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Day Five of the GDC, Part Two: An Apology for Roger Ebert

Professor Brian Moriarty‘s talk was not, he explained, an apology in the sense of an expression of regret, but rather in the sense of a defense. Many months ago, film critic and author Roger Ebert sparked a firestorm of controversy when he commented in a blog post that he was not, and would never be, interested in playing video games. The debate reached its peak when, in a follow-up post, Ebert (rather rashly) claimed that “video games can never be art”. Needless to say, many in the gaming community were incensed at this claim. Ebert’s comment produced such an explosion of criticism, in fact, that he ultimately retracted his position and said he wished he’d never brought it up. Though he still says he will never play a video game himself, he no longer maintains that they can never be art.

So what’s to defend? Moriarty’s defense is not of this retracted claim, but of one made in support of it: the fact that no one has been able to cite a single game “worthy of comparison” to the great works of composers, filmmakers, novelists, and painters. And it’s true–I’ve played and loved games most of my life, and even I have trouble thinking of such a game. Why is this? Why have games failed to produce what Moriarty refers to as “sublime art”? There are several reasons, he thinks, but there is one excuse we cannot use, and that is the excuse that games are a new art form. Games, in fact, have been around for millennia; they are almost certainly older than all other art forms, and quite probably older than language itself–even rats play games. Computers are new; games are very, very old. What’s more, the idea of great art is actually relatively recent–art used to be considered on purely practical terms. Now that the concept has become part of our culture, however, we need to distinguish it somehow from so-called “low” art. Moriarty uses the term “kitsch” to describe this kind of art. What distinguishes kitsch, he says, is that it is unambiguous, conventional, and never challenging. With kitsch, you are never in any doubt as to what you’re supposed to feel. Kitsch is all surface, “pop” art. Unfortunately, he argues, kitsch is so pervasive in our culture that an enormous number of people never experience any other kind! Why is this? Simply put, it’s because “entertainment”, and games in particular, are an industry. Industries are profit-driven and hence risk-averse. Kitsch, for these companies, is a risk reduction strategy. Kitsch, unlike sublime art, is durable–blockbuster films like Avatar won’t suffer if the dialogue is awkward in a scene or two, but painstaking attention to detail is crucial for sublime art. Even independent game developers, who unlike public companies are not legally obligated to make a profit, are ultimately subject to the same commercial pressures. They have slightly more room for innovation and experimentation, but in the end, if no one buys their games they will go out of business and have to do something else. Hence, most games tend to be shallow and escapist. “True art”, Moriarty points out, “is not an escape from life, it’s a way to deal with life as it is”.

All that said, is there reason to think that games might someday become an art form? Moriarty isn’t so sure. As a Romantic, he cites Schopenhauer’s art theory and contrasts it with games. Schopenhauer claimed that misery, pain and struggle are born from the “will to live” that drives all living things, and that the only way to escape this misery is by subverting the will through the contemplation of sublime art. Games, however, are about choices, and choice is a fundamental expression of will–how can will be used to transcend will? Art, Moriarty says, has no goal, no purpose, no winning condition. Games, in his opinion, are anathema to sublime art, which he elegantly describes as “the still evocation of the inexpressible”.

What do I think of all this? On the whole, I agree with Moriarty; I think he makes excellent points. However, I think it is a mistake to assume that games must fundamentally be about an exercise of will on the part of the player. Many of the best, most expressive games actually put severe and deliberate restrictions on the player’s choices: games like Silent Hill 2 and Shadow of the Colossus move us because we feel complicit, not because we feel powerful or free. Moreover, games do not necessarily need to have a goal, a purpose, or a winning condition. It is possible, I think, to create games that are beautiful strictly for their own sake. Industry, of course, is always a difficult barrier to overcome–and as Moriarty points out, even those who set out to make art games entirely in disregard of industry run the risk of making “arty” games instead, which are simply traditional games disguised with quirky graphics and pretentious narratives. However, I think the bigger issue is one he didn’t address at all–the fact that we are still unsure what games really are.


If I had to sum up the most important takeaway from this entire conference in one sentence, it would be this: what are video games? Nearly every speaker I heard that addressed the topic of artistic expression in games touched on this point, directly or indirectly, at some point during their talk. Not only is it an open question, most developers don’t even seem to be aware that there’s a problem–Frank Lantz, in his talk on day three, was the only developer I saw speak who addressed the question directly, and he only touched on it. Does a game need goals? Competition? Rules? Interaction? All of the above? None of the above? This confusion makes trying to be expressive in games very difficult, because you have no pre-established conventions upon which you can rely; you have no idea what works or why, so you basically have to shoot in the dark and hope you hit something. The issue is further confused by the fact that video games may not necessarily be games–for instance, traditional games are abstract, defined by their rules alone, whereas video games are aesthetically rich, and their rules tend to be implicit. As far as I’m concerned, the question of what games are is the most important in the field. If we can answer that question, then the question of how to use games as a tool for creative expression will be almost easy.



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