Ebert Says Games Aren’t Art – I Disagree

April 18, 2010

Recently, Chicago-based critic Roger Ebert has revived his now-infamous claim regarding the state of video games in our artistic landscape. As a gamer who also values Ebert’s critical opinion, I feel the need to respond.

After reading Roger’s most recent support for his claims, I went back to have a look at a post from 2007, where he first defended himself. It’s clear, upon reading, that Ebert needs some serious time behind a controller before he can fully understand the argument he’s presenting to the world. How can anyone propose to judge a medium they don’t actively experience?

In the 2010 blog, Ebert cites a TED video in which Kellee Santiago (of thatgamecompany fame) attempts to sway Ebert-based opinions on games.

Here, Kellee does a great job of putting the evolution of various mediums now considered “artistic” into perspective. She is trying to tell us that, as a culture, we can learn from our mistakes and oversights. The biggest problem Roger Ebert has in critiquing this talk becomes apparent when he tries to create a separation between art and games:

One obvious difference between art and games is that you can win a game. It has rules, points, objectives, and an outcome.

He fails to understand that video games are what players make of them, as in any form of artistic expression. It’s true that games CAN BE designed to include all of the elements and functions he has described above, yet none of them are necessary! What is necessary is the INTERACTION of the user. This is the central theme of a video game, and this is why games have endless potential as an artistic medium. They present something that no other medium directly presents. In a Web 2.0 culture, where communication & collective interaction have brought knowledge & understanding to our fingertips, video games can allow us to literally step into another person’s shoes. Ebert tries to understand what a game is through a wikipedia entry:

Wikipedia believes “Games are distinct from work, which is usually carried out for remuneration, and from art, which is more concerned with the expression of ideas…Key components of games are goals, rules, challenge, and interaction.”

It’s obvious Ebert has a clear idea of what he believes “high art” to be, but when presenting his case against video games as art, he relies on someone else’s outdated written representation. This would be akin to myself reading a review of something like “The Fall” on Roger’s page and giving the movie two thumbs down based on his words. This is also why Kellee Santiago’s synopsis of games in a presentation will never succeed in winning over critics who don’t have controllers in their hands.

We must understand how new and limitless this medium is. Only when this happens, can one begin to see why games have the potential to become vehicles for human development.

I present 2 videos to support my argument:

In the first, we see a demo of experimental gaming technology that Lionhead Studios is working on in which games can CREATE AND RESPOND to our emotions!

Here, a visualization artist demonstrates head-tracking on a home tv using the nintendo wii’s built-in technology!

On top of this, video games are beginning to extend their reach into physical therapy, as tools for stroke victims.

A challenge to Ebert. Take 30 minutes, play through and understand a game like Passage, as I have watched countless movies with your reviews in mind, and then maybe an actual debate can begin.