Roger Ebert once famously declared that “video games can never be art.” It’s not a very useful position, except as a way of starting out discussions of video games and art. After all, “art” is a pretty malleable category. Is Caleb Larsen’s “Tool to Deceive and Slaughter” art? It’s really just a computer program in a black acrylic box.
Caleb Larsen, “A Tool to Deceive and Slaughter,” 2012
On the other hand, the program is pretty cool, maybe even insightful: its only function is to sell itself on eBay.
So why couldn’t video game software be art? Cory Archangel hacked a Nintendo cartridge to make “Super Mario Clouds,” and that’s at the Whitney. So we know that video games can become art.
Cory Archangel, “Super Mario Clouds,” 2002
But that isn’t what Ebert was talking about. His point about computer games has nothing to do with the artistry of their presentation, but rather with their use and function.
One obvious difference between art and games is that you can win a game. It has rules, points, objectives, and an outcome. [One] might cite a immersive game without points or rules, but I would say then it ceases to be a game and becomes a representation of a story, a novel, a play, dance, a film. Those are things you cannot win; you can only experience them.
This is an interesting point. It reminds me of Bertolt Brecht’s 1926 essay “More Good Sport”:
There seems to be nothing to stop the theatre having its own form of ‘sport’. If only someone could take those buildings designed for theatrical purposes … and treat them as more or less empty spaces for the successful pursuit of ‘sport’, then they would be used in a way that might mean something to a contemporary public that earns real contemporary money and eats real contemporary beef.
(Brecht on Theatre: The Development of an Aesthetic, trans. John Willett, 1964. 6-7)
So Brecht’s beef with Ebert would be that, in his opinion, art (in this case theater) should have rules, objectives, and an outcome. Brecht isn’t advocating here for competitive improv or the like: he’s working toward the idea of “epic theater,” which he contrasts with what he calls the “culinary” mode of spectatorship:
Our existing opera is a culinary opera. It was a means of pleasure long before it turned into merchandise. It furthers pleasure even where it requires, or promotes, a certain degree of education, for the education in question is an education of taste. To every object it adopts a hedonistic approach. It ‘experiences’, and it ranks as an ‘experience’. (BoT 35)
For Brecht, “experience” is a bad thing. Whereas for Ebert, it’s integral to the definition of art.
What’s at stake here is the question of identification: the ability of audience members to project themselves into the action on stage or on screen. Ebert describes this effect in terms of “empathy”—something, he says, video games can’t achieve.
For most gamers, video games represent a loss of those precious hours we have available to make ourselves more cultured, civilized and empathetic.
Whereas for Brecht, empathy is precisely the wrong way to interact with an artwork. Brecht’s famous run-down of the differences between dramatic theater and epic theater allows for a side-by-side comparison of the modes of viewing assumed by Ebert (at least in the statements above), and those desired by Brecht.
Dramatic Theatre (Ebert)
Epic Theatre (Brecht)
|Implicates the spectator in a stage situation||Turns the spectator into an observer but|
|Wears down his capacity for action||arouses his capacity for action|
|Provides him with sensations||Forces him to take decisions|
|Experience||Picture of the world|
|The spectator is involved in something||He is made to face something|
|Instinctive feelings are preserved||Brought to the point of recognition|
|The spectator is in the thick of it, shares the experience||The spectator stands outside, studies|
|The human being is taken for granted||The human being is the object of inquiry|
|He is unalterable||He is alterable and able to alter|
|Eyes on the finish||Eyes on the course|
|One scene makes another||Each scene for itself|
|Linear development||In curves|
|Man as a fixed point||Man as a process|
|Thought determines being||Social being determines thought|
Interestingly, the Brechtian side reads like a description of a video game: the gamer is “forced to make decisions,” and “made to face something.” Within the game, s/he explores an alterable “picture of the world,” rather than having a premade “experience.” The gameplay proceeds in “curves” and “jumps,” rather than according to a linear logic.
Does this mean, then, that video games are “Brechtian”? Well, maybe some are. But it’s hard to imagine Brecht getting behind most of the industry’s blockbusters. His works were intended to “change society” and “attack the roots” (BoT 41). Hardly the marching orders of Halo, Madden and Call of Duty.
In Brecht’s terms, video games belong less to the category of “epic theatre” than to that of the Gesamtkunstwerk, the “total work of art.” Where Brecht’s epic form envisions a radical “separation of the elements” of music, text, and performance, the Wagnerian Gesamtkunstwerk wants to combine multiple forms of art into a seamless whole.
So long as the expression “Gesamtkunstwerk” (or “integrated work of art”) means that the integration is a muddle, so long as the arts are supposed to be “fused” together, the various elements will all be equally degraded, and each will act as a mere “feed” to the rest. The process of fusion extends to the spectator, who gets thrown into the melting pot too and becomes a passive (suffering) part of the total work of art. (BoT 37)
Which accounts for the immersive quality of video games, but doesn’t yet explain why they don’t encourage identification in the same way that movies do. This is particularly puzzling given the much-commented videogamification of movies. Contemporary action movies look and feel more and more like video games, as illustrated incisively by Matthias Stork’s video essay “Transmedia Synergies.”
Is there an irreducible difference between action movies and video games? Roger Ebert doesn’t think so. In his 2005 review of Doom, which touched off the whole “video-games-as-art” controversy, he wrote:
The movie has been “inspired by” the famous video game. No, I haven’t played it, and I never will, but I know how it feels not to play it, because I’ve seen the movie. “Doom” is like some kid came over and is using your computer and won’t let you play.
Yet, Doom aside, there does seem to be a fairly significant gap between the experience of movies and that of video games. Consider Iron Man 3 (the movie), which has some of the most video-game-like sequences out there (in the climactic battle scene, for instance, Tony Stark keeps hopping in and out of different Iron Man suits. It’s the first cinematic depiction I’ve seen of avatar switching, one of the most salient differences between games and films.) Yet no matter how close the visual experience of the game comes to that of the movie (and vice versa), we still have a stronger emotional connection to Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark than to his virtual version in the game. We wouldn’t feel upset when the Iron Man on our iPhone goes down in flames; we might when the character in the movie does. (And he does, several times). This is what game theorist Ken Perlin means when he asks: “why does a character in a book or movie seem more ‘real’ to us than a character in a computer game?” (First Person, 12).
Maybe the difference is ontological. In Heideggerian terms, we could think of the distinction between “Dasein,” the mode of being specific to humans, and “readiness to hand,” the quality of tools and objects of use. Where we might identify with Tony Stark’s fictional Dasein in the film, we experience his avatar in the Iron Man game as “ready to hand,” a tool to explore and manipulate the game’s virtual world. After all, we don’t identify with a car or a gun, whatever fantasies we may project onto these objects.
Art can be a tool (“to Deceive and Slaughter,” for instance), and a tool can be art, but not when it’s in use.
In Advance of the Broken Arm, Marcel Duchamp, (American, born France. 1887–1968) 1964. Wood and galvanized-iron snow shovel, 52″ (132 cm) high
Which begs the question: what’s the use-value of a video game character?
In his excellent essay “Technological Pleasure: The Performance and Narrative of Technology in Half-Life and other High-Tech Computer Games,” Andrew Mactavish calls on theories of cinematic special effects to point out that the pleasure of video games lies largely in what Tom Gunning calls an “aesthetic of astonishment.” The viewer of special-effects cinema, Mactavish writes, oscillates “between illusionary immersion and technological awe.” 39.
Even when spectacular displays of a game’s technology are consistent with the virtual environment, they can trigger moments that disrupt immersion in a believable world but create exultation in the breathtaking demonstration of special effect. These moments of exultation may ultimately contribute to one’s immersion in a game, but they can simultaneously remove players from a game’s virtual world into the meta-space of technological admiration. Indeed, the ‘realism’ of an explosion can remove a player from a virtual space at the same time that it increases her feeling of presence within it. 42
So this helps us work out the identification problem. The intrusion of technological awe that breaks the immersive illusion of gameplay only heightens our overall pleasure in the Gesamtkunstwerk of the game—both in the intricacy of its created world and in the power of its manufactured material basis, the chips and cards that make this astonishing illusion possible. By the end of his essay, Mactavish reaches a remarkable conclusion:
The pleasure of computer games, therefore, is a technological pleasure. It is a pleasure of accessing, witnessing and performing technologically mediated environments. Inasmuch as players take pleasure in performing game technology, they also take pleasure in game technology performing them: their physical movements, emotional responses and financial investments. It is a pleasure of control, but also of being controlled. But most of all, it is a technological pleasure propelled by the computer gaming industry’s apparent mission to provide more realistically rendered environments, deeper feelings of performative agency and even greater levels of astonishment. 46
This, then, brings us to the use-value of the video game character. In the uncharted frontier of the state-of-the-art, it functions like a probe, a drone, an ROV.
Mars Curiosity rover, NASA
It allows access without presence, agency without mastery. Acting as our surrogate, it reconnoiters the perilous, terrifying landscape of technology and delivers the illusion that we have control—or even any business being there in the first place.
If video games are not art, it is because their aesthetic category is not the beautiful, but the sublime.