Editor's Choice

Editor's Choice
The Game Design of Art

Jason Rohrer | 24 Jun 2008 08:12
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"Anything can be art. Even a can of Campbell's soup."

So admitted Roger Ebert, world-famous movie reviewer and notorious videogame detractor, back in July of 2007. However, continued Ebert, videogames will never be "high art."

Ebert has held fast to his "games cannot be art" position for two and a half years, braving an e-firestorm of responses from passionate game fans. The gaming community has folded this fight into itself - we haven't just argued with Ebert, we've also debated endlessly with each other.

Many of Ebert's opponents have unwittingly invoked a fragment of Ebert's argument in defense of games: Anything can be art, therefore games are art. End of discussion.

Of course, these game proponents don't state their position so baldly; instead, they point to cultural products that have no utilitarian value for survival. If humans make it, but you can't eat it, keep warm with it or sit on it, then it's art. I've even heard this argument expanded to lasso sports into the art corral.

This "utilitarian test" is a nice thought experiment, but it ends up derailing the debate about games. We need to be honest with ourselves: deep down inside, buried beneath our indignations, we all understand where Ebert is coming from, right? Not even a little bit?


Let's face it: Games, in general, suck. Most are repetitive and shallow. Most eat up precious moments of our lives without giving us anything more than idle entertainment in return. The really good games, the ones that we would only be half-embarrassed to show Roger Ebert as art samples, are few and far between - maybe one game per console generation, if that. This is hardly what we would recognize as an "art-full" medium. Yes, games pass the zero-utility test, but that's not enough to stand them up proudly next to a Kandinsky painting.

Ebert is right, at least so far. Instead of dismissing his position, however, we should tackle it head-on with the explicit goal of proving him wrong. We must present him with a game so artful that it makes him eat his hat. That is our main task as game designers over the next decade - I hereby decree it

But if we cling to the notion that "anything is art" or throw our hands in the air when attempting a definition, how can we ever begin our quest to make this game? Since we only need to convince Ebert, we'll let him provide a definition of "high art." He may not have been as explicit or concise as we might like, but he left us a few crumbs to nibble on. For example, art might help us "make ourselves more cultured, civilized and empathetic." Additionally, art might cause us to become more "complex, thoughtful, insightful, witty, empathetic, intelligent, philosophical (and so on)."

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