Money Talks, Art Walks

Pardon me while I invoke the name of Roger Ebert in a discussion of videogames and art. I know, I know: Ebert and his disparaging views of gaming have nearly been done to death. Which happens to be my point.

Ebert fired his latest salvo in what gamers have come to view as a full frontal assault on their beloved hobby a couple of weeks ago, in response to Clive Barker’s recent comments over at I wasn’t all that interested in Ebert’s remarks, but I took notice when Newsweek’s N’gai Croal jumped into the fray. Croal refutes Ebert’s arguments with an even-keeled alacrity wholly absent from the film critic’s snide missive, and Ebert ultimately comes off as unqualified to talk about games, and perhaps even art.

I’m glad to see a respected game journalist like Croal rising to the games-as-art defense. Still, I wonder how relevant these debates really are.

The rapid pace of technology has ensured that gaming has undergone constant transformation. The games we’re playing now are almost completely unrecognizable from their earliest ancestors, and we’re still only talking about a few decades’ worth of evolution. Isn’t it a little premature to be issuing edicts on the ultimate potential of videogames?

Gaming technology is a medium, and like any medium, it serves as a means to an end. It is as malleable as a lump of clay, and as ready to convey ideas as a blank canvas. Its potential is only limited by the creativity, skill and resources of the developer.

The game industry has creativity and skill to spare. Resources are another matter, however. It takes time and money to make games. Often a great deal of time and money, and therein lies the challenge for artistically-minded game developers. Most games need to make their creators money much more than they need to be regarded as art.

These arguments about gaming and art are often as tiresome and inconclusive as political or religious arguments. And in the end they have little influence on what games are, or what they will become. The games we’re playing five, 10 or even 20 years from now won’t have been shaped by critical debates, they’ll have been shaped by the marketplace.

I could complain that Gears of War is no Citizen Kane, but I won’t. I get that its creators weren’t nearly as concerned with telling a meaningful story as they were with creating the gaming equivalent of a crowd-pleasing action flick. Epic clearly knew its intended audience, and it delivered something the audience enjoyed. Was it great art? Not by most estimations. Did it make money? Absolutely, and the game justified its creation and paved the way for more of the same.

Call me cynical, but I’m trying to be a realist. Ico and Shadow of the Colossus are often cited as the poster children for the games-as-art movement, but neither title is representative of the medium. That distinction goes to games designed, first and foremost, to entertain, the Marios, Halos and Grand Theft Autos. Gamers who admire the subtle artistry of Team Ico’s creations should be grateful Shadow of the Colossus found commercial success, because it’s the only thing that guarantees we’ll see another title from that studio.

Money is the ultimate arbiter for any creative medium. Walk into any bookstore, and you’ll find as many pulpy page-turners as you will renowned works of literature. At Blockbuster, the cinematic masterpieces are vastly outnumbered by explosive action films and lightweight comedies. And the cable box will hook you up with channel after channel of mindless TV. I’m not sure that we should expect the shelves of the local GameStop to be any different.

Croal and Barker would place games on a pedestal. Ebert, it seems, would shove them off. But to what end? I’m weighing in on the debate not with my voice, but with my wallet. As far as the future of gaming is concerned, money will have the last word.

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