Jimmyen. (jimmyen) wrote,

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Ebert vs. Buchan and everyone else

Google Reader delivered unto me today's Penny Arcade which alerted me to this and to the controversy resulting.  Having taken a break from studying the common law of property to watch the talk, read Ebert's response, and the response to Ebert's response, I find the reaction at Penny Arcade to be rather perplexing (if not necessarily surprising).  I find this amusing enough that I am putting my entire future on hold to write an Internet blogpost about it instead of studying for Friday's criminal law exam.

The first thing to note is that the thought experiment propounded in the comic (presumably as irrefutable a priori proof of the art-dom of video games), is hopelessly flawed.  We call artists artists because what they strive to produce is art.  The actual production of art does not necessarily follow from one's status as an artist (e.g. what does the artist produce when he is working his call center day job?).  Furthermore it is a logically unacceptable assumption for the purposes of this debate that all video game creators are artists (I doubt very much that even the majority think of themselves as such).  And finally, even if we accept this premise, a hundred artists working for any amount of time might individually produce works of art, but this is by no means a guarantee that the cumulative result of those works is any sort of single work of art.  In many if not most cases (and the video game industry is surely littered with such examples) all it creates is a mess no one wants to deal with.

In the newspost, Tycho asserts that the problem with Ebert's position is that it is presented "1. in bad faith, 2. in an internally contradictory way, 3. with nebulously defined terms" which suggests to me that he (and, consequently, his millions of readers) have likely missed the point entirely.

As regards internal contradictions, I am really not sure what they're referring to with respect to Ebert's article.  Tycho provides little to guide me on what he might mean, since the official Penny Arcade position seems to be that the entire debacle is so ridiculous it is not worth discussing at all.  Yet they have devoted not only a comic but two newsposts to the subject.  My experience of Penny Arcade is that most comics receive only half a newspost by way of exposition even in the most topical of cases.  Without even being aware of what criticism it is he's attempting to level, I am thus forced to wonder what possessed Tycho to first take up residence in a glass house and then throw a stone.

Similarly I am not sure what can be meant by the claim that Ebert's argument is presented in bad faith.  The only sensible interpretation I can make of this criticism is that what they mean is that Ebert is a philistine (which betrays the illogic behind their position by starting with the assumption that video games are art); he does not play games and so is obviously too uninformed as to pronounce definitely on whether or not they are art.  But, while Ebert's discussion of the games referred to in the original talk clearly demonstrates his ignorance of the subject matter, his criticism is not specifically that "they don't seem like art."  It is instead an assertion that, as art, these games are terrible:  i.e. Waco Resurrection fails even as a representation of our cultural perception of the events which took place; rather than an examination of our relationship with the past, the "message" in the gameplay of Braid is that to achieve our objectives we have to correct our mistakes instead of live with them.  Ebert's criticism of Flower is in many ways the most telling and the key to why he has the right of the situation (as usual), but I will return to that at the end.  For now we only need note that categorical pronouncements do not require intimate familiarity with the subject matter in question; one only need only discover the essential qualities, and this can be done in other ways.  Below the cut you'll see me do it analytically.

On the topic of internal incoherence I might note here, as well, that while Ebert is at all times deferential to Ms. Santiago and her position, the range of responses, both from Penny Arcade and Santiago, starts rolling downhill from "You just don't get it, because you're so old and out of touch."

Finally, regarding definitions, the substance of most of the replies I've seen is that Ebert spends a great deal of time talking about different semantic approaches to determining what art is and is not, but ultimately adds nothing to the discussion.  This is the kind of mistake I consider typical of consumer culture, and it is somehow unsurprising that the youth-in-revolt in this situation have failed to realize that sometimes the value in going down the garden path is in discovering that it leads nowhere.  The word "art" has eluded precise definition throughout history, and if you think you can settle the debate simply by picking a definition which is broad enough to encompass your preferred definition of "game" (a word which has also eluded precise definition), then you've missed the point of the exercise entirely.  Ebert's thesis (or my interpretation of it) is not that art has a specific definition and that video games do not fall within it, it's that if you reflect appropriately on the subject you'll discover that the concept of "art" and "game" are mutually exclusive.

Ultimately, the reason only Ebert can be seen as the winner here is that he is the only one with nothing to prove.  Denying that video games are art carries no evidential burden--or, at least, inasmuch as it does it's much easier to meet by pointing out all the dissimilarities between what we usually call art and what we usually call video games.  Proving positively that video games are art requires an expansive interpretation of what art is which is nonetheless sufficiently nuanced to exclude things which we all agree are not art like chess and poker and basketball and et cetera.  A single counter-example topples the entire house of cards.

As regards the future and "leaving our mark"?  The youth-in-revolt have this advantage:  the old guard eventually dies.  If you call video games art for long enough, society will adapt and it will become one of those little inconsistencies no one really cares about but that we make a big deal out of in philosophy textbooks.  I just don't see what is to be gained by the effort.  A canvas of the history of professional sports or politics will show you that "leaving a mark" is by no means the exclusive province of artists.


My own reasons for denying the status of art to any game has to do with the concept of objectives.  This is an argument I think implicit to Ebert's discussion of Flower in his article where he asks whether the game is scored or whether or not it knows what the ideal balance between rural and urban is.  This was taken as evidence by Santiago, in her response, that Ebert is unqualified to pass judgment.  She quips that she will gladly send him a copy of the game (and a PS3 to play it on, to boot) so that he can answer these questions for himself.  But the point of asking those questions was not curiosity or even a critique on Santiago's presentation (or at least not totally); they reveal the border between a game and a work of art.

Games have objectives.  When you play a game you are trying to achieve something, which has been objectively defined as the goal.  The "objective" of a work of art is to communicate an idea, or perhaps more specifically to get you to consider an idea.  "To make you think."  Perhaps to draw a line on an issue and get you to pick a side.  (You get the idea.  I don't purpose to exhaustively define either term, given what I've already said above.)

The reason it matters whether Flower gives you a score, or delivers unto you the ideal balance between rural and urban, is because that means when you play the game you are trying to accomplish an objective.  If it is a sandbox style game, you could ignore the objective and pursue your own idea of the ideal balance, but the point here is this:  Could you then be properly said to be playing the game?  Wouldn't it be more accurate to say that you are instead creating your own work of art, using the game as a medium?

I don't deny that achieving an objective could cause you reflection on whether or not you agree on, say, it's worthiness, or its placement, or etc., but this is external to my considerations because once you achieve the objective you have finished playing the game.  This is essentially the thrust of my thesis, and what I think lies underneath Ebert's views:  Playing games involves achieving external objectives; experiencing art involves evaluating internal impressions.  You can't straddle the border--you're either dealing with one or the other.

My key assumption here is that, as a human being, you can't actively pursue an external goal while simultaneously considering its meaning to you internally--except in the most trivial sense that you can continue to walk in one direction and think at the same time.  i.e. as soon as you start to reflect on the worthiness of a pursuit, you have necessarily stopped pursuing.  If this is true, the best that can be said of video games as art is the confusing statement that they might be both, but can never be both at once.  (Personally, I reject this on the ground that generally the only alternative to pursuing a game's objective if you decide you don't like it is to stop playing it and resell it at EB, never to think about it again.  Mileage may vary.)

Prove me wrong, Internet.


If you don't buy any of the above (as we say in law school, "in the alternative"), I would argue that if video games are art, they are, at best, an incomplete form of it.  This argument is simpler:  If a game made you feel something besides "fun" or "I enjoyed this", no one would play it.  If we are to accept the metrics provided by Ms. Santiago and Penny Arcade as definitive, the only way that we can really say that video games are "good art" is by how well they sell.  But traditional art ("old-media") is not so limited in the impressions it produces in its audiences.  Old-media has been known to do nothing but, for instance, sicken and horrify its audience, and to do so intentionally.  Why would anyone play such a video game?  Who would make it, and what sort of business model is that?

This argument is perhaps more commonly expressed as "art for art's sake," whereas the production of video games is generally a for-profit exercise only.  To the extent that indie developers make games on no budget and without regard to their potential for profit, I submit:  (a) that they don't believe they are creating art; (b) their goal is still to create a gameplay experience which is comparably fun to the larger commercial enterprises.


In other news, when not brushing up on the parol evidence rule I have been looking at pictures on this Japanese cat-blog, and I would like to categorically pronounce that those cats are adorable.
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