Video games can never be art

Roger Ebert expounds upon — but does not reconsider — his rejection of the aesthetic possibilities of the video game. Ebert is prompted to return to the topic because of a talk by Kellee Santiago, who used cave paintings and stills from early black and white movies to argue that just as painting and movies have evolved, video games will evolve too.  Ebert rejects Santiago’s premise that the cave paintings and early silent films weren’t already art, and I think he has a point there. However, because Ebert is not a gamer, he ignores the interactive component of games, and bases his (negative) judgments on still images and prose descriptions of games, which he interprets according to his decades of experience as a film critic (and essayist).

These days, she says, “grown-up gamers” hope for games that reach
higher levels of “joy, or of ecstasy….catharsis.” These games (which
she believes are already being made) “are being rewarded by audiences by
high sales figures.” The only way I could experience joy or ecstasy
from her games would be through profit participation.

The three games she chooses as examples do not raise my hopes for a
video game that will deserve my attention long enough to play it. They
are, I regret to say, pathetic. I repeat: “No one in or out of the field
has ever been able to cite a game worthy of comparison with the great
poets, filmmakers, novelists and poets.”

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. —Roger Ebert


Here’s one example of why it’s too bad that Ebert has a controller-shaped hole where his knowledge of interaction should be. Listen to this story, from his review of an obscure movie called Elephant.

The day after Columbine, I was interviewed for the Tom Brokaw news
program. The reporter had been assigned a theory and was seeking sound
bites to support it. “Wouldn’t you say,” she asked, “that killings like
this are influenced by violent movies?” No, I said, I wouldn’t say that.
“But what about ‘Basketball Diaries’?” she asked. “Doesn’t that have a
scene of a boy walking into a school with a machine gun?” The obscure
1995 Leonardo Di Caprio movie did indeed have a brief fantasy scene of
that nature, I said, but the movie failed at the box office (it grossed
only $2.5 million), and it’s unlikely the Columbine killers saw it.

reporter looked disappointed, so I offered her my theory. “Events like
this,” I said, “if they are influenced by anything, are influenced by
news programs like your own. When an unbalanced kid walks into a school
and starts shooting, it becomes a major media event. Cable news drops
ordinary programming and goes around the clock with it. The story is
assigned a logo and a theme song; these two kids were packaged as the
Trench Coat Mafia. The message is clear to other disturbed kids around
the country: If I shoot up my school, I can be famous. The TV will talk
about nothing else but me. Experts will try to figure out what I was
thinking. The kids and teachers at school will see they shouldn’t have
messed with me. I’ll go out in a blaze of glory.”

In short, I
said, events like Columbine are influenced far less by violent movies
than by CNN, the NBC Nightly News and all the other news media, who
glorify the killers in the guise of “explaining” them. I commended the
policy at the Sun-Times, where our editor said the paper would no longer
feature school killings on Page 1. The reporter thanked me and turned
off the camera. Of course the interview was never used. They found
plenty of talking heads to condemn violent movies, and everybody was

Video games are often the targets of attack “journalism” like this. Ebert doesn’t actually answer the reporter’s question about media influence, and merely shifts the blame from his own favorite medium to the TV reporter’s, but it does not try to deny the influence of media on our society.

Probably the most sensible comment I’ve seen on the subject of the relationship between media and behavior is The Onion’s review of the (imaginary) game “Stacker,” “a first-person vertical-crate-arranger guaranteed not to influence young
people’s behavior in any way.” (The Onion)

3 thoughts on “Video games can never be art

  1. Ebert isn’t qualified to judge the artistic status of games, by any standard. He doesn’t play any, and he doesn’t study them. It’s easy to dismiss something far away and out of experience.

  2. Great analysis, Geoff. Ebert is right to question Santiago’s devaluation of cave art, but falling back to “I know art when I see it” is not useful. He’s been a target of a lot of invective from fanboy gamers, so perhaps he has a reason to feel defensive, but I was hoping for a little more meat in his argument. Still, I credit Ebert for opening up this can of worms again, and for demonstrating how to disagree with a person without insulting the person. (Plenty of Ebert’s critics have a lot to learn on that front.)

  3. Interesting article. If Ebert wants to separate art and games into two different categories, I wonder where the dividing line falls in the following two continua:
    1. Dance -> Gymnastics -> High Jump
    Ebert cites dance as an art form. Gymnastics contains some dance-like elements and people seem to enjoy watching it for it’s artistic qualities, yet it also has rules and scoring. An observer might admire the grace and body control of a high jumper in the same way that one would admire a gymnast but success comes down to something that is entirely measurable.
    2. Novel -> Choose Your Own Adventure -> Dungeons and Dragons
    Ebert cites the novel is a form of art. Does it cease to be art once you put choices and branching into the story? What if you take away the book and just put the story teller on the other side of the table to immediately shape the story based on your choices?

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