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Video games as collaborative art.

The Summer 2005 (Vol. 85, No. 2) issue of the Phi Kappa Phi Forum was devoted to the topic of computer games. Later in the same year, noted film critic Roger Ebert set off an intense debate among members of both the film and video game industries (which have an increasing association through shared digital resources as well as economic factors) by stating that video games are fundamentally inferior to film and literature as an artistic medium and that video games could never move "beyond craftsmanship to the stature of art." Inherent to Ebert's position is his basic definition of art, which is contained in his declaration that "Video games by their nature require player choices, which is the opposite of the strategy of serious film and literature, which requires authorial control" ("Answer Man," 11-27-2005). While most respondents to Ebert took him to task for his self-admitted unfamiliarity with the medium of video games, very few actually took a moment to address the issue of authorial control--primarily localized in the construction of narrative--that is at the root of Ebert's characterization of art.

The disruption of a unidirectional bequeathing of art from active creator to passive viewer through the objet d'art has been called into question in a number of ways. For example, authorial control is a notion which has been particularly challenged in the twentieth century, especially in the literary theory of Roland Barthes and Michel Foucault. Researchers into the history of moviegoing have investigated in what ways the audience reacts to (or interacts with) the films that they see, complicating the notion of viewer engagement.

More to the point, the performative aspects of art and its production have become increasingly important, from interactive multimedia projects to the entire field of performance art, which involves four basic elements: time, space, the performer's body, and most notably, a relationship between performer and audience. While relationships between performers and their audiences seem obvious throughout the history of art--think about any singer, poet, or stage actor performing in front of a live crowd and how the crowd's reaction can in turn affect the artist--it is the advancement of the importance of the interactivity between artist(s) and audience(s) that has moved into prominence, where process is as much a part of the work as is the product itself. The component of interactivity noted here forms one of the core definitions of a video game.

In June 2007, Ebert's original sentiments about video games were revisited by noted dark fantasist Clive Barker, who in addition to writing short stories, novels, plays, and film scripts also illustrates his books, paints, publishes his own line of superhero comic books, and produced a line of character models through McFarlane Toys. Barker first entered the medium of video games with his 2001 release, Undying, and again this past October with Jericho. While neither game is a particularly noteworthy example to advance as a reason for validating video games as art, Barker is very enthusiastic about the potential for video games to have artistic merit by allowing their creators to collaborate on a multitude of design elements.

This collaborative process is not unlike the teamwork upon which the majority of film production is predicated. Moreover, video games as a medium offer a combination of old and new aesthetics for consideration. A person can marvel at the complex story of Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic (2003), consider the elegance of programming behind the simple yet captivating idea of Tetris (1985), or decide what defines beauty in Viva Pinata (2006). Viva Pinata is an especially distinctive title in that the game tasks the player with turning a neglected plot of land into a beautiful garden to attract living pinatas and to cultivate spaces for them to flourish. This open-ended game has no strict requirements for winning or losing but is more about the experience of considering aesthetics. What appeals to one pinata might not work for another, so the player is constantly thinking about what beauty means, and how its definitions can change through its representations within the game.

So what defines art again? In his book Art and its Object, British philosopher Richard Wollheim distinguishes three approaches to defining art: the Realist, where aesthetic quality has an absolute value independent of any human view; the Objectivist, where it is assigned an absolute value that depends on general human experience; and the Relativist position, where there is no absolute value, but a fluid one that varies with different human experiences. Given that cinema itself was not instantly heralded as art--and indeed had to fight for its place alongside of the other plastic arts within the broader field of visual art--Ebert's position may seem a little incongruous, although he freely states that not all movies are art.

Ebert addressed Barker's comments in July 2007, again reinscribing his position of artist creating work for an intended receiver, but this time with the curious qualification that if a person changes art, that person then in turns becomes an artist. While there is no guarantee that this new work remains art, Ebert's comment does bear the implication that perhaps something is to be said for interactivity in production or at least for the radical potential of more participants to be included in the process of making and defining art. What the work has, be it a film or a video game, is the ability to illuminate the collaborative nature that underlies much of human production.

Stefan Hall is an instructor in the Department of Theatre & Film at Bowling Green State University where he is also finishing his dissertation in the Critical Studies in Film, Media, and Culture track within the American Culture Studies program.
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Title Annotation:Forum on the Arts
Author:Hall, Stefan
Publication:Phi Kappa Phi Forum
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 1, 2008
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