Can video games be art?  

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Recently Roger Ebert published an article about art and video games. And, of course, I must disagree with him. He has several perceptions of video games that are just wrong.

First, he's under the impression that video gamers get to define the story for themselves. No, that's not the case. Video games are extremely linear, even games that give gamers choices are limited to just a couple of paths. For example, Knights of the Old Republic gave gamers several options in how they interacted with multiple characters. Despite that, in the end there were really only two choices and previous encounters made no difference. In one dialog choice the game player decided whether the character of the story would be a good Jedi or an evil Sith. I didn't even have to restart the game and play it again to see the difference. All I had to do was reload it from a save point near the end of the game.

Even Elder Scrolls: Morrowind or Oblivion are only an illusion of player control. The player doesn't have to move through the game in a linear fashion and there are tons of choices. But in the end the game has been fully defined by the programmers, storyline writers, and concept designers. The only unexpected turns in the game are due to gaming bugs, mistakes in the code. Sometimes these are laughable and form their own interesting results, but they are not the players re-interpreting the game on their own.

So, let's just get this out of the way now. Despite preconceived notions that video games are free-form canvases for the players to create, they aren't. Every option has been pre-written unless it is a mistake.

For his second impression I'll give you his quote.

I know it by the definition of the vast majority of games. They tend to involve (1) point and shoot in many variations and plot lines, (2) treasure or scavenger hunts, as in "Myst," and (3) player control of the outcome. I don't think these attributes have much to do with art; they have more in common with sports.

And if I were to say that the vast majority of movies tend to involve (1) goofy romantic comedy, (2) over-the-top action scenes, and (3) often predictable story lines, do you think I have described most movies?

Most movies are entertainment, not art. So why should video games be judged by some higher standard? Is it possible that the vast majority of video games are entertainment and a few are art? Absolutely!

Roger Ebert can pretend to be a critic of video games all he wants, but he's working from a position of ignorance. I would find it difficult to define all movies as X or even just a genre of books if I'd only read or seen one or two or even a half dozen. If I'm wrong and Ebert is really an avid gamer and done more than just observe and maybe play a session of Myst, then my apologies.

So here I'm making an assumption. Roger Ebert does not know very much about video games. He has likely not played many games and probably has mostly observed only a few of the more currently popular games. That doesn't make his opinion invalid as an individual, but as an authority he lacks credentials. His movie critic credentials don't carry over into the gaming world.

In reality Roger Ebert really doesn't know if video games are art or not. He surmises they are not. From my experience I think he's wrong.

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