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Chapter 10: Page 06
Originally posted on:04/26/2010
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Chapter 10: Page 06

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Sounds fair...
I'm relying heavily on games for my iPod Touch to make my commute to work less tedious, but there are so many in the iTunes store that it's hard to know where to start. Can anyone recommend some good games (and some good apps while we're on the subject)? I'm already enjoying Angry Birds and Plants vs Zombies.

Meanwhile, here's a repost of something I wrote for a PC gaming forum earlier today:

"Games are not art", so says legendary film critic Roger Ebert. While Ebert's opinions on the matter have long been a matter of record, his most recent blog post, titled "Video games can never be art", tactfully illustrated with a confused and aggravated child holding a game controller, has once again caused a stir. As an artist, writer, actor, director, avid gamer and former game critic, I feel obliged to respond.

What is "Art"?
The first and perhaps the most difficult question to consider is also critical to the entire discussion - "What is art?". The difficulty is that art is a remarkably ill-defined and versatile concept, yielding sixteen different definitions at alone, none of which correspond exactly to the definitions at Wikipedia or in the Cambridge Dictionary. The most common elements when describing art appear to be the following:

The intention of the creator
The aesthetics or significance of the creation

A back alley in downtown Sydney is not, in itself, "art" - it merely exists. However when a photographer takes a photo of the alley, or a painter recreates it on a canvas, their creation becomes an artistic expression of something not inherently artistic. I call this process "framing", where the intention of the artist to make some "art" thereby qualifies it as art. It may not be good art, but it is, in fact , art.

Here then is one key area in which I differ from Ebert. Not only does Ebert argue that games are not art, he also goes on to say that most movies are not art either. This seems to rely on a very different interpretation of art, one which implies fundamental worth. Ebert seems to think that calling something "art" is to bestow it with praise, as if "arthood" is an honour which must be earned. On the contrary, I believe "Art" is simply a label, a statement of fact. When someone paints a canvas completely black and then hangs it on a wall, he bestows on that canvas the status of being "art". Some might call it "bad art", but that doesn't mean it isn't art at all.

What are "games"?
Ebert's definition of "games" also seems narrow and unhelpful. He quotes Wikipedia, saying "Games are distinct from ... art, which is more concerned with the expression of ideas", but ignores the very next sentence in that article which goes on to say "the distinction is not clear-cut, and many games are also considered to be ... art". He goes on to say that "One obvious difference between art and games is that you can win a game." arguing that a game without a clear objective "ceases to be a game and becomes a representation of a story, a novel, a play, dance, a film. Those are things you cannot win; you can only experience them."

Now while this definition may be appropriate for a game composed almost entirely of play, such as soccer or poker or even Tetris, it fails to take into account a vast array of products which are marketed as "video games" and yet which offers experiences comparable to watching a movie or reading a book. This is where the term "game" can become something of a distraction and we find ourselves gravitating towards a somewhat pretentions but also increasingly necessary term: "Interactive Entertainment".

Many video games feature elaborate cutscenes during which the player watches scripted action, sometimes rendered using the in-game engine but sometimes pre-recorded. In the best examples of the medium, these cutscenes can be just as engaging as any film. Many games allow the player to influence the course of these cutscenes, perhaps through "quick time events" (by which the player presses a key/button at the appropriate moment to have a character perform a particular action" or through choosing which line of dialogue the central character says next.

Mass Effect 2 is a perfect example of a balanced mix of scripted experience and player interaction, as conversations play out like dialogue in a film - complete with changing camera angles - but every line of dialogue from Commander Shephard, the central character, is selected by the player, sometimes leading to radically different outcomes. These conversations have been written by screenwriters, voiced by actors, and the game artists have built, animate, lit and shot the action in a process reminiscent of a live-action director and cinematographer, and very similar to that used in animated feature films like Wall-e.

The Interactivity Issue
Now Ebert may argue that there is still one obstacle to the conversations in Mass Effect 2 being considered art: their interactivity. They are still something to be won, rather than simply experienced.

However, perhaps Ebert's specialisation in the medium of film has blinkered his understanding of art. Film is, for the most part, a static experience. Every time you see a movie, it remains the same (with the exception of director's cuts, special editions, alternate endings and the difference between watching a movie in a crowded cinema and watching it in bed on an iPod). But there are other forms of artistic expression which do change.

As an actor, director and playwrite, I have been involved in stage shows which have varied from one performance to another. One show had two different sets of principle casts who played on alternate nights, meaning audiences would have a different experience depending on which night they went to see the show. It's quite common for Live Theatre to also change depending on the nature of the audience - one performance may feel very different to another simply because the audience were noisier, or smaller, or more appreciative. Many shows actively encourage audience participation, and some even let the audience determine the course of the play.

If Ebert wants to declare interactivity as an obstacle to art then he must rule out live theatre as well as games, but in doing so it looks more and more likely that his definition of Art is turning into 'Stuff I like".

The Trouble With Ebert
And here we hit the real crux of the argument: Roger Ebert doesn't play games. His experience of them has been through watching videos of gameplay footage, which misses the point entirely. Games are interactive in nature, they are not designed to be enjoyed in the same way that a film is enjoyed. Roger Ebert commenting on games is about as helpful as a blind person critiquing a film. Sure, they may be able to offer insights into some aspects of the production, but they have not truly experienced it as it was meant to be experienced.

Finally, Ebert asks "Why are gamers so intensely concerned, anyway, that games be defined as art?... do they want to be able to look up from the screen and explain, "I'm studying a great form of art?" Then let them say it, if it makes them happy."

Roger, let me explain why we care when you say that games aren't art:

1. Lots of people listen to you.
2. You're wrong.

It's as simple as that.

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