I have yet to meet a writer who doesn’t have a set of personal hobbyhorses, those topics that are hardly common yet remain a source of deep fascination and excitement. For myself, I think my interests in specialized subjects are fairly standard, given that I’m a writer—and, by nature, a curious sort—with a special penchant for science fiction and fantasy—the less readily explainable: the mind, death, dreams, words, outer space, folklore and mythology. I also have an abiding interest in aesthetics, though I rarely say much about it because discussing what is and is not art (or Art) usually leads into violating one of my guiding principles—“Aim to describe rather than proscribe, or prescribe.”
Yet sometimes I hear or read something that compels me to re-evaluate my thoughts on Art, not because I necessarily agree with an opinion but because I need to clarify my own thinking. The something that currently has my synapses firing is this 2010 article by Roger Ebert in which he claims “in principle, video games cannot be art.” Even though I play video games only sporadically at this point, and nothing by way of newer titles, I still feel I ought to respond. It stems from my being tired of people’s narrow-mindedness concerning the value in things I like—speculative fiction, comic books, video games.
As you might expect with someone of Ebert’s visibility voicing an opinion guaranteed to incite the legions of video game fans, his article generated a major backlash. On that entry there are nearly five thousand comments by real people, not spam-bots. Running a Google search on ‘ebert video games’ yields nearly three million hits; the first few pages of results almost exclusively address his essay. So great was the outcry—and with reasonable arguments—that Ebert later issued a sort of apology for speaking his mind without any substantial familiarity with the medium.
I don’t want to belabor the points Ebert’s critics raised. Still, I do want to consider some of the gaps in his argument that relate to my own ideas about what constitutes Art. Ebert, for his part, does not in either piece arrive at a clear definition of Art. At best, he offers a few characteristics—“usually the creation of one artist,” that which enables the audience “to learn more about the experiences, thoughts and feelings of others,” without “rules, points, objectives, and an outcome” that games, video and otherwise, typically have.
On this haziness, I can’t fault him. When it comes to Art, I find myself agreeing with subjective definitions, like Justice Potter Stewart on obscenity: “I know it when I see it.” Or, to borrow from Damon Knight, it’s what we point to when we say “Art.” I tend to label Art something that evokes what G. Christopher Williams calls the aesthetic response, “a feeling of awe (though that is a slightly inaccurate and abstract word) when recognizing a very well arranged object or idea or image or story.” But do I respond to something and call it aesthetically pleasing or is it aesthetically pleasing and thus I respond to it? Echoes of Socrates’s Euthyphro. Regardless of the origin of the aesthetic response, I still feel like some works can—should—be considered Art even if they do not in any way move me. (Modernism and I rarely get along, for instance, but I cannot make the case for excluding some works from the canon/“classic” status.)
If not the aesthetic response, then, what qualifies a work to be Art? I’ve tried to formulate some definite rationale and the one aspect I keep coming back to is skill. Not just competency but proficiency to the point of inspiring a modicum of, if not awe, then certainly appreciation. It’s for that reason I can’t wrap my head around a great deal of abstract and modern art. Anyone can inscribe a name on a urinal. Not just anyone can paint like, say, Yoshitaka Amano.
Of course maybe I, like Ebert, have defined Art in such a way that precludes what I don’t like. Maybe this isn’t such a problem. In my undergrad ethics class, I learned that a given action can be morally right or wrong depending on which philosophy you subscribe to. There are no absolutes. Maybe aesthetics is the same way.
The problem is that Ebert’s not alone in thinking this way; the wider society, particularly critics and academics who have a keen interest in what constitutes Art, does not regard video games as a serious artistic medium. Why not? I think part of it is the infancy of video games. They’ve only been around for not even fifty years. Even if video games that could earn the label of Art have been already produced, we likely won’t know that for quite some time. It seems somewhat far-fetched to ponder if the earliest humans considered their cave paintings as Art. The stories forming the backbone of the oral tradition, some of which survives today as myth and folklore? They were for entertainment, instruction, and just communication. Examinations of the past, explanations for the world and everything in it. Only later could we see early artifacts as Art (if indeed we do) because, for one, we had the concept of Art, and, two, we had enough distance to determine a piece’s cultural significance. (Another possible criterion for Art?)
Let’s go back to Ebert. Maybe it’s empathy—helping us understand the thoughts and feelings of others—that determines a work of Art. But he admits that he cannot articulate “how music or abstract art could perform those functions, and yet they were Art.” Such a definition clearly has its limits, as he points out. What about poetry, which can encompass narrative and emotion but also casts language in new lights? Some might identify that as playfulness but it’s not the play of games with points and objectives. It just is. In any case, evoking empathy, while a decent barometer, is obviously not essential for a work of Art.
What about Ebert’s belief that Art is the usually the product of a single individual? While I do see his point—we’ve moved away from community to privileging individual talent—it’s obviously weak. Authors do not work in a vacuum; at the very least they often have editors whose input influences the final published version. While film and drama have individual directors, these forms are by nature collaborative. So too video games—the final product is in some sense the vision of one person, but that vision cannot be realized alone. Art must be idea and execution. Otherwise, we ought to be revering Shakespeare’s inspirations, rather than the Bard’s work. The map is not the territory.
Even if a piece of Art were produced alone—if we strictly mean that a single individual created/arranged a specific set of words/images/sounds—it is never processed that way. Art must be received by an audience and, especially in the case of literature, those people become co-creators. Ebert overlooks this when he talks about film and stories being passive experiences. I understand he means that there is not a real explicit sense of choice or interactivity within the text. Still, to call literature (if nothing else) passive is a mistake. Granted, there is far less interactivity in a book compared with a video game. But less choice does not mean none. (Reader-response theory, anybody?) If that’s the case, it’s arbitrary what threshold of choice a work must be beneath to be considered Art.
Ebert wonders why gamers care about the medium’s status as Art and, in his apology, washes his hands of it all. “I had to be prepared to agree that gamers can have an experience that, for them, is Art.” I wish I could have the same attitude—just like what you like and ignore what anyone else thinks. But I can’t completely let it go because I can’t stand the idea of a hierarchy, that we in general see one kind of human creative endeavor as more valuable than another. I see it in the debate between literary and genre fiction. I want these arguments to be over. For this to happen, all of us have to let go of these rigid definitions. I’m not suggesting abandoning categories, which can be helpful, or individual preferences. I just wonder what would happen if we kept our personal tastes, well, personal.