Roger Ebert, Art, Video Games, and Pornography
This is a long post about games, art, Roger Ebert, and how the issue is a quagmire worthy of Socrates.
I’m gonna bullet point the shit out of this thing for you. A “too long, didn’t read” version that allows you to walk away feeling smug and superior without having attempted to understand what I wrote:
1) Nerds: you need to shut the fuck up. You’re failing at reading comprehension and looking like douches.
2) The question at hand is really “What is art?” and not so much “Are games art?”
3) Pornography is awesome and I’m stretching a metaphor but bear with me and maybe, just maybe, you’ll see some boobies. (Spoiler: you won’t see any boobies.)
4) I think Roger Ebert is wrong about games not being art but not in the way that most people do. We are disagreeing about what the word “is” means.
I am a gamer. I’ve been playing games of all kinds as long as I can remember. I first played Dungeons & Dragons in 1982 and I played my first video game (a version of Lunar Lander) in 1980. I love games. I love video games, I love board games, I love pen-and-paper role playing games.
(LARPs, however, are for idiots.)
In my life I’ve written or worked on five games and not a one of them is anything I could call “art”. My peeps (read: gamers) have been in a froth about a six word statement by Roger Ebert: “Video games can never be art.” There has been a lot of Serious Business Butthurt by people who think that those six words completely invalidate everything they love about life.
(Which, you know, is an interesting question in and of itself: if your self-esteem is such that someone else can fuck it up simply by denigrating your hobby, you may want to ask yourself where you derive your self-worth from.)
This butthurt has lead to some (frankly) awesome-sounding insults directed at Mr. Ebert. Penny Arcade’s post about it has given me the phrase “reeking ejaculate”, words I shall forever cherish and attempt to bring into every future conversation (especially ones with my mother).
(Protip: Do not refer to your boss as “reeking ejaculate.”)
Go read it. It’s a good example of the standard gamer reaction: one that is clearly emotional, clearly defensive, clearly doucheful, and clearly misses the point.
It serves only to rile up the wrath of the wrong and brings nothing to the table.
So, all of you who didn’t read Ebert’s post and argument and just responded without thinking? Go back. This time, actually read the thing instead of just clicking the “add comment” button and telling us how awesome your favorite mediocre FPS game is.
This paragraph from Ebert’s article is a very important part of the argument and you need to pay attention to it or risk being crucified for Failing To Read:
“One obvious difference between art and games is that you can win a game. It has rules, points, objectives, and an outcome. Santiago might cite a[n] immersive game without points or rules, but I would say then it ceases to be a game and becomes a representation of a story, a novel, a play, dance, a film. Those are things you cannot win; you can only experience them.”
So, I’m not a fan of this statement. I actually disagree rather strongly with one of its underlying principles (that experiences are static, outcomes finalized, in order for them to be art – I think that the act of requiring a choice or action can be art in and of itself).
That being said, I cannot honestly point to any video game that has been called “art” where the “good bits” couldn’t be boiled down to simply being a good story. Not a single one.
I’ve played a lot of video games, brother. Using Ebert’s criteria, none of them have been art.
There is an argument: “it requires hundreds of artists to create a video game so how can it be that video games are not art?” That’s a bullshit misdirection. It reveals a serious ignorance about how video games are made and even what the very idea of an artist is.
First, throwing hundreds of hands at a creation does not make it great, only that lots of people got their cooties on it. Second, just because something was created by artists or made with tools of the artistic does not make it art.
Let’s talk about what isn’t art for a second.
Thomas Kinkaide has been called the “painter of light”. He’s a mass market genius and sells millions of dollars worth of utter fucking shit to mid-western plebeians who don’t know fuck-all about art. A painting by Thomas Kinkaide is not a work of “art”; it is a device calculated and constructed specifically for removing money from your wallet – money you could better spend on a high-quality Picasso print. He’s a fucking cancer.
That doesn’t make it any less interesting to look at, mind you. I mean, I hate his work but lots of people don’t and actually enjoy smarmy images of unpossible cottages in the forest in winter.
(This fact about wildly differential taste could be used to ask, “Well, doesn’t that meant that the definition of ‘art’ is subjective?” To which I answer, “Yes, it does. But that subjectivity doesn’t make Thomas Kinkaide an artist and you’re still a slobbering prole. You could buy five quality Pollack prints for what you’re paying for that shite.”)
The idea of there being poop among the flowers isn’t new. For every Kurt Vonnegut, we have ten Dan Browns. Twenty Britney Spearses for every Les Paul. A handful of Michael Bays for every Martin Scorsese.
Every creative field is three daisies within an acre’s worth of shit.
It looks to me like the real question revolves around “what is ‘art’?” and not “is this or that art?”
Damnation, that’s the kind of conundrum that would tickle the prostate of my 22 year-old philosophy-majoring self. It’s dreadfully Platonic in that entire “If you say something is objective, you’re fucked. But if you then declare it to be subjective, you’re also fucked” way. Prison all around; the monkeys are flying the plane!
Rather than discuss that, let’s talk about pornography for a moment.
Robert Mapplethorpe was a photographer who made art. Huge amounts of his art consisted of photographs of throbbing black dick. It’s clearly art, too! Just art with penis. Es.
(He also took photos of naked chicks.)
The abundance of cock and boobs in Mapplethorpe’s photography skews his genre fairly heavily into “pornography”. Or does it? Maybe it’s “erotic art”. Is that not also porn? I guess it depends on how you define “pornography.”
Andrew Blake makes films that can be called “erotic art”. They have many scenes with interesting cinematographic choices that help to move the viewer’s understanding around within a mental landscape. His films also contain many scenes of people fucking.
You may be asking yourself, “Self, why are we talking about porn when we’re supposed to be talking about video games and what a douche Roger Ebert is because I fucking loved Modern Warfare 2, dog, that shit was the fucking BOMB, so don’t talk like it’s not?”
The reason is because I wanted to bring your brain around to the understanding that the process of “defining something” – anything – is difficult. It’s phenoma-fucking-ly hard. Open a dictionary. Pick any word – any word at all – and follow all the words that are used to define it. Eventually, you’ll find yourself in a recursion loop where nothing makes sense.
Some terms have very clear and obvious definitions. Baseball. Physician. Flexible. The color Blue. Prostate cancer.
Other things? Not so much: Truth. Love. Knowledge. Evil. Sadness.
Fucker (n.), One who fucks.
This – the question about the process of definition – is the stickiest wicket in the entire discipline of philosophy. Discussions here nearly always boil down to the monolithic “what is truth?”
That, my friends, is a question for which people have killed and been killed. Is the nature of reality objective or subjective?
(I started to write a big thing about the distinction between “subjective” and “objective” truth but seriously just go to fucking kollidge. I’m not not your charming, interesting and awesome professor. Unless you’re my girlfriend, in which case we can work out some fantasy play. Seriously, baby: call me. I have a blazer with elbow patches and a lot of philosophy texts.)
What we have here is a failure to communicate.
The word “art” is a charged word. It means different things to different people. Ebert’s definition is not mine (and possibly not yours, either). Quoth he: “My notion is that it grows better the more it improves or alters nature through an[sic] passage through what we might call the artist’s soul, or vision.”
That’s a solid statement. It’s flexible. I just think it’s too narrow. Those words say to me (and again, we’re into the entire “reading other people” territory here) – they speak of an artist affecting the world for everyone who views the work.
I do not believe that “art” is defined by altering or improving nature. I believe that “art” is something that alters or improves your perception of nature. If you experience something – anything – and become a different person afterwards, then you have experienced what I would call “art”.
Guess what? Video games may or may not be art by my definition. I personally came away from Grand Theft Auto a changed person partly because of the choices I made while playing the game. I thought about my life, my career, my loves – these seen through new lenses.
I cannot say the same thing about 95% of the books I read, films I see, music I hear, or games I play.
Daisies in a field of shit.
We’re arguing over whether it’s dog shit or elephant shit, I think.
I honestly don’t care so much what type of fecal matter we’re stepping in. I’m not going to put any of it on a sandwich.
What I do care about is thinking critically about what we encounter. I would ask you, any one of you people who got this far, not having been put off by my blue language or wordiness:
Did you come away different? Are you thinking?
So, you know. Seriously.