Roger Ebert: Video Games Can Never Be Art, Just Because

Will video games ever escape the realm of entertainment and achieve recognition as a real art form? If anyone has a shot at it, it's Fumito Ueda, the closest the industry has to a true auteur artist. Last Guardian is his latest project.
Will video games ever escape the realm of entertainment and achieve recognition as a real art form? If anyone has a shot at it, it's Fumito Ueda, the closest the industry has to a true auteur artist. Last Guardian is his latest project. | Source

The debate about whether or not video games are art has been going on for years. Roger Ebert, the celebrated film critic, famously pontificated about this subject in his blog in response to a TED talk given by Kellee Santiago, co-founder of thatgamecompany (Flow, Flower, Journey) and an advocate of the 'video games are art' movement.

In a blog post on April 16, 2010, Ebert said

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.

I have to confess, my initial reaction to this statement was perplexity. I actually checked the date on the article because, for just a fraction of an instant, I thought it might somehow have been republished from some point in the distant past. The 80's, perhaps.

Once I'd reassured myself that Ebert and I were, indeed, living in the same epoch, I sat down and gave his statement some serious thought. Was it possible, as Ebert claimed, that the experiences I had had over 30+ years of gaming had never once crossed over the conveniently nebulous barrier between entertainment and art?

Judging by Ebert's admitted lack of expertise in the medium and the awkward way he expresses his opinions about video games, I eventually came to the conclusion that Ebert was trolling gamers in an effort to drum up some controversy.

Ebert makes much of Santiago's admission 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.

Journey is the latest release from thatgamecompany that is trying ambitiously to elevate games as an art form.
Journey is the latest release from thatgamecompany that is trying ambitiously to elevate games as an art form. | Source

And I have to concur. It is difficult to find video game auteurs of this stature, and I doubt we will see them in the next decade or two.

But it's important to provide context for these kinds of statements. Poetry has been around for at least three thousand years, and probably for much longer than that. Novels have been around since the 16th century and film for over a hundred years. Ebert's statement makes a little more sense in this context, because the high points of each of these genres came well after their inception; but in light of this, doesn't it seem rash to judge the medium based on a vastly attenuated time frame? Presumably this is why he hedged his bets and added "no video gamer now living will survive long enough to experience the medium as an art form". One might legitimately ask why it is important to Ebert that this be true.

He then goes on to make an intriguing and worthwhile observation. Speaking in reference to the artists of cave paintings tens of thousands of years old:

They were great artists at that time, geniuses with nothing to build on, and were not in the process of becoming Michelangelo or anyone else. Any gifted artist will tell you how much he admires the "line" of those prehistoric drawers in the dark, and with what economy and wit they evoked the animals they lived among.

Many of the cave paintings are genuine works of art. Then again, many of them are hand prints.
Many of the cave paintings are genuine works of art. Then again, many of them are hand prints. | Source

And I agree. They are beautiful. I can't help but think that it is incredibly fortunate for us that ocher and charcoal present no technological barriers to an artist who wants to bare his soul in masterful, sweeping curves of line and color. And it is equally unfortunate that video game auteurs must build in an incredibly complex and expensive medium. Video game designers don't always have the luxury of investing millions of dollars in personal expression, which accounts, somewhat, for their rarity.

But this argument seems to run a little counter to his first assertion. Were film-makers natural geniuses "not in the process of becoming Michelangelo"? Was film, as an art form, fully formed, springing like Athena from the head of Zeus?

Ebert then goes on to point out some of the salient differences between art and games:

One obvious difference between art and games is that you can win a game. It has rules, points, objectives, and an outcome.

Is Flower really just mindless entertainment, or is it trying to communicate something? Can a bowl of fruit ever be art?
Is Flower really just mindless entertainment, or is it trying to communicate something? Can a bowl of fruit ever be art? | Source
Art is about overturning expectations. Do points and rules disqualify a game from being art, or do they create new expectations?
Art is about overturning expectations. Do points and rules disqualify a game from being art, or do they create new expectations? | Source

This is an accurate observation, and a point that critics of the games as art argument are fond of pointing out. The problem with this argument is that it's specious. There is no Big Book of Art defining what experiences or modes of interaction can or cannot be used to achieve artistic effect, and it seems plain to me that interactivity could be at least as useful as sound and images for achieving it. Installation art requires a certain amount of participation, as does sculpture, which requires viewing from multiple angles. Reading poetry is even more demanding: you need to understand the rhythm and meter of a poem and sound it out, at least in your head, to have any appreciation for it. You can't read it like a novel and pass judgement on it. Can we say, categorically, that points and rules cannot be employed in any way that supports an artist's intentions? It seems like something of a presumption to me. A similar presumption was overturned, once, through the use of a urinal.

Ebert then goes on to invalidate Santiago's argument by telling us that games that do meet his criteria for art aren't actually games:

Santiago might cite a immersive game without points or rules, but I would say then it ceases to be a game and becomes a representation of a story, a novel, a play, dance, a film. Those are things you cannot win; you can only experience them.

Dear Esther is the kind of game that Ebert would consider to be a 'representation', rather than a game. Whatever that means.
Dear Esther is the kind of game that Ebert would consider to be a 'representation', rather than a game. Whatever that means. | Source

This is clearly a glaring hole in his argument: all he's done is redefined the medium to suit his purposes. If a game developer creates a game without points or rules it's conveniently no longer a game and Ebert's claim that video games can never be art remains unassailed. Unassailable, actually, as it's circular.

Further, it's not clear to me how a film adaptation of a novel could not equally be considered a 'representation' of a novel. The decisions that the director and screenplay author make in adapting a book to film are comparable to the decisions than a game designer makes when 'adapting' a narrative to the video game medium. Should we exclude adaptations from the realm of art simply because they did not originate in that medium? Or would Ebert like us to only allow adaptations going in one direction? From movies to games, for instance, but not from games to movies.

Ebert goes on to supply us with his own ad hoc definition of art,

My notion is that it grows better the more it improves or alters nature through an passage through what we might call the artist's soul, or vision. Countless artists have drawn countless nudes. They are all working from nature. Some of there paintings are masterpieces, most are very bad indeed. How do we tell the difference? We know. It is a matter, yes, of taste.

I agree with his last sentiment: many nudes are drawn, but few indeed could be considered artful. What I'm less certain about is his definition of art which "grows better the more it improves or alters nature through an passage through what we might call the artits's soul, or vision." With all due respect to Mr. Ebert's real credentials as a film critic, this doesn't seem like a very good definition to me at all.

Reading this, I frankly became a little concerned. Are some nudes pornography because they pass through the hands of a person who has no soul? Or does Ebert merely mean to imply a kind of artistic predeterminism, that only people born with an artist's soul can draw non-pornographic nudes? Are artists, then, by virtue of their artistic soul, always exempt from the charge or pornography? Can we affirm, without reservation, that all pornography is equally artless? These are heady questions, which Ebert has fortunately resolved for us through the use of a simple maxim. By what means shall we distinguish soulless hacks from true artists? By knowing, of course! Much as I respect Ebert's authority as a film critic, his definition of art is, if anything, worse than Santiago's.

He then proceeds to supply his informed criticism. Based on a short video clip of Waco Resurrection, he concludes:

The graphics show the protagonist exchanging gunfire with agents according to the rules of the game. Although the player must don a Koresh mask and inspire his followers to play, the game looks from her samples like one more brainless shooting-gallery.

Frankly, this is worse than reviewing a movie based on a trailer. Regardless of Waco Resurrection's real artistic merits (I've never played it, so I have no opinion on the matter) it's impossible to judge a game's artistic worth based on a 30 second Let's Play. His insights into Braid and Flower are equally uninformed and dismissive. In this case, it's irrelevant whether or not any of these games could be considered art. His opinions on all of them would still be worthless for the simple reason that he's never played them. Ignoring the interactive element of a gaming experience is a little bit like rating movies by listening to the soundtrack or reviewing a restaurant by reading the menu. Should 'critics' be allowed to compare Schindler's List with Rambo because they both look like "brainless shooters" from a 30 second clip?

He then takes his dismissiveness to the level of offense by patronizing gamers (ie. most people, but excluding himself):

Why aren't gamers content to play their games and simply enjoy themselves? They have my blessing, not that they care. ... Do they require validation? In defending their gaming against parents, spouses, children, partners, co-workers or other critics, do they want to be able to look up from the screen and explain, "I'm studying a great form of art?" Then let them say it, if it makes them happy.

It's no surprise that the European and Japanese versions of Ico have a cover that pays homage to de Chirico. They share a common aesthetic.
It's no surprise that the European and Japanese versions of Ico have a cover that pays homage to de Chirico. They share a common aesthetic. | Source

If I were a cynical person, I might be tempted to draw the conclusion that Ebert is speaking from personal experience. As far as I am aware, however, most gamers are not the least bit concerned about whether or not the time they spend playing games is praise or blame-worthy. Being like other people (in fact, being those other people, since the majority of people now play games), they understand that playing video games, watching television, reading, listening to music and going to the movies are all more or less the same sort of thing. Most of the time, the stuff you consume is fast and cheap and was designed to be that way, but every once in a while someone comes along and creates something special. Those experiences stick with you, they make you think, they change the way you see your world and give a slightly different shape to your thoughts. Those are the kinds of things we call art, and they happen in every medium by virtue of the fact that people are working in them expressing themselves. One can only assume, based on the carelessness of his dismissal, that Ebert believes game designers are, like pornographers, lacking a soul.

Silent Hill 2 does a better job than most novels exploring the relationship between choice, guilt, and mental deterioration. But that's not art, that's entertainment.
Silent Hill 2 does a better job than most novels exploring the relationship between choice, guilt, and mental deterioration. But that's not art, that's entertainment. | Source

When game developers, critics, and players talk about recognizing the medium as an art form, they are not doing it to justify the time they spend engaging in it. They are drawing attention to their own realization that they have had experiences while playing games that affected them every bit as profoundly as the experiences that they have had enjoying traditional art forms like painting, literature, music and film.

True, I've yet to play a game that moved me as profoundly as Hamlet or Mozart's Requiem, but I'd be lying if I didn't admit that playing Silent Hill 2 gave me an experience of supernatural and psychological dread that compared favorably to a story by Lovecraft, that Ico inspires the same sort of anxious wonder that I feel looking at the paintings of de Chirico, or that Portal is every bit as good as a story by Philip K. Dick. Certainly, these aren't the 'great artists' that Ebert is looking for, baring the soul of humanity, but I've yet to discover those artists in film, either. Lovecraft, de Chirico, and Dick don't rise to the heights of Tolstoy or da Vinci; but it seems churlish to deny that they don't illuminate some small part of what is dark and hidden in the human heart, that they don't provide some small taste of that existential nourishment that only true art can offer.

There is even more of interest in games like BioShock and Mass Effect and open world games like Oblivion and Grand Theft Auto. In these games, your choices have an impact on the world and those choices sometimes have an impact on the player in turn. Given that these games give me the freedom to behave cruelly toward an AI controlled puppet, is my inability -- or at least hesitation -- to engage in these sorts of acts the result of a gameplay mechanic or a moral dilemma? Are guilt and remorse experiences we seek out in entertainment, or do they more properly belong to the realm of art?

Video games, as a medium, are still struggling to find their way to greatness, to communicate things that can't be expressed in linear narratives or two-dimensional images. Surely, we can afford a little optimism for a medium that has inherited not only the power, but also the challenges of story, sculpture, music and movement. Surely we can afford them the leisure of working out the details required to embrace the player and his or her participation in ways that other mediums have only dreamed of. The fact that we cannot yet consider them to be among the greatest cultural artifacts we possess doesn't mean that they won't some day become them.

Never say never, Mr. Ebert. Absolutes, like objectivity and relevance, have a tendency of failing us at the most inconvenient time.

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Comments 2 comments

j-u-i-c-e profile image

j-u-i-c-e 4 years ago from Waterloo, On Author

Well, to have any appreciation for the medium you have to play a lot of games, the same way you have to watch a lot of movies to appreciate film. If you base your opinions on screenshots and tv commercials you're not going to have a very high opinion of games because a lot of the 'artistic' moments are created by the interaction between you and the game.

Production values (graphics, audio, etc.) are important, just as they are in film, but the meaning comes from making difficult choices. In movies, the protagonists make those choices, in games, players make those choices. The designer imposes an aesthetic on the player by deciding what those choices are going to be and what happens when you make them. This extends to how you interact with the game world in general. Selecting affordances (what you allow the player to do and not do) is just as important in games as selecting what objects to represent in a painting or what events to include in a novel. Games have to take all of these things into consideration, which makes them more complex and difficult to master, but also gives them great potential.

That's what non-gamers don't get about the 'artistic' side of gaming. There is a dimension there that is not present in other mediums, and if you don't see it, you just look at the narrative or the music or the graphics and think: someone else is doing this better somewhere else. Most of the time that's true, but it misses the most important element of the medium: the way the designer's allow or don't allow you to interact with the world. When you think about really great games they just sort of 'come together'. The graphics, music, narrative, and gameplay all work toward a common goal.

If the game's designer also has some important perspective on life that he or she wants to share, that game can cross over the barrier between entertainment and art. I think Fumito Ueda (Ico, Shadow of Colossus) has that kind of aesthetic. He has a particular relation to the world that he's trying to communicate through his games. Sorrow, awe, respect, admiration and the struggle between fate and free will aren't typically associated with mindless entertainment, but you can't help but feel those things playing one of his games.

Thanks for reading and replying.


JohnGreasyGamer profile image

JohnGreasyGamer 4 years ago from South Yorkshire, England

Very nice talk about Ebert and video games! I don't really know what to say, as I'm kinda offended that all the visual and audio work poured into a game doesn't appeal to him, but Barney the Purple Dinosaur (in combrison to video games) as a classic masterpiece?

If he wants to see butchering of the word "art", he should look at the Dante's Inferno game by.... EA!

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