Monday, November 28, 2005

Because you asked.

... okay, nobody asked. This is entirely on my own initiative.

Saw an interesting exchange over at Roger Ebert's "Answer Man" feature. It's the third letter, about the artistic potential of video games. This happens to be a topic I've put a lot of thought into, and since Ebert's position seems entirely reasonable (albeit wrong), I took a little time to compose an unsolicited response. Following is the text of my email.

Dear Mr. Ebert,

I have enjoyed following the discussions in your "Answer Man" column about the artistic potential of video games. I'm sure you're receiving piles of mail regarding this issue, but I wanted to raise a few thoughts of my own.

First, when considering video games, I find it more helpful to compare them to visual arts or theater rather than film or literature. In the first two art forms, the eye is controlled by the viewer. People stand closer to or farther from a painting, they decide which of several events or characters on the stage to focus on, and so on. The artist uses several techniques to guide the viewer's attention, but what they are really doing is creating a tiny world and letting the observer engage with it.

In contrast, literature and film give much more power to the artist when determining how the world is experienced. A reader can only rely on whatever narrators the author supplies, and the watcher cannot see anything beyond the lense's edge. This gives the creator far more powerful tools to control the experience and make persuasive statements, but it also enables passive engagement and gives less freedom for the viewer to establish their unique relationship with the work. Of course, no art form is inferior to the others, they operate using different rules and have different strengths. I think that simply comparing video games to film isn't sufficient; while film is far better at some things, those aren't necessarily the goals of a video game.

Secondly, it's important to remember that we're in the infancy of video games. There have been only a few decades in which to experiment, innovate, criticize, and build on the works of others. Compare this with over a century for film, several hundred years for novels, and thousands of years of plays and visual arts. It can be very difficult to see the potential of a new medium; even the Lumiere brothers said "The cinema is an invention without any future." Perhaps no one can find a game that compares with Citizen Kane simply because it has not yet been created yet. Then again, it might be right under our noses, and we won't know it until video game criticism evolves to the point where we can identify and appreciate the works in their own idiom.

Sincerely yours,
Christopher King

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