Thursday, December 08, 2005

Games and Movies: Two arts beat as one

Today I saw what is, apparently, the 25th article regarding Roger Ebert's comments about "Games not being Art". I've exhausted my metaphors on this one (all of them revolving around "Roger Eberts opinion about games is as relevant as Celebrity X's opinion about something he doesn't relate to" (Like, say, Madonna's opinion about Windows API (i.e. not relevant))). So let me just make it clear:

Roger Ebert's opinion about Video Games as art is as relevant as the Dalai Lama's opinion about Cauliflowers as street decoration.

I know gamers are desperately dying to be accepted into the global media as a cultural phenomenon, and even more than that as a legitimate cultural phenomenon, and even MORE than that, as a legitimate media, like movies, TV etc. But it's just not going to happen.
Why? First, not every popular media is recognised as such. Take Comic Books. Most video gamers see comic books as a legitimate media, which is far from the truth. Comics are still viewed as geeky, for kids, niche genre. They are not taken seriously, and are not considered to be mainstream media at all, not to mention "Art". The gamers view comic books from their perspective, not from the outside. This makes them think that Video games might be also accepted as mainstream media form.
Second, many people confuse "legitimate, mainstream, media form" with "art". That couldn't be more wrong. This is, most likely, an misinterpretation of the "seven arts" concept. The seven arts (Poetry, Theatre, Dance, Painting, Sculpting, Literature and Music) are not a "definition", but a collective name. The original term wasn't even referred to entertainment arts, but to studies like geometry, medicine and linguistics.
Art as a definition is not a solid concept, and placing a certain media under the "arts" section doesn't mean it collectively becomes an art-form. Movies like The Godfather and Citizen Kane may be art, but that doesn't make Spy Kids 3D art, The Prisoner and Twin Peaks are art, but not America's Next Top Model.
To summarise, being "Art" demands that the piece in question will attempt to pursue aesthetic values, rather than simply entertain. Being an Art form means that artists are able to present those aesthetic values through the media, but it doesn't make a work "art" simply by belonging to that media.

This been said, are video games a cultural phenomenon? Yes.

Are they a legitimate one? Yes and no. Yes, since the scope of the culture has long gone caused it to rise above the small, "hardcore" niche, and no, since many games are still juvenile, provoking in the sake of provocation, and shallow. I had a long email correspondence with Cyril Lachel of Defunct Games about what makes a Mature theme, or a mature game, and while I agree with his opinions on the matter, I find that "do I shoot the cop in the head or do I run away" are not what I would consider "mature".

Are video games an art form (i.e. can they be used to express and convey aesthetic ideas)? Technically yes. Practically no.
Technically yes, since it is possible to convey aesthetic ideas through visual means, TV, animation and movies are doing it for a century now. The interactive, immersion nature of games allows the player to experience them first hand, and therefore view them from an active POV, which is unique and different from other media.
Practically no, since video games are created over a long period of time, by a very large staff, and are combined from different, non-related elements. Movies, for example, are assembled as well, and involve a large crew, but they are, at the bottom of it, actors being filmed on celluloid, then edited into the movie. Games, are tiles, 3d models, network engine, scripting, textual script, collision code, textures, music, level editors, and probably another 20 elements I didn't mention. They are run by one, or more "designers" or "producers" or whatever the current name is, but those are more concerned at assembling the pieces and making sure everything doesn't collapse the moment someone moves the mouse. To complete the analogy, imagine that a movie was filmed this way: actors were filmed in a stop-motion manner, background was designed by one crew, then was created by another, based on the blueprint of a third crew, and filmed separately. The two films were later pasted together by taking pictures of the actors film in front of the background film. The voice was recorded by other actors, in a studio halfway across the country. Sounds atrocious, but it's not even coming close to what really happen in game design. Games are designed, created, coded and assembled by committee, and over 2-3 years, it makes it very hard to get any means of artistic design float to the surface.

The other issue here is that games, by nature, should provide constant interest. Deciding whether to kill a dying cop, or allowing him to live, risking he'll identify you is a concept that could carry a 2 hour movie with ease (Think of Reservoir Dogs, the scene where Mr. Orange shoots Mr. Blue to save the life of the mutilated cop). In a video game it wouldn't last to the next cutscene. In the span of those 2 hours in games like Grand Theft Auto III, you've probably rammed the car into 2 blockade, shot about 5 cops and 8 civilians (not mentioning the 4 you drove over with your car), you broke into 3 cars, and blew up 4 more. The moral decision here is lost in the excessive. You may spared one of the wounded cops, but that decision was long drowned in the river of blood you generated in the city. It doesn't help that video games cost millions to develop, and therefore are founded and moved by commercial goals rather than "artistic". Those two are not separate, but it's hard to think about aesthetic values when you're 2 days short of your next milestone.

There's nothing preventing video games from being art. It's certainly holds all the key ingredients. It's just that considering the nature of the medium, the creation process, and the powers behind it, it would take video games a long way before we can start consider them as art. Games are an art form. Like Comic books, like movies. It doesn't a priori make them art.


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