Ethnomediology Film

Video Games As Art: The Semantics of Aesthetics

Quite some time ago, Roger Ebert was quoted as having said that “video games can never be art,” after which a horde of gamers smashed their angry fingers on keyboards struggling to shout into blog commentaries, “how dare you!” and “yes they can, to infinity!” and “he just doesn’t get it!” and similar rebuttals. The final insult, as it were, was when Ebert essentially solidified his point on aesthetics with a semantic challenge to readers:

I am prepared to believe that video games can be elegant, subtle, sophisticated, challenging, and visually wonderful. But I believe the nature of the medium prevents it from moving beyond craftsmanship to the stature of art. To my knowledge, no one in or out of the field has ever been able to cite a game worthy of comparison with the great dramatists, poets, filmmakers, novelists and composers. That a game can aspire to artistic importance as a visual experience, I accept. But for most gamers, video games represent a loss of those precious hours we have available to make ourselves more cultured, civilized, and empathetic.”

Ebert, from his position of security in Sun-Times Media and his time-honored popular face as a long-standing film critic, chose these words carefully to communicate his definitional approach to the aesthetics of art, while at the same time calling out to anyone who might dare to challenge that definition. The debate had essentially been set aside, with Ebert’s weighty word standing in the blogscape as the aesthetic last utterance, until recently it was re-awakened when Kellee Santiago of That Game Company gave a charming presentation at USC on the subject of video games as art. In fact, she said, “video games already are art.”

Santiago noted that we must “draw a line between appreciation and art,” wherein there are some games (such as chess) that demonstrate elegant and sophisticated elements (echoing Ebert’s words), and many people have developed elaborate identities and cultures concerning games (such as with football and mahjong), but that, in all their entertainment value, these games are not art in the way that the media of video games are art. She then mentioned various definitions of art as she understood them and as they resonated with her in society, and–taking up Ebert’s challenge–pulled together three examples of games she posited fit her definition of “video game art,” at least as much, if not more than early films or novels could be claimed as such. Video games, she prophesied, like films and novels, would continue to develop much in the way that the “chicken scratches” on cave walls eventually evolved into the paintings inside the Sistine chapel. Then, in possibly the weakest (and most unfortunate) point of her presentation, she noted the market shares of game sales to demonstrate the impact that these and similar games have had on popular culture. The strength of her presentation came from her (albeit somewhat ill-articulated) explanation of art and interactivity. She defined art–based on popular culture’s notion (from wikipedia) and Robert McKee’s sense of what makes a good writer–by stating, “art is a way of communicating ideas to an audience in a way that the audience finds engaging.” Later in her discussion, she noted that it is exciting to be alive in a time when the art of video gaming is coming into its own, ever-climbing toward new potentials for interactivity and artistic expression. As much as her presentation seemed to be the justified validation sought by those gamers befuddled by Ebert’s dismissal, it occurred to me that Santiago focused perhaps too much on the same definitional conundrum as Ebert, just from the opposite end of the spectrum.

Then in April, as expected, Ebert finally spoke on the subject again, meticulously rebuking Santiago’s chosen game examples by citing various evidence of his own, which he used to demonstrate the many ways in which her points were mistaken and naive. His experienced writing created a confident argument, especially since he noted the weight that his reflective article has in comparison to the extemporaneous delivery of Santiago’s oral presentation. Still, his argument came across as an even further semantic dismissal of Santiago’s claims, which despite his articulation exposed the relative ambiguity of how he defines (and more accurately how we define) art in popular culture. Most surprising was the locus of his argument, which–despite his own career serving as a noticeable element of popular culture–proposed to reinforce an antiquated divide between “cultured” and “un-civilized” notions of art, one that reminded me of Adorno and his camp.

Theirs is an elitist view that separates the culture of upper classes from those of the pulp, a way to separate that which is prized from that which is not In social theory of the present, we concede that such modernist views about what comprises hierarchies are purely subjective, and given that hierarchies are socially constructed and socially performed, the true impact of any interactive media is not in what is thought to define it, but within the media itself. To argue and conjecture about what comprises a genre is the point, because genres are fluid and never fixed in time; genres are constantly redefined and re-entextualized. To argue old notions of elitist art is pointless.

To my knowledge, definitional aesthetic semantics exist in genres of all forms in our society (and most others): fashion, music, etiquette, dialect, ethnicity, and so on. In each definable existence through which people and groups of people identify there are a host of aesthetics and rationalizations that define how and why those aesthetics are prized and hierarchicized. In literary genres, for example, these theoretical notions have been reinforced since Aristotle’s Poetics as definable elements of what comprises a “classic.” Yet, as time moved forward, books that were once hailed as useless pulp have grown to be appreciated for a previously unrecognizable contribution, and the notion of “classics” changed to fit that growth. In seems that in some instances, people accept relativity of expression, yet the overall hierarchy that dictates what is acceptable and innovative and what is fodder remains. In music scholarship, too, we notice that the modernist trend of separating the elite from the mundane is outdated and counterintuitive. What comprises a classic is not so much in its definitional components, but in that which inspires many people to debate those definitional aesthetic semantics.

The woeful gamers who insecurely touted “He just doesn’t get it” were right on one level: resurrecting an outdated argument on classics and why they are defined as classics is rather pointless. Our understanding of genres of media and interactivity is constantly in flux, and–in today’s technological world–constantly being further mediated by machines. Ebert’s arguments ignore all of this in light of definitional semantics. It stands to reason, then, if Ebert continues to cling to positivistic definitions that separate “art” and “game,” his particular challenge will likely never be beatable, since any example provided to him regardless of the justification will simply come across as more definitional semantics. Thus, one might notice that Ebert’s dismissal of video games is rather tired and pointless.

This is what Kevin Levine also seems to think, in his recent rant published in this past month’s Game Informer magazine, issue #207. Reading his harangue is what inspired me to write this post in the first place.

Levine asks the “video game industry, journalists, and fans” to grow “a pair,” and–setting aside the implications of this popular statement and getting to the heart of the matter–he succinctly points out that gamers don’t need to seek validation from a film critic in the mainstream. “How insecure are we as an industry that we rush to seek validation not only from our own peers, but from critics in other fields, to tell us if what we’re doing is worthy of notice?” he asks. “I was in high school once. I spent the entire four years trying to match up with what I thought other people thought was cool and worthwhile. And I was miserable because the things I loved were not deemed valuable.”

Though rife with emotion, his diatribe communicates a strong message: drawing a line between the legacy of “civilized” elitist culture and “pathetic” (Ebert) gaming popularity is a worthless endeavor. In the subjectivity of existence, there is no center and periphery–there is only identity and interactivity. Drawing lines in the sand is a good way to start a fight about something, but why the hell would you want to do that? Creating a positivistic, fixed definition about the aesthetics of art doesn’t contribute a damn thing to anyone.

It’s a point worth consideration. Levine notes, “The world is changing,” which of course goes without saying. The world always changes. When people begin focusing on positivistic definitions about that world is when they lose sight of themselves. Levine adds, as if directly to Ebert, that “writing dismissive essays about the newest kind of media… is something we must not do, because that kind of thinking is the first step on the path to irrelevance.”

There’s nothing positivistic or definable about social interactivity. It is a complex web of human involvement, in which people identify, recall, and re-create. The story of that involvement and how it can encourage further interactivity is what is most important. The nature of our social economy certainly encourages a continuum of elitism and hierarchy–polarization and Cartesian dualities are, after all, good business. For some people, dialectics inspires rationalization for the formal features of exclusion from a genre boundary; for others it begs validation and legitimization to be included within that genre. And for those who are unsettled by the boundaries that exist–categories that have inclusionary and exclusionary features–new genres are proposed. Levine’s point of view is certainly the healthiest here: we would do well not to subscribe to drawing lines in the sand, so to speak, or recognizing those lines to seek the validation to stand on the favored side. Still, the final fascination of Levine’s rant and its place in the running dialog concerning video games as art is his closing. The end of his rant is a laundry list of what gamers have to be proud of–a reminder, perhaps, as if Ebert’s cryptic comment and the subsequent fallout has had the power to derail the import of nearly four decades of profound impact on society.

I hope the measure of meaningfulness is clear. I’ll close by stating this: It’s not in the definitions, it’s in the interaction that’s most important. To Ebert, the definition of art excludes video games yet illogically includes film–yet, video games incorporate most of the elements of film, especially new action-oriented games. To the masses of people who have a far closer identity with video games than Ebert, the genre boundaries of art have changed far more than his definition allows.

By Ruadhán

Ethnomediologist, writer, digital creator, & gamer. Author & developer of Augur's Lore TTRPGs. Polyhedral dice & pizza enthusiast. Pronouns: they/them/their

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