Natalie here (turns out “Natalie” is already taken as a wordpress username … who knew?).
Let me start this post with an acknowledgment, followed by a confession. The acknowledgment: I am bound by secret gamer law to hate Roger Ebert and all his works. This is, of course, because Ebert once said (and to my knowledge continues to believe) that videogames can never be art—a statement that all gamers are honor-bound to abhor on principle. In making this statement, Roger Ebert has made himself an enemy of the gamer state, and all true gamers are bound to deride him at every opportunity.
The confession: I admire Roger Ebert enormously, both as a writer and as a thinker. And while I disagree with him that videogames, by nature, can never be art, I do think that he raises an interesting point.
Video games by their nature require player choices, which is the opposite of the strategy of serious film and literature, which requires authorial control.
My notion is that it grows better the more it improves or alters nature through an passage through what we might call the artist’s soul, or vision.
Here’s the question I think these two passages raise: Are videogames artistically interactive?
Let us assume (as we are bound to do by gamer law) that videogames are, or at least contain, art. Is that art interactive? Do my “player choices” contribute to or change the art in a videogame? Assuming (as we are) that nature is “improved or altered” through the passage of the soul of the artist of a videogame, am I part of that “artist?” Is nature passing through my soul to be improved or altered? When I play a game, am I in any meaningful sense the “artist” of that game?
Let me draw from two non-videogame examples that are not artistically interactive to better illustrate what I mean. Suppose both you and I are observing a painting that is a piece of art (say the Mona Lisa, if you need a specific example). You and I will be having different experiences—the way I react to the painting is different from the way you react to the painting. In other words, the identity of the consumer changes the overall artistic experience, and in that sense, we might call viewing a painting an “interactive” experience. But when I ask whether videogames are “artistically interactive,” I am referring to something more interactive than this.
Now suppose you and I are at an old penny arcade and we come across one of those coin-operated peep show machines where we can turn a crank to animate a little flip book animation. Let’s further suppose that the animation in this particular machine is undeniably a work of art. In order to view the entire work, you and I must put a penny in the slot and turn the crank. In short, we must interact with the machine. But that is all we are interacting with—the art itself (the animation) is essentially unchanged by our interaction, although it is our interaction that allows us to reveal or uncover the art that is hiding within the depths of the storage medium. When I ask whether videogames are “artistically interactive,” I am asking not whether our interaction is necessary to uncover, unlock, or experience the art, but whether we interact with the art itself.
My suspicion, and I welcome disagreement on this point in the comments, is that videogames are not artistically interactive. In fact, I submit that they are nothing more than really complicated peep show machines, whose cranks have become keyboards, mouses, and gamepads, and whose art can be viewed in more combinations than simply turning the crank forwards or backwards.
In short, I submit that while we interact with the game, the art is not meaningfully subject to player choice, and that however many souls there may be through which nature passes to be improved or altered by a videogame, the soul of the end-user gamer is not one of them. In a follow-up post I’ll offer some thoughts on why this might be significant, but in the meantime, let me pause here, and submit my heresy to the judgment of the gamer state.