM2 released, and it was a hit! Could the extra ingredient that made the game better be love? I’d like to think so.

      I can’t remember where I learned about all that, but I’m pretty sure those are real facts.

  2. Good read! I don’t think Ebert’s a bad guy at all, I think he just had a cranky old man moment and probably wouldn’t really know the difference between a video game in 1980 and one in 2010 anyways. He must have realized how foolish he sounded, because he backtracked pretty quickly, which he usually doesn’t do when he makes his controversial comments.

    Also +1 style point for gratuitous use of Emilio.

    • I’ve nothing against Ebert; in fact, the guy’s done a lot and deserves a lot of respect. It’s just that article was insulting and uninformed.

      One thing I didn’t mention in this post is how he claims that gamers think THEY are the artist for playing the game. He says something like “Michael Jordan didn’t consider himself an artist for being so good at basketball.” I don’t think I’ve ever heard a gamer say they were artists for playing Cave Story lol. But we DO think Pixel is an artist.

      I don’t know. To each their own, but I just felt his argument, not his opinion, was, for lack of a better term, stupid.

      “Gratuitous use of Emilio” 🙂

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