Venerable film critic Roger Ebert has spoken (well, written on his blog): Video games can never be art. Or at least, "No video gamer now living will survive long enough to experience the medium as an art form." Novelist and journalist Tom Bissell disagrees, and he's written Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter (Pantheon, $22.95) to make his case.
Like many higher-brow game critics, Bissell is ambivalent about the medium's artistic and moral achievements but thinks video games are ready to take a great artistic leap into the future.
Question: So why do we think chess is good for us and Tetris is bad?
Answer: People are just kind of nuts on this subject. They think that reading a book of poems is somehow more aesthetically enriching than playing a 20-hour, well-written, morally complicated video game.
I'm not going to say one of them is better than the other, I'm just going to say that to laud one at the cost of the other. ... I don't think it holds up anymore. I think it's fogyism, and people just don't understand this medium, and they're inclined to think poorly of it for all kinds of reasons, including valid historical reasons.
But luckily, all those people will be dead soon, and we won't have to deal with them anymore. And then we can talk about games being another viable form of entertainment that will encroach upon transformative artistic experience.
Q: Why video games? Why is this your fight?
A: The kind of writing I wanted to read on this subject wasn't really in book form. A lot of it was on the blogs — there are a lot of really smart people writing on the subject, but I don't have a blog. I'm kind of old media. And this is the place I have to go to make my case. I'm really glad I wrote the book, if only because my father used to call me and hear video games playing in the background, and he'd say, "What are you doing?" and I'd say, "Working," and he couldn't quite accept that.
Q: You see potential for greatness in the gaming industry, but you don't cite a game that achieves a kind of Great American Novel status. Can you think of an example?
A: To me, Portal may be as close to a perfect game as anybody has ever made. I'm interested in that sort of game, which manages to take game play and narrative and sort of disguise the tension between the two.
Q: Is there still a place for a critical discussion about violence in video games?
A: Yeah, totally. Far Cry 2 is violent, but no one's arm pops off. No one's head pops off. Clint Hawking, the director of that game, said he doesn't want to play a game where arms and heads fly off. No one wants to play that game.
Q: But there are people who do.
A: They're beyond help, then. Look, to me, violence in games is cathartic. And if you can find a valid artistic context for violence, it's just as valid as violence in any other medium.