Film critic Roger Ebert is one such skeptic. On his website in 2005, Ebert dismissed the idea of video games as art by saying they “simply can’t compare to great dramatists, poets, filmmakers, novelists and composers.
“There’s a structural reason for that,” he added. “Video games by their nature require player choices, which is the opposite of the strategy of serious film and literature, which requires authorial control.”
Those are fightin’ words for game developers—especially since they came from someone partially responsible for bringing “Beyond the Valley of the Dolls” to the big screen (a movie that could hardly be considered “high art”).
“I'm not going to try to guess what goes through Roger Ebert's head, but there is certainly a media literacy problem at work here,” says Bogost, who, along with fellow developer Gonzalo Frasca, edits and maintains WaterCoolerGames.org (a “forum for the uses of video games in advertising, politics, education and other everyday activities outside the sphere of entertainment”).
“Some of us grew up with videogames; others didn't. Just like every other medium, the previous generation has trouble grasping its legitimacy as an expressive form. This happened with the novel, with rock & roll, with comics. Over time, this will change.”
Adds Schafer: “Ebert says that games can never be art because they’re interactive. Huh? So when you’re watching a play, and it’s one of those plays where they interact with the audience, does it stop being art at that moment? Is that one, particular play not art, but the rest are?
“Games are art,” he adds. “If Marcel Duchamp can stick a urinal in a gallery and say it’s art, then I’m going to go out on a limb and say Okami is too.”
Of course, the same questions posed by Schafer often are leveled at the video game industry. It’s easy to see the artistic value in and intention behind Electroplankton, for instance, but what about Happy Feet—or any other mediocre, mass-market game for that matter?
In Dyack’s opinion, games seemingly without artistic merit shouldn’t negate the medium’s overall value as an art form.
“Some are simply more commercial in nature” than others, he says. “Similar things exist in the movie industry,” such as the discrepancy between a mainstream movie like “Harry Potter” and an indie flick sent to the Sundance Film Festival.
Bogost sees a similar artistic connection between games and film.
“Some people distinguish the goals of artistic crafts to help understand this problem,” he says. “Film can be used for deeply charged emotional expression, or it can be used to show you how to use the oxygen mask in case of cabin depressurization. If video games are indeed a medium, then they too will speak on different registers.
“If you look at the world of ‘serious games,’ a lot of those titles are much closer to the airline safety video than to ‘Citizen Kane,’” Bogost adds. “And like film or TV or painting, there will be different modes of video game craft. There will be pop-art games and self-referential postmodern games and exploitative games and games made solely to cash in on intellectual property like Sponge Bob.”
When considering whether games deserve to be labeled as “art,” Siri says it’s important to realize the industry is still in its infancy.
The industry has only been around for 30 years, he reminds. “It’s quite probable that we’re facing a period of technological maturity that’s quite similar to what happened to the film industry from the 1900s to the 1940s, where they went from one-minute, black-and-white silent movies to full length with color and sound movies.
Siri sees the games industry moving along a similar path to maturity. “So we might as well see the first ‘Citizen Kane’ of games quite soon,” he says.