Games | Art (@ebertchicago)

Twitter exploded this morning with a variety of responses to Roger Ebert’s post this morning in the Chicago Sun-Times entitled “Video games can never be art“. Various folk have posted responses and twitter comments, but I saw a criticism that while Ebert’s post was detailed, nuanced, and provided good arguments, the responses failed to do the same. I hereby run the risk of adding to this pile-up of drivel.

I feel strongly about this subject because I truly believe that modern videogames are a medium which is able to produce art. Yes, I realize this is not the first time people have debated the subject. Apparently, it’s not settled yet.

I do not wish to quibble over definitions with either Ebert or Plato on what exactly art is nor do I wish to address Ebert’s befuddled depiction of gamers’ strong desire to have their choice of entertainment validated as art. However, I feel one thing does need to be cleared up before we address his main point and that is his tenacious hold to the belief that games must have a win-option.

He is right that games have rules, objectives, goals, even that they often have an outcome. But I do not think that any of these necessarily equals or necessitates a win-option. Civilization has win-options but you can continue to play the game after you’ve “won”. Dragon Age has win-options in a way but I would disagree with anyone who said play ended at that point. In fact, it seems new every time you play it. Other games certainly have winnings and endings. Super Mario for example. You beat Bowser and you have won. Of course, you can keep on playing. I know I did as a child with wonder as I looked at rows and rows of items having been giving to me for “beating the game”. Others have an infinite-like point system. Some of the early arcade games like Donkey Kong for example are still being “won” if you can call it that.

I realize that this does not at all contradict his point that games are not art, but I’m not finished. He goes on to claim that if you don’t win a game, you are merely experiencing a representation of some other kind of art – a story, a dance, a film, etc. This is entirely false. Certainly, you are experiencing a game in that you are viewing, interacting, hearing, understanding, questioning, wondering, etc. as you play it. It is not a representation of something else though. It is its own. It transcends those categories and is what we call a game. Perhaps as Justin McElroy noted, our terminology is faulty, but it is what we have and it is what Ebert was referencing. Yes, you experience games. No, they are not simply images of art. They are art.

Ebert goes on to speak of how he disagrees with Santiago’s point that “Art is a way of communicating ideas.” Judging from his response, his adjustment to that statement would be something like art is an avenue for viewers/readers/listeners/etc. to have their own ideas and create their own art. I think he has a valid point. Many artists certainly try to communicate with viewers but I don’t know that they are trying to communicate specific ideas nor that they end up communicating anything they had originally intended. Think Derrida and the infinite interpretations of a text. It is as if art comes out and becomes its own inspirational force.We see a painting or hear a piece of music and are driven to either paint or write in response or perhaps something entirely different. Can games do this? Yes. I of course have a rather personal claim to such if you’ve read anything else of mine over the last year, but I’m not unique in this practice of feeling the need to create after having been inspired by a game. Players create videos, stories, galleries, even cake because they’ve played something and want to respond or because they’ve experienced something and need to express it. Further, games are able to address ideas and problems and allow players to work out resolutions on their own. Dragon Age addresses concepts of racism, morality, justice, love, and more. It doesn’t spell them out and ask for a right or wrong answer. It gives us an experience (actually many experiences) and we are free to be inspired as we will.

Ebert: Art grows better the more it improves or alters nature through a passage through that which we call the artist’s soul or vision.

Going by his definition and assuming that developers have a soul (or some of them), can games do this? Can games improve or alter nature? I would use his own example against him – Braid. He judges it based on an assumption of its rules, namely that they are analagous to chess, but he is in fact quite wrong. A simple trip to another Wikipedia page would have told him this much. Braid does not simply let a player redo their actions if they mess up (that’s what Farmville cash is for .. to unwither your abandoned crops). Rather, it allows the player to examine the way we as humans view the process of time and interact with it. Not only do we redo actions, we have choices about the flow of time. We can see time not be all-powerful – that is, some objects will not be changed by time. One could write a great deal on this game if they gave it some thought after even a brief play-session. My point is this simple, independently-designed game alone alters and changes nature through the vision/soul of its creator. Does it improve it? That is for the player to decide.

Art is not a list that sometimes gets added to or perhaps I just do not have such an exclusive view of art as Ebert’s “greats”. Perhaps Braid or Flower or Dragon Age or anything else doesn’t get compared to Homer or Van Gogh. But it shouldn’t. It isn’t even the same medium of art. Nor is it a copy or an attempt to mimic masterpieces. Art isn’t the business of replicating art. It’s the business of creativity. It’s the business of viewing and experiencing and responding to reality in a way that makes us feel something “real”. If I can play Braid and see the world in a new way, if I can play this game and be inspired to ask questions about what terms like “yesterday” mean and “fate” and “finished”, if I can have this experience/reaction/inspiration out of playing a game, I am experiencing art. We may not have our Michelangelo yet, but that doesn’t mean we aren’t creating art. Even chicken scratchings on a wall can be art as Ebert himself so eloquently showed. A matter of taste – perhaps. If so, Ebert has successfully shown that his palate with respect to this medium is as yet uneducated.

As to his final point, I must agree. Santiago’s circles are circles of fail. Art is not the business of making a profit.

5 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Longasc
    Apr 17, 2010 @ 20:37:26

    Yep, the eternal question how art can be defined and what strange things can be considered art or not.

    Given how strongly Dragon Age tells an interactive story, it is not different to me as some kind of exciting and inspiring art to fantasy books like the Mistborn series by Brandon Sanderson or movies.

    Ebert simply does not know the medium computergames well. That something can be a game and art as well probably does not get into his head.

    LOTRO’s landscapes are art for me. Artists create entire architecture and fashion styles for computer games.


  2. openedge1
    Apr 17, 2010 @ 20:42:48

    Wait…Doesn’t every “Painter” or “Writer” or even “Movie Director” have a WIN option?

    Having your book on the New York Times Bestseller list? = WIN!!
    Having a top 10 grossing movie? = WIN!
    Selling your painting = WIN!

    Or how about
    “Art grows better the more it improves or alters nature through a passage through that which we call the artist’s soul or vision.”

    Sounds like the Artist “Leveled Up”? Thus they improve as they go on?

    Really, I could analogy this all day. What this boils down to is an old fuddy duddy without an open mind who wishes to take something he does not understand and turn it into something that does not tread within his own perceptions.

    Sad old man.


  3. Evan
    Apr 17, 2010 @ 21:40:48

    This is good, and I don’t know if I can answer everything here in one go, but I will see what I can do. One of the first problems is that Ebert, Santiago, and the internet have all been discussing two separate dichotomies simultaneously. When we (you and me) ask “are video games art?” we mean “are there thing which are art and not art, and how can we tell the difference between the two?” Ebert has addresses this some of the time but he always interchangeably appears to be discussing “are things which are ‘art’ but are dull, trite, incomplete, inadequate, etc. still considered art? Is ‘bad’ ‘art’ still ‘art’?”, which, as far as I can tell, is a pretty worthless question or set of questions. Nobody thinks it is reasonable to use Twilight as a means of judging all literature, nor do they think that White Chicks is a suitable representation of the merits of film as an artform, so there is really no reason to say “there exist intellectually bankrupt games; how can fans of video games account for this?” I would say that it is sufficient to say that, for better or worse, art exists in a curious place intellectually, which is very difficult to define. Just as we can be satisfied with a definition of pornography that is entirely confined to human sensibilities (“I know it when I see it”), I think this is our best method of defining art. A picture of someone’s child with a sudsy beard in a bathtub is clearly not pornography, and some nude portraits are clearly designed to be something other than art. How and when games (or anything for that matter) fits into someone’s personal definitions of such a thing, and how this translates into a cultural understanding and evaluation of a film, book, painting, or even video game is more complicated, but I feel that one some fundamental level, this is what is at stake. Many people have been unfair, but not entirely inaccurate in suggesting that Roger Ebert is simply “too old” (like there aren’t people his age who play video games) and “doesn’t get it,” and there are certainly people who unfairly judge video games (and Roger Ebert is kind of one of them), but the arguments against video games being considered art are not baseless.

    Ebert’s discussion of Chess and Football are not at all irrelevant. Our definitions of game are likely as difficult to pin down as our definitions of art, but among them are the considerations of victory (or at the very least success) as well as rules, and these aspects of a video game are problematic as, at the very least, they do not contribute to the aspects of video games that are the most convincingly art-like. If we reduced even overwhelmingly narrative games, like Final Fantasy or Dungeons and Dragons to combat, you’d have Rock-Paper-Scissor (or something slightly more complex) and Risk, games which we would never compare to art, just as we would not compare the experience of playing Chess or witness Chess a work of art. Ebert likely is not intending to apply nearly as much judgment value as he appears to the idea that these things are not art. He says clearly they are still good and worthwhile (Chess anyway, he really does personally not enjoy the concept of most video games), they just occupy a different intellectual space than Homer. As you have very effectively and intelligently discussed in the past, the experiences derived from playing, let’s say, Ocarina of Time, are incredible, meaningful, the adventurous saga befitting of a hero, but this is somehow different from art. If I went on a real life adventure, tramping through the woods or exploring an abandoned temple in Cambodia, no one would describe this as art, even though it may be beautiful and wrought with meaning. If I wrote a story about these experiences, they would stand a decent chance of being read as literature (although Ebert points out in his article that documentaries do not really represent artistic expression in film, and I would likely say the same thing about biographies, histories, and similar books), and if I created a fictional story about an adventure, we would be in yet another space. I do not know, and likely would not be able to discover (perhaps with your help and beers) how to reconcile the differences between art and experience, or how we consider the difference between experiences in the physical universe and experiences in a universe created by another person, but I feel that it must be the case that experiences derived from video games are just that and, in the same way as “real” experiences, do not constitute art.

    You are right in suggesting that Ebert does not seem to acknowledge (likely from lack of experience) the existence of narrative structures in video games, which are, of course, completely absent from games as he understands them, but I think he might agree with me that, for better or worse, the game parts of Final Fantasy are at odds with the narrative parts of it. My previous example, Final Fantasy absent the non-combat elements, boils down to a simple puzzle game, can be seen as one end of a spectrum, with the opposite being just the dialogue, cut scenes, etc. This seems curiously like a movie. It seems to me that both Ebert and myself define literary art primarily in terms of narrative or character, so perhaps it is not fair to suggest that the non-narrative parts of games (to say nothing of non-narrative games) are anti-art so much as anti-narrative, but I have difficulty seeing literary art as being driven by anything other than plot or character development. Our metaphorical currency of what is beautiful in Chess or Basketball is poetry, and perhaps this is something to consider, but this too seems well defined by examining and illuminating something, an activity which a game seems to have difficulty doing. Games examine and illuminate their players, just as our experiences do, does this fit into our understanding of art? I do not know, and, quite frankly, it seems like it will be difficult to know as our ability to simulate experience is incredibly new, and this is what I see as being at the heart of this discussion. You are, once again, exceedingly correct and astute in observing that we won’t figure this out by giving up and saying video games are dumb.


  4. Evan
    Apr 17, 2010 @ 22:16:48

    Games, at their most basic level, are troubled forms of art for the simple reason that they are not finite, in varying degrees. If Civilization included statements about the values of a society or right and wrong, it would damage the gameplay in a way that would certainly not be justified. Similarly, if I can do whatever I want in a game, if the developer doesn’t give me anything to push against, they can’t make any sort of statement. There are a virtually unlimited methods of reading Pride and Prejudice, but if you say that it is about zombies on mars and it cleverly illuminates their struggles, you’re wrong in a way that we don’t often discuss in our considerations of art. If a virtual world is completely open, it is also formless, and it can be about the struggle of zombies on Mars, or anything else. It can mean everything because it doesn’t mean anything, and this a problem. We can endlessly inject allegory into a game (mario wears a red hat, is a plumber and storms a castle, putting of a red flag when he conquers it. Clearly he is a sticking it to the royalist scum of the world!), but this doesn’t make things much better either. We see plenty of games which cleverly and effectively appear to be mixing a fun puzzle with a gripping narrative, but I don’t know that we have seen them properly integrated. Every game I have played has had game and narrative, but not really gameplay that enhanced or affected my understanding of the narrative.

    I also don’t know how to deal with the difference between art and literature. I don’t recall Ebert saying that there are not visually beautiful video games (and if he did say this, he would be wrong), but how do we consider these things? Do we still see paintings as “art” the same way a novel is “art”? Did we ever? Ellen and I have been discussing this and she is interested in defining art as creative craftsmanship and expressions therein, which I feel covers a lot of what we’re discussing. So saying that a screenshot of a game is beautiful (are all beautiful things art? Something intellectual inside of me wants to say that is not the case, but I cannot justify this and for now must conclude that they are. They certainly illuminate and examine the human condition, simply by being what we consider beautiful), does confer some status of art on a game? Does not? Again I think that what is really at stake is how we integrate these things and I still feel like video games, by and large, are not good at doing so, and even fear that it may not be particularly possible. That being said, I really did enjoy your post. I have more things to say on this and hopefully we will discuss this further.


  5. kentsutherland
    Apr 18, 2010 @ 05:34:46

    Thanks for this, Ada — it is thoughtful and well put.


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