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On Roger Ebert, Video Games, and Art

by Brandon on April 21st, 2010

It came to my attention this afternoon that Roger Ebert, previously on record claiming “video games can never be art,” has sought to elaborate on this statement for… well, for some reason, I should think.  He builds his case as a rebuttal to Kellee Santiago’s TED talk at USC on the subject.  If this discussion interests you, you should read his piece as well as Kellee’s response.

Framing the discussion and defining terms
Ebert devotes a large (indeed perhaps the largest) portion of the article to a vain attempt at defining the term “art.”  Crucially, he neglects to define the other half of the equation he proposes: “video game.”  This is not to say that Ebert doesn’t have a definition, indeed it seems he does.  Instead I’d like to point out his unwillingness to share it with us or court any kind of consensus about it.  Ebert says:

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.

This seems either disingenous or daft.  He quite nearly states that a video game cannot be art because if it were to be art, it would cease to be a video game.  It is unfortunate that Ebert did not elaborate on what he believes constitutes a video game.  I believe this is the most interesting angle from which to approach the issue, in contrast to his approach of attempting to define art, failing, and then sneaking in an easily contested definition for a different term which turns his argument into a tautology.

A video game’s purpose
Ebert seems to imply that a video game’s purpose is to have “points” and to be “won,” dismissing any value in the associated experience.  My question to Mr. Ebert is then: what is the purpose of a book?  Is it not simply to be read according to a set of rules?  Surely one can’t go about reading page 42, then page 12, then page 100.  This would violate the rules which stipulate you begin on the first page and continue, in sequence, to the last one.  One could then argue that by following these rules and ultimately reading the last page, you have “won” the book.  Perhaps if the book contains 400 pages, we could consider those to be “points.”

No one would argue that the ordering of the pages, the rules for navigating the book’s content, is likely to be artistic.  I am thus confused why Ebert fixates on the fact that video games have an end and some mechanism to guide you from start to finish.  Many other artistic mediums have such things.

I propose that the distinguishing characteristic of a video game versus, say, a film – is interactivity.  Both share many of the same artistic elements: visuals, narrative, storytelling mechanics, acting, musical scores, and so on.  However films and books are not interactive.  That is, they do not adapt to input from the viewer.  They are static.

If Ebert would like to separate the notion of an interactive film from a video game, then I invite him to make such an argument.  However, I must note that such a redefinition would inevitably result in the reclassification of existing content.  I would have no hesitation in proposing that Mass Effect is an interactive film at least as much as it is a video game.  There’s no getting around the fact that much of the content we have today fits into both of those classifications (and perhaps others, if you wish to invent them).  Halo is undeniably a video game, and the multiplayer aspect is arguably nothing else.  But the campaign is about experiencing the story rather than achieving victory.  Just like a film or a novel, you cannot lose Halo.  You can only stop before you reach the end.

Parts versus the whole
Regardless of whether a video game itself can constitute art, it seems obvious that they can contain it.  Game developers employ artists to create art for their games.  This extends far beyond visuals.  The musical score for Halo, for instance, is phenomenal in its own right.  The same can be said of film.  So how does a film become art?  Do we measure the sum of its artistic components?  The artistry of its music?  Of its narrative?  Do we critique the performances of its actors?  Video games have all of these same elements, which themselves I believe Mr. Ebert will agree can be art.  So I ask, Mr. Ebert, what do you believe elevates a particular film to be worthy of being called art?  Is it the sum of the artistic value of its elements?  Is that sum orthogonal to the artistic value of the film itself?  Or must that sum meet some threshold which allows it to be considered, yet not be enough on its own to merit awarding the title?

Argument from ignorance
Ebert disappoints me by confessing that he has no firsthand experience with the medium, let alone with highly regarded specific examples.  This seems rather like an illiterate person trying to explain to me why Shakespeare wasn’t an artist.  Even if he stumbles upon a fair point, he’s not likely to frame it with anything I’d call insightful.  Ebert’s failure to recognize the importance of defining video games likely stems from this ignorance, and not from any ill will or intellectual ineptitude.  If that illiterate man had been explained the purposes of recipe books and instruction manuals, and then asked whether or not he thought books were a form of art, I wonder what he would say.

Kellee offered to provide Ebert with a Playstation 3 system to experience a game called Flower.  I am not familiar with this game, but I have some more mainstream recommendations to make.  I already mentioned Mass Effect and Halo, two of my favorite game series which each create massive (and ever-expanding) universes with engaging stories, deep and memorable characters, and top-notch performances from their respective voice actors.  I could recommend many others, but for someone familiar with the world of film, these may prove particularly enlightening.

What do you think?
Do you have an opinion on the subject?  Did I get something wrong?  Do you have an example you think is the epitomy of art from the video game industry?  Leave a comment and let me know.

From → Life of Brandon

3 Comments
  1. Andrew Clifton-Brown permalink

    I think your article is well balanced, and argues above and beyond the merits of Video Games as an art form. I think essentially it all boils down to unconscious snobbery and lack of exposure on Ebert’s part.

  2. Dan permalink

    I’m pretty sure Myst already answered the question of whether or not video games could be art, years ago.

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