Roger Ebert Asks A Good Question

The Chicago Sun-Times film critic has finally revisited his old contention that games can never be art, to defend it "in principle," and to dispute about that which cannot be disputed.

He also asks a great question. "Why are gamers so intensely concerned, anyway, that games be defined as art?" Ebert's got a point. This is a zillion-dollar industry pumping out dozens of enjoyable games, with experiences longer than those offered by a film and more interactive than those proposed in a novel, and none of this changes if isn't accepted by critics, academics or the general public as art.

Ebert uses a rebuttal of one person's argument - Kellee Santiago, of thatgamescompany - that games are art to reinforce his contention that they're not, and to lay out some of his standards for what is, which are reasonably conventional. You guys can take that on point-by-point if you like, it's all at the link below.

But note that I said "his standards," not "the standards." The latter, which would imply some kind of objective criteria to be met, does not and never will exist for any form of art, because art is fundamentally built on the subjective: inspiration, interpretation and appraisal. To me that underlines the pointlessness of the current debate for or against video games as art. It's an argument neither side can win, and games as a pre-infancy medium relative to literature, dance or painting, comes to the discussion with fewer credentials to offer.

So for me, the more worthy point to debate is that question of why it matters, right now, whether games are considered an art form, because the thinking on this in the games community is dogmatic that they are, we've obviously resolved that they've earned a title someone's not giving them. Why does this matter? Is being accepted as art the final piece of mainstream acceptance? Does ascending to art status this soon in the medium's lifespan make them something greater than sculpture or music? Is there some validation the games community seeks but isn't getting right now?

Video Games Can Never Be Art [Roger Ebert]


    That's a bit blunt though, to say why do we care about who calls gaming art or not. It's like telling filmmakers getting films into Cannes 'why do you need your films to be called art? They're just films that are successful'. Bit of a no brainer argument to make really. I don't see why a number of games can't be considered art.

    Even comic book illustrators that are most certainly artists, to put it more obviously, have had a large influence over a number of art styles taken in gaming. Do these artists not get considered because they designed art for use in a game rather than on paper? Etc etc.

    Why do gamers want games to be considered art?

    Here's a reason: Art hold a hallowed place, not only in our culture, but in our legal system. Whether or not a work is "obscene" (and thus should be censored) or "a provocative piece of art that demands we analyze our previously held convictions" (and thus not to be censored) is a matter of judgments of artistic value.

    Both Australian and American legal systems and classification systems privelige works which are considered "artistic."

    Ebert should also note that this discussion is happenning in the political context of a moral panic about the evil of video games. People that enjoy gaming as a hobby will want to stop games from being a victim of censorship and as such demand games receive the priveliged title of "art."

    I do not claim to be able to provide a definition of "art" and nor do I claim that Ebert's case is stupid. He does make an important point; there is a legitimate distinction between a "game" (of any medium) and "art" per se. Blackjack is a game, but I wouldn't consider it art. Chess is a game, but the game itself is not art.

    In and of itself, the fact that neither Blackjack nor Chess are art is not an attack on either hobby. Both can be deeply enjoyable, truly engrossing and entertaining. However, no one argues that Chess should be banned and most people in the civilized world tolerate Blackjack.

    But video games are currently not classified as art, and far too many people are calling for video games to be forced to drink hemlock for the crime of corrupting the youth.

    So, in other words, gamers want games to be considered "art" at least partly because their hobby is NOT considered socially legitimate and because (as such) it is seen as censorable. I'm certainly not suggesting this is the only motivation gamers have, but it is clearly a motive.

    I think another point Ebert raises is whether a work that incorporates various genres of art can in and of itself be called art. Lets take BioShock; you have architecture and interior design and the overall art direction of the City of Rapture (visual art), you have music (the soundtrack), and you have a narrative which makes intelligent commentary on the issue of choice in video games. No one would argue that any of these individual elements are less than artistic. The music is exceptionally moody, the setting is highly stylized Rand-esque Art-Deco and the narrative critiques its own medium.

    As for the art direction itself, I'm a Randian. The aesthetics of Rapture utterly nailed the embodiment of Randian ideals; man in ascendance etc. The setting and backstory are also a commentary on Objectivism; I don't entirely agree with the commentary (it assumes man is too flawed to consistently practice any ideal) but that's not the point. Commenting on serious ideas and being self-critical of one's own medium have been considered hallmarks of true art by many philosophers of aesthetics, and BioShock's narrative does both.

    So, we have three elements which even Ebert wouldn't consider non-artistic; a medium-critical and philosophically involved narrative, dramatic and atmospheric music, and art-deco-style art direction.

    BioShock merely presents these three elements through a game. It doesn't subtract anything from the three previous elements; it merely adds a game system through which the other elements are experienced.

    Ebert wishes to conclude that "Video games are not art." BioShock is a video game which includes indisputably artistic elements (as shown before). If confronted with BioShock, Ebert could only be correct if BioShock were not art. In order to argue that BioShock is not art, Ebert would have to embrace the following premise;

    1) The presentation of artistic things (art direction, music, narrative) through a non-artistic "framing device" (such as a game) instantly renders the product as a whole "non-art."

    I would argue that this premise is at the very least a questionable one. It requires the mode of presentation to "nullify" the artistic value of the content.

    Finally, and most importantly, I wish to bring some historical evidence to bear; the printing press wasn't originally seen as a tool of art. The cinema wasn't either; originally it was used as a news delivery service. The television was seen as degenerate. Rock music was originally seen as satanic and savage. Comic books were once seen as seducing the innocent.

    All of these media are now considered forms of art.

    I am not arguing that it is impossible to define art and I am not accusing Ebert of having malicious intent here, but I think that the popular understanding of "art" is more often a result of politics than anything else. It is a result of fears of new media forms (from both anti-modernity politicians and old media desperate to guard their priveliged positions in existing social institutions), moral panics, cries for censorship, followed by everyone finally realizing a new form of experience-delivery isn't going to destroy society.

    This pattern has repeated itself over and over throughout human history. I do not see how this time will be any different. It is only a matter of time before video games are regarded as another art form.

      Wow this must be the most well thought out comment I have seen on the Internet. EVER. Well played sir.

        + 1

        take a bow sir

          No he shouldn't take a bow. He is comparing gaming to totally different mediums and situations. I'm not saying there won't be this day where gaming comes into its own like all other of those areas did.

          The moving image of the cinema is HUGELY important. It was a huge deal when it came out. News IS entertainment, so there goes part of his argument, StudiodeKadent confusing the difference shows his own ignorance. The fact is the moving image entertained people vastly and without question. And it definately wasn't used for news, there were still newspapers that did that far more effectively, actually the moving image was far more slowly... News using cinema took until the television to become important, which was way after cinema itself became popular.

          "The cinema wasn’t either; originally it was used as a news delivery service."
          Sorry again, I'm still laughing. Cinema as a news delivery service is a joke. And yes, I study Cinema. Where do you get this rubbish from?

          The printing press also exploded the scene. Sure some people probably tried to downgrade it. But it changed the world almost instantly. It didn't take 'a few years to take off'. When it was invented it TOOK OFF COMPLETELY. There was no audience warming up to it, a part from those who of course couldn't read... But that has nothing to do with 'warming up' to it, more learning what was involved.

          Even the stuff about comic books are questionable. Since it wasn't comics themselves, rather stuff like Super Heroes. Army comics were perfectly acceptable and contained deep adult themes. It was the OTHER popular culture styles that people had a problem with. Images with words were around for ages before the term comic was invented, hence the medium was around before it became more mainstream.

          StudiodeKadent deserve a bow?

          No, I think we should start throwing tomatoes at him. He is speaking utter nonsense. His 'cinema was originally news' comment was especially silly.

          yosh and Jason,

          Sincere thanks!

      Ebert understands that those aspects are not exclusive to gaming. Far from it. Sound/Music is currently much more effective in cinema, it is timed perfectly to give exactly the correct emotional queue (while in gaming the soundtrack mildly timed and in general not truly unique). Settings in cinema can also be used completely effectively, in Bioshock you cannot truly interact with the settings at hand. Actually 99% of the setting in Bioshock is none-interactive. While Cinema will use its settings to its fullest for its medium.

      That is the true strength of gaming, interactivity. Everything else has been done before, and has been done MUCH more better.

      Ebert's point isn't that gaming isn't an art. I think his point is WHAT type of art it is. It is not an art led by an artistic direction... why? because the direction NEEDS to be from the player. Sure paintings, film, books require subjectivity from the audience (like all communication the audience decodes the information in their own way), but in a completely different way than gaming. Gaming itself is a complete communication process between the player and the computer. While literature and the like are only HALF a communication process.

      Sorry, but to me you just prove your own ignorance in my opinion. I don't at all like Ebert, actually TBH I dislike him a lot and think he is a horribly generic reviewer (even though I hardly read him, I just look at his review scores). And I do think there is a lot in Bioshock (and the like), but the elements in Bioshock aren't at all unique to gaming. Your version of 'art' is the same as cinema's... AND THAT IS YOUR PROBLEM. You are confusing the art of cinema with the art of gaming, gaming art is not cinema art. If you can watch Bioshock in full HD and still enjoy it without interacting with it than its best qualities are not in the realm of gaming and hence should not be considered as the ART of gaming. Bioshock if anything would be the art of cinema, most of the game(play, I prefer not to say gameplay since it is a moronic word, games are their gameplay and anything else shouldn't be considered as a part of the core game but I will use it to clear confusion here) is just awful.

        You misinterpreted my argument. I was performing reductio ad absurdum on Ebert's argument and thus I accepted (for purposes of the argument) his proposition that video games are not art.

        Thus I restricted myself to commenting on the features of BioShock that Ebert would consider art. I didn't discuss the gameplay because by his standards, games are not art.

        And you are free to your opinion on BioShock's gameplay, but I happen to like it. I wouldn't call it perfect, but that's not the relevant point.

          Whoa there, poohbum, I think your logic is pretty flawed on this one, and a touch vitriolic. So if one medium uses similar conventions to another (that is considered art) then the new one cannot be art? By this logic, photography cannot be art as it merely apes the conventions and style of painting, and less effectively since there's less scope for a photograher to play with light, subject and colour to convey meaning. Clearly, this is a nonsense - photography is an accepted and respected element of the art world today, as it should be.

          Also, it seems to me like a student of cinema should be more aware of the concept of a newsreel - cinema absolutely had a role in news delivery in its earlier life, until supplanted by the immediacy of television. It seems especially odd that you're willing to ridicule a well reasoned argument based on this point without at least trying to understand what StudiodeKadent is trying to say - that the social role and artistic relevance of media can change over time.

          I do agreee that interactivity is gaming's main point of difference as a medium, but I remind you that artists in any new medium take a little while to find its most natural and effective mode of expression. Just take a look at 100 year old movies, and you'll see that they have none of the sophistication of today's films, but that doesn't allow us to discount the medium altogether for all time, does it? That's a bit like dismissing the artistic merit of all forms of painting because you don't like the look of prehistoric cave paintings.

          tl;dr - Let's stop talking about what gaming can't do, and start thinking in terms of what gaming isn't doing yet...

    The notion of art itself is inherently concerned with 'acceptance' (and worth), which I would suggest has a lot to do with it. Acceptance first as worthy of entry into the world of art and then, once in, as a piece worthy of discussion, praise, criticism...whatever.

    It's probably also as simple as people standing up for that which they are interested and invested in. It's not unlike supporting a sport team ('What do you mean?! Magic are easily better than the Cavs'!).

    I like to think of it in this simple way:

    The game of chess can never be art, however the potential beauty of its board and pieces, certainly is.

    Video games are the same. A game when looked at in the broadest sense (its rules and gameplay) can not be art, the most artistic word that can be attributed to those elements is 'innovative'. However its written story, music, textures, 3D models, and its presentation can all be validly called art.

      to confuse the matter even more.. the opposite can be true...

      if you separate the how's and the why's behind a work, one can consider the how's as dealing with craft/technology.. where as why's explore the reason something is done the way it is, what emotion is it trying to evoke..etc

    I think it's just that people are worried that the time they pour into games might ultimately be considered a "waste". That when they make "good" entertainment choices like reading literature or playing music or otherwise engaging in what are considered valuable art forms, they can hold their heads high and feel that they've at least got something to show for that time - an appreciation of something important.

    Because there are so many, particularly in older generations, whose cultural reference point for games is minor diversions like space invaders or the equivalent of trashy action movies, and who therefore dismiss games as a "waste of time", gamers are determined to try to convince the world that their entertainment choice is valid and worthwhile.

    I think we're right, by the way. I don't think it's possible to have such a creative endeavour as videogames - involving visual arts, music, acting, dialogue and, uniquely, innovative ways for people to interact with worlds and situations - NOT be an art form.

    I like that point of view.

    I for judge whether something is art or not (abstract alike)however you simply cannot DECIDE if some is or isn't. Its irrelevant, only a couple of indie games ACTUALLY set out to be art. Does it matter? Its a unique experience that cannot be described as something else.

    When the colors of a painting can be given the intelligence to navigate their own canvas, you can come and talk to me about how games are less than other mediums.

    Games are as much art as film, or animation (a better example). It both cases there is a narrative with characters and challenges, and such. That said there are probably a lot more pulp games then there are pulp movies (but there are A LOT of pulp movies). Whilst there is player interaction there is still the ultimate goal the player is trying to reach and the story based around this. It is a different kind of art the film but that doesn't make the claim any less valid, film is different from Fine Art, which is different from written word, which is different music, ect.

    At the end of the day what is and is not art comes down to the individual’s perception. I have no issue that some do not see it as art, but I do dislike their insistence that no one else should.

    I guess it's all in your interpretation of what art is. For me art is something, be it a concept or object, that informs and/or inspires the observer/participant. Good art will inform/inspire you more than once and great art will do so every time you encounter it. A concept/object that does not inform or inspire may be beautiful and/or pleasing but is not art.

      I agree with what (I think) you are getting at, but it would seem to me to be a bit limiting to use the terms inform and inspire. I'm almost certainly being pedantic, but 'Engage' might be more apt.

    Once, many years ago, (I'm honestly surprised no one has mentioned this) a man named Marcel Duchamp put a Urinal in an art gallery, called it "Fountain", signed "R. Mutt" and dared to call it "art".

    Was the urinal art?

    Was the urinal an obscene piss-take (no pun intended) on what art stood for?


    Duchamp's 'art' in this case was not the urinal. It was the philosophical debate he caused by daring to suggest the urinal could be taken as art.

    If I were to take this to an absurd conclusion, then I could suggest that everything in a video game - its art direction, design, programming, style and even music - is the urinal in the proverbial gallery. A gallery is a 'framing device'. The product of a video game is the same - it's an interface through which to access the 'art' behind it.

    Is drawing 8-bit pixel characters on walls, crocheting them in to quilts and tattooing them on to your arm art? No. It's craft. And that's an important distinction people need to realise in the debate of what can be considered 'art'.

    A 3D 'artist' might be extraordinarily skilled in his ability to replicate styles and emulate (or create) virtual objects. This does not make him an artist. He is no more an artist than the tradesman who builds your front verandah, or the carpenter who affixed ballustrades to it so you wouldn't fall off.

    Here in lies the problem.

    Like a well-designed building, a game can be more than the sum of its parts. The visual design, the code, the interface is all secondary to a much larger product. Take buildings like the Sydney Opera House or Guggenheim museum - they were built by craftsmen and engineers. Not artists. (For the purists out there, yes, one could rightly say in hindsight that Jorn Utzon may be an artist. But I don't think he considered himself one at the time - more just a very clever craftsman.)

    A game, much like either of the two previously mentioned buildings, CAN be art... given the right presentation of contexts. Is Call of Duty art? No. There is nothing inherently 'emotional' about Call of Duty no matter how much you try to spin it - it's designed to be an adrenaline rush. Not a psychological piece. I'd wager that more than 80% of people who bought Modern Warfare did so because they wanted a new way to frag someone online. The same can be said for Halo, Half Life, Command & Conquer or any game ending, conveniently, in 'Craft'.

    Previous commenters have said it correctly. It's not about what games HAVE done, but what they CAN do.

    James Ward BA (Multimedia - 3D Animation & Visual Effects) / BA (Television Production)

    Will add my support to StudiodeKadent earlier comment. Well written sir!

    I think computer/video games can be considered both art and an interactive experience. Games are combination of illustration, sound, motion and literature that are the other major art medias of still imagery, film, music and novels. Agreed some games don't really push the boundaries or have the aim of connecting with the audience on an emotional and intellectual level. (It is first and foremost entertainment focused - like the intention of most other art forms). But then look at games like Heavy Rain, Half-Life and pretty much anything by Bioware - there are some pretty heavy issues that are addressed. Games can tell amazing stories and many aspects of their success are heavily dependent on their artistic design and presentation to the end user.

    Perhaps this just further shows we need to focus more on breaking down the stereotype left over from the 80's and 90's that games are only for kids. Those same kids have now grown up and with them the gaming media platform has as well.

    Everything is art. Fact.

    I know I've had emotional responses to games over the 25 odd years I've been playing them. Often, these responses were reactions to elements that were placed by the developers to intentionally do so.

    Games like Portal, BioShock, Flashback, Darkseed, Mass Effect, and many many more, all the way back to text adventures, have brought me awe, horror, sadness, elation and have provided me with many of the same experiences I look for in a good book / movie.

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