Video games have been around for about three-and-a-half decades now (if you count The Magnavox Odyssey, which became commercially available in 1972), long enough to become more or less defined solely as an insidious social menace—right up there (or is it down?) with comic books and Elvis’ shaking hips.
But while fanatics like Jack Thompson (and Hilary Clinton, who really should know better and save her energy to save her desperate party) are campaigning to make sure no American child shall drive the virtual streets of Liberty City without a seatbelt, or plasma-blast a Covenant soldier without feeling remorse for their own intolerance of other cultures, and our soccer fields, hockey arenas, and baseball diamonds are reportedly barren as kids take up their Wii sticks in their trans-fat encrusted fingers (well, everywhere but Toronto, where there are reportedly still waiting lists to get into amateur sports leagues), yet another attack is raging, this one from the PBS tote bag circuit: can video games be considered art?
The only rational answer is “yes”, of course, because anything created by an artist or team of artists can be defined as such (ask Dali and his limp clocks, ask Herriman and his Krazy Kat, ask Duchamp and his monogrammed urinal). Behold the production design of “Gears Of War” (Goya meets Giger), marvel at the nuanced, multi-narrative threads of “GTA: San Andreas” that seem random but build to a satisfying conclusion. “God Of War 2” is a kick-ass way to learn some remarkably dense Greek mythology while slugging it out in some of the most painterly and immersive simulated environments ever realized. But what we’re really talking “High Ahhht” here. To which I will quote Al Pacino in Carlito’s Way: “Here come da pain!”
Amazingly, the most heated debate over the subject is currently raging between author/artist/filmmaker Clive Barker (yes, the Hellraiser guy), and critic Roger “Thumbs Up” Ebert of all people. The supremely-talented Barker (I admit it, I’ve been a fan since 1985’s ‘The Damnation Game” and have had the pleasure of meeting him in person several times) has been developing some interactive game properties of his own creation ("Jericho" is due for the Xbox 360 and PS3 later this month), and took exception to Ebert’s published remarks that video games aren’t-and-never-will-be “art”.
And just what qualifies Ebert to evaluate the aesthetic credibility of the results of all those little ones and zeroes? By his own admission: absolutely nothing.
For a man who expounds the joys of a medium that was once (and in some circles, still is) considered a lesser art form, he’s extremely short-sighted. When Barker accused Ebert’s woefully uniformed view as “prejudiced”, Ebert wore it like a badge of pride:
The word “prejudiced” often translates as “disagrees with me.” I might suggest that gamers have a prejudiced view of their medium, and particularly what it can be. Games may not be Shakespeare quite yet, but I have the prejudice that they never will be, and some gamers are prejudiced that they will.
I never considered anyone who argues in favour of the merits of expanding one’s tolerances (which Barker is trying to do) as prejudiced, but I’ll remember that, Rog, when you suggest I waste any more hours of my life on the dated, New Wave stunts of Jean-Luc Godard, whose validity as an artist today is purely due to the nostalgic longings of people who never got over their first screening of The Conformist (which was a Bertolluci film, of course). When Barker praises the range of experiences and the potential for interactivity that (so far) only the videogame can provide--
We should be stretching the imaginations of our players and ourselves. Let’s invent a world where the player gets to go through every emotional journey available. That is art. Offering that to people is art.
--Ebert grips his vintage leather-bound Dickens volumes and sniffs:
If you can go through “every emotional journey available,” doesn’t that devalue each and every one of them? Art seeks to lead you to an inevitable conclusion, not a smorgasbord of choices. If next time, I have Romeo and Juliet go through the story naked and standing on their hands, would that be way cool, or what?
Ah, so Ebert hath decreed that Art should lead the viewer/reader/listener to only a single conclusion. Hmm—I’m pretty sure that once upon a time, it was firmly held by the intelligentsia of the time that art could never be anything but representational, and concerned only with religious iconography. But what do I know? He even closes with a tiresome Pauline Kael quote, which you can read here, because I can’t be bothered recounting it. It was parodied, once, on SCTV, during the Dr. Tongue remake of Midnight Cowboy.
Barker shot back (perhaps a bit inelegantly) calling Ebert “a pompous, arrogant old man” (I think Clive was too kind). But one has to admire his progressive vision and glee in partaking in a genuinely unique and innovative creative enterprise, something Ebert would know little about.
I think Ebert is one of the better film reviewers working today—he seems to enjoy a greater variety of movies than most of his insulated brethren and they don’t hand out Pulitzer Prizes for nothing—but this is the same man who once dismissed Night Of The Living Dead (to his credit, he later recanted) and did much damage to the reputation of the already-maligned horror genre when he and the late Gene Siskel turned their weekly series (PBS, of course) in early 1980s in a hysterical (and one-sided) anti-slasher rally (going so far as to urge moviegoers to boycott Paramount releases because they distributed the Friday The 13th series).
I don’t really care if sticks-in-the-mud like Ebert dig video games or not (admittedly, I’m only a casual player, but I would definitely define the best of them as art, just as I would with painting, film, music, theatre), but I’m just more than a little tired of these cranky aging Boomers who worship at the altar of Altman and who think that artistic progress stopped when the clock struck midnight on January 1st, 1980.
Ebert would do well to keep on partying like it’s 1974 and leave the rest of us--obsessive, yes, juvenile, perhaps—alone to partake in the invention of a bonafide new art form, which is likely only in its birthing stages. He should remember people once saw The Jazz Singer as just a “talkie”—a passing fad. I’d like to think we ain’t heard, or seen, or experienced, nothin’ yet.
©2007 Robert J. Lewis