Film critic Roger Ebert says that video games are not art. A movie, he says, involves "total authorial control": filmmakers tell their stories, and we in the audience follow their leads. But in a video game, the audience are the storytellers to a large extent. So how can there be a cohesive vision of anything?

The question of whether video games are art is a controversial one, but I think that they definitely do have stories and themes—they just express those things differently than movies do. (And movies, I'm sure Mr. Ebert would agree, express them differently than books. Movies won't put the story on hold while we step into a character's head; and no film of The Aeneid could capture the rhythm or beauty of Vergil's language).

So, do video games "represent a loss of those precious hours we have available to make ourselves more cultured, civilized, and empathetic," as Ebert argues? I don't think so. While "civilized" and "cultured" are the kinds of words that mean whatever their users want them to mean ("We are cultured and civilized and you are not," America's "founding fathers" told the native Americans centuries ago), "empathetic" has a pretty clear definition. And I do think that games teach us empathy. In fact, I think they do it better than movies or books do, because we are so involved, personally and physically, with their stories.

Take Ben's Game. The game's creator, Ben Duskin, designed it when he was nine years old and his leukemia was in remission. Ben wanted to make a game that would help kids with cancer and, with the help of LucasArts's senior software engineer Eric Johnston and the Make-A-Wish Foundation, he created something that's fun, free, and available to just about everybody.

If you're looking for a plot in Ben's Game, the sort of three-pronged narrative you were taught to identify in English class, you won't find one. Players take on rogue cancer cells and are armed with a variety of weapons. The cancer cells spawn continually from a large, silly-looking boss that the hero must destroy before moving on. These bosses each represent a side-effect of cancer treatment—Fever, Barf, Colds, Rash, Chicken Pox, Hair Loss and Bleeding—and beating one gives us a shield against that side-effect.

Our hero "Ben" has no backstory (in fact, players can change his appearance and name if they want), but I didn't need one. Ben's Game melds its gameplay and its themes so seamlessly that I empathized with the hero—or rather, became him—right away. That is the power of video games: they turn us so completely, so intimately, into other people. We move, see, and think from the perspective of our avatars. Instead of feeling with them, we feel as them, and Ben's Game cleverly takes advantage of our empathy.

Like many video games, Ben's Game has lots of power-ups. But these power-ups are also tie in to the game's cancer-killing: we get health from the hospital, ammunition from the pharmacy, and attitude from home. We can access these places in every level, as many times as we like. Some people might think that going for health again and again makes the game too easy, but these power-ups are about more than just getting us through the game. They are part of what Ben wants us to learn from it.

Skateboarding around a circular room and shooting cells with my crossbow, I learned that it's perfectly natural for me to get hurt. There are so many cells that spawn so quickly that there is no way for me to finish a level unscathed. But when I did, there was always somwhere I could go for help—and it didn't matter if I'd gone there thirty seconds before. Unlike other games where players must earn any assistance they get are out of luck if they need more, there is always help available to us in Ben's Game at any time. We don't have to "deserve" assistance: we just ask for it.

And, often, it was in my best interests to take a little damage. "Attitude" is depleted by running into electrically-charged barriers. But these barriers bounced me off them like a pinball, and boinging around was sometimes the best way to move through a level. In the game, imperfection is absolutely necessary for one's well-being. Sometimes having a "bad" attitude is the best way to tackle a problem.

I learned these lessons through my own trial and error, without an auteur telling me what to think. And I've also taken them deeply to heart, since I actually had to work to discover them. They might be ineffectual in a book or movie (a Lifetime original movie, for instance) because "authorial control" could easily make them sound preachy or high-handed.Of course, such themes could be handled just as badly in a different game. But Ben knows better than to take this project too seriously—games are about having fun, and he makes sure players have lots of it. In fact, I had so much fun with Ben's Game that I wish it were a lot longer. Maybe Ben and Eric will make Ben's Second Game. Or maybe I'll just have to wait ten years for Ben to get his B.S. in game design.

(Download Ben's Game for PC or Mac OS X).

Tera Kirk

Tera Kirk

Tera Kirk grew up in a small Nebraska town called Papillion. Although she has a nonverbal learning disability that affects her visual-spatial skills (among other things), she's always loved video games. Her first game system was a Commodore Vic-20, which her mom bought at a garage sale for $20. With this little computer Tera learned to write Mad Libs in BASIC, to play chess and to steal gold from Fort Knox.

But then a friend introduced her to the seedy underworld of the Mario brothers and she spent her saved-up birthday and Christmas money to buy a Nintendo Entertainment System (NES). Her mom didn't like the Nintendo at first, but The Legend of Zelda changed her mind. (When Tera got Zelda II: The Adventure of Link one Christmas, she suspected it was as much for her mother as for her).

Though she graduated from Agnes Scott College in 2002 and recently learned how to find the movie theater restroom by herself, Tera still loves video games. Far from being a brain-rotting waste of time, they've helped her practice spatial skills and discover new passions. Her love of games like Kid Icarus and The Battle of Olympus led to a degree in Classical Languages and Literatures. She thinks games have a place in discussions on disability and other cultural issues, and is excited to work with the like-minded staff at GameCritics.com.
Tera Kirk

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Tera Kirk
Tera Kirk
13 years ago

Thanks for the comments, everyone. I agree that “art” is pretty much defined by whoever’s using the word at the time. That definition usually ends up as: “Whatever looks like art to me.” Some art historians will talk about the “evolution” of art: not surprisingly, they place stuff that looks more like what they think of as “art” higher in the evolutionary chain. (Someone might like representational art better than abstract art, and argue that the more representational a drawing or painting is, the “more artistic” it is). All discussions about what’s art and what’s not are thick with biases… Read more »

Snack Eater
Snack Eater
13 years ago

Well, Ed, I think (some) videogamers care because they don’t want their pastime to be what Ebert says it is. And also– Art: 1. the quality, production, expression, or realm, according to aesthetic principles, of what is beautiful, appealing, or of more than ordinary significance. (first of 16 definitions of art at dictionary.com) That doesn’t make you old fashioned, that makes you wrong. Tell me Guernica is “bull.” Tell me Citizen Kane is “bull.” Name me something at the peak of its form of human expression that is “bull.” Then please tell me why in a short essay, minus five… Read more »

Ed
Ed
13 years ago

The question is, why do videogamers care if videogames are called art? Art, and call me old fashioned, is an artists’ work on a canvas. That’s paintbrush and paint, not sprites. The videogame world should differentiate themselves from the pretentious bull that is “art” and all that it encompasses. The word has been bandied about by pretentious farts — I’m sick of it.

Mike Doolittle
Mike Doolittle
13 years ago

I love Ebert’s movie reviews, even if I don’t always agree with him, but in this case he clearly is talking about a subject matter he has no knowledge of or experience with. What makes Ebert qualified to comment on videogames? Does he have a level 40 thief in Elder Scrolls IV? Like movies, games can be escapist trash, or they can evoke powerful sensations and emotions. I hate arguments about whether games are “art”, because the word is defined so arbitrarily as to make it completely meaningless. I don’t know if videogames fit Ebert’s definitions of art, but games… Read more »

sig
sig
13 years ago

I like the way you construct and support the empathy argument, but I don’t think it’s necessary if the notion of videogames as “art” is what you’re after. Ebert is brilliant sometimes, but clueless in others and I think you’re just letting him lead you down a dead end this time. No film can boast of “total authorial control” — and if such a film somehow could be made to exist, then by definition it wouldn’t resonate with different individuals and be amenable to conflicting interpretations. By the same token, no game is perfectly interactive — we are always being… Read more »