Ahem…Roger Ebert…A Moment, Please…

Dear Roger Ebert,

Hey there. How’s it going? Listen, I have no Earthly reason to think you’ll ever read this, but I happen to be a fan of yours, and as long as I’ve known you, civilized written discourse is a thing you treat with respect. I’ve always liked that about you. Sounds good to me, let’s have some civilized written discourse. Here we go: you’re very wrong about video games not being art. I’m not angry, but you do need to stop talking. Actually, I am a little angry.

When it comes to thoughtful debate on the arts, you are incorrect on an alarmingly infrequent basis, at least compared to the rest of us. I’m honestly a little afraid to open the ball on you, I’ve seen you put opponents in their graves with the written word. You destroyed the producers of "Chaos" when they tried to rebuke your charges that their film was immoral, and you reduced Clive Barker–an enormously intelligent man–to whooping and wailing about how old you are. I do not intend to make the same mistake; the fact that you were a connoisseur of the arts before I was even born hardly seems advantageous to my cause. I also will not rest my case, as so many others have, on video games being a narrative art form. Certainly they can be, but a song does not need to tell a story to be art, and neither does a video game.

Video games are art. It’s literally impossible that they are not. They were art when "Pac Man" came out, they will continue to be art until no one is making them anymore. You’ve done a good job framing the debate as if "art" is a thing video games must apply to be, while you sit on some kind of admissions board and politely wait-list them. Because your opponents have all accepted this basic framework, you have bested most of them, with scarcely a legitimate argument to counter you. I do not intend to prove to you that video games are art, I expect you to show that they aren’t, because that is the only intellectually honest form of this discussion. Yes, I know you believe that you have already, and believe me we will get to that in due time.

The whole structure of your debate is incorrect. Video games are not wanting for proof that they are art, in fact quite the opposite. They are art until proven otherwise, because they are literally made of art. A video game is an interactive, computerized synthesis of multiple art forms, and you cannot create one without becoming an artist. Art must happen hundreds of times in a purposeful manner before a video game can exist. In order for the sum of all of that art to not also be art, there must be a mitigating factor introduced which somehow disconnects the substance from the final product. I have no idea what that factor would be, and I am grateful it is not my responsibility to dream it up. My entire position is that it doesn’t exist.

I’m not going down the “what is art?” road. I don’t think trying to define art—which is borderline impossible—gets us any closer to a resolution, and it may even move us farther away. It is more efficient and more accurate to find common ground, and then move systematically along points of agreement. When two people disagree on whether something is funny, they find that trying to define “comedy” to resolve the argument is fruitless; it is better to try and find something both of you can laugh at, and go from there. Now, from the articles you’ve written, it would appear that you believe a painting is basically art. Whatever your phantom criteria may be, a masterful painting qualifies. Very well. In the creation of a video game, dozens of artists will complete hundreds of concept paintings and drawings. Most are not idle sketches, they are serious accomplishments of people who dedicate their lives to their craft. Let us agree that those are art. Okay. Some of those concepts will be turned into sculpture models, and I sincerely hope you are also willing to concede that a highly proficient sculptor is an artist. Very well. Now these sculptures and paintings will be scanned and rendered within a computer program, and constructed in a three dimensional environment that will allow an avatar to interact with them. I would submit that this programming is also an art form, but since you have exhibited breathtaking closed-mindedness on this topic, I won’t press you to agree.

The point is, that painting or sculpture is now represented in a different medium. Admittedly, there have probably been changes along the way, but nothing any more drastic than the alterations a script goes through when it turns into a movie (and probably much less). It was a painting before, it is a painting still, only now you can move through it on a video screen. All that has really changed is the process by which we are looking at the artist’s intentions. This kind of transition is an everyday occurrence: movies shot for the big screen are displayed on a TV, art that was painted on a canvas is copied on paper. True, some of the artist’s intentions may be lost in translation, and in other art forms the copy is less valuable than the original, but there is no commonly accepted standard by which the art-ness is strip-mined as a result. For your ill-informed, inconsiderate position to make any sense, you have to invent such a precedent. In other words, you’re only right if “Casablanca” would cease to be art if it aired on network television. Good luck.

Even if you were to succeed, even if you could convince me that a gorgeous painting rendered in breathtaking high definition in a simulated 3D environment was somehow no longer worthy of being called “art,” your argument would still be bludgeoned to death by a dozen different attackers. Most games require the design of spaceships, organisms, buildings, wildlife, even entire planets. In the days of Atari perhaps you could complain these were simple tasks (you’d still be wrong), but now the design involved requires a massive team of specialists and artists in a variety of different fields. And they are not free to simply stitch together nonsense, because their audience has become accustomed to things that look and feel convincing, often times even realistic. The amount of creativity, inspiration and technical proficiency required to accomplish these things is staggering, and refusing to acknowledge their work as art is a calloused insult. It is not simply that they work hard, it is that that they work hard to create what is so conspicuously art.

Games are storehouses filled to the brim with creativity in a dozen different fields, all marshaled in a unified direction with the aim of creating a believable world. If that is not art, then nothing is. The fact that video games are now coming into their own as narratives is just icing on the cake. You mention the astuteness of cave paintings, and you are quite correct. But the resourcefulness required to create an involving world from 8-bit graphics is no less remarkable. Like the cave painters, they worked with the resources they had, and in both cases a trained eye can detect tremendous depth of meaning in the result. “The Secret of Monkey Island” is a vibrant world with a tangibly sarcastic attitude towards life, and a winningly ironic satire about gender roles, all within an 8-bit space. The designers at Nintendo took little blocks of color and created icons that have endured in world culture ever since. And dismissing such adoration as a “fad” proves nothing, both because they aren’t, and because many of the major fads in Western culture have been centered around art anyway. Also, when either of these examples are “upgraded” from their original forms and made to look prettier, the magic is lost. They are still purchased, played and treasured in their original incarnations. What they achieved in the realms they occupied was permanent, and withstands the flow of technology. That is the mark of an art form.

You claim that no game can stand up to the greats from other “real” art forms, but you are simply incorrect. Millions of people are involved with these characters, and care about them in a way too sincere to discount as fake or insubstantial. What you actually mean to say, whether you know it or not, is “video games aren’t art because no video game has ever meant as much to me as those other real artists do.” That is your problem. Furthermore, the idea that video games lacking an Edgar Allen Poe proves anything is ludicrous. Firstly, video games do have an Edgar Allen Poe, you’re just uninformed as to what they are. Secondly, the examples you use to strike video games down are at war with themselves. You say you require some master craftsman of the art form, and you also complain that video games should be content to sit quietly with the other non-arts: sports, chess, etc. But these are both flimsy, desperate points: achievement is not the criteria by which something is named “art.” If it was, those examples you yourself provided of non-art activities would suddenly qualify. Babe Ruth and Jackie Robinson are cultural icons; they touched millions of lives and left enduring legacies not confined to their sport, and yet baseball does not inch even a step closer to “art” as a result. No amount of achievement by anyone makes something art that wasn’t art before, art is simply a thing with certain qualities. Even if no one ever wrote a good play, a play would still be art.

Penny Arcade put it very well when they accused you of falling prey to an excessively backwards-looking mindset: because something has never been before, it cannot be now. I admit, I never thought you of all people would adopt such an attitude, but you have. For this reason, I feel I am almost wasting my breath in discussing the ways in which video games qualify as art in ways no other art form ever has before. Because they allow give-back from their audience, games open up the potential for creativity far past where any other medium has gone before. The people who pick up a controller are becoming a part of the art, and for this reason video games are among the most sophisticated things mankind has ever created. I feel no need to try and compare “Braid” or “Flower” to a silent film from the 1920s as others have tried to do, because this misses the point completely. I am not here to dress up video games like some other art form until you accept them, they can stand on their own. Film sits in front of its audience in stasis, but video games bring them inside, evolving and responding in real time. A play can put 50 people in a room together, but a video game can turn 200 people from anywhere in the world into a functioning team. We are not seeking to meekly approach other art forms and ask for scraps from their table, we are here to prove that we can do things they have never done, and never will do. This is the most important part of why video games are art: they revolutionize the creation and consumption of ideas. They are the future, like it or not.

You make me sad, Roger. You really do. The future seems to scare you, but I assume you’re a student of history, so let’s try that angle for a change. In 1952, there was a Supreme Court decision called Burstyn v. Wilson. It was about a controversial satire called “The Miracle.” Do you remember what the ruling stated? I’m sure you do. It declared that movies were art, and free speech within them was protected by the Constitution. For decades before that, no one would have believed those silly little motion pictures could really be art. After all, what did they have that could compete with Shakespeare? They were marginalized by aficionados of the “real” art forms such theatre, literature, and music. The truth was, movies were new, and so certain kinds of people decided they were inherently inferior. Look long on the faces of those critics and nay-sayers, Roger, and know that at long last, you are one of them.