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I am much more excited about the unauthorized Oprah biography by Kitty Kelley (she of the unauthorized Bush family biography) than I am about Yann Martel’s anticipated follow-up to Life of Pi. This perhaps makes me a poor candidate to make a sophisticated contribution to the argument about video games as art. But here goes.

Blogs. Thanks to the rise of this medium, teenage drama can burst forth from previously confined walls, stay-at-home moms can make millions of dollars, and print reporters have the freedom to wander from the scope of their bylines. Hence, we get Roger Ebert mulling video games, a topic he has apparently addressed once before but has now found reason to resurrect the matter for a blog post.

I love Mr. Ebert. Having grown up with At the Movies, not only have I enjoyed his reviews (whether or not I agreed with them), but over time, I have learned more about him, not simply as the critic, but as the man. He’s actually quite down-to-earth — a homeboy, to speak in my generation. He’s drawn to powerful women: he once dated Oprah, and he eventually married an attorney. And the only Star Trek movie he has ever seemed to like is First Contact, though I enjoyed the sour looks — short of giggling, rather than snickering, such is the homeboy that he is — he would give the late Gene Siskel (who struck me as a Trekkie closeted in the shroud of a film critic). When Mr. Ebert fell ill, I rooted for his survival. Remember the penultimate episode of The Golden Girls? It was a two-parter that found Rose imagining what it would be like if they all got cryogenically frozen and then woke up 100 years later. Can Mr. Ebert join them?

So, I love Mr. Ebert, but I get antsy at the thought of debating the artistic merit of video games. Full disclosure: until recently, I, myself, have hesitated to apply the ‘A’ word to the medium — and perhaps video games should be classified as a medium rather than an art. Newspapers, for example, are not art. But often, the writing contained in them is art, and the newspaper is the medium on which the writing is transmitted. Really, we can spend all day getting deep into semantics: love can be expressed through sex, but sex isn’t love. Sex is pleasure. Love is devotion. And on, and on…

As the Mr. Ebert’s post continues, Kellee Santiago’s points of reference are worrisome: for example, a video game called Waco Resurrection.

Yes, that Waco.

By the end of Mr. Ebert’s post, the conclusions are foregone. Santiago is a video game producer and designer, after all, so you can’t expect her to argue against her industry. Another conclusion that Ebert ponders is that of validation. He asks: “Why are gamers so intensely concerned, anyway, that games be defined as art?” In asking that question, he has addressed an immemorial enormity. Art is the enduring conflict of self-expression made empathetic.

My circle of friends is dominated by video gamers. My own interest in the medium waned dramatically after middle school, and now all that’s left is a lingering (if passionate) devotion to Nintendo’s DS Lite. But I’ve never felt compelled to turn up my nose at video games or my video game friends. In fact, sometimes I play the games with them. The games are fun, and sometimes they can even be mentally stimulating. Are they art?

I don’t know.

Recently, I attended (of my own volition, separate from my duties here at DB) an art showing entitled “Into the Pixel”. (Click here for my pictures on my personal writing site.) Held concurrently with the annual Game Developers Conference, “Into the Pixel” is described as this: The world’s only juried art exhibition that brings together experts from the traditional fine art world with interactive entertainment industry veterans to explore the art of the video game. There was certainly some good art at the showing, but “Into the Pixel” doesn’t resolve the argument. There were no actual video games, just details of individual video games. The details themselves might be considered art, but the jury is still out on the video game.

If we are to agree with Plato’s definition of art, then the video game is uniformly disqualified because it exists to exaggerate — seriously, how many of us have spent our natural lives carjacking through a sprawling urban metropolis ala Grand Theft Auto? So is the audience touched by video games? I don’t know how well McKee’s definition would apply here, since video gamers aren’t so much “touched” as they are assimilated. In a video game, you are suddenly in another world, and you must adapt to the mechanics of that world.  But are you stirred into emotion and expression? Are you motivated to examine deeper meanings and uncover new truths? No, you just want to play and have a good time. There’s nothing wrong with that.

The trouble with the video game as art argument is that it is hierarchal. Certainly, like any other artist, the video gamer has a need for validation. But for this setup, the video gamer must exist at the bottom rung of some artistic ladder, and someone like Mr. Ebert is perched the top. Ultimately, this is all a pissing contest — yes, that was a bit ineloquent, just like my cheeky subject title in response to Mr. Ebert’s post.

Perhaps it’s better for the video game to merit its own classification and separately exist from art. If it was to join the ranks of the novel and the sculpture, then it would be subject to the scrutinies of establishment — good art, bad art. McCarthy versus Sparks, as Mr. Ebert notes. (For the record, I loved The Road. Yet also liked Dear John — though that probably will be the first and last Sparks novel I ever read.) Maybe the video game doesn’t want, or shouldn’t want, to be part of all that. It should be own its entity: an explosive new hybrid of art and medium. But if we’re going to play with hierarchies, with good art and bad art, then let me make a personal play by expressing my disbelief at some of the doozies that have made it into Drunken Boat

One more thing before I go back to my Kitty Kelley. Mr. Ebert is probably right about baseball. It is not an art. Baseball is a religion.

Thank you. Have a nice day.

By Joe Ramelo, Social Media Assistant.

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Published Apr 19, 2010 - Comments Off

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