Some time ago now, the great but ailing media pundit Roger Ebert wrote a statement to the effect that videogames are not art. He gave some reasons why. And the whinging from fanboy idiots who were clearly too young to even know what the word Atari means in this particular context was precious to behold. Not because Ebert‘s critique of videogames as an industry was especially well-informed, but rather because the near-illiterate responses betrayed a simple fact about the people making them. Specifically, they had no idea what the word art really means.
Many people have jokingly stated that they do not know much about art or film or whatever, but they do know what they do or do not like. That leads us to our first clue in understanding where the defenders let their own side down. Yes, defender fanboy morons, you may like videogames. I happen to like watching videos of women taking off their clothes. But that does not automatically mean that either of them are art.
In my previous writing about the life and art of Ed Wood, I made speculations about his intentions. To be sure, an art form as difficult and expensive (relatively speaking) to make as a film has multiple layers of intentions. So allow me to expound upon something I touched upon in that article. I made a comparison between the stories told in Wood‘s films and the ridiculously infantile crap that Michael Bay has bamboozled a lot of people into believing represents the anime known to English-speaking folk as The Transformers. When one stops to consider how much effort Bay went to in order to hoodwink and bully the audience into praising his work as even acceptable, it is clear he had only one ultimate goal and all others be damned. Namely, to make money. Given that Michael Bay also directed a transparent rip-off of Clonus and called it The Island, I think it is no stretch to say that Michael Bay and art are about as likely to meet as Paul Verhoeven and infantalisation.
In my comparison, I made speculative but well-supported guesses concerning Wood‘s intentions. I doubt that anyone would disagree if I said that Wood had a burning desire to make a plea for greater acceptance of transvestites. Nor do I believe anyone could seriously challenge the assertion that like many other directors of his time, he wanted to “educate” the audience about the dangers of nuclear energy. And regardless of how terribly the results came out, the one overriding thing certain people notice is that Wood was just so damned sincere about his work.
Friends and neighbours, whilst artists do like to be paid for their work so they can put food on the table and keep themselves warm, they also have far stronger motives at heart for what they do. Given the manner in which our increasingly commercialised society has been shitting on them during my lifetime, artists of any stripe who do not have motives other than money, and have not been groomed into their position by a wealthy elite, tend to give up quickly.
Some writers have stated that cinema has died as an art form. Given the mere fact that people like Michael Bay or Len Wiseman are allowed to make films, there is certainly a lot of merit to that argument. But it still has something of a pulse. Every year, a film comes out that, whilst perhaps not having been conceived with noble intentions, has certainly been made with someone involved having such intentions. Media that can be deemed an art form can therefore cease to be art, or start again. Anyone who compares a Marx Brothers film with The Island, for example, will note that one film was made in a time when cinema was art, and the other was made in a time when cinema had stopped being art.
Videogames are in a similar position. I am not going to go pathologically retro and say Pac-Man or Space Invaders were art. There was artistry to them, sure, but both of those examples were clearly made by the company that produced them with one intention in mind. To get punters to put as much money into them as Humanly possible.
Now, when Ebert made his statement that boils down to videogames not being art, the response from what likes to call itself the “videogame generation” or the like was predictable. Ebert is out of touch, does not know what he is talking about, and blah blah blah. Attempts were also made to redefine art along the “I like it == art” lines. I have two prongs of an attack on this line of defense. One is that there are few people alive today who know more about the convergences between art, politics, and commerce than Roger Ebert. Not even most of the men who exercise power directly over the industry.
It is also worthwhile to talk a bit about what is meant by the “videogame generation”. Specifically, which videogame generation? Because if your eighteenth birthday was less than twelve years ago, you are not the first generation to have been exposed to videogames during its entire lifetime. Does that come as a shock? Good. Here is another one, then. Ebert is wrong, but not in the way that the “viddygames ah arrt waaaah!” crowd want him to be. Nor to the same degree. Videogames did approach, and in a handful of cases did become art for a while. But that while, I hasten to add… let me put it this way. The adults among the generation who think they know everything about videogames today, let us go with twenty-one, the age the one person in Queensland I could not kill turned recently. The generation(s) of videogames that did qualify as art? A good number of the entries in it are either older than that or only slightly younger.
You will have noticed I referred to a previous writing about the films of Ed Wood, or at least three that he is best-known for. Ed Wood was an artist. He was shockingly inept, he could not collaborate worth a urination in a windstorm, but he had something that the ilk of Michael Bay, Joss Whedon, or whatever the approved flavour of the month not only does not have but never will have. Regardless of what you think of his sincerity, Ed Wood was able to kid people that he had noble intentions. He had a statement to make in his work, and whilst it got jumbled amidst the confusion in his methodology, he put everything he could into making that statement.
I will disclose this now. I have not played a videogame outside of World Of Warcraft in some time. The fact that I felt physically compelled to play videogames during my late childhood and early adolescence by comparison should tell you a lot. But World Of Warcraft tries to make statements. The unifying theme of the statements, however, seems to be nothing more than “Orcs/Horde good, everyone else baaaaad”. And to say that without any proper support, this sucks as entertainment is like saying that Paul Verhoeven is awesome.
I have said in the past, too, that the one thing that keeps World Of Warcraft living long past most videogames’ use-by date is its social component. I am not sure of the exact count of people per server. I am not even sure how many servers there are. But if we use Unix or similar server platforms as an indication, it would not be unrealistic to estimate the total populace of each World Of Warcraft server in the tens or even hundreds of thousands. (No, I do not know exactly how many clients an individual Unix server can serve before performance drops off. I am pretty sure that every “server” that Blizzard dedicate to World Of Warcraft is in fact a server farm, so there is probably some semi-complex math involved in determining how many players each “server” can handle.) So whilst there are opportunities abound for interaction with other Human beings of various natures within the game, that unfortunately brings the downside associated with Human interaction.
To the authors of joke questionnaires that have names like Are You An Asshole? or the like, I must pose a question. Of the seven billion people known to inhabit this planet, how much confidence do you have that not even one of them will decide that you are an asshole?
Oh, do not get me wrong. I am not exempting myself. I can probably name at least three people off the top of my head who know everything there is to know about me and think I am the biggest asshole that ever lived. But that kind of is my point. Of the three people I am thinking of right now, two are justified in thinking this. The third is three assholes worth rolled into one body, so I clearly cannot give a shit what they think.
But sometimes, the quotient of asshole in a singular person can be so much that it just overwhelms the positives associated with them or anyone who is associated with them. I will just leave it there because I have a more germane point to get to.
In a couple of weeks, Blizzard Entertainment will release the fourth commercially-distributed expansion pack to World Of Warcraft. Stop and think about that for a minute. Four expansion packs. With no option on the part of customers of the existing game to refuse. Priced maybe not quite as high as a lot of new-release games are, but certainly enough to make one expect a little more for their dollar. This is on top of the roughly twenty dollars a month they already charge in subscription fees. Yet there are some fukkheads who will swear up and down that there is any art in World Of Warcraft. Or that everything Blizzard Entertainment write in it is not to be even questioned or messed with. Fukk them. No, seriously, fukk them.
In fact, think about this a minute. Even when owned by Wizards Of The Coast, the game known as Dungeons & Dragons has never, not once, offered a “compulsory” upgrade. Of course, there are certain expenses involved in starting to play the game. But once those basic starting costs are done with, the player always has the option to say “enough”. That alone compels Wizards Of The Coast to put some thought into the designs of each new “expansion” or iteration.
Dungeons & Dragons in and of itself has been called art. Whether you agree with that or not, this inherent need for self-moderation and reflection, to think about what one is doing and what the consequences might be, is an important consideration in art.
Now, let us leave aside the second that World Of Warcraft is more like a prostitute that latches onto a customer’s penis and will not leave without being paid to do so. This analogy is imperfect, but it does come close to describing their business practises. No, the real problem with calling World Of Warcraft art is that the story they weave into their game is shit. And I do not say that merely as a frustrated author with a very outsider view of the world. This goes way beyond that.
In order to see what I mean here, I have to divert for a second into The Lord Of The Rings In Name Only, and some of the ridiculous storytelling decisions made in filming it. If they had painted Gimli in blackface or clown-face, Gimli could not possibly have been more of a caricature. And let me be really clear about this. All of J.R.R. Tolkien‘s novels focus on one of its peoples as having their big moment in the sun. In The Hobbit, it was the Dwarrow. In The Silmarillion, it was the Elves in spite of how incoherently written and edited the story itself is. In The Lord Of The Rings, it was the Humans, or Men as Tolkien puts it. He was born in the nineteenth century, after all. Now, in each novel, the actions or behaviour of a single Humanoid race became the central focus of the story, but the others all played parts of varying significance as well. The point here is that in The Lord Of The Rings In Name Only, it was all Elves, Elves, Elves, Elves for about seventy-five percent of what got onto the screen. And no opportunity is spared to do this at the expense of other peoples, even when it comes as a spit in the face to some members of the audience.
So when one compares the people who are internal story-writers at Blizzard Entertainment to others, which others are most apt? Heinlein? Tolkien? Blyton? Or the ignorant jackasses who made what is essentially a love letter to a people that its authors wish they could be a part of? (Hint, Jackson, Walsh, and Boyens: if your family name is not something like Svensson, Johansson, or Bjørnlund, you are not even in the same universe as an Elf.)
Well, after their writers have asked us to hero-worship a leader who steps down from his post in spite of being the only thing preventing all-out war between the two “factions” and leaving what sounds (to me at least) like a genocidal lunatic in charge, what am I meant to think? In fact, did I just describe the character Blizzard Entertainment wants us to swoon at, Thrall… or Paul von Hindenburg? After catching sight of a racial leader “making” more of her kind by committing the mass murder of what appears to be mostly either Human or Worgen folk, what am I meant to think? In fact, the latter example comes dangerously close to sounding like an echo of the utterly insane conspiracy theories some extremist curebies spout. This is what Blizzard Entertainment‘s fans refer to as first-rate writing that cannot be messed with in any way, shape, or form.
People argue constantly that art in cinema is dead. That is a fair position to take. Hell, with remake after remake coming and making more money in each case than ten original ideas put together, it comes frighteningly close to the truth. But the thing is, every now and again, something comes out in cinema that not only was made by someone who wants to tell a good and powerful story, but succeeded in doing so. On some rare occasions, that story even makes money and wins the maker accolades. But the money, although an important consideration, is not important. Nor is the collection of accolades, although it is a warm and fuzzy feeling to get them.
Art is not about money. Not the money that goes in, and not the money that comes out. Gamespy, a site that used to offer content I delighted in, made an analogy concerning the developments of both film and videogames. It is true that in the very early days of film, before standards that are taken for granted today were established, feature films shown to punters were very crude. Footage of trains going into tunnels, of animals running, and so forth, were not just “stock footage”, they were the feature, period. And it is also true that early videogames, even second or third generation ones, were extremely simple in comparison to the ones made today. If you told an arcade hound in 1984 that when his future children were adults, they would be able to play videogames with people from across the world, he would have thought you were insane.
But the videogames made in the period when the Commodore Amiga was still in production are the closest that videogames have ever come to being art. In fact, they were supplemented with genuine works of art. Anyone who has played videogames like Shadow Of The Beast (at least, the original Amiga version) knows what I am talking about. The music and imagery of the game are powerful enough that they not only are arresting on their own, they can also bring things to mind that their creators did not intend. Oh, I am sure that the people at Psygnosis who commissioned Shadow Of The Beast‘s music wanted the music to convey the desperation, anger, and loneliness of the game’s primary character. But from personal experience, I can also tell you that it brings so much more to mind. Things like the horror and terror inherent in the environment and the shapes that have been pushed upon it, for example.
I miss that game. Because when I think about the stimulation it brought to parts of my brain, I miss that feeling. As negative as that might sound, the fact that the game was made by people who clearly gave a shit what the people who play it felt whilst playing it. That, in a nutshell, is what is missing from videogames made in the past ten years. Not only is it readily apparent that the people who make videogames like World Of Warcraft give a shit about nothing other than my (and your) money, they also do not care if the means by which they get my money causes me pain.
A lot of people who have taken issue with Ebert‘s proclamation that videogames will never be art put forth arguments that are based on wrong views. As I have said before, Ebert is right, but not quite to the extent that he might think he is. The truth is that videogames were once art, and anything that was art once upon a time can be art once again. Hell, mainstream music was only art for a few years, and if you think I mean ones in the 1950s, 1970s, or anything betwixt, you are sorely mistaken.
But to call videogames as they are now art is no different than calling heroin dealership art. Heroin dealers do not care in the slightest what their customers think of them. And repeated attempts to communicate with Blizzard Entertainment, to tell them that their latest half-arsed idea about how their product should be made should be reconsidered for example, demonstrate that they do not care in the slightest what their customers think of them, either.
Whilst the theory of obscurity holds that better art is made when there is no audience to feed back response to the artist, and The Residents have made a strong case for it in the past, the case can also be made with greater strength that a certain level of response can strengthen art. In fact, some of the best examples of art in recent years have not only taken response into account, but also designed themselves around it. TRON: Legacy, for example, is a masterpiece not because it went and told people what they wanted. Its makers asked each other what the people who were children when TRON was released would want. And whilst I cannot speak for them all, a product that acknowledges the fact that we are fukking old enough to have children of our own now is not only welcomed by me because it taps right into my darkest fear concerning the people I hate the most, but because the people behind it did not simply assume they could pass off any old shit at me.
The videogame industry was once guided by that philosophy. Around the time I legally became an adult, a war of sorts erupted between makers of videogames who were guided by that philosophy, and the other kind. The kind exemplified by the company known today as EA Games. The latter kind won this war. And we are all of us the poorer for it. One article’s byline to the effect that Origin created worlds, whereas EA Games simply churned out commercial videogames, and EA Games won, is right on the money.
Syndicate was art. Syndicate Wars was a conflict between art and commerce where the art side scored a pyrrhic victory of sorts. The videogames that are being churned out by an ever-shrinking number of corporations today are not art. The difference, as I hope I have told you in enough words and ways, is all in the intention.
Anyone who tells you that videogames are art can also mistake deliberately getting another person addicted to destructive drugs art.
In case I did not make this clear already, the world we live in could do with billions fewer Humans of this kind.