I've stood at the top of a grass-blown knoll overlooking the sea, a view that stretched to cover a land of sprawling islands traversed only by my sailboat and me. I have played a musical instrument that controls the wind. I've been a sword-wielding teenage adventurer, a ghostbuster, and a short Italian plumber in search of his kidnapped love.
Roger Ebert would say that none of these experiences were real or meaningful because they happened through video games. In a recent post, simply entitled "Video games can never be art" published on his Chicago Sun-Times blog, the famed movie critic shoots down one of my favorite art forms as unable to fulfill his definition of 'art'. The critic reacts specifically to a TED talk given by independent game developer Kellee Santiago of thatgamecompany, a video game production firm known as a forerunner in a movement that takes for granted that video games are art. The trick, according to Santiago, is to make them great art. I agree.
But let's hear Ebert make his argument for himself. The critic first dismisses videogames as art on the grounds that they are foremost games, and games, having rules and objectives, can be "won". Traditional art forms, "a story, a novel, a play," he writes, "are things you cannot win; you can only experience them." He measures video games against the Platonic definition of art as an imitation of nature and reality. Ebert writes, "[art] grows better the more it improves or alters nature through a passage through what we might call the artist's soul, or vision." He concedes that he thinks art is "usually the creation of one artist," and does not believe video games, the products of large teams are capable of having a singular artistic "vision" behind them.
But video games are nothing if not experiential. They are visuals and music and poetry all wrapped up into a single package. A video game isn't just a game—it is a controlled passage through an overwhelming aesthetic experience. This is also the basis for my own definition of art as any sensory aesthetic experience that provokes an emotional response in its audience, be it wonder, anger, love, frustration or joy.
Yoshi's Island fills me with the same awe as a full-bloom Matisse canvas. Super Mario 64 is as much of a world to me as that created in The Godfather, with as much directorial vision as Coppola. And I can even explore it at my own free will! Video games are art because they inspire us and make us feel and give us experiences unreachable within the realm of the real. It doesn't matter if it's the fantasy of Pokémon and taking pride in caring for something as it grows or Ta-Nehisi Coates' escapist immersion in World of Warcraft as a place with politics and race and social conflicts all its own. These emotions and experiences are gifts given to us by video games just as any other art form.