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I used to be a pretty big fan of Roger Ebert, especially when he had that show with Gene Siskel (yeah, the bald guy). But now, after hearing his second rant on how video games can’t be art, I think I’m gonna have to take him off of my “cool motha fuckas” list. Sucks to be him, I guess:)

Anyway, on his personal blog, Roger Ebert came out and explained what he meant earlier on how games can’t be art. Amazingly, he corrects himself on the issue by saying:

“Anything can be art. Even a can of Campbell’s soup. What I should have said is that games could not be high art, as I understand it.”

So, video games can be art, but not the good kind. A few people in the comments sections of other sites are starting to realize that, no matter how many credentials someone has, anyone can say stupid shit. Ebert has proven that to me. “As I understand it” suggests to me that he has not done his homework. He’s just going on assumptions, and isn’t really looking into the issue with a clear head. He’s probably basing this commentary on what the mainstream media defines games to be, which, as well all know, is completely erroneous.

And what really boils my potato is what he says immediately after that:

“How do I know this? How many games have I played? I know it by the definition of the vast majority of games. They tend to involve (1) point and shoot in many variations and plotlines, (2) treasure or scavenger hunts, as in “Myst,” and (3) player control of the outcome. I don’t think these attributes have much to do with art; they have more in common with sports.”

“Vast majority of games.” Those four words are very telling. “Vast majority” doesn’t mean every single one. You can’t say that something is fact if you haven’t seen every instance of the issue. This is based on the idea of theories, where it’s a generally accepted idea within the scientific community, but can never be fact until it’s proven through research of every available instance. The example I was given in college was “All flamingos are pink.” This is basically a theory, as you cannot say it is fact unless you catalogue every single flamingo in the world, and prove that it is fact. Everyone assumes it’s true, as most people have only seen pink flamingos, but it’s not a fact yet.

Ebert has basically theorized that video games cannot be art, by the very fact that he assumes all games are defined as what he listed above: shooting games, scavenger hunt games like Myst (which was released in 1993), or something where the player controls the outcome.

The last one is a little touchy, as he does have a point. Some games change depending on what the player does (multiple endings, leveling up certain facets of a character to see a different part of the game, etc), and in some instances, change the message that the designer has created. But again, this is not every game. Most games today convey a message or artistic commentary through the gameplay, but it never deviates from its execution. Cinematic games like Metal Gear tell the same story no matter how differently you play the game. If he’s referring to the fact that you may not be able to beat the game, then that is the biggest cop-out. I don’t want to hear someone bullshit their view to me, and this may just be the case.

There’s more to the story than what I talked about, but I lost my interest after reading the first few paragraphs. Ebert is a great movie reviewer, but he has no clue on what games are, and what they can be.

Also, have people learned nothing after reading my Lumines 2 review? There is a perfect example of art within games in this stellar PSP puzzler, and it’s amazing no one has talked about it yet. If you really want to see art in games, play Lumines 2 and get to the “Girls” skin. It’s art, defined. Which, incidentally, disproves Ebert’s theory. Take that, used-to-be fat guy!

[Via Ebert’s blog]

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9 Comments

  1. Christian said on July 25, 2007:

    It is going to be interesting to see different opinions on this one. I don’t think I got angry until he said that Clive Barker was speaking like a four year old (which just seemed crass when earlier it seemed clear that ebert has some respect for the man). Up until that, I enjoyed reading this one. We can call him out for this thing and that, but at the end of the day he’s right; people will call just about anything art, even the guy who just scribbles lines on a sheet of paper. We won’t take that away from him, but we don’t have to be moved by it. For him, even if games are art, it isn’t art he particularly cares to be moved about. I’d feel the same about his favorite films. Neither of us would want to kill each other over this. Even if gmaers convince the world that “games are art”… is that really a victory? Will anyone really care? The better thing to do is make something “artistic” that will really have an impact on people. And that can’t be done easily when everyone is fighting.

    In addendum, the fact that Ebert finds this debate “Stimulating” is at least a sign that he finds it worthy of discussion. If he really detested games, I don’t think he would have written so much about them.

  2. jay said on July 25, 2007:

    Kojima agrees with Ebert but also apparently needs a history lesson. He says art is made to capture one person where as games are made for all people. Most artists in history made their work for someone else and were trying to appeal to others. Kojima’s “tortured artist who makes art for himself and other people lucky enough to realize how deep that art is also appreciate it” line of reasoning doesn’t pan out.

    That said, I’ve doubted games are art. Then I remember the definition changes from person to person and stop caring. Instead of arguing with or against him, a big name journalist should simply ask him to define art. If it’s something like “human made thing that can emotionally impact others” then games are obviously art. If it’s something like “object a single human, an artist, makes” then we can agree that based on his definition, games and movies are not art. If it’s something else, we can just argue over definitions all day.

  3. Stefan said on July 25, 2007:

    Damnit. Back in the day respectible institutions kept the Dadaists and their interactive art out in the fringes where they belonged, but it seems all good things must come to an end. I had started to suspect that MoMA, the Tate, and the Smithsonian had stopped carrying “high art” when they got those pictures of soup cans and marilyn monroe back in the 60’s, but when they started including these interactive installation pieces in the 90’s that just confirmed it for me. Suddenly untrained museum patrons were involved in the creation of the art, and were part of the final outcome! They lack the training to be artists, and therefore anything they touch could obviously never be art. So I’ve quit those museums, and with good riddance. Nothing but rubbish, the lot of them. Now I just need to find a museum that refuses to display anything made after 1910, and I’ll be all set.

  4. matt said on July 25, 2007:

    The thing that really needs to be stressed here is that most people don’t understand what games are, and especially, what they can become. It seems to me that a lot of people, including a few in the actual game development community, truly don’t understand how powerful a video game can become. Now of course, we have only begun to see how far games can go at this point in history, but that doesn’t mean it stops here. Games like Lumines 2 show games can be more than just positive feedback from interaction, or whatever a game is basically defined as. There are things that we have never seen before, but give the medium time and you will be amazed. I will say Lumines is only scratching the surface, and that it can add a lot more to bring out its artsy-ness, but it’s at a great starting point. I just don’t understand when people take what has happened as the only base for their argument. I’m sure movies and music were never considered art at the beginning of their historical lives, but they achieved that status at some point. Why hold video games differently? And I also think this “art is defined by the user” is another form of cop-out. The example of Lumines is art, no matter what you think art is defined as. Dancing from one definition to another is theoretically impossible, and just makes us waste time. With this situation, games are art and not art at the same time. And with Ebert flapping his gums, he’s not helping out the situation at all. He can start a discussion, but when he states games cannot be art as fact (with some pretty flimsy examples, I might add), then he’s instilling this false dogma into all of his loyal followers, turning the video game medium into some sort of toy for people to release stress and compete. And that don’t jive with me, baby.

  5. jay said on July 25, 2007:

    How is saying the definition of art is subjective a cop out? I don’t recall Jesus objectively defining art for us.

  6. Matt said on July 25, 2007:

    Because I don’t want to run around in circles when I’m trying to see if something is art or not. If the conversation was going to give me, “Well, it’s not technically art because of this one issue that I believe…” I wouldn’t have brought up it up. Maybe art is what we all assume it to be, but the message is what defines it for that specific person. Let me explain. The example in Lumines will be felt most from someone that lost a child. Some may not say it is art because the message is not for them and they don’t see the message that clearly, but that doesn’t take away the fact that it’s art. The issue is just argumentative for no reason.

  7. jay said on July 25, 2007:

    Before you think I’m just being a jerk and arguing for the sake of it I will agree that Ebert is old, pompous, fat, and ignorant about games.

    Now, please define art for me. If it’s not the same definition I independently come up with we will argue and ultimately disagree on what things are art. This isn’t running in circles, it’s the foundation of the entire debate.

  8. Matt said on July 25, 2007:

    Yeah, don’t worry, I don’t think you’re being a jerk. I just don’t like the fact that games that actually do have a sense of art, be it whatever you want it to be, are not given recognition for it. It’s probably stupid to think they should get recognition from people that shouldn’t even care about it, like Ebert, but still. The people that worked on them should get as much recognition as they deserve, and it hurts me to see people blindly say no on the issue of games as art, and put their foot down about it. Shadow of the Colossus, ICO, Lumines, and a few others have a sense of art in them, in some form or another, and it’s a shame they aren’t revered that way. I still think anything contains this sense of “high art” if it’s conveying a message for someone in a new way. New way, as based off the message, not necessarily the uniqueness of its method. Example: Statue of Liberty conveys the message of freedom. There are other statues, so the idea of using a statue to convey something isn’t new, but when used to convey the idea of freedom, it’s unique. That’s my definition. And it has to be a meaningful message, not that Campbell’s soup has beef in it from New Jersey. I’m sure you have something different. But the message is still there, and they made someone understand it through whatever method they used. Lumines 2 shows the emotional impact one has with the loss of a daughter through bits of sound, video, and gameplay. That’s art, and pretty close to this idea of “high art”. And it’s a disservice to say it may not be art when there are other definitions of art floating around. Some may not see that message, or agree, or even care, but for the select few, it has shown them something in an artistic way. I apologize if I’m getting too carried away with this issue, but with someone that has an emotional investment with games, the ones that do have art should be given recognition and not have the “debate of art” blocking that.

  9. Stefan said on July 27, 2007:

    Matt – throughout history new media, new styles, and new means of expression have been excluded from the established definition of “Art” because they don’t fit with people’s previous experiences of art. The result is that this exact argument has occurred over and over with every new exploration for at least the last 2,000 years. (Including film, which Ebert would do well to remember).

    It is sort of a rite of passage for all new forms of art, and I take it as a good sign that it is being held with regard to games because I can’t think of a time when people argued over something that wasn’t eventually accepted as art.

    Mass recognition often comes after the careers – or even the lives – of the initial groundbreaking artists are over. In short, don’t worry that the establishment says your medium is not “art”. That just makes you avante-guarde. :)

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