Friday, July 2, 2010

No need to apologize, Mr. Ebert. Video games are NOT art.

Okay, so I'm late coming to this debate but I thought I'd throw in my two cents. As many people know, esteemed film critic Roger Ebert made a pronouncement a few years back that video games can never be art. He recently backtracked and modified that statement to, "Let me just say that no video gamer now living will survive long enough to experience the medium as an art form." After a flurry of over 4,500 mostly angry comments from gamers, he's backtracked further and conceded, "I should not have written that entry without being more familiar with the actual experience of video games."

He need not have bothered apologizing. Even though he overstated his original case, he is still essentially correct that video games as they are right now are not art.  Maybe sometime, but not yet. There's no shame in that. Operas were invented in the 16th century, but didn't become an undisputed art form until the 18th century. Most forms go through an exploratory phase before some geniuses are able to create exceptional masterpieces with that form.

But Ebert's argument was theoretical and pointed out that games have a competitive or skill-testing component that art doesn't. It seems to me a sensible observation that games and art don't even share the same intent and purpose. He rightly pointed out that no other game is an art form, and that "Bobby Fischer, Michael Jordan and Dick Butkus never said they thought their games were an art form." So what would make video games so much more special than other games?

I had no problem with him making those statements without having had much experience of video games themselves. What he has is expertise in art, which those vilifying him generally did not have. That knowledge and understanding of art is the critical component in recognizing what is or isn't art.

Ebert rightly wonders why gamers even care. But they do. And their logic seems to go something like this: I like video games; therefore they are great. Art is supposed to be something great; therefore video games are art. How would they respond if an athlete or sports commentator said that video games were not sports? After all, there's a physical component in common with both. Would they insist that they had to try a particular example, or play with a certain console? Doesn't the fact that many games are based on sports mean that it is one?

Other questions need to be asked too. Can video games be science? Religion? If video games are art, can anything and everything be art? Garbage-collecting? Pornography? Toast-buttering? Are video game designers and manufacturers even trying to make art? If video games are indeed art, who are its great artists?

I've had this discussion with a number of friends who are artists, and most agree that video games are not art. One said that he can happily waste a whole day with friends playing various games, but doesn't consider what they've done any form of art. Another thought that there are elements of art in the making of games, but that it doesn't make the games themselves art. Some thought that video games are getting pretty close. A few disagreed with Ebert but thought the best examples were not the best known and offered to show me some examples they considered art. I will take them up on the offer, but I'm skeptical.

What would be more convincing is not a bunch of kids telling Ebert he's an out-of-touch old man who doesn't know what he's talking about, but someone who is distinguished and knowledgeable about the arts who disagrees with him. Clive Barker is okay at what he does, but I don't know too many people who would consider him at the forefront of literature or filmmaking. Now if a Salman Rushdie, Margaret Atwood, Yo-Yo Ma, Meryl Streep or Jean-Luc Godard were to insist that video games were art, I for one would sit up and take them seriously.

As for the elusive definition of art, it is may be impossible to find. But people in the arts know it when they see it. People who are artists or dilettantes - in the sense of being serious about art and who spend their whole life surrounded by it - have a higher threshold in their definition than mere dabblers - dilettantes in the more negative sense. For artists, art is more than mere amusement or entertainment, but something deeper and more meaningful.

I think it's a shame that Ebert has been bullied into submission for expressing his opinion. It would be bad enough if he were wrong, but the fact it that he is correct. All he was saying was that the emperor has no clothes. Shouting him down won't change that.


  1. I've got to disagree with you and Mr. Ebert on a few points, David.

    Ebert is basing many of his assumptions about video games on experiences he had with them more than twenty years ago. He boils down video games their barest elements, comparing them to objective based real world games like chess and checkers that have rules and boundaries. This may have been true decades ago, when video games were much more simple and rudimentary, but today the comparison just isn't appropriate for many video games.

    There are so many genres and types of video games that making blanket statements about them, as if they are a homogenous medium, is unfair. There are still simple puzzle based games like Tetris or Bejeweled that are often designed by only a few people... but at the opposite end of the spectrum you have multi-million dollar titles designed and developed by teams of hundreds. There is a lot of artistry that goes into these games. Whether that makes the final product art, is up for argument of course, but many modern games have true auteurs behind them; people like Fumito Ueda, Hideo Kojima, Keita Takahashi, Jenova Chen, Warren Spector, the list goes on. The games feature compelling, full fledged narratives spanning hours. There are post-modern games that are intertextual and self-referential... games that break the fourth wall and can elicit an emotional response from the player. I haven't yet been as moved by a game as I have by a film, but I have been moved. Baby steps, like you said.

    Ebert is not out of touch, he's just stubborn and likes to push people's buttons. This debate has proven just how adept at the latter he has become. As for Clive Barker, the guy is a hack, at least as a game designer... he doesn't speak for me.

    I'm rambling here, but I'd love to talk with you more about this.

    If you're interested in learning more I urge you to come out to the next Toronto Hand Eye Society social to talk with members of the local indie game development community. There you'll get a chance to see and play what they're working on and chat with some really, very bright people.

    The emperor has clothes, you just have to know them to see them.

  2. Thanks for your response Will. I'll check it out when I get a chance. I'll try to keep an open mind too, but as I said I'm skeptical.

    I don't doubt that I can derive enormous pleasure from games, and that there are many elements in games that are highly artistic. But that's true of sports like hockey too - there are designers, musicians and artists that contribute to the game (esp. goalie masks) and I certainly get a lot of pleasure from the experience. But does that make it art? I'd have to say no.

    This is likely one of those gray areas where different people will reach different conclusions. But it's an interesting debate.