The artistic potential of gaming


"Fable" is "shocking, interesting and true," but is it art? In a word, yes. --Image courtesy of Buy Photos

That statement was simple, short and uttered as though it were a truism: “Video games can never be art.”

When he refused to recant, the critic quickly became the criticized.

Thousands of responses flew in, mostly from people in the game industry and gamers themselves. But Ebert held fast.

He likened saying video games are art to saying games such as chess — which he plays — are art as well.

Ultimately, he simply couldn’t credit a medium that he saw as so vapid with the distinction of being “art.”

But video games have come a long way since the days of “Pong” and “Pac-Man,” and gamers believe that their medium should have more widespread respect in the 21st century.

Norbert Herber, a lecturer in the IU telecommunications department who has worked as a sound designer and composer for video games, finds Ebert’s criticism outdated.

“I think (Ebert) is hung up on this romantic idea of art. His conception of art is still in the 19th century, and if he were to update that, he might consider his experiences as a chess player to be somewhat of an art experience,” he said.

Herber also successfully anticipated Ebert’s caveat that came several months after his most infamous anti-video games blog post.

“Ebert talks about games as someone who has never talked about having played these games, and the points that he makes shows that he has watched the trailers, that he may have seen pictures, but he has never played the games, and he can’t possibly speak from any position of authority on this,” he said. “It would be like someone trying to critique a movie having only seen the trailer.”

Indeed, Ebert declared in a July 1 blog post that he “should not have written that entry without being more familiar with the actual experience of video games.” Familiarity was certainly part of it, but perhaps the bigger culprit was generation.

Edward Castronova, an associate professor in the IU Department of Telecommunications who has researched the social sciences as they relate to virtual worlds in online role-playing games, said the rate at which technology accelerates necessitates that some people will always be left behind.

He said he subscribes to the theory set forth by the physicist Max Planck, that “science progresses funeral by funeral.”

“I think it’s tough to expect someone who’s 65 to see the potential in a medium that’s nothing that they grew up with,” Castronova said. “But technology is advancing at an exponential rate right now, which means that every generation will have this same experience. I will be a white-haired person saying ‘There’s this thing out there, I’ve never done anything with it, I don’t understand it, and I don’t think it’s going to amount to much.’”

Herber said he agreed on that point.

“(The Baby Boomers) grew up with a completely different relationship with media,” he said. “My parents are in Ebert’s generation, and I’ll often be their tech support. And just based on the questions they ask me, it’s so clear to me that they see the computer in such a completely different way than I do. We may be accomplishing the same things in the end, but the conceptual framework around the thing is very different, so I think for people who look at the computer in that way, it’s really hard to see games as an art form.”

One project based at IU stands firmly on one side of the video games as art debate.

“Londontown” is a massive multiplayer online role-playing game currently in development by a team of IU students and faculty spearheaded by an assistant telecommunications professor, Lee Sheldon.

The game leads players through “a London that never was; a London we all remember,” wherein players will encounter both literary characters and real historical figures in Victorian London.

Jessica Wininger, a senior majoring in English and a co-lead writer on “Londontown,” said the game’s emphasis is on story, a component of gaming that is more readily accepted as art by skeptics.

“What’s really important about ‘Londontown’ is the narrative. That’s what we’ve focused on the most. Even the battle system in it is nothing really complex,” she said. “Our whole goal that we’ve been working on as writers has been to have really strong (non-player characters) for the player to interact with, and out of that, writing really interesting story arcs and basing the quests around them.”

Although “Londontown” and a whole slew of other recent video games are steering the ship toward story, that doesn’t make it the only facet of games worthy of the “art” tag.
Herber said he doesn’t believe the components of a game should be separated when assessing its value as a work of art.

“You can’t say the music is art, the visuals are art, but the story is not, or any mix like that, because the experience of playing the game that comes out of the participation is something that you as a player are directly responsible for,” he said.

Castronova conceded that most video games haven’t yet ascended to the highest echelon of art. He used “Fable,” a highly interactive role-playing game, as his standard for a video game that is also great art — a distinction that he said he only awards to things that are “shocking, interesting and true.”

“By that standard, ‘Fable’ is absolutely a work of art. Does it rise to the level of the Mass in B Minor? Probably not. We’re not up to a Brahms quartet in video games right now. But the potential is there.”

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