Video Games are not art, film critic Roger Ebert famously declared. They are merely functional challenges that test your wits. Like chess.
“Chess is a great game,” Ebert notes, “but even the finest chess player in the world isn’t an artist. She is a chess player. Artistry may have gone into the design of the chess pieces. But the game of chess itself is not art nor does it generate art - it is just a game.”
Since entering the popular consciousness, games have ruffled feathers. The old guard - art, film and music critics - are wary of this new untamed entity infringing on their turf. They’re terrified of the possibility that games are not merely functional shells intended for play - a toy, if you will - but a work of art too.
Ebert’s arguments represent a warped, hopelessly confined worldview of the modern videogame. Had he gotten around to playing any in his lifetime, he could have sat down to any number of artistic experiences. Often, games are not challenges at all, but stories with denouement you work towards, just as in a book (a form of art) or a film (art). Dear Esther; Everybody’s Gone To Rapture; Her Story. These are all vehicles for stories rather than vehicles for challenge. And all of them are products of painters, musicians, thinkers.
The art critic Jonathan Jones argues that games can’t be art because they’re collaborative efforts. “No one ‘owns’ the game, so there is no artist, and therefore no work of art.” He adds: “Walk around the Museum of Modern Art, look at those masterpieces it holds by Picasso and Jackson Pollock, and what you are seeing is a series of personal visions. A work of art is one person's reaction to life.”
So what about the Sagrada Familia which, as I type, is being assembled by a team of men following the vision laid down by Antoni Gaudi many years before? It is a collaborative effort with a single visionary, just as many games are collaborative efforts that owe a debt to a single visionary. Play enough games and you’ll come across designers like Neil Druckamnn and Hideo Kojima who exercise authorial control over their visions. It just so happens to take a team of people to bring to life.
Yes, the biggest games are commercial operations distinct from, say, a painting, which can be created on a shoestring budget. But just because the tools are more expensive doesn’t make it any less of a feat of creativity. Ebert is wrapped up in his conception of games as they were, in a petri dish, testing what was possible.
Just on face value alone, games are art: look at the vision of a city ripped apart by a parasitic virus in The Last of Us or the magic of No Man’s Sky. That’s before you even begin interacting with these worlds and unpacking the varied emotions they evoke.
Perhaps Chris Melissinos says it best. Writing in TIME, he notes: “As an art form that has only existed in the digital space, video games are truly a collision of art and science. They include many forms of traditional artistic expression—sculpture in the form of 3D modeling, illustration, narrative arcs, and dynamic music—that combine to create something that transcends any one type.”
Ebert wrote that no game has ever been “worthy of comparison with the great poets, filmmakers, novelists and poets” but also admitted he was “hopelessly handicapped because of [his] love of cinema.” This handicap prevented him actually engaging with games, learning to understand them, and finding the artistry in their creation. He died in 2013.
If anything, video games are not only an art form, they’re the most advanced form we know. While they don’t readily adorn the walls of art exhibitions they do adorn giant TVs, interactive displays, billboards, projectors.
Just as films turned their noses up at television and music scoffed radio, the defenders of the arts feel threatened by an entity they don’t understand. Much of the debate comes down to who’s debating. The designations of Jones - “art critic” and the late Ebert - “film critic” - give it away. To quote the final line from Ebert’s controversial article: “I rest my case.”
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