Monday, April 19, 2010

Why Roger Ebert Is Wrong About Video Games

by Daniel Bullard-Bates

“Obviously, I’m hopelessly handicapped because of my love of cinema…”
Roger Ebert

After reading Roger Ebert’s new diatribe against video games as an art form, I wrote an obnoxiously long, point-by-point response to his arguments. Re-reading it in a less heated state, however, I found that I continued to return to one point in particular, which may be more valuable than any other in understanding Ebert’s close-mindedness. The simple response to Ebert is this: He doesn’t know very much about video games.

He hasn’t studied them. He didn’t spend much time playing them growing up. He doesn’t understand what constitutes an innovation in gameplay or a tribute to an early classic. He’s a very well-educated and well-respected critic, so it is tempting to believe that his opinions are somehow more valuable than others, but they are not. He has made his living as a film critic, not a video game critic. He doesn’t understand the art form.

From Ebert’s article:
Having once made the statement [that video games can never be art], I have declined all opportunities to enlarge upon it or defend it. That seemed to be a fool's errand, especially given the volume of messages I receive urging me to play this game or that and recant the error of my ways. Nevertheless, I remain convinced that in principle, video games cannot be art. Perhaps it is foolish of me to say "never," because never, as Rick Wakeman informs us, is a long, long time. Let me just say that no video gamer now living will survive long enough to experience the medium as an art form.

The hubris here is awe-inspiring. Having received countless messages from enthusiasts of a new art form, Ebert has consciously come to the conclusion that he knows better than any of them, despite his lack of education on the subject. He also knows, for a fact, what is and isn’t art.

Over the course of the rest of the article, Ebert discusses several different possible definitions of art. Some of them are definitions that Kellee Santiago offered in a talk she gave at USC, some of them are definitions that Ebert identifies as more convincing. One thing that is important to note here is that human beings have been trying to successfully define art for a very long time. It is a question for philosophers and artists to debate forever. I’m not sure we’ll ever have a perfect definition, and we never should.

When someone is asked to define art, the correct response is to refuse to do so. By defining art we limit it, and if there is one thing that we should never do, it is to limit art. To define art is to cripple the artist.

Ebert continues:
But we could play all day with definitions, and find exceptions to every one. For example, I tend to think of art as usually the creation of one artist. Yet a cathedral is the work of many, and is it not art? One could think of it as countless individual works of art unified by a common purpose. Is not a tribal dance an artwork, yet the collaboration of a community? Yes, but it reflects the work of individual choreographers. Everybody didn't start dancing all at once.

It is bizarre to think that Ebert, primarily a film critic, is prejudiced in a fundamental way against collaborative art forms. Who is the one artist who creates a film? Is it the director? Is it the screenwriter? Is it the novelist on whose book the screenwriter based the script? Is it the primary photographer? His statement does, however, help to explain why he is less inclined to be impressed by video games, despite the fact that many games have creative directors whose ideas are being conveyed by their team.

Ebert judges Santiago’s examples of artistic games thusly:
The three games she chooses as examples [Waco Resurrection, Braid, and Flower] do not raise my hopes for a video game that will deserve my attention long enough to play it. They are, I regret to say, pathetic. I repeat [Santiago's statement]: "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 and Santiago are both right about that last part.

The problem with the old question of the Citizen Kane of gaming is that Citizen Kane is an unhelpful standard for measurement. It’s too film-specific, and it isn’t shooting high enough. What video games need is a Shakespeare. Shakespeare revolutionized the English language by making the language serve his purposes. If no word suited his sentence, he invented one. If normal linguistic structure would not suffice, he rearranged it.

To create truly amazing art, video game auteurs need to play with gameplay and interactivity, the elements that truly set video games apart, in the same way that Shakespeare played with language. Too many of the video games released today rely on the examples that have come before. Some of these early art games may seem too experimental and strange to be effective, but this experimentation is what it takes to reach that point of vaunted artistic achievement.

Maybe, like Ebert says, it won’t happen in our lifetimes. That being said, there is no doubt in my mind that video games will reach those heights of achievement with time.


  1. I hate to say it, because you're right about Ebert not knowing anything about gaming and coming off as an ignorant, narrow-minded, pompous jerk, but I think he actually has a point despite the incredible number of things that he is wrong about. What's frustrating about the argument is that it's really an argument about how video games define THEMSELVES more than anything. Until video games stop calling themselves GAMES and thinking of themselves that way, then I agree that they aren't art. The chess comparison Ebert makes is apt in this way. Think about it, a chess set can be a work of art, and a player can be so masterful as to seem to have an art TO his playing, but one would not classify chess itself as art. Games have objectives and rules and playing them is really focused on understanding the SYSTEM of that game and mastering it.

    No one would argue that you are playing Shadow of the Colossus (the game I think comes closest to an artwork) correctly if you never attempt to find the first Colossus; regardless of how beautiful and artistic the design of the game is, as well as its ability to tap into a primal sensation of awe and wonder at a world of mysteries larger than ourselves, the game is still ultimately about learning the rules for finding, climbing, and killing colossi because it is a GAME. Bioshock is another good example of something that has heavy artistic elements but ultimately is about mastering its shooter elements and finding all the little sisters and upgrading your plasmids etc.

    I object to the idea that the correct response to defining art is not to define it. Just because people disagree on what art is does not mean it has no real definition. There is a lot of gray area around art's boundaries, but that doesn't mean it can simply be what anyone wants it to be. I would argue that art uses aesthetics to explore, communicate, and express ideas and perspective. I'd argue that it is always man-made and that whether it serves a function or not, that it is when the form of expression or the practice of the medium is the focus rather than the outcome/result/function. That's why people often refer to things being elevated to the level of art; a chef is so good that their food has become expressive of a perspective and the way in which it is prepared goes beyond serving the function of getting rid of hunger or even simply pleasing the palette. It is meant to be an EXPERIENCE.

    Many games obviously are working towards this, and it is in this way that Ebert falls incredibly short and comes off as ignorant. I would agree that as long as games view themselves as GAMES and focus on the idea of fun, involving, and/or competitive systems that they are not art in and of themselves. However, to suggest that somehow an artistic medium could not evolve from this is foolish. As Adam Serwer points out at American Prospect, there is incredible potential for narrative experience in a game. But I would argue that there isn't a game out there right now that is actually a complete work of art, even if many developers are trying to find a way to remedy this. As of now, video games are designed to give a sense of pleasure from our completion of goals and working within/learning a set of rules and boundaries. That's gaming, not art.

  2. Oh, as if I didn't say enough lol, I just wanted to add I totally agree with you about your ideas on what games need in order to advance (ie. a Shakespeare of interactivity).

  3. Well, this may seem weird, since you're arguing with me, but I agree with you on most of your points. Individually:

    Yes, the way games define themselves is problematic. Boundary-pushing is required, but pushing boundaries tends to result in poor sales. Still, there is something to be learned, usually, from each strange, financially unviable indie game. We need fringe auteurs creating experimental games to show how unconventional ideas could work their way into the medium.

    As for the problem with having a ruleset and learned skills in a game, I don't see this as a problem. There are rules to any art form, both in its execution and its consumption. There are even acquired skills that enhance a person's ability to enjoy art for all it is worth: a greater vocabulary will help you with your reading, a knowledge of mythology may help you recognize symbolism in a painting, etc.

    As Jason Rohrer says in his New Gamist Manifesto, playing a game is more like learning a new language. This is incredibly liberating for the artist making a game; they can create everything about that language from the ground up. Sometimes that language is skill-based, like in the climbing of the Colossi or the battles of BioShock. Other times it is intellectual, like in Braid's puzzles.

    I also think that video games have a sort of universal language. This is what helps someone who has played a lot of video games to adjust to a new game, even if the controls and setting are unfamiliar. Roger Ebert doesn't even know how to ask for a toilet in our language.

    Not all games are designed to give a sense of pleasure from our completion of goals. That being said, most of the games that do not have clear goals have not been very well-received outside of the indie community. Passage, for example, has a point system, but it is arguably for illustrative purposes only, and everyone's game ends the same way. Spoiler warning: it doesn't feel like victory.

    As for your statements about defining art, I stand by the idea that we should refuse to define it. That doesn't mean that we should stop discussing its meaning, both in a personal and universal sense. Talking about art is one of the great pleasures of this life, and questions of its importance and meaning are vital. You may not have noticed this about me, but I'm a big fan of discussing art. I'm just comfortable with the fact that we may never reach a "convincing definition," as Ebert puts it. I don't need to be convinced. I just want to enjoy and discuss the development of art, whether it is interactive or not.

  4. Alternate bonus ending!

    Video games are better than any other art form, for the same reason that they are different. They are interactive.

    Bear with me:

    Art (mostly) is intended to be experienced by an audience. Many artists consider their art to be successful if the audience cares enough to respond to it, be that emotionally, intellectually, or financially.

    Video games require a response. Uncharted 2 is like an Indiana Jones film, only more exciting because you are personally involved. Okami is like a Japanese water color painting, only more immersive because it is in three dimensions and you are a part of the painting, and you can explore it in any way you please. Video games have not reached the greatest heights of artistic achievement, but when they do, those heights will be more emotional, more involving, and more personal than the great works of other media.

    Once artists and individuals realize the incredible potential of video games, they may become the most popular, most meaningful art form in the world.

    It's a theory worth considering, anyway.

  5. I would just like to add that there is a vast amount of art, often installation, multimedia, sculptural, that is highly interactive. The interactivity of video games don't make them unartistic. If anything artists have been seeking greater interactivity with viewers for millions of years. The layouts of babylonian zigurats are designed to guide individuals along a path and control what they experience step by step. Interactivity only elevates the artistic potential of games.

    As far as video games considering themselves "games," well sure, there are plenty of titles out there that are meant to be fun and profitable with little consideration for artistry...(guitar hero anyone?) But if you take 2 glances at the history of art you'll come across countless examples of paintings and sculptures that were either purely utilitarian or primarily for commercial use. Yet today, these works are considered masterpieces of art.

    These are my biases, but when I think of the artistic merits of games I always focus more on storytelling. I believe movies are considered art for their effective ability to tell a story. Ebert says there aren't any games today that will be remembered as art? I can think of many rpg's, already woefully outdated graphically and in terms of gameplay, that people still play for their narrative merit.

    I read the stranger in the 10th grade and thought it was brilliant. I also played Xenogears for the first time that year and remember it just as fondly: perhaps more so.

  6. Finally! I've been waiting for this for sooooo long. Thanks!
    It will show up in a search engine.

    Sounds like quite an interesting epic series. Very fine interview


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