There was a firestorm created about a year ago when famed movie critic Roger Ebert declared "rather rashly" (his words) that videogames are not art. What's more, Ebert declares not only that videogames are not art, but due to their interactive nature, can never be art. Predictably, Ebert's comments put gamers in an uproar, and this debate has been ressurected somewhat as horror writer extraordinair Clive Barker, in an article at GamesIndustry.biz, took Ebert to task for his comments. Ebert has responded in kind on his website, going so far as to pettily insult Barker by equating him to a 4-year-old. If Ebert had any legs to stand on, he wouldn't need to resort to such childish tactics.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. Now, I can't presume that Ebert is wrong just because he lacks credibility. But his lack of credibility certainly casts an ambiguous shadow over his understanding of the medium. Clearly, Ebert is not a gamer, as evidenced by his frequent use of "them" rhetoric to describe gamers. He makes no claims of being a gamer in any capacity, yet he believes that despite his utter ignornance of the medium, he's enough of an expert on it to declare that it is not, and can never be, what he calls "high art".

I'd like to respond to Mr. Ebert's comments, but before I do, I think that it's important to recognize that any conversation about "what is art" is going to be so full of ambiguity and ego as to be nearly devoid of productive rational discussion. The problem is simply that "art", and it's even more pretentious sibling "high art", are defined so vaguely, subjectively and arbitrarily that neither can be effectively utilized in any discussion. Ebert even states on his site that videogames cannot be high art "as [he] defines it". He doesn't bother to take the time to enlighten us as to what exactly his definition is, but he leaves us some clues to which we can respond.

The statement that caught my eye the most is this:

"I believe art is created by an artist. If you change it, you become the artist."

What Ebert does not understand is that videogames are created by artists, and they are created as a medium in which the audience interacts. So the fact that the player makes choices in a game does not render the player the artist, because the artists who created the game designed it with the intent to be experienced as an interactive medium. Additionally, no game is defined by player choices. While many games offer multiple paths and branching story arcs, and while many games create the illusion of freedom and control, the player is ultimately being guided within the framework that the developers planned and created, making it fundamentally no different than literature, film, or any other medium Ebert finds more "artistic".

Ebert also caught my attention with the statement,

"If you can go through 'every emotional journey available,' doesn't that devalue each and every one of them?"

This is his response to Barker's statement that "We should be stretching the imaginations of our players and ourselves. Let's invent a world where the player gets to go through every emotional journey available. That is art. Offering that to people is art.

Not only does Ebert fail to explain how experiencing "every emotional journey" devalues any of them, but he fails to explain why he feels that an artistically created medium that is designed to allow its audience to interact within its given framework is less artistic than mediums in which the audience participates passively. We're just supposed to believe that games are less artistic because he said so. The truth is that videogames' interactive nature allows their creators to craft experiences that can evoke a much broader array of emotional responses than any passive medium, because the story can change as the player interacts with the game – leading each time to different consquenses, different resolutions, and different revelations.

Ebert closes his article with comments about escapism, likening videogames to escapist entertainment but claiming it falls short of being "art". He claims that certain movies, such as Spider-Man, are great entertainment, but not great art. Much of this requires a debate I don't have the space for here, as it really boils down to each person's arbitrary definition of "art". So, I can't say much about the art thing because it would just take us around in circles, but I can answer a more relevant question Ebert's comments raise: are games mere escapism, or are they (and can they be) as provocative and as emotionally compelling as films and literature?

Games may often fall under the umbrella of escapism, provoking neither emotion nor intellect; however, many games effectively do one or both. Ico gave its players a powerful emotional connection to its lead characters; the Metal Gear Solid series deals with complex themes of peace, war, humanity, and indentity; Brother In Arms brought to life the camaraderie and humanity of World War II battles; Half-Life 2 brought to life a dystopian future in which humans are encouraged to yield to genocidal aliens under the guise of humanity's evolutionary destiny; and S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl allows players to make moral decisions in a plot that tackles fundamental questions about the ethical boundaries of profound scientific discoveries. These are just a few games rattled off the top of my head. The list could go on and on. The point is, games are every bit as capable of tackling provocative and relevant themes as any other artistic medium. Their interactive nature belies the fact that the player is ultimately still the audience in the experience the developer – the artist – has crafted. Perhaps the only real difference is that, like early films, videogames are a technologically evolving medium. As technology improves, so will developers' abilities to fully realize their artistic visions.

The issue, then, comes back to Ebert's credibility. I've seen hundreds of movies in my lifetime, but it seems quite dubious whether Ebert has played even a single videogame in his. Until he takes the time to experience what the interactive medium has to offer and can construct a more coherent and substantive argument, his criticisms will lack the validity to be taken seriously by his contemporaries, gamers or not. You're a fine film critic Mr. Ebert, but when it comes to videogames, you're out of your league.

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Carlos
Carlos
13 years ago

The above message is a response to Benjamin Hopper’s comment. In addition, I’d like to post my opinion referring to the anonymous “argument” about videogames not being art. You compare videogames to great works of art in literature like Milton’s work (which I’m particularly fond of) and Homer’s creations (which have also defined my taste since my youth), yet you fail to present an argument as to why those pieces excel the capacity to express ideas of videogames. I love the creations of both writers, but I also find myself questioning my life in a much deeper way when I’m… Read more »

Carlos
Carlos
13 years ago

Especially when those people are game developers, you’re supposed to be defending your craft!!!! But wait, I may be wrong, may be you’re just a programmer (as I am), a modeler or a Level designer, or in the worst case, a Game Designer, that doesn’t care what you tell people with your creation, as long as it sells good. Others have said it already, but as with movies or novels, some authors may decide to create something enticing for the audience, something provocative to their way of thinking, of seeing life, of seeing the nature of the world. Others simply… Read more »

some artist
some artist
13 years ago

In regards to Ebert’s position on art and the video game, I would like to quote a parcel of wisdom from what is known as Clark’s Laws. “When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong.” Going along with the saying “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks”, It is held as recurring theme that authority in a subject is never permanent. I would go on to say that much of all great, or high art as we currently regard… Read more »

some guy
some guy
13 years ago

Like a touching book or a movie, I cried at the end of Metal Gear Solid 3 Snake Eater. They say a book can be good for you becauze you can learn something from it. Playing games in general and guitar hero made my hand and eye co-ordination way better than the normal folk and Im learning to play a real guitar at a much faster pace than the people who dont play videogames. And what about Brain Age? Videogames are business and people making them are in it for money only? Why are we paying for movie tickets, books… Read more »

Mike Doolittle
Mike Doolittle
13 years ago

Wow, I’m really surprised this blog has gotten so much attention. That’s neat. Some of you guys have some interesting thoughts, and I appreciate all the feedback. I’m also surprised at how some people feel some bizarre need to rudely antagonize and patronize other people in the process of making a point. Lighten up folks.

Anonymous
Anonymous
13 years ago

“For the last time, in as basic English as is possible: I did not define art. I defined video games.” You did not define art, and I did not claim that you did. Instead you gave examples of what you thought to be art in comments such as the following: “Video games are not “high art”. They are, potentially, the HIGHEST form of art”. Based upon that comment you clearly think that video games display qualities of high art, something I very much disagree with. Hence, my post sought to argue against video games being high art. With that cleared… Read more »

Xenkan
Xenkan
13 years ago

“Dropping cliches as if they are some sort of mathematical proof fails to prove anything. Regardless, you don’t seem to understand what high art is to begin with. Any definition of art is necessarily fuzzy” For the last time, in as basic English as is possible: I did not define art. I defined video games. You, my dear anonymous poster, do not seem to understand what basic logic is to begin with. Since I have apparently been deemed incapable of giving an opinion on art, I will leave your “Comic books and The Transformers movie are not art, therefore video… Read more »

shun
shun
13 years ago

Btw, the above message is a reply to another message by an anonymous poster, who said “Also you sound like a loser that has no life if you find a powerful emotional connection to polygons.”.

shun
shun
13 years ago

Also you sound like a loser that has no life if you find a powerful emotional connection to polygons.

How is “polygons” less real than cartoons, paintings, acted characters from a movie, and written characters from a novel?

Anonymous
Anonymous
13 years ago

[Quote]Video games are not “high art”. They are, potentially, the HIGHEST form of art.[/QUOTE] Dropping cliches as if they are some sort of mathematical proof fails to prove anything. Regardless, you don’t seem to understand what high art is to begin with. Any definition of art is necessarily fuzzy; to quote Aristotle “we must not demand more precision than the subject admits of”. In other words, keep in mind that the definition I am about to give will NECESSARILY be only an outline of the truth of the matter. I would define high art as the abstract depiction of beauty,… Read more »

Anonymous
Anonymous
13 years ago

Ico gave its players a powerful emotional connection to its lead characters; the Metal Gear Solid series deals with complex themes of peace, war, humanity, and indentity; Brother In Arms brought to life the camaraderie and humanity of World War II battles; Half-Life 2 brought to life a dystopian future in which humans are encouraged to yield to genocidal aliens under the guise of humanity’s evolutionary destiny; and S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl allows players to make moral decisions in a plot that tackles fundamental questions about the ethical boundaries of profound scientific discoveries. I fail to see how any of… Read more »

Xenkan
Xenkan
13 years ago

I do not recall defining art. However, I do recall demonstrating that video games are a potentially superior medium with which to convey art. What I have presented is a definition of video games, a definition based directly on other mediums which are unanimously considered art, not a definition of art itself. If A is B, and B is C, A is C by definition. Allow me to make this less complicated… Just as a book can contain within it a story… Just as a painting can contain within it a picture… Just as film can contain within it a… Read more »

Benjamin Hopper
Benjamin Hopper
13 years ago

I mean, this is possibly the worst definition of “art” that I’ve ever seen.

Who defines artistic achievement based on the sheer amount of images/words/media/etc.? I’d say it’s a bit more complicated than that.

Xenkan
Xenkan
13 years ago

Video games are not “high art”. They are, potentially, the HIGHEST form of art.

Is a novel “high art”? Is a painting “high art”? A picture is worth a thousand words, a movie contains one hundred thousand pictures, and a video game can generate a million possible animated sequences. You do the math.

Anonymous
Anonymous
13 years ago

I agree, and since I also work in the industry (And not in QA or game reviews), id say my words carry some weight. He’s right, you are the artist controlling game assets that were created by artists. Is a script art, how about the craft service table? Or the 10k light on the crane? How about the street and the sets? Or is it only art when its all combined into an affecting film that moves you?

It may be a new type of art but still, why try and lump it in with great works of art?

Dean Siren
Dean Siren
13 years ago

How much heritage is there for games as art? We know that sports has a heritage going back to the first time someone ever kicked a ball around. Art has a heritage going back to the first cave paintings and music. But how much heritage is there of the hybridizing of the two? I think there are far fewer examples through history of a hybridized art-game than there are clear examples of one or the other.

Dean Siren
Dean Siren
13 years ago

I’d give Ebert a lot more slack if movies were doing the best job they could, but right now they certainly are not. Movies are at the nadir of cost effectiveness right now. My favorite thing to watch right now are TV on DVD, long stories that take the time they need but also let you watch at your own pace. If movies were at the top of their game, I’d have a lot more respect for their defenders. But far too many people in the movie world right now are just pining for the good old days without producing… Read more »

malkav11
malkav11
13 years ago

I don’t think it’s all that dubious. If I recall correctly, when he started off this whole thing some months ago he quite explicitly said he’d never played games because they used up time he could be using to better himself with books or movies. And that games couldn’t do that, either. Which I find rather funny in light of his recent comments about how he enjoyed reading crime novels and the like strictly as an escapist experience. Gee, what’s wrong with playing a game or two, then? What irritates me so much about his statements is not the assertion… Read more »

Daniel Weissenberger
Daniel Weissenberger
13 years ago

I think Dean hit on part of the problem here in his sports comments. Part of the reason that games have this perception is that they all get lumped into categories so broad that they become meaningless.

Even though they’re both ‘first person shooters’ putting The Darkness in the same category as Shadowrun is the equivalent of saying that playing basketball and acting in a play are similar because they’re both things that groups of people do on a wooden floor in front of a crowd.

Heck, dividing games between sports and art might be a good place to start.

Dean Siren
Dean Siren
13 years ago

Here’s another test of Ebert’s integrity: If a genuinely good or great movie comes out that’s based on a video game, will Ebert still dismiss it, saying that a movie can’t be great if it requires or rewards video game experience?

Dean Siren
Dean Siren
13 years ago

One of the perks of having a long, successful career behind you is that your buddies applaud you for dissing those annoying kids with their crazy ideas. Ebert also admitted in his retrospective on “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly” that it took him a long time to accept that movie as art because it was based on a pulpy genre. But as for the arguments, I’ve said this all before but… I think it would be healthy to first deeply explore the possibilities of video games as sport before trying to perceive them as art. If televized tournament… Read more »

Mike Doolittle
Mike Doolittle
13 years ago

I agree Ben that most videogames are not “high art”. The problem with Ebert’s comments are twofold: one, he asserts that no videogames, ever, have been art. Secondly, he states that no videogame in the future, ever, will ever be art. Ebert is saying that the medium is inherently inferior to films and literature, and that no amount of creativity or effort will allow games to be art. He basically says that because games are interactive, they’re not art and will never be art.

Benjamin Hopper
Benjamin Hopper
13 years ago

Roger Ebert actually makes a good point. There are a few exceptions of course, but most videogames are not art. As he states in his article, anything can be called “art,” such as a Campbell’s Soup can. What he’s getting at is that only a select number of films approach true art. Motion pictures in general do not automatically qualify as art, and the same should hold true for videogames. I do believe that some games do approach that level of artistic achievement — Ico, Shadow of the Colossus. But let’s get real, a lot of what’s out there doesn’t… Read more »

Brad Gallaway
Brad Gallaway
13 years ago

Nice piece, Mike… and I agree 100%.

To listen to this windbag spout off about something he obviously knows exceedingly little about just grates on my nerves, and I’d love to see him actually take the time to learn something about the subject on which he’s pontificating before spewing his ill-informed opinions out into the mainstream.

As a matter of fact, you should send him a copy of your article.. maybe he’ll post it in his column and take cheap shots at us the way he did with Barker.