Oh, Roger Ebert. You are such an intelligent, well-spoken, and well-educated man; why must you be so stubborn and blind about this?
For starters: if Flower isn't art, then neither is "This is Just to Say," to pick an easy poem. Flower is visual, interactive poetry -- it's program music with PS3 graphics and a controller attached.
A series of other thoughts I had, upon which I will likely expand in later posts:
- Not all art is narrative art. Humans are, at our core, storytellers. But anyone who has seriously studied film (Ebert) will have studied non-narrative film. We also have countless examples of non-narrative static visual arts, accepted into the canon of Western art. You may not like everything at MoMA, but it's generally considered art.
- The correlation to that is, we tend to create our own narratives. Players bring narrative to their gaming experience -- whether it's Tetris or Dragon Age: Origins -- the same way that a viewer standing in front of a Picasso or a reader parsing beat poetry does. We create our gaming stories as either the primary or secondary narrative of our gaming experience. "And then I totally did _______," is as much a story to the player as, "And then his father came back from the dead, and..."
- Available graphics no more exclude games as art than the available cameras of the 1920s exclude those films as art. We value cave paintings; we value ancient Greek murals; we value Monet. We value A Trip to the Moon; we value Avatar (more on that one later). And 8-bit graphics never stopped me from loving Guybrush Threepwood. The nearest easy analogy is animated films: we consider both Snow White and Wall-E to be examples of the art.
- We accept that film is not monolithic. I don't know anyone who would consider Transformers 2 to be high art; but similarly, I don't know anyone who would consider The Godfather or Citizen Kane to be anything but. Star Wars has a place of honor in the film canon, but surely we wouldn't put Manos: The Hands of Fate there. We have similar divisions (if fairly arbitrary) for literature, television, visual arts, and print media: Thriller may be art, in a way Britney Spears may not be. Why should gaming, a scant 30 years into its history, be more monolithic?
- Gaming is barely 30 years into its history. How can a film critic as highly trained as Roger Ebert not remember that film itself was disregarded -- "can never be art" -- decades into its existence? Even after it surged in popularity, even after it became something everyone saw... the genre films of what we consider Hollywood's Golden Age weren't "art" until they were 20 years old or more. Perspective! The first wave of directors who were actually taught "film is art" in film schools were notorious for how they revolutionized the art and changed the industry, when they came into their own in the 1970s. Surely the 30-year-old gamers born at the dawn of our digital entertainment era, just now fully coming into their careers, can bring some of those changes as well? To say nothing of their children, in another three decades.
- Gaming has developed an avant-garde. I forget which of my film professors delivered the lecture, but I remember one of them speaking to the point that the film industry needed the 1960s and 1970s to happen. The advent of independent film and the rise of the avant-garde fed ideas back into film-making that created new approaches, and diversified ways of telling stories. Early film (pre-1920) was mainly all avant-garde in this sense, because the "right" ways hadn't been codified, and the technology was still new. Well, that's where gaming's been: the 1980s were that early, pre-codification period. The 1990s saw the broadening of available home consoles, and the explosion of PC ownership, and created clearly defined gaming genres and acceptable parameters. The early 2000s, with the creation of $60 million AAA titles, raised the bar to entry -- but the networking era (XBox Live, PSN, WiiWare, etc.) has created a distribution venue for smaller, quirkier, independent, or avant-garde games.
And finally, two remaining points: we've seen Avatar and Heavy Rain come out within a few months of each other. The former was a mega-popular film that seemed cribbed directly from gaming, both in content and in technical construction. The latter was a very popular video game that seemed cribbed directly from cinema, both in content and in aesthetic. Like it or not, the two fields are merging.
The last point is the hardest to wrangle, because film students (and presumably students of the other arts) have been discussing it for as long as their programs have existed. Does viewer participation create, enhance, or lessen art? We encourage film students to be active viewers, rather than passive; sometimes, however, we demand they leave their personal baggage at the door. Sometimes, we believe that only the producer has the power of creation, and sometimes we believe that art is contained in what the viewer brings to it.
There's a lot to discuss. That's why there's going to be a whole blog to do it in... Cheers.