Tom Bissell, in a Salon interview promoting his new book “Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter“, continues to make the case for video games as art. The whole interview is worth reading, but here are some choice tidbits:
Around 2006, 2007, a handful of games started coming out that, as someone who played games but didn’t think of them as like a viable artistic medium, made me think, “Wow things have gotten extremely compelling formally.” I mostly associated video game storytelling with unforgivable clumsiness, irredeemable incompetence, and suddenly I was finding the aesthetic and formal concerns I’d always associated with fiction: storytelling, form, the medium, character. That kind of shocked me.
Games that changed the paradigm, at least for me, were “Portal,” “Grand Theft Auto: Vice City,” and “BioShock.” All took their storytelling seriously in different ways, and brought to the table a relatively unusual level of sophistication when it came to video-game storytelling. They simply didn’t seem unnecessarily dumb in the way a lot of video-game storytelling games feel dumb.
Roger Ebert has famously argued (and recently restated in a blog post) that video games should not be considered art. What do you say to that?
I really admire Roger Ebert a lot, but on this issue he’s just wrong. I think he even kind of knows he’s wrong, and he’s kind of Custer in a battle that he knows he’s outnumbered on, but he’s actually asking the wrong question. The question is not, “Are video games art?” The question is, “Can artists express themselves through the video-game medium?” …
He’s kind of right in the sense that this isn’t going to stand up against impressionist painting, but it’s not supposed to. …
…It’d be like giving sex advice after having watched “Debbie Does Dallas,” but never having fucked anyone.
Interestingly, perhaps because neither of two are from an arts background, the point of “interactive art” was never mentioned in the interview. Perhaps Roger Ebert is unaware of the “interactive art” movement, and his ignorance of this type of artistic impression (despite beginning in the 20’s, catching steam in the 60’s, and exploding in the late 90’s) is what keeps Ebert from understanding video games as art (that, and the fact that he doesn’t play any video games).
Interactive art is defined as a form of art that requires the viewers to participate in some way. Without the viewers participation or input, the art piece would not function, and therefore not be. The art would be reduced to a monitor, sensors, plastic, metal, wood, what have you – plain ol’ inanimate objects with no artistic merit. Now consider video games. Without the video game player, directing the characters, unlocking story arcs, making choices, providing input, the video game would cease to be a work of art, and just be code, or plastic and metal – plain ol’ inanimate objects.
We already consider films as art, so why when video games combine the visual medium of film with interactivity, are they not considered art? Sure, not every game is a work of art, just like how not every movie (Transformers?) is a work of art. The art community already considers art that isn’t displayed in galleries or museums ( see the “street art” movement) as “high art”, so why can’t we make the obvious leap to video games?