In Real Life

The Year She Stopped Arguing Whether Video Games Are Art

What was 2010? Maybe it was the year we got past the “are-games-art” debate. Game developer Kellee Santiago hopes so. She was in the thick of it, as she recently discovered one very early morning.

The Santa Monica-based game developer was in Baltimore last April, booked on the first flight out of town. At 5am in a sleepy airport, she had little to keep her occupied. She checked the internet.

“Someone had put a comment on my Facebook page that ‘Oh my gosh, Roger Ebert wrote about you.”

“It was really surreal to have Roger Ebert write about me.”

Santiago is the president of an acclaimed game studio called ThatGameCompany, but she’s not famous. She’s not someone Roger Ebert, a man who has been public for years about his disinterest in video games, would likely write a column about.

She checked the link. Yeah, he’d written about her in what would prove to be a volatile essay about the potential for video games to be seen as art – and the relevance of deciding whether or not they are.

Santiago had admired the famous film critic, even given a book of Ebert’s reviews to her brother once.

“It was really surreal to have Roger Ebert write about me,” she recalled. She looked around that Baltimore airport that morning, burning to tell someone. There wasn’t anyone there to tell. So she called her father. He was half-asleep.

In the April 16 column entitled “Video Games Can Never Be Art,” Ebert picked apart a talk Santiago had delivered in 2009 about video games’ artistic potential. He criticised the three examples of artistic games the she shared – Braid, her own small company’s Flower and Waco Resurrection. Without having played them, he deemed thems “pathetic” and re-iterated his position that “No one in or out of the field has ever been able to cite a game worthy of comparison with the great poets, filmmakers, novelists and poets.”

He continued:

Why are gamers so intensely concerned, anyway, that games be defined as art? Bobby Fischer, Michael Jordan and Dick Butkus never said they thought their games were an art form. Nor did Shi Hua Chen, winner of the $US500,000 World Series of Mah Jong in 2009. Why aren’t gamers content to play their games and simply enjoy themselves? They have my blessing, not that they care.

Vs. Ebert

Then and now Santiago says she didn’t’ mind Ebert’s essay. “I always thought it was a good thing. I think it got a lot of gamers engaged in the conversation about what games mean to them and what they could mean and what the future of video games is.”

Ebert was flooded with angry and thoughtful comments from gamers. He wrote about some of it, spent some moments of his spring needling gamers via Twitter and eventually consented that “It is quite possible a game could someday be great Art” even though he doesn’t expect it to happen.

Santiago wrote a public response to Ebert (republished on Kotaku), and she sent him a PlayStation 3 with Flower loaded on it. She doesn’t believe he ever played it but she was satisfied to be done. “I didn’t want to keep poking the fire of the debate over whether they’re art or not because I don’t feel like that’s an argument anyone should be engaging in anymore.

“I didn’t want to just be the person who talks about games as art,” Santiago recalled. “The point of the talk — the title of it was Games Are Art: So What’s Next? – the point of it was we’re not debating whether video games are art anymore. Just say that they are, because then it allows us to move forward in what I think is a more thoughtful and positive position as far as talking about where the future of video games lie.”

Awe Toward The Unknown

You can become part of a big debate, and you can try, as Santiago did, to not let it define you. For her, 2010 wasn’t a year about debating whether games are art. It was a year that she and the rest of her small game design team at ThatGameCompany spent creating a game they kept secret for until June. It was a year that began with collecting awards for Flower, a year that had her meeting with other ambitious developers determined to help fund a new generation of game creators in a project called Indiefund. It was also a year to get married.

The game that was secret until June was called Journey, though for a short time this year, ThatGameCompany was trying to figure out another name for it. They might not have been able to secure the rights. Something about a band. That problem was temporary, and Journey was secured.

“That got him to thinking about a sense of awe and wonder and the possibility that… a video game could be a good form to provide it.”

The concept for Journey came together well in the first half of the year, Santiago said. That wouldn’t make presenting it easy. The game wasn’t going to be obvious or common. All of ThatGameCompany’s games have been attractive but as removed from the depiction of realistic human figures that we see in a Call of Duty as an Atari 2600 game. In ThatGameCompany’s Flower game, the player controlled wind that blows flower petals, in Flow, you were some sort of amoeba or aquatic bug swimming in a sea of similar things.

In Journey you would be an actual person, or at least two-legged person-like thing, walking around in what seemed to be a desert. The environment was spartan and, only in December, five months after debuting the game to the press would Santiago and her peers travel to New York to show how the game would link players together, syncing two gamers at a time, letting them randomly, voicelessly, quietly co-exist for a time.

The game appeared to be about wandering and wondering.

Santiago said her team, including lead designer Jenova Chen, spent a lot of time in the spring trying to figure out how they would tell people what they were going for. They rehearsed presentations for the game in their office, hoping to figure out how to explain the game when they unveiled it for reporters at the E3 trade show in June.

“In one of those rehearsals we came upon the story that Jenova did tell in the presentation about the conversation he had with a space shuttle pilot and how that got him to thinking about a sense of awe and wonder – and the possibility that we’re lacking that in our day-to-day lives and that we may need it, and that a video game could be a good form to provide it.”

The space shuttle pilot had told Chen of the spiritual awakenings – the “awe towards the unknown” – that people who had flown to space had experienced when peering at the world and beyond from their elevated perspective.

Hopefully, Journey could convey some of that.

The Healthiest Use For A TV

Some game developers talk about having children or the experience of being married as an influential moments that make them re-think the games they make. Santiago, married in spring, hasn’t felt any transformation from that. Her husband is in the games business too and so neither has experienced any great shock about how the other spends their time in front of a controller or in the development studio.

But in reflecting about her year she mentioned something about the future that helps put in better contrast the difference between her and that famous critic she briefly sparred with in the spring. Aside from their artistic potential, Santiago had begun to assess video game’s societal value.

Video games, she realised, would be an important element of her family’s life, something she and her husband have talked about should they have children.

“There are already conversations we’ve had about how much more comfortable we’ll be with our kids playing video games than watching television,” she said. “We see it in a different way than I think our parents’ generation and older [people]viewed video games and their place in the household.”

She sees little of value on her television for a kid to watch, not compared to what else they could be doing with that TV, playing video games. “I think it’s a lot more stimulating on many different levels, depending on the game,” she said. “A lot of the Nintendo games are a good example because there’s a lot of reading involved and games in general are about problem-solving and discovering systems and now you have games with creative tools.”

Next year will be different for Santiago, of course. ThatGameCompany will release Journey on the PlayStation 3. The art debate is in her rearview mirror. And she’ll be able to answer that question she posed in that 2009 talk that led to that 2010 debate: Games are art. So what’s next?


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