Obviously, many of you are familiar with Roger Ebert's assertion that videogames "can never be art." (found here) Instead of rebutting his statements or offering my own outlook on why games are art (there have already been plenty of arguments doing that), I would like to offer another perspective on his article:
By saying that our medium can never be art, Roger Ebert dropped a bomb on the game industry, and it may be the best thing that ever happened to us.
"BLASPHEMY!", you are no doubt screaming now (possibly "SHENANIGANS!") Are you holding your fist high in the air? Well put it down and hear me out for a second...
In a recent conversation with videogame video blogger/lecturer Daniel Floyd (whose INCREDIBLY thought provoking videos can be found here) I commented that in trying to put down the medium, Ebert has ironically begun one of the largest discussions of not only IF games are art, but also HOW they are art. I believe this comes at a very opportune time for an industry where gritty, brown, bloom lit first person shooters make up the majority of major releases in the same way platformers featuring rodents with "attitude" (trying to be the next Sonic) dominated the 90's.
While Mr. Ebert as made the argument that games are not art before, a large shift has since happened in academia regarding the critical discourse of games. Ebert made his original argument in 2004, when one could walk to the game design section of any book store and find mostly programming manuals and 3D modeling guides. Fast forward to today, where the best game design literature discusses games in terms of art, their potential for persuasive rhetoric, literature, and even in the way they shape our outlook on reality. What this means for the industry is that we are now much more prepared to intelligently affirm our place in artistic media than we were the first time Ebert made his feelings known.
However, much this discussion of games as an artistic and persuasive new medium has until now been in the realm of academia, bloggers, and independent studios, while the industry (of course with many notable exceptions) has been making and reporting on the styles of games that make money, as a money making industry is apt to do. The effect of Ebert's article is significant in that it has challenged us to look at our medium with in a much more intellectual light.
Many were outraged by Ebert's statements, but few thought of it as anything but a simple outrage. In order for the professionals in large companies to step outside the business of making entertainment and enter the intellectual discussion of games, the dam dividing the industry from academics who discuss games as art must be broken, forcing us to look hard at the games we are making and really consider the games that fall outside the "industry standard."
Okay so let's say we can get industry professionals, academics, journalists, and bloggers on board with the bold new discussion, but what about the masses of people that play our games? Many of them actually don't know the debate over games as art exists, much less that games can be artistic.
As Ebert said in his article, "Why aren't gamers content to play their games and simply enjoy themselves?" The sad truth is, for many gamers he's mostly correct, they don't know that game designers are striving to find new ways to stretch their art, much less that some have "crossed the boundary of artistic expression" as Kellee Santiago has stated. Let's take Braid for example. When it came out, it was hailed as a piece of high gaming art, yet if I ask many of my students, they have neither played nor heard of it, same with Ico, Shadow of the Colossus, or any number of thought provoking games.
While some of these games have certainly made their share of money, many gamers are more interested in the typical console fare than the games that really break the mold, or simply are not capable of understanding what is so different or important about them. Braid, Ico, and the like are also the precious few game art experiences that have achieved popular attention. I challenge you to ask any gamer if they have ever played September 12th or Waco Resurrection and they will look at you like you have lobsters crawling out of your ears.
For the uninitiated, September 12th is a persuasive game from newsgaming.com that turns argument against American involvement in the Middle East into a procedural discussion. Players control a targeting reticule that launches missiles at terrorists. The terrorists, however, are placed among civilian characters. When the player launches a missile, they inevitably hit the civilians, causing the witnesses to become new terrorists. The game is, by design, unwinnable and as such makes a powerful argument.
Likewise, Waco Resurrection is a game by Eddo Stern, Peter Brinson, Brody Condon, Michael Wilson, Mark Allen, and Jessica Hutchins that allows players to explore the events of the 1993 Waco, Texas standoff by assuming the role (and physical appearance via a microphone enhanced mask) of David Koresh and has players engage in the clashing views of the parties involved. These examples, which have been discussed by game design theorists as works of topical art, show how games can be a more thought-provoking medium, but are largely ignored by the majority of the gaming public.
This is where gaming media and educators can help. When teaching or discussing gaming, it becomes increasingly important to discuss not only the popular industry games and give our typical reviews and previews, but also to discuss them in terms of the new critical discourse of our industry.
Can reviews of the upcoming Halo: Reach discuss how the narrative in the game presents war? Does it paint it in a positive or negative light? How will the core mechanics of Mario Galaxy 2 express the joy of movement through interaction with a short mustachioed plumber? In my own game development classes, I have been challenging my students with the same questions. Not only that, but I expose them to games like September 12th, Waco Resurrection, and others that continue to push our industry forward.
Personally, I also find myself reconsidering many of the popular games I have played in my own spare time. Apart from the titles such as Metroid Prime, which ABC and IGN's Mike Thomsen has argued is our industry's Citizen Kane, I have even begun to look at over-the-top violent titles (the kind parents groups have been screaming about since we've all been young) as art indicative of contemporary society.
One example: why are there so many zombie games out now? Have you ever thought about that? While zombies have certainly been a part of the gaming landscape for decades (I'm looking at you Castlevania) they are even more pervasive in today's popular media. According to CNN's Doug Gross, zombies are a metaphorical device used in popular media to reflect society's biggest fears and insecurities. Today, our economic woes have been channeled into movies, books, and video games about mowing down legions of undead, much how we wish to avoid becoming wage-slave, at-work "zombies."