PZ and Ebert are wrong

It’s fairly rare that I disagree with PZ Myers. He’s pretty spot on about a lot of things. Of course, that doesn’t mean I think everything he says is gold. But regardless, most anything he writes or says matches most anything I have said, will say, or at least think. Roger Ebert, on the other hand, likes a lot of crappy movies. For instance, Last Days was just an awful, awful, awful piece of garbage. But Ebert gave it a very high rating. Or take the horror-porn movie Saw:

That said, “Saw” is well made and acted, and does what it does about as well as it could be expected to.

The one point of Saw that really stood out to me – aside from the boredom it induced – was how poorly acted some of the scenes were. The scene where the doctor sawed through his foot? That was perhaps the worst individual acting moment for any major release that entire year.

But despite some errors of taste, I usually like Ebert. He hates creationism and all its science-hating silliness, and he recognizes the simple mindedness of the Republican party, so it’s tough to go against him sometimes. However, he has recently written a piece which is totally unacceptable. On this I am against Ebert.

Let me just say that no video gamer now living will survive long enough to experience the medium as an art form.

What stirs me to return to the subject? I was urged by a reader, Mark Johns, to consider a video of a TED talk given at USC by Kellee Santiago, a designer and producer of video games. I did so. I warmed to Santiago immediately. She is bright, confident, persuasive. But she is mistaken.

I generally stopped playing video games many years ago. It isn’t that I decided to go down that pretentious I’m-too-mature-for-this-stuff route. I actually played too much at times, getting far too worked up over unimportant issues (e.g., Halo 2 – not to mention the fact that the people running the game, Bungie, loved to let players boot each other for “betrayals” even when no such thing had occurred; it got too annoying sometimes). It was just time for me to take a break. I still play when the opportunity presents itself because I still find video games fun, and I might one day relatively soon invest in some system, but right now I have other interests.

That said, I never especially considered the art work of video games; it played no role in my decision to play and then subsequent decision not to play. However, it certainly isn’t hard for any experienced gamer to look back on his gaming history and recognize all the works of art he played. Ebert, of course, does not play video games. He has little idea what is in them, even in his article indicating the common belief that shooting games are all mindless. I think the most obvious counter to that is Fatal Frame. In that game the player didn’t shoot with a gun, but rather a camera. All the principles of shooting, improving accessories, upgrading equipment, etc were present; the difference was superficial – it was still a shooter. But it was more than that. The player had to figure out a number of puzzles, actually read (a ton of) clues, and really pay attention to the story. And unlike Saw, it was actually scary. (In fact, when has any horror movie ever been scary?)

But more to the point, it relied on some actual history to a small extent, it created its own intense world, and it offered designs which were absolutely beautiful, especially for its time period. It certainly was art.

But Ebert isn’t the only one showing his age. PZ does the same with this quip.

Video games will become art when replaying the performance becomes something we find interesting, when the execution of those tools generates something splendid and lasting. It just doesn’t now, though.

These two guys clearly don’t know much about video games. Role playing games, or RPGs, are often defined by how much they can be replayed. I’ve played through Star Ocean: The Second Story more times than I can remember, logging several hundred hours. I’m sure Final Fantasy fans have done the same with their preferred series. Now with American-style, open-battle RPGs becoming more popular, more people are playing them, and they’re playing them again and again.

If you want to see something really boring, watch someone else playing a video game. Then imagine recording that game, and wanting to go back and watch the replay again sometime.

My grandmother used to love watching me play Super Mario Brothers at her house. And no, it was not a matter of her telling me something I wanted to hear. She would often encourage me to play even when I was already successfully occupying my time (e.g., not bugging anyone). And recording? Has PZ searched YouTube? People love to watch videos of what others have done. But more importantly than any of that is that the game itself is the art, not the act of playing the game. Think of going to an art gallery featuring, say, oil paintings. Just about everyone will agree that the place is filled with art, but no one is going to agree that watching people view all that art is itself art.

The problem in which PZ and Ebert find themselves is in defining art. Ebert, for example, cites Plato and his concerns over mimesis.

But is Plato’s any better? Does art grow better the more it imitates nature? 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.

Plato’s definition of art sucks. He basically says mimesis, or the representation of some part of Nature as conveyed onto a canvas or likewise medium through the use of paints*, is bad because there is an ideal and then there are mere imitations. That is, there is an ideal concept of a table (or chair or TV or whatever). There can only be one ideal, but there can be many imitations. The first imitation is a table itself. This is once removed from the ideal (which, incidentally, comes from God for Plato). Then there is a painting of that imitation. Because this is twice removed from the ideal, it is of a lesser beauty – beauty is derived from ideals. All he’s saying is that nature is more beautiful than human imitations of it. Not such a grand point. And perhaps more importantly, he’s presuming the existence of God in his definition. Should there be no God – as Ebert believes – then there is no ideal concept. Without God, concepts can only be scaled subjectively.

I think a better definition of art comes from Morris Weitz. He points out that we cannot define art, but we can define aspects of it; we can see common themes. He cites Ludwig Wittgenstein who used the same point about games. There is no one thing which defines what a game is. A board? Dice? A goal? A winner? A loser? All these things are common and if one were to list out as many properties of games as possible there would be a lot of overlap. It is that overlap which helps us to recognize and define games. Weitz argues the same for art. Of course, this eventually runs into an infinite regress, but what doesn’t? And does that really matter if the definition is ultimately subjective anyway?

Using Weitz’s definition, I think video games share a number of properties with other forms of art, the already accepted forms. From here it becomes almost required that video games be defined as art because they have just too much overlap. Story lines overlap with what authors do all the time. Drawings overlap with painters. Cut scenes not only overlap with movie scenes, they virtually are movies.

In all these attempts to define art, however, the most important has been overlooked: the eye of the beholder. Art really does come down to the individual. A distinction should be made between a “work of art” and “artwork” so as to appreciate the difference between the artist and the observer, but when the normal connotations from “What is art?” are in use, the beholder is what matters. That is, a “work of art” should be viewed from the perspective of an artist; the effort, the labor, the love, the passion, the skills, etc, they all help to define something as art. But “artwork” is the product, the final presentation. This, given the very fact that there is presentation at all, places importance on the observer. This necessarily makes the definition of art subjective.

It’s difficult to see how someone can even begin to claim video games are not art – unless there is just a genuine disinterest in playing them in the first place, of course.

*This is verbatim from a past Philosophy of Aesthetics exam of mine, incidentally.

Update: But to be more concise, let us turn to Penny Arcade.

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14 Responses

  1. Sorry Michael, I am with P.Z. and Roger on this one…

    …oh yeah…and get off my lawn, you young whippersnapper!

  2. The problem is that PZ and Ebert seem to have sort of mixed up this idea that good art is the only art and that good art isn’t subjective. And the fact of the matter is they’ve never experienced any sort of profound emotional reaction to a video game, which a lot of young people have. I mean, Ocarina of Time was, to me, a genuinely moving story. I ramble about this on my blog too. I think everyone is on the whole let’s get Ebert wagon.

  3. Planescape: Torment. The game came out in 1999, and the beautiful environments still hold up well. Really a beautiful game, especially with the mods enabling widescreen resolutions, and I still like to stop and just look around at the wonderful details.

    I’d be saying this even if I wasn’t playing the game right now. On to Ravel’s maze, right after I go get Nordom!

  4. Ashley brings up a point I forgot; I was an emotional wreck when I got to the end of P: T., which is just what the writers wanted. Consequences abound. I cared about a ghost that only makes brief appearances at the start and the end of the game.

    The whole package is the art.

  5. Finally we agree on something daring, Michael!

    The plot of Mass Effect 2 was absolutely compelling. If I find myself caring about actions of a pool of fictional characters, am I not experiencing an art form like literature or film? The creators – artists, if you will – have simply presented a rich narrative and left it up to the viewer to move within the limits they drew.

    What is is they don’t understand, is it the interactive nature? Does a movie stop being art when the viewer watches one of the “alternate endings” on the DVD extras?

  6. Wait a minute… so movies can be art, but video games can’t?

    Have these people even played a video game in the last 10 years? Seriously. Because lots of video games include cutscenes with real actors – either filmed (e.g. C&C), computer-rendered (e.g. all Vin Diesel games), or simply voice-acted and motion captured (e.g. GTA), and professional “filming” and editing.

    It makes no sense whatsoever to claim that a movie can be art, while something that is the exact same as a movie, except you can sometimes control the action, can not.

  7. My problem with Ebert’s taste isn’t that it’s always bad (though sometimes it is), it’s that the guy can’t say a bad word about an arthouse film. Even a bad arthouse film.

    Sometimes he bucks the critical tend and finds gold. I share his admiration for Solondz, for example, despite the lampooning everything but Welcome to the Dollhouse seems to have received).

    But other times he’s singing about the virtues of a horrible movie. Even acknowledging everything wrong with it, but applauding nonetheless. I can’t see any reason for it other than a predisposition towards the arthouse crowd.

  8. Oh, forgot to add, video games actually made my taste far more ruthless so far as movies go. Budgets and development time are more or less comparable now (excepting massive blockbusters, which obviously still cost far more for a movie), but the hours returned on my entertainment dollar aren’t even in the ballpark. A frustratingly short game is several times longer than even the longest movie.

  9. Rick, I’ve been making that point for a long time to the wife. Right after I decided I’d done all I wanted to at WoW, I discovered that many game developers have started sites that buy up old games, polish them up and rewire them to work on XP/Vista. GOG(Great Old Games) is one site where I’ve bought a few games, usually when they go on sale for $5.99 or so. Really, you cannot find a cheaper diversion. And I’m an imbecile hasn’t learned how to use Dosbox or other emulators, so I’m now playing a whole slew of games I’d always wanted.

    I’m sure this has been noted elsewhere, but there is another interactive facet to the gaming as art form; Modders and their incredibly diverse means of altering and/or adding to the content of the original game/engine. Many of them fit any definition of “artistic”.

  10. For the record, ‘Saw’ doesn’t even have a single sex scene. In fact, none of the ‘Saw’ movies have any sex scenes whatsoever, so you may be thinking of ‘Hostel’, which is similar to ‘Saw’, but certainly far more pornographic.

    ..Just sayin’.

  11. “Porn” didn’t refer to sexually explicit scenes here. I meant it as a show of disgusting scenes for the sake of the disgusting scenes.

  12. I’m not sure that brutality for brutality’s sake is necessarily pornographic, though it can be. A film like Ichi the Killer, for example, is intensely graphic, but not that hard to stomach if one gets the joke.

    That said, Ebert on Saw epitomizes another of my problems with his taste. He always seems to bite on exploitation. Always. For a more recent (and more “arthouse”) example, see his enthusiasm for The Stoning of Soraya M., a movie that was panned by almost every other major critic as poorly acted crap with one dimensional characters, horrible screenplay and lack of real content. That the film intended to do nothing more than show us a stoning in graphic detail is readily apparent to everyone but Ebert.

    One should expect a Pulitzer Prize winning critic to know when they’re being exploited. But Ebert always bites on shock value. If The Stoning or Saw count as art and Bioshock doesn’t, one must wonder.

  13. I think the problem with Ebert’s article (and slightly less so with PZ’s) is that, whether or not the conclusion is correct, they haven’t really given videogames the time of day and simply won’t listen to opposing points of view. But there’s another, subtler point. Whenever a new art-form is created beyond the “pure” kinds (music being the purest), it tends to lose something in purity, and thus becomes harder to consider as a proper art-form. I would argue that this is so with opera – as it’s hard to decide proportionally how important the musical and narrative elements are. The same is certainly true of film. This does not make opera and film inferior – there is no a priori reason why purer art-forms must be better.

    Now when viewed in these terms, videogames, if they are art, are an unprecedentedly new sort of art, and I I think it is at least a fair question to ask whether the interactive element helps or hinders their status as such. But perhaps the question is at present too abstract. What we need is some genius of a videogame designer to show undeniably that interactivity is simply a new dimension in art – not better or worse, just new. Although some designers have shown good signs of the *potential* of videogames, I can’t honestly say that anyone has reached that promised land just yet (I think I’d agree with Ashley that the closest so far has been Ocarina of Time).

    If you’re interested, I’ve written a more in-depth piece about this here.

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