Response to Ebert- Video Games can be Art

Back in April, Roger Ebert, the highly-esteemed Chicago film critic, wrote a post on his blog entitled “Video Games can never be art.” I suspect that I do not need to explain the gist of his post. In response, he received over 4500 comments, overwhelmingly in disagreement with Mr. Ebert.

Wisely, last week Mr. Ebert walked back his comments somewhat in his follow-up post “Okay, kids, play on my lawn.” He correctly admitted that it was foolish and wrong of him to discount that video games as a medium could never attain the status of Art, given that the future of video games is completely unknown. Furthermore, Mr. Ebert acknowledges that his firsthand experience with modern video games is almost completely non-existent and that “I would never review a movie I had not seen.” Well put.
As almost anyone who has seen a Rothko or Jackson Pollock or experienced John Cage’s “4’33” for the first time can attest, the question “What is Art?” can be a tricky one to answer. Any attempt to achieve a universally acceptable and effective definition is bound to be unsuccessful.
I have been playing video games since I was about 5 years old, having received the original NES and Super Mario Bros/Duck Hunt as a Christmas present. I had the NES, followed by the Super Nintendo, followed by PC games, and most recently have been enjoying the Nintendo Wii. In addition to my own game systems, I have had plenty of experience playing video games on the various XBox, Playstation and Sega systems. I can say that rarely have any of my experiences attained the status of Art, but there are a couple. Various titles in the Final Fantasy series come to mind. Those with more extensive gaming experience, such as Mr. Ebert’s other correspondents, can likely name more. And as the genre grows and matures, it undoubtedly will produce Art that qualifies with even the best literature, movies, music, and other visual art currently being produced. (Note that even games that are not Art may contain art, particularly including music. If film scores qualify as art, why can’t video game scores?) We need to remember that this medium is less than 50 years old by most counts, and has primarily been the province of the young and relatively uncultured for most of its history. As that changes, and the first generations who truly grew up with household gaming (as well as a well-rounded mix of other cultural experiences) move into the production of games, the medium will mature, grow, and flower.
One of Ebert’s chief arguments against video games as Art seems to be that the experience of playing a video game leaves the outcome to be determined by the player and that a video game can be “won” unlike other forms of Art. This is peculiar to the genre, but not fatal to its claim to Art status. In some sense, video game players are collaborators in creating a game. The game as shipped, marketing, and sold in stores can never be Art. It is inert and lifeless. The same can be said of a CD or DVD sitting on the racks at Wal-Mart or Best Buy, no matter what the quality of the music or film embedded on that medium. Nevertheless, unlike a video game, the playback experience of the CD or DVD is fixed at the moment of its recording, as for that matter, is the experience of reading a book. Someone reading this will certainly point out that all experience of Art involves some measure of subjectivity, which is true. We are all conditioned in our response to Art but cultural influences and our own personal history, amongst other factors. But this does not detract from my point, but rather strengthens it. The element of malleability or subjectivity in an experience of Art does not render the object or experience “not Art.”
One who plays a video game is filling in the blanks left by the creator. The game as Art is incomplete until played. By the same token of those items discussed above, our previous experiences of playing video games, as well as other education and experience, affects the way that a gamer interacts with the setting and interface provided. The choices of how the blanks may be filled in can be more or less limited, at the discretion of the game creator. For most popular games, the choice is simply die or advance. But for others (and I am thinking of the Fable games for XBox and the Elder Scrolls series for PC), there is a much more choose-your-own-adventure flavor to the storytelling. And at their heart, this is what truly great games (and movies, books, etc.) do– they tell stories, and allow players to participate in their telling, as if reading the lines of a soliloquy or a choral response to Greek tragedy.
If you want to see a more gung-ho take on the “Video games=Art” argument, watch the video found here:
Sitting on my shelf is a copy of Tom Bissell’s “Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter” waiting to be picked up. Its probably third in my queue following my current read (an excellent, if lengthy, tome on Teddy Roosevelt and the environment) and Ariel’s dissertation. I may have more thoughts on the above following that read, and if so, I may post them here.

One thought on “Response to Ebert- Video Games can be Art

  1. Ebert has posted yet another follow-up, reporting the results of his (non-scientific) poll regarding whether his readers would rather have Huck Finn or a great video game. (See here- In the great tradition of Internet polling, video games won. I have never read Huck Finn, and so, following Ebert, ought not to express an opinion on it specifically. But I have never read anything of Mark Twain's that I ever found remotely interesting or likeable, so that probably tells you where I stand.

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