Video games as art, Part IV: Respecting games as games

(See also: Prelude and Parts I, II, and III)

John Beeler asks at GameSetWatch: “How do paintings and sculptures fit into that framework? Maybe games – particularly sandbox games – are more like paintings than they are movies?” I haven’t really touched on visual art (drawing, painting, sculpture, photography) because that’s not the framework by which people have responded to Ebert. In his IGDA column, Matt Sakey gives the list of video game greats and says they’re “our Fassbinders and Scorseses” — he doesn’t say they’re our Picassos and Alexander Calders (yes, I’m reading Sakey literally, but bear with me).

The visual arts have their own criteria by which they’re judged. You could apply those to video games, though it wouldn’t be all that helpful — there’s much more to video games than graphics, and anyway games would mostly lose because of the lack of visual visionaries (maybe I should have called it “The Tim Burton problem” or “The Dave McKean problem”).

Similarly, it’s not altogether helpful to judge games according to the criteria by which you’d judge movies or books. Everyone’s saying that’s what I’m doing, which is true, but I’m doing it to make a point about why Ebert wins the argument so far.

You can respond to Ebert by refusing to engage him, saying he is unfairly judging video games by the criteria of other art forms. Or you can say that while he’s right about video games being inferior according to those criteria, that’s irrelevant — games are games and can be fun and great and meaningful on their own terms.

But most people have engaged him on the terms of the art he’s talking about even while saying we shouldn’t do this. In the GameSetWatch comments, John Beeler and Matt Dovey talk about player-created narratives being as good as author-created ones. Matt Sakey says “interactivity makes games inherently superior to more limited forms of exposition,” and he mentions Shadow of the Colossus and Lunar: The Silver Star as counterarguments to Ebert and other game haters (he describes Lunar’s “thematic resonance” in the same way we’d typically describe a book or movie, immediately after saying we should “judge games as games rather than as movies or novels”).

But once you start comparing in terms of narrative, exposition, theme you can’t stop — and you inevitably come to Ebert’s conclusion. (I haven’t played Lunar so can’t speak about that. And while I was going to say, in the review of Colossus that I never wrote, that the game evokes the majesty of nature in the same way Hayao Miyazaki‘s animated films do, I would have also said that the game is nowhere near as subtle or deep as Miyazaki’s work. Colossus is beautiful, but it’s a one-note kind of beauty.)

I think the key is this. In judging movies, TV, books, comics — what I’ve been calling “narrative art” — the quality of the narrative (in terms of all the different elements I described in the last post) is paramount. In talking about games, the fact that the narrative is happening at all — the inherent interaction and player control — is what’s important. Don’t say to Ebert, “You’re wrong about games because player-created narratives are just as good as anything the movies have to offer.” Say, “You’re wrong about games because games give players control — and that is enough.” On the surface this is just semantics — isn’t that what people are saying to him already? I don’t think it is. I think largely because of the defensiveness long-suffering gamers have, the mindset is that we can’t defend games on their own terms.

Ultimately, then, I think we’re all saying pretty much the same thing. What I am saying, somewhat presumptuously (or just plain obnoxiously), is that we really need to mean it.

One last point, and this ties into the discussion about game journalism and criticism. I say above that it’s not terribly helpful to judge games by the criteria we use to judge visual art or “narrative art.” What I mean is that it’s not helpful to judge games only by those criteria. Of course movie criticism, literary criticism and, uh, fine art (for lack of a better term for painting/sculpture/etc.) criticism can serve as touchstones or reference points, depending on the game. But just as a good movie critic focuses on different things depending on the movie, rather than going through a checklist, a good game critic will do the same.

— January 13, 2006

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