Why didn’t Roger Ebert want games to be art?

Bastion would also work here, but I like Transistor's art nouveau inspirations.

There are so many different ways in which video games can be art that I can fill this article with screenshots of games that are all different sorts of art and still have space left over.

Roger Ebert was a brilliant man, a spectacular critic, and absolutely clueless when it came to video games.  He wrote a long-winded defense of why video games can never be art which was wrong when he wrote it, then he wrote more on the subject which was still wrong, and he went to his grave being wrong.  And it’s a shame that we lost him, and he was a great light, and his criticism helped shape my own critical voice, and had we met he would have had no idea why I did anything I did, because he thought video games weren’t art.

I’m not interested in opening that debate, though, because as far as I’m concerned it’s boring as hell.  Are video games art?  Yes.  We’re done.  No, what’s far more interesting is the question of why people would fight against that.  Why would you spend time and effort creating definitions that try to peg it as not art?  Why would you put so much energy into deflecting the possibility?  Why would anyone want to ensure that video games aren’t seen as art?

I like it a lot, but I won't actually be able to talk about it in its appropriate place for another two years or so.

When a game polarizes people both for and against it as extensively as this one does, it seems to be more than just a disagreement in preferred flavors.

Ebert, yes, had his own definition of art that he used as more or less a bully pulpit to prove that video games can never be art, to which I say nonsense.  You can make any definition you want to somehow avoid classifying one thing or another as art.  The definition of art is something that’s pretty damn fluid, and the goalposts get moved on it pretty frequently.  Like how at one point movies were not considered art, or television wasn’t considered art, or novels weren’t considered art.  I am pretty much certain that if you go back far enough you could find some Greek dudes arguing that sculptures are nice, but they can’t ever really be art.

But why would you?  Why move the goalposts to ensure that something can’t get into the fabled Art Halls?  The real definition for whether or not something is art is basically sustained critical discourse about art; if that keeps going, no matter how many people claim something isn’t art, it’s eventually going to start being acknowledged as same.  Cultural pressure categorizes things as art, not societal definition.

And if you’re really certain as hell that something isn’t art, the problem is pretty self-correcting.  I don’t have an article written about why five-year-olds smearing their poop on the floor isn’t art, because I don’t feel that’s a position which needs to be staked.  It’s more than just a matter of who cares, it’s a question of why you feel the position needs to be taken and defended at all.

It’s also worth noting here that Ebert barely knew anything about games.  He knew what they were, but in his article he outright says that his judgement is based entirely upon how the games look to him, not how they play.  This is not the evaluation of a man who has spent a great deal of time and effort investigating games looking for evidence that they are art, but a man who has looked at something, found it wanting, and then earmarked the whole field as being incapable of producing art.  But why would you even do that?

I think they’re the same root cause, really.

Understanding games as art is, well, complicated.  There are moving pieces that don’t exist in any other medium.  I don’t think it’s really up for debate whether Katamari Damacy is art, but it’s also a game that manifests its art in a way that is wholly incompatible with any other medium.  The graphics are simple and primitive, the story is deliberate nonsense without a larger theme, the characters may as well be nonexistent.  All of the beauty is contained in the simplicity shot through to the core of the game, a simple premise that gets rearranged and used in entertaining fashions all over the place.

Then you have a game like Dragon Age II, which is a marvelously told story with a unique framing device and a surfeit of choices that you can’t get through any other means.  Or you have the steadily evolving stories and frequent player-created plots in online games.  There are games with deplorable stories and amazingly tight mechanics, and those are art of one fashion; there are other games with excellent stories and weaker mechanics, and there are games where the awkwardness of the mechanics adds to the game.  The early Silent Hill titles were beautiful because of their awkward, forced, controlled camera angles made the horror as real for the player as the characters.

And it can all be put together by someone who is also unbearably pretentious, unfortunately, but that doesn't make Braid stop being brilliant.

A movie can show you regret. A game can make you feel it, let you play with it, give you changing and unchanging environments as a core portion of its play pattern.

You have a lot to learn if you want to start appreciating these things as more than simple brief, beeping diversions.  And that’s without getting into the questions that Ebert actually raises legitimately, like the fact that games are the only form of art that you can win.  (That’s one of his arguments against them being art, but as I said, I don’t think that holds any water to begin with.)

Learning all of that takes time, and worse yet, there’s still a limited number of resources for finding out about all of this stuff.  You can take a course on film theory now, but video game theory is something that’s still not generally on the syllabus.  There are no books yet compiling examples of video game art and explaining the techniques.  Hell, the terminology is still being shaped.  That’s a lot of work to do, arguably more than you had to do if you wanted to be a film critic back in 1967.

So forget that.  Who wants to do that much work to think about something critically when you’re fairly certain it’s just a blinking distraction anyway?  It spares you the effort of having to think critically about what it is you’re looking at, something that would probably sit pretty well with the trollwads currently doing their level best to demonize critical thinking about games and discussion about the serious problems that game have when it comes to inclusion or messages.  Both come from a place wherein the speaker doesn’t want to think about games, just play them (or not) based on personal preference.

Just following orders.

Sometimes it’s all about feeling the consequences for your own actions when you thought you were just doing what you had to do.

Ironically, the people who want games not to contain any sort of message are already making it clear that games are art and do need this level of discussion, but that’s another column altogether.

Critical thought is hard.  It requires a complex reading of a given piece of art, taking into account the larger landscape around that piece and contextualizing it, interpreting what the author meant to say and what was actually said.  It requires paying attention, learning a lot about how art is put together, and dissecting that, too.  It’s something that irritated the hell out of my wife when I would talk critically about a given story until she sat down and learned about story structure… at which point she started doing it too and understood why it was kind of a reflex for me.

Yes, there are totally films – and games, and books, and so forth – that aren’t meant to be held up to a critical lens, but so long as there’s some substance to the material, it can still be examined.  If you’re in the habit of examining things, you’re going to do it anyway.  I don’t sit down to an episode of Star Trek Voyager and say “all right, it’s time for my viewing in which I really analyze the hell out of any subtle messages this episode has about the difficulty of maintaining cultural identity in the wake of an enforced shared identity from external forces.”  It just happens.

When you watch the same thing and don’t see that, you feel dumb and you get annoyed.  No one likes it when the architect points out that a video game structure couldn’t possibly stand up or that its layout is complete nonsense, because pointing out the unreality of it takes you out of the game.  Except that to that architect, since she’s spent a good portion of her life thinking about these things, the very presence of it is taking her out of the game.  She can’t not notice these things.

It doesn’t make you dumb, it makes you not the one who notices this.  But when you’re used to being smart, you really don’t want to feel dumb.

I remember when I first learned that the vast majority of operas are lost, simply because most of them were dumb and meant for consumption much like any random action movie today.  The only ones that remain are the ones that were deemed, well, art.  So we have a collection of the best of the best, and it’s easy to gloss over the fact that these were the pick of the litter rather than representative of the whole.  Video games have yet to undergo this curation, and it’s a lot easier to look at what’s out there and just say “it will never be art, don’t ask me about it.”

And it's only peripherally trying to be.

It’s a silly strategy game, but it’s also a celebration of the history of human civilization and what we’re capable of becoming as a species.

Rather than taking the long, slow route of feeling dumb, learning more, and eventually understanding another art form, it’s much easier to say that something is common, vulgar entertainment which is not really art.  It’s not hard to do as long as you also shut away anything that could accidentally challenge your worldview.  So long as you keep your views from being challenged in any fashion by any new pieces of information, you don’t need to change your experiences or behavior.  And it’s much more satisfying to say that video games are not art than to simply say that they’re a form of art you have no interest in.

So why didn’t Ebert want games to be art?  Because he wasn’t interested in them.  Saying that they weren’t art made him look smarter rather than disinterested.  Which is a shame, because having no interest doesn’t look nearly as silly as the critical discussion keeps happening, but we all have our reasons for picking out causes.

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About expostninja

I've been playing video games and MMOs for years, I read a great deal of design articles, and I work for a news site. This, of course, means that I want to spend more time talking about them. I am not a ninja.

3 responses to “Why didn’t Roger Ebert want games to be art?”

  1. Prof.mcstevie says :

    It is much harder than it should be for human beings to accept and approach things they don’t understand.

  2. Jeromai says :

    “what’s far more interesting is the question of why people would fight against that”

    If everyone could get over their obsession of needing to be -right-, the world would be a far more peaceful place.

    I think ultimately what’s important is two things: ensuring discourse always happens, through a free flow of ideas (and freedom of speech and expression is a critical part of that), and teaching everyone (especially our kids and the younger generation) the importance of critical thinking – how to read everything for both overt and unsaid messages – as well as how to demonstrate respect for different opinions, while maintaining a perspective of their own.

    A little bit of logic and natural selection theory couldn’t hurt either, but that’s a personal opinion. 🙂

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