Are Video Games Art? Roger Ebert Opens The Debate- Again

I happened across a similarly titled article at SciFi Wire this morning, which offered a counterpoint in that Sir Ben Kingsley seems to be of the opinion that video games are art. Check out that article here. Unfamiliar with the idea that Roger Ebert had expressed the opinion that video games aren’t art, I followed the link to his blog post on the subject. In a post titled Video games can never be art, Ebert lays out his points on the subject.

The video game debate is one that has gone on for years now, and with the ever growing popularity of open world games like Red Dead Redemption 2, it doesn’t seem to be slowing down. While Red Dead has spawned the creation of sites like RDR2.org, where players can find cheat codes for the Rockstar Games production, film critic Ebert argues that video games are not an artform. However, with the rise of competitive games like League of Legends and the growing community around it allowing players to come together with their lol accounts and play, as well as with eSports becoming a nearly billion dollar industry, is the debate on whether or not video games can be seen as art a valid argument any more? It is definitely worth a lot to many people, even though Ebert doesn’t see it as artistic.

Though he has apparently made the claim before, what kicked him off was a presentation. Find that presentation below. It’s around fifteen minutes long.

In reading the first article, I didn’t think Ebert was making as strong a claim as it turns out he is, and I was rather surprised to read his thoughts on the subject. Early on he says, “I remain convinced that in principle, video games cannot be art.” (emphasis from original)

That’s the sort of thing that will spark my interest, because when someone says “in principle,” I want to know their reasoning. I was somewhat surprised that I found his reasoning decidedly flawed. In the end, I decided that his statement is itself flawed as well.

The presentation that led to Ebert’s response is a TED talk given at USC by Kellee Santiago, a designer and producer of video games.

To quote Ebert’s blog – In it,

she begins by saying video games “already ARE art.” Yet she concedes that I was correct when I wrote, “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.” To which I could have added painters, composers, and so on, but my point is clear.

*I don’t know why poets are mentioned twice, but the quote is the same in the article twice, so there you go.

I want to point out that Ebert makes much of this quote, and though he could have added painters and composers, he didn’t, and it is worth noting. It’s important because paintings and music are a very different kind of art, fairly distinct from poetry, film, and novels, and though Ebert talks about cave paintings and cathedrals, his points on art seem to focus on story.

More to the point, Ebert clearly wants the statement to have some meaning. It is supposed to be doing some work. It doesn’t. Just off the top of my head, I don’t think anyone can cite a Ready-Made, piece of experimental music, or example of Chinese calligraphy that is worthy of comparison with the great poets, filmmakers, and novelists. I frankly don’t think Ready-Mades are art myself, but I don’t see how the argument is that I wouldn’t stand a certain piece up against a work of Shakespeare.

I rather think gardening could be art, but if I’m wondering about the fact it would seem nonsensical to try to decide the matter by trying to find an example of gardening that I want to hold up as equal in some way to the work of the world’s great poets.

Ebert goes on to discuss definitions of art, because that’s what Santiago does in the presentation, and finds them all a bit lacking in the sense of including video games. He does say that we could play with definitions of art all day, and find things that are accepted as art which would be excluded using any of them. Art, pretty simply, doesn’t have any set definition that everyone agrees to, and to clear the thing up, definitions aren’t really how we determine members of sets anyway.

Suddenly, Ebert does something a little odd, by saying this –

One obvious difference between art and games is that you can win a game. It has rules, points, objectives, and an outcome. 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. Those are things you cannot win; you can only experience them.

It’s odd in one respect, because it’s in the middle of the article, and not really connected to anything. It might have been stuck in at the end, and placed at random.

It’s also odd, because it’s logically flawed, and in such a way that it is almost a lie (or at least a hell of a cheat). You can’t say there is a difference between art and games when the very question at hand is whether or not games are art. That is to argue a question using an answer as a premise.

It sounds good when you point to stories, novels, plays, dances, and films, and say, “see how those are similar in this way?” It’s a logical trick though, and there is nothing set out in the “theory” of what art is that rules out – rules, points, objectives, outcomes, or says anything about an inability to win, or some experienced-only-ness.

The ideas being thrown around are a lot more complex than Ebert gives them credit for. For example, since dance seems acceptable as art, we might ask, “Is a dance art, to the dancer, while they are performing it?” We can give a similar line about a play. If so, there are pretty clearly rules of some sort, objectives, outcomes, and I daresay a way in which they can win.

Possible artist-themselves exceptions aside, this winning angle is a kind of straw man. There is nothing unique to the concept of winning that actually distinguishes it from any other difference among the arts. I admit it seems like there is, but there would seem to be a similar difference if there had never been music and it suddenly showed up on the scene. “Is music art,” would not be answered by pointing out that it is a way of making noise, has melodies, or by picking any other inherent quality of the subject.

Winning is arguably just part of the definition of what it is to be a game, and the question of whether or not games are art is not answered by saying, “well, the difference between art and games is that games are games.”

Ebert gets close to his closing by saying –

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.”

This passage also strikes me, chiefly because I can’t put my finger on why he would say it. “It isn’t art, because I don’t like it,” is a sentiment I can often get behind, but I’m not sure how it is meant to convince anyone. Nor am I clear on how, “I wouldn’t experience joy,” is a rebuttal to inclusion of any particular game. The examples of things that do nothing for me, yet are considered art by a great many, are endless, but I don’t understand putting them out as some support for the idea that they indeed lack the status.

Ebert also ends on a strange note, wondering at the interest gamers have in calling video games art in the first place.

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.

I allow Sangtiago the last word. Toward the end of her presentation, she shows a visual with six circles, which represent, I gather, the components now forming for her brave new world of video games as art. The circles are labeled: Development, Finance, Publishing, Marketing, Education, and Executive Management. I rest my case.

I only find this interesting, because it feels odd to hear. Why do any artists want to be called artists, as opposed to say, “nutjobs banging cans while playing dischordant “music” on the piano?” Why do fans and/or “patrons” want performance art to be considered art? Who knows why really, but the world of video games didn’t invent the practice.

It’s also interesting, especially if you watch the presentation I think, because the circles are the same, and are labeled the same, by those looking at the components of making films.

But, are video games art?

I think perhaps they are, at least in the sense that they can be.

First, I have to say again that there simply is nothing about being art that necessitates a comparison to the great poets, or anyone else. While Ebert may be talking about video games, his viewpoint is really exclusionary of most everything, and ultimately isn’t really an argument that video games aren’t art, but that nothing that isn’t already considered art is art.

Whether it’s interpretive dance, origami, tattoo, cooking, or at least three-quarters of all things “modern art”, there are countless examples of things that are considered art already, or things we might legitimately wonder about as art, which will never stand up to such comparisons.

That said, I probably never would have put forward the notion that video games are art without someone making the statement that they aren’t… and doing it so poorly.

The main reason, given very little thought frankly, is that while reading Ebert’s opinion two things kept popping into my mind – Pixar and Alan Wake.

What comes to mind are visions of a film like Wall-E, a game like Alan Wake, and the process of creating these two entities coupled with the respective final products. At some point things perhaps become very philosophical, much like asking about the personhood of sufficiently advanced robots, but I’m not sure I can find what it is that is so different about these two examples. Especially, considering that we are talking “in principle.”

More importantly, what nags at me about the discussion is not so much the bare idea of video games as art, but the fact that if they aren’t, then people who make them aren’t artists. That feels weird to me when I could take everyone from Wall-E, have them do almost exactly the same work, and suddenly they wouldn’t be artists… whichever of them count as artists in the first place.

It’s an issue that won’t be decided by Mr. Ebert or myself, but it also won’t be decided by way of odd and faulty logic. Though citing many and varied definitions of art, Ebert seems to forget that art is an idea we made up. There have been debates about which things qualify as art for as long as the term has been around, and often with good reason. (Is a urinal art because I stick it in an art gallery?) But, in the end it turns out that there is only one rule when it comes to deciding whether or not something is art, and Ebert is wrong in principle.

A thing is art if enough people say it is, and there the story ends. No argument I put forward is going to get Ready-Mades out of art books, much as I might hope it would, nor will my pointing out simply that I dislike them.

The plain truth of the matter is that there is no such thing as something not being art in principle.

Finally, I’d like you to look at this excerpt from Ebert’s article. It is one I won’t really comment on.

Santiago now phrases this in her terms: “Art is a way of communicating ideas to an audience in a way that the audience finds engaging.” Yet what ideas are contained in Stravinsky, Picasso, “Night of the Hunter,” “Persona,” “Waiting for Godot,” “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock?” Oh, you can perform an exegesis or a paraphrase, but then you are creating your own art object from the materials at hand.

What ideas are contained in these pieces of art?

Can I not simply list the ideas? Is that to create an object of art?

Only to pick “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” the ideas of “love”, “song”, and indeed “love song” are most definitely in the art, and I challenge you to make the case that they are not.

(I have concerns about calling Stravinsky and Picasso art frankly. Even I might rule out people, but…)

I simply leave that quote to you, and ask that you wonder if Ebert seems to have any idea what art is at all.

Are You Screening?

Written by
Marc Eastman is the owner and operator of Are You Screening? and has been writing film reviews for over a decade, and several branches of the internet's film review world have seen his name. He is also a member of The Broadcast Film Critics Association and The Broadcast Television Journalists Association.

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