Roger Ebert recently published an article reiterating his claim that games are not art. This was in response to a TED talk given by USC student Kellee Santiago.

I’d have liked to see Santiago take Ebert down a notch with a strong argument, but she came off as many of the ‘game school generation’ do: all talk and born to sell out (e.g. using marketability as evidence of artistry). I assume this is because graduates would rather not alienate the industry or general populace with their ideas, but the need to maintain a friendly facade dilutes the message too much for my taste. For that reason, I’d also have liked to see Ebert take Santiago down a notch, until he stopped making sense.

One of Ebert’s key failings is that his actual views on art remain a mystery and for that reason, I hope to convey my perspective through my discussion of Santiago and Ebert. I welcome attack.

I agree with Santiago’s saying that games “already are art.” And I more or less fall in line with her concession to Ebert’s infamous statement:

“To my knowledge, no one in or out of the field has ever been able to cite a game worthy of comparison with the great dramatists, poets, filmmakers, novelists and composers.”
-Roger Ebert

But I’m not impressed by her conservative declaration that Chess cannot be considered a work of art, saying that “We must draw a line.” In my view, the status of art is binary. Games either are or are not art. I argue that they are art, but as a whole, I wouldn’t call them very good art. Perhaps Santiago would support my distinction because she bases her definition in part on Robert McKee’s description of good writing–not art writing, but good. And with popular video game development over 30 years old, I do not buy the argument that games as an art form are in their infancy. Film was invented in 1895 and by 1925 the world was full of masterful and respected filmmakers practicing their art solely as an art and their work is studied to this day.

Ebert rightly attacks Santiago’s description of ancient art as “chicken scratches,” however I’m not sure why he discusses the cave paintings of Chauvet-Pont-D’Arc because Santiago displayed a completely different example of ancient art that appears to be Native American (though I don’t recognize it off-hand). And while Ebert fails to appreciate Santiago’s examples of gaming artistry; Waco, Braid and Flower; they are the same examples given in countless other art-game arguments that also failed to persuade the least of sophisticants and I would happily expand upon Ebert’s criticisms if prompted. I am again left with no side to take when Ebert becomes distracted by Santiago’s screenshot of George Melies’ A Voyage to the Moon (1902) because I’m more apt to compare the average video game to Thomas Edison’s Electrocuting an Elephant (1903). Ebert’s criticisms are entirely appropriate, but at each attempt to formulate his own idea, it becomes clear that this debate isn’t going very far.

His meandering struggle to imply a philosophy led me to believe Ebert’s thoughts are far too disorganized for him to be taken seriously as any kind of theorist, especially in regards to games. This may go without saying considering his famous distaste for film theory and more importantly, that his judgment of the entire video game medium comes without having played a one of them.

Ebert cites famous approaches to art, suckerpunching Santiago’s attempts to define it until at one point he seems to consider the act of defining art a pointless endeavor, saying

“But we could play all day with definitions, and find exceptions to every one.”
-Roger Ebert on defining the word ‘art’

I was very disappointed by this because ever since Ebert’s initial decree that games are not and never will be art, I was curious about what complex and deep understanding of the arts led him to that conclusion. Without providing any reasons for his statement, it appeared that he preferred to attack the work of others without ever making his own ideas vulnerable–like some kinda lousy critic! Not so, because throughout the entirety of a discussion inherently linked to the definition of art, Ebert managed a single related concept:

“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.”
-Roger Ebert enlightening no one

I couldn’t help but notice the hint of hypocrisy passing flatulently between Ebert’s words,

“Kellee Santiago has arrived at this point lacking a convincing definition of art.”
-Roger Ebert clearly meaning to address himself

Ebert does state that a difference between games and art is that you can win a game. Ah, what a school of thinkers to join, the ‘art is the thing you can’t win’ guys. He goes on to make one obvious point against his definition of art as ‘a thing one cannot win’ in saying

“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.”
-Roger Ebert implying that if games are art, they must be some other kind of art (?)

I have to admit, he’s gone over my head here. When the video game came about, everyone seemed to agree it was a new, patentable invention worthy of an original name and place within our culture, but apparently that’s when Ebert diverged from the mainstream. Is he conceding that our so-called ‘video games’ ARE art, with the caveat that they’re actually some digital offsping of dancing and books? Is he confusing games with the ipad? Frankly, I don’t care to find out, but in case his claims are anything more than totally ridiculous, I’ve cited a few ‘Loser Games’ at the end of this post, each of which leads one to question the concept of victory and each of which is clearly a game.

Ebert does end on a high note, condescending as it may be:

Why are gamers so intensely concerned, anyway, that games be defined as art? Bobby Fischer, Michael Jordan and Dick Butkus never said they thought their games were an art form. Nor did Shi Hua Chen, winner of the $500,000 World Series of Mah Jong in 2009. 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.

If I was unconcerned with the perception of games as art, I wouldn’t have written this post, but I don’t think we need to be pleading to anyone. We don’t need a friendly facade or to win over outdated critics. If you believe in games as art, the criticism of likeminded peers has to be feedback enough because catering to an audience uninterested in one’s art will only lead one to create bad art. I believe what we need is a higher standard for ourselves, our ideas, and our games. Today’s game development community is all too accomadating, especially among independent developers. Kellee Santiago is doing a good job screaming out the message and I hope she can bring together some talented people, but Ebert is right about one thing: video games as art suck. Everyone seems to agree with this when we discuss games in general, but no one has the guts to point out examples and criticize them. How else will progress be made?

Things are developing, but it’s not because of universities, publishers or markets. Just as in any art, it’s thanks to the artists who invest themselves independently of any of those influences, out of personal desire.

Ebert says that we won’t live to see games respected as an art form. I say give it 10 to 20 years and pretentious developers will have us wishing he was right. I say games are art, and yes, that makes me happy.

-Christopher J. Rock


Loser Games
If Ebert were ever to actually play a game, he might be aware of how questionable the claim of ‘winning’ one really is as opposed to ‘finishing’ it, as one does a film or novel.

While many games are entirely motivated by achieving a sense of victory that is acknowledged and encouraged by the game itself, there are some games in which winning is obviously out of the question. Just one breed would be games that never end. Take for example the outrageously popular Sim games or MMOs such as World of Warcraft. No matter how well you build a city, manage your household, or defeat orcs and level-up, the games just keep going. No winner, no loser. A cursory examination of games as a whole would reveal a long list of equally indefinite works. The judgment of whether or not a player is winning in these games is about as arbitrary as whether or not you can win at a book or movie. Maybe to Ebert these games, in fact, ARE a book or movie.

One very cinematic example is the Kobayashi Maru of Star Trek II: Wrath of Khan. This fictional game is an unwinnable test of star fleet cadets in which they must seek the best possible outcome according to their own judgment. Like many great games, this one is designed to reveal the character of the player rather than reward him or her with achievement. One could even argue that the whole idea of ‘winning’ a game stems from the use of games in assessing players by judging their assessment of the game. Certainly every other form of art becomes a game in academia, where a student’s assessment of art is used to assess the student. Why then, when the player’s behavior holds no external consequences, is the winning of a game of any importance? In that context, isn’t the game only a work of art? And yes, there are nerdier things than discussing Star Trek II:Wrath of Khan in a post about video game art, I just can’t think of any right now. BACK OFF.

Another interesting take on victory came to me from my coblogger, Bryson, when I started playing Secret of Mana. He has loved the game for years and I was about 2 minutes into it for the first time when he asked me if I wanted to see the secret ending. He said, “Don’t get the sword.” This is after I’ve followed what really looked like a linear path, with no other options, to a sword in a stone. “Yeah, that’s the end,” he said. “If you take the sword, all of the monsters come out and cover the world. Leave it there and you beat the game.” If you agree with Bryson’s unique perspective on the game you must agree that a player’s definition of victory can exist apart from that which the game acknowledges (if there is any acknowledgement at all). Knowing this, were I to continue the game, it would no longer be to win, but out of curiousity–to know what happens if I do take the sword. That sounds remarkably like my motivation for taking in any other work of art, particularly those that are story driven. I would go so far as to say that it is remarkably similar to imaginary games played by children or the way that Temple Grandin describes the game played by dogs in Animals in Translation, in which each dog takes turns losing simply because they want to keep playing. Perhaps the games of animals are a better example of Santiago’s “chicken scratches” and evidence that games were not invented in the 70’s.

(Spoilers ahead)

Finally, I must cite what is perhaps the most overcited of art-game examples, Shadow of the Colossus. The game begins with the protagonist, Wander, arriving at a temple with the corpse of a girl, placing it on an altar and praying for her rejuvination. He is then instructed by an ominous voice to hunt and kill beasts of unprecedented scale and power. As Wander, I defeated each monster, and was returned to the temple in which a totem associated with my fallen foe would magically crumble. I distinctly sensed that the protagonist’s mission was disrupting the balance of the world and perhaps was motivated by dark forces to which he was blinded by an obsession with the girl. I felt my suspicions to be confirmed when the final colossus turned out to be Wander himself. The game ends after Wander has transformed into a colossus and, as he, the player has battled against a band of men that have tracked Wander ever since he began his quest.

Shadow of the Colossus was the successor of Ico which generated the same sense of unnatural disruption while, as a boy named Ico, the player escapes sacrifice and in an attempt to rescue a girl named Yorda, destroys the spirits and temple which are perhaps of great religious significance to his civilization. The player’s objective throughout this game is to protect Yorda and escape, but she is there to serve as a vessel for one of the spirits and eventually the player cannot save Yorda and escape alive. Ico attempts to achieve both goals anyway, but after having vanquished the spirit that meant to possess Yorda he is knocked unconcious and only escapes the temple because the lingering spirit of Yorda delivers him to a boat as the temple collapses. In literature an ending such as this may be called a ‘tragic victory,’ but according to Ebert, there are no such conclusions in games.

More importantly than the place of success in either Shadow of the Colossus or Ico is that its ambiguity is one of many shared themes in these games which can be credited to the vision of Fumito Ueda. I can’t think of a time I’ve discussed theme and auteurship in regards to a subject that was not a work of art, but maybe Ebert has an example. I’ll be looking for these ideas in Ueda’s next project, The Last Guardian.


About the author:
Christopher J. Rock (http://)
Film student at California State, Long Beach. I want to make the gaming world a better place.
  • simply: hope he dies on chains and will never be remembered like:

    Shigeru Miyamoto
    Takashi Tezuka
    Jordan Mechner
    Hironobu Sakaguchi

    (Nintendo seems to dominate).

    if he might call a movie an ultimate form of art as the best way to transmit a huge amount of specific succession of sensations. then games are just larger then life.

    in my opinion, games in general, have the potential to shake one’s soul to it’s very foundation. there are a few titles who benefit from this potential.

    how may times did you experienced fear, love, compassion, joy within a game? how does the amount hold foot in front of a movie, music, painting? movies i think are the only one that can replicate what games can do, but some games are just too far ahead.

    while movies force the sensation upon the consumer, games invoke them in a natural way. wile paintings offer one perspective of beauty, games offer an endless stream of it.

    probably he is right. games are not an art form, but because the are so much more sometimes.

  • personally i liked the deepness of “a company of myself”. it is a bit more like narrative, but the game environment somehow deepens it.

  • Christopher J. Rock

    Jeez, seems like a cool game, but those controls are way too buggy. Really frustrating.

    Dude’s gotta figure out the KEY_UP event.