Video Games, Art and the Opinions of Old, Rich, White, Men
By: Lawrence Napoli
Didn’t you get the memo that the opinions, machinations and tribulations of old, rich, white, men have been calling the shots for the entirety of humanity since we gained sentience? Roger Ebert, being an old, (relatively) rich, white, man clearly does and uses his considerable experience and opinions of the cinema to become one of the world’s most quotable film critics through the venue of the Chicago Sun Times. Did you know that he actually won a Pulitzer Prize for his writing in 1975? In 2006, he decided to bring his color commentary to another genre of media expression when he wrote an article concerning the lack of artistic merit inherent to video games.
Let’s just say that the Kingdom of Universal “Dorkdem” found yet another individual with whom we can label as public enemy #1. Just about every gamer with a modicum of literary prowess took to the internet and set blogs, message boards and fan sites a blaze with blood curdling bile over what has been regarded as Ebert’s ignorance of the dynamics of the contemporary video game. There were so many responses that Ebert was compelled to follow up a year later with an article that specifically counters video game enthusiast, Clive Barker and several quotes he made in response to Ebert’s original article. The new article was meant as a clarification of what Ebert “really” meant to say in that video games will never be considered as “high art.”
These types of comments really grind my gears in that they presume proficiency on the part of the writer; ergo, the mightier-than-thou tone of his writing. As much as I would take pleasure in joining my gaming brethren in their collective denouncement of Ebert’s essence, this article is not meant to demonize him any more than he has by his own hand. It is, however, meant as a friendly forward to Roger that the Smithsonian American Art Museum disagrees with him. March 16, 2012 through September 30, 2012 will feature an exhibit that explores the evolution of the genre from its very humble beginnings to where gaming’s technology stands now in addition to its influences to and from society. What makes this exhibit even more special is that the featured games have been chosen by the people. Voting recently ended on April 17th 2011 where anyone could log on and scroll through the various eras and classifications of games to choose which get included in the final cut. For more details on the exhibit check out this site.
If there is one major kicker that “the arts” have is that community support in the form of dollars is always necessary to (pardon the expression) take it to the next level of social influence and significance. Spring and summer of 2012 will present an excellent opportunity for the man caves to become vacant in order to make a pilgrimage to Washington, D.C. I’ve always found the various Smithsonian Museums to be absolutely fascinating in terms of the scope and detail of all their exhibits and I expect no less for The Art of Video Games. I will be practicing my original Super Mario speed runs because I wish to demonstrate my prowess of one of the “game-changers” in this genre of entertainment as they will be offering demos of certain games featured in the exhibit.
Despite the strides that the gaming industry has made over the years and all of the advances in the technology that has truly made current manifestations incomparable to where they came from, gaming is still regarded as childish and a general waste of time. Not too long ago, a little thing known as rock and roll was looked upon in an equally unsavory fashion by “society.” Opinions will always change with the times and I suspect that video games will eventually have their day, but I do not expect anyone over the age of 50 to ever understand the artistry of video games because of the fact that it has grown into more than what casual observers see as “zoning out” in front of a television screen. Getting lost in the screen is no more or less entrancing than getting lost in the pages of a compelling novel. Hundreds of minutes can pass like seconds just as easily as hundreds of pages can be flipped in an equally brief period of time. The reason for this is the undeniable power of the narrative and how easily humanity’s innate desire to learn, grow and become more aware of themselves and the world is satisfied by it.
The art of storytelling has never before seen such an effective and all encompassing medium than the form of the video game. It requires active participation by the viewer/player for the story to be relayed. This is a natural and logical progression from the level of interactivity that has made films the dominant artistic expression of today. Certainly, not every video game is narrative, but that’s not to say that a story or message cannot be extrapolated via interpretation. Interpretation has always been the primary form of interaction that the viewer has shared with older forms of artistic expression and it is in this passive thought process where meaning is derived and beauty is either discovered or denied. Why then would anyone deny such engagement with a video game? Only the non-player permits this because he or she disallows the base activity required to observe said art. Literature must be read, singing must be heard, painting must be seen and video games must be played.
I consider all arguments made concerning high art to be pretentious, elitist and of little concern to most people on this planet. I do not understand the value of segregating art in terms of “high” and “low.” But I can understand the concern that the true context of this classification may translate to “is” or “is not” and perhaps even “good” or “bad.” This is the reason why the gaming community was slighted by the commentary of a famous critic such as Roger Ebert. We all took his comments as some kind of invalidation of video games themselves and by extension, the entire culture of gaming. In hindsight, we all should have realized that these were merely the ravings of an old, rich, white, man who was probably vexed at observing the unresponsiveness of a grandchild who happened to be playing a video game at the time. He proceeded to pass judgment on an area of entertainment for which he has no qualification or experience and admits as much in the articles he wrote. He would have been better off by leading his article with a simple warning: “Pay no attention to the bitter, old, rich, white, man behind the curtain!”
Video games continue to expand in just about all aspects of functionality, scope, meaning, interaction and interconnectivity. These are the kind of things that all art aspires to. I’m not interested in an obtuse argument that attempts to compare the influence of Mario versus the Mona Lisa. I’m far more intrigued if video games can take further advantage of its uniquely practical method of storytelling by commenting on real world issues like the direct linkage poverty has to crime (Grand Theft Auto IV), the dangers of a privatized military, industrial complex (Metal Gear Solid) and the Pandora’s Box that results from unchecked genetic research (BioShock). Filmmaking still features this manner of exploration and expression, but Hollywood’s formula is running out of inspiring integers as evidenced by its addiction to reboots and remakes. Video games are poised to replace films as the dominant artistic expression, but it remains to be seen if artists like Dan Houser, Hideo Kojima and Ken Levine will inspire future generations of developers to make the kind of bold statements with their games that continue to be worthy of being labeled as art.