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Blog posts

The Unnatural Habitat of Science Writer John Rennie

Halo is in the Eye of the Beholder

John Rennie

Sure, not that anyone asked, but I'm happy to be the last person in the digiverse to voice an opinion on something that every sentient lifeform in the galaxy with a joystick and a keyboard has already exhausted: what's all this, then, about Roger Ebert saying video games can't be art?

After all, my perspective on this burning controversy is strikingly important because, in addition to having awful taste in art (beautiful! moving! inspiring!), I have played video games less than almost anyone in my generation who isn't Amish. Fact! Having learned as a young man that I lacked the hand-eye coordination to master the intricacies of Pac-Man and Pong, I decided to sit out a couple of decades worth of arcade action. And because I've mostly owned Macs since the early 1990s, my handiest hardware was outside the gaming mainstream. And because I'm fairly sure gaming consoles crawl around your home at night and suck the dreams out of your sleeping brain, I don't have one of those, either. I am an enormous amount of fun to be around.

Anyway, as someone too ignorant about the state of games to discuss their artistic achievements or lack thereof, I am sorry that the eternally awesome Ebert decided to ignite this particular conversation in these terms. Arguments about whether XXX is or isn't Art inevitably turn into wrestling matches over definitions of art or "good" art vs. "bad." The problem with those definitions isn't that they hinge on subjective judgments. It's that they almost always invest the definition in the artistic object itself. The value of art (whatever it is) emerges from the intentions of the artist and the audience's responses to the artwork, and how those two correspond. Hissing over whether something is really art or whether it's simply good or bad is uninformative. By far, the more interesting approach is to skip the labeling and to concentrate instead on how the artwork does or doesn't achieve certain ends.

For example, to say that Thomas Kinkade is not an artist is meaningless except as shorthand to others who share your tastes. By any reasonable, impartial definition, Kinkade is an artist. But he's also a stylistically bland, kitschy sentimentalist whose choice of landscape subjects is all text and no subtext; his landscapes always look like they are waiting to be peopled by a van full of sad clowns and teens from a Christian youth ministry.

You may feel differently (and of course, if you do, you are dead wrong). Yet a disagreement on those terms is far more enlightening about what we each think than any is-it-or-ain't-it-art spat.

Ebert speaks his mind on why he thinks video games fail as art, so he is at least going far past the simple name-calling. I have no idea of whether he's right in his evaluation of video games to date. On the face of it, though, I can't help but think that writing off the potential reach of an entire medium's artistic achievement for the foreseeable future is rash. A big part of his argument seems to be that the interactivity and gameplay aspects of video games compromise their ability to function as art, but I don't see a really convincing argument of why that should be the case based on principles, just examples of failed games. I'd hate to bet against what games might do down the line. But on the other hand, Ebert might well be entirely right in his dispassionate assessment of how games stand to date.

Then again, maybe that's a judgment that ought to come from somebody who ever played Donkey Kong.