[In this important Gamasutra essay, former game journalist and current EA producer Jim Preston dispels the illusion of an 'art club' that games aren't allowed to enter, suggesting that diversity has made the 'games as art' debate effectively meaningless.]
Last November Roger Ebert reviewed the film Hitman (pictured below) and raised the ante in his ongoing
low-stakes game of "is it art?" with video gamers. Instead of simply
declaring, as he has done in the past, that videogames are not art, Ebert goes
even further to declare that videogames "will never become an art form."
The claim that games aren’t an art
form isn’t controversial, even among many gamers. But to take it to the next
level and deny that they ever can become art is, well, just plain ol’ mean.
Naturally the reaction among gamers was the righteous fury of the deeply
transgressed. Many noted that Ebert actually liked Garfield: The Movie while others pointed out the devastating
ravages of senility. The desire to be considered
an art form, and to get all the benefits of legitimacy that come with it, is
natural for any hobbyist. The problem for video gamers, however, is not with
Roger Ebert; the problem is that gamers don’t understand the disheveled state
of "art" in America.
Most gamers think of their plight this way: there’s this really great
club downtown called the Arty Party and all the cool people are in it. George
Clooney is getting drunk with Oscar Wilde; Chopin is playing foosball with
Allen Ginsberg; and Picasso is hitting on Emily Dickinson -- it’s the best.
Meanwhile, we gamers are out
here on the sidewalk in the rain with the comic book guys and the graffiti
sprayers and we can’t get in because that cranky bastard Ebert won’t let us
through the door. Ebert, and others like him, man the door and glower at us,
not letting us in to this one big party.
The problem with this picture is
that it isn’t even remotely close to reflecting the state of art in 21st
century America. To think that there is a single, generally agreed upon concept
of art is to get it precisely backwards. Americans' attitude towards art is profoundly divided, disjointed and
confused; and my message to gamers is to simply ignore the "is-it-art?" debate altogether.
Note, however, that
I am not saying anything about art per se,
or anything about art in any other culture. Rather, I would like to suggest
that the U.S.’s constant influx of immigrants, exiles, and refugees has led to a current artistic
landscape that is so widely varied that the "is-it-art?" debate is almost meaningless.
Our current cultural attitude towards art is like an enormous cocktail,
with so many ingredients added over time that it is almost impossible to digest
the final result.
A quick and crude history would be familiar to all of us: the
early European settlers and merchants brought a broadly Christian conception of
art; the slave trade injected African oral traditions and rhythms that would
lie murmuring underneath the surface for decades; the antebellum and agrarian
South fully embraced a neo-classical view of art.
The turn of the century saw the rise of the
Blues and Jazz from the Mississippi delta; the second World War brought a wave
of European thinkers and artists, many of them avant-garde; the post-War era witnessed the rise of rock ‘n roll
and abstract expressionism; and the GI Bill sent (and still sends)
unprecedented numbers through college, leading to a great blob of theorists who
are forced by the economics of higher education to dream up more theories of
art or perish.