Games are art: Rock Band, and its history, prove it
Roger Ebert stepped into a hornet’s nest when he claimed that not only were video games not art, they could never be art. Ebert is a film critic who has written any number of thought-provoking pieces on any number of subjects since his battle with cancer stripped him of his physical voice. The problem with gamers getting defensive about his stance is that he’s a film critic who has, by his own admission, played very few games to completion. Ebert himself seemed surprised by the backlash his comments received, and reading through the endless number of articles and refutations to his words proved impossible while researching this article. I’m not interested in quoting any of them at length, simply because the definition of what is or isn’t art, or what art can and can’t be, is tiresome. Those discussions are best kept to drunken conversations in loft apartments. “Do they require validation?” Ebert asked. “In defending their gaming against parents, spouses, children, partners, co-workers or other critics, do they want to be able to look up from the screen and explain, ‘I’m studying a great form of art?’ Then let them say it, if it makes them happy.” I agree with this statement. My problem with Ebert, and other critics who so easily pick up their gavel to rule on the inability of games to be art, is that it's much more enlightening to try to understand why millions of people have emotional reactions to games instead of simply telling them they're wrong to do so, or that their engagement is less important than that of someone watching a film or listening to music.
Games are art
Yes, I think games are art. I think all games are art, in fact, although I also believe that most games are poor art. The problem is that we’re focusing on the wrong things when we have this conversation; whether we’re talking about a novel, a play, a painting, or a song, the best art creates emotion in the person consuming it. We consider the painting hanging on the wall to be the art, but value we place in that painting is the emotion we feel as we look upon it. There are ugly shades of commerce and politics that go into the valuation of paintings and other forms of “high art,” but those are external, and artificial. The intrinsic value of art is the created emotion in the viewer. A meal from a master chef is considered art, but we value neither the presentation nor the ingredients as we much as we like to pretend we do; those are simply a means to the end. The value comes from what we feel and experience as we eat the food. I’ve enjoyed meals made of multiple courses that create a sort of multi-sensory narrative. In some cases these meals have created a story much more compelling than many books. For that food to mean something, however, it needs to be experienced. You must look at it, smell it, and ultimately eat it. Everything else is secondary. This is why I use the word “consume” when I talk about art, because the painting or the novel are nothing without someone to interact with the colors or the words. All these different art forms are inert until someone brings themselves to them and begins an interaction, and I reject the idea that some forms of art are interactive and others aren’t. The worth of great art is only noticeable once that interaction begins, and there is nothing passive about going to a gallery to look at paintings. You don’t need to hit a button in order for there to be a give and take with a piece of art; the best piece of music is a dead thing on a piece of paper until there is someone to take those notes and play them, and even that is of limited worth without a set of ears to hear the music and react to it. The end result of all art forms is the same: a change in the emotional state of the person consuming it. If that doesn’t occur, the art is a failure. This is why you can’t argue for or against games as an art form without taking the time to play through the games themselves. I’ve seen clever people at cocktail parties claim that a few shapes on a canvas can’t be art, and this is usually combined with a sneering contempt for what passes for “art” in our modern times… although it seems like that argument has been going on for the past century or so. There is an intense difference between seeing an image of a Jackson Pollock painting in a book and coming upon a Jackson Pollock painting in a gallery. Only in person, when you see the texture, size, and scope of that painting can you begin the interaction that’s necessary to grasp what does or doesn’t make it art. I’ve seen people look at images of shapes on the walls of gallery and react as if they had been punched in the gut. That interaction needs to take place before you can have an opinion. Games aren’t more or less experiential than paintings, music, or novels. You have to show up. You have to be an active participant, and it’s very hard to have an informed opinion until you do these things. Roger Ebert’s mistake was reading what amounted to a text description of a Jackson Pollock painting and assuming spatters of paint held no interest for him. People ask me what games they should play if they would like to be convinced that video games are an art form, and I always have the same answer: Rock Band. Not Shadow of the Colossus, not Ico, not anything that merely looks like art or tends towards the inscrutable. Rock Band is the most compelling argument for video games as art, and very few series come close to proving the point that games occupy a unique place in the world of art. To explain my position, we need to go back in time and visit a few young students at MIT.