My Response To Roger Ebert, Video Game Sceptic

The game developer whose recent talk about video games and art was critiqued by Roger Ebert is ready to move on, but first, Kellee Santiago, president of Flower-maker ThatGameCompany has an argument to defend and an offer to make.

April 16, 2010 unexpectedly became a new watermark in my career as a game maker – Roger Ebert wrote an article about me.

Specifically, he dissected my TEDxUSC talk which I gave back in March 2009.

I do want to state that I don't think my talk was a perfect argument. It didn't land in the right place in the end, and Ebert's final quote in the article, which was taken from the last section of my talk and was not about games as art, but about the responsibility we have a media-creators in the 21st century, validated my concerns that I didn't connect the dots as cleanly as I hoped. But the TED mantra is to "give the talk of a lifetime", so I decided to make some bold claims, take the discussion a few steps further, and hopefully engage people outside of the "choir" to come to their own conclusions. Again, Ebert's article was extremely validating in that I at least achieved that goal.

I remember reading Siskel & Ebert movie reviews and watching their TV show as a young artist. To say that I'm flattered by Ebert's attention to my talk and my ideas is an understatement; however, being a long-time follower of his work, I don't think he went the full mile in this critique.

For the most part, his argument seems to wander through some extremely muddy waters of defining art. Although he even states, "But we could play all day with definitions, and find exceptions to every one", it doesn't stop him from dedicating 50 per cent of the entry to going back and forth on the subject. Ebert seems to lump "art", "artistic" and "artistically crafted" all into one big ball, which I think confuses any discussion on the subject.

For instance, the only definition he offers for art in response to my own is "usually the creation of one artist". But this doesn't define anything except a process, and arguably two of the three examples of artistic games that I offered in my talk fit this definition: "Flower" having been created under the direction of Jenova Chen, and "Braid" having been developed solely by Jonathan Blow.

I'm assuming here he thinks films are an artistic medium, but he points to the documentary "Waco: The Rules of Engagement" as not being art, without offering up any explanation. (He also responded to a comment with "Very few films are art".) I can certainly assume my own reasons as to why it's not art, but if half of the discussion is on what he thinks art is and why games don't fit that definition, clarity is important here.

But the final nail on this argument's coffin is the point that many, many of the hundreds of commenters have already made – it doesn't seem that Ebert has played many, if any video games. And if that's the case, then his opinion on the subject isn't relevant anyways. The title of my talk was "Video Games are Art – What's Next" because I felt it was time to move past the discussion about whether games are an artistic medium.. Similarly, it's time to move on from any need to be validated by old media enthusiasts. It's good for dinner-party discussion and entertaining as an intellectual exercise, but it's just not a serious debate anymore. As a rapidly growing medium, we game developers have so many other issues deserving of our attention.

Ebert asks me in the section on "Flower", "Is the game scored? She doesn't say. Do you win if you're the first to find the balance between the urban and the natural? Can you control the flower? Does the game know what the ideal balance is?" Well, it only takes you 2-3 hours to find out – about the same time you'd dedicate to a film! I'd be happy to send you a PS3 with a copy of the game installed on it so we can discuss in more depth.

Art is in the eye of both the creator and the beholder. And as those two groups of people grow and change, so will the definition and perception of art.

Kelle Santiago is the president of ThatGameCompany. Critic Roger Ebert's recent comments about video games not being art was a reply to Santiago's TED talk on moving beyond discussions of gaming as art.


    What makes films artistic? Story? Design? Acting? The overall package?

    If Jackson Pollock can be considered an important artist, then games as a medium definitely can as well.

    But as others have said, it doesn't really matter what Ebert has to say on this matter.

    I love flower, so do my kids

    thanks for making it!

    Kellee wrote a great response to Roger Eberts Blog entry. The sadest part about Roger Ebert is his ignorance. I read his blog entry, most of the comments, and his responses to some of the comments. Roger has no intention of conceding the fact that videogames can be art. As Kellee stated, its time to move on; gamers will play, games will evolve, and guys like Ebert will pass on.

    This is one of the cases where engaging in a debate with a person tends to give validity to their point of view. Ebert is wrong on this matter.

    Wiki: Art is the process or product of deliberately arranging elements in a way to affect the senses or emotions.

    Ebert can argue whether it is good art or bad. What he can't argue is that it is not art. By most peoples definition, games are quite safe.

    I would be interested to find out Ebert's opinion regarding whether bad films are still art. I suspect that he would not.

    I honestly do not think Roger Ebert has ever played a videogame -but if he has, he's played it without ever actually having the intention to view it as legitimate.

    A guy who ranks Alien as one of the greatest films of all time refuses to give Okami or Beyond Good And Evil the time of day.


    A lot of people have been bring up Flower as a primary example of games as art.

    I consider Flower to be art.

    I do not consider Flower to be a game.

    Not one person I have ever shown Flower to considers it a game.

    The only reason you could call it a game is that it only works on a game machine.

      An interesting point to raise, and perhaps one that best highlights how bogged down in semantics these arguments are going to become. If we can't nail down what a video game is how can we determine whether it's 'art'?

      While I have heard that many times about flower, such a conclusion stifles me. How is it not a game?

      Much like it contains elements required to be considered 'art,' it also contains the elements necessary to be considered a game.

      The only thing that separates so obviously games and other ENTERTAINMENT media is interactivity, which flower has. It also as required goals, a point structure, time-point structure, linear reward-constructed levels, and even 'out of game' trophies used to represent one player's ability to be better at it than another.

      Hell, even 'click the button' is considered a simple flash GAME.

    I don't really understand the drive to have video games recognized as art - apart from the usual geek stubbornness at being refused something.
    Peronaly, I think being included in a category that thinks a black square with half a red border or a can of soup is worthy of a place in an art gallery would be almost demeaning.


    Probably what need clarifying here is if games should be considered art or included in the category of "The Arts"
    I think this is what is causing the problem - saying something is "art" is a subjective thing that is considered on a case by case basis and is not limited to the fields defined as "The Arts".
    So some video games could be considered artistic but that does not mean the medium as a whole is art. Movies are part of "The Arts" but not every movie is an art piece.

    I think video games are a creative medium capable of producing works of self expression and able to provoke profound reflection on a variety of subjects. As such should be included in the category of The Arts, if not now then soon in the future as the medium evolves.

    But saying "Video Games are art!" is missing the point on the level of saying "Pictures are art".

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