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A Critical Retort to Roger Ebert on Games as Art

The discussion surrounding videogames as art is a tired one we would all like to forget. But Roger Ebert is insistent, and perhaps rightly so, to continue the debate. I'm just not sure he understands the field he is criticizing.

When I was in school we were asked to tackle, in my favourite class of games criticism, the games as art debate.

Some people (artists) made the case that because games clearly contain art, they are art.

Some people were bewildered by the microscopic inspection of the term -- film is art, comic books are art, novels are art, short stories are art, good or bad, whatever the gradient, those mediums are artful.

I forget my argument entirely, but it was supported by an article written by Roger Ebert.  Late at night on the bus in those sleepless times I was re-reading and re-reading a column by Roger Ebert, trying to pick it apart.  But for whatever reason I came to the conclusion -- games are not art, but they could be.  Games by default are not art, because unlike these other mediums, some games are the equivalent of a football or a soccer or tag.

Yes, I was naive.

The Art Crisis

"I am still a victim of chess.  It has all the beauty of art - and much more.  It cannot be commercialized.  Chess is much purer than art in its social position." -- Marcel Duchamp

Is beauty objective?  As solid organisms compiled and processed by genes -- as humans -- are we compelled all of us to stand on a cold windy day in the twilight of the winter sun and look up in awe at the mountain peaks?  Whether Muslim or Christian or Atheist are we not all at peace in a swaying spring field with the birds calling around us, in the solitude of silence?

Reading Ebert's most recent column, a retort in fact, I am compelled to believe that he is bending the objective to his own subjective distaste.  His column opens after the tagline "Video games can never be art" with a picture of a chubby kid, glasses, controller in hand, almost-crying-face.

This morning he felt this statement on Twitter agreed with his thoughts and re-tweeted it "Thanks to video games people can now play sports while laying down and eating." 

It is clear already that Ebert has initiated a polemic discussion -- he actively dislikes videogames and the people that play them and think they are anything more than toys.  His tagline is not inflammatory, it is subjectively true for him -- he is not trying to reach a consensus of understanding, he is putting down the property stake and saying "Videogames, do not ever cross this line." 

Well, it is not his line to draw.

"For although the attribute of beauty does not attach to play as such, play nevertheless tends to assume marked elements of beauty.  Mirth and grace adhere at the outset to the more primitive forms of play." -- Johan Huizinga

The definition of art is extended with new periods of expression in the traditional world of art.  Truly in its rabid disrespect for the pretenses of art, even Dadaism is art.  In its rebelliousness, even anti-art becomes artful and beautiful.

This is why I argue that no, videogames do not complain to their artistic parents for the status of arthood so they may be validated.  Rather the artistic parents look down with disdain and contract their definition, to deny videogames the recognition of the adulthood they have already achieved.

The first definition of art found at is:

"the quality, production, expression, or realm, according to aesthetic principles, of what is beautiful, appealing, or of more than ordinary significance."

When Ebert argues games are not art -- that they should be happy being videogames and not art -- what he is really doing is saying that videogames are not the same kind of art as film, novels, paintings.

When humans first started cutting shapes into the sand and spreading dyes onto cave walls, that was all we had.  Another human saw the shapes and parsed them, attached meanings to the symbols and nodded his head: yes, I understand you.

Now we have a computer.  A collection of circuit boards, crystals and electricity.  Just as film tricks our eyes and our ears into taking its events seriously, we have had for some time now a category of devices which allows players to control what they see -- what we have is a sandbox, and we have been given a stick to draw our own picture in the sand.  We have agency, we have avatars.  Mister Ebert, this is a step that has required traditional art to add a new wing to its facilities.

Where Is The Art Then?

The chess pieces are the block alphabet which shapes thoughts; and these thoughts, although making a visual design on the chess-board, express their beauty abstractly, like a poem... I have come to the personal conclusion that while all artists are not chess players, all chess players are artists.” -- Marcel Duchamp 

In a game of Defense of the Ancients the art is not a thing that exists before the players begin their play.  The art is not just the characters, the environment, the music, the appearance of the interface or the tactile feel of the controls.

The art, like a dance performance, is expressed through player agency.  To someone who knows the rules the play is beautiful, as it is to a trained ballerina admiring a dance performance.  Videogames are perhaps more niche in this sense -- the beauty requires the knowledge obtained from personal play.  Mister Ebert has not played DotA and so watching it, he can never know what is so beautiful about it.

There is something euphoric in the zenith of human ability.  Watching good DotA players weave in and out, deny every creep from his enemy, get every last hit he can, always knowingly staying out of his enemy's attack range but leveraging his own -- this is as beautiful as that moment in chess where you realize what plan previous moves have fallen into.  Aha.  It is as beautiful as seeing a flawless game of rugby play -- no fumbles, an expert kick between the field goals, running just fast enough.  It is the same feeling you feel when the protagonist in a film barely makes it out alive, when he just barely hides the incriminating evidence from his wife.

Human experience is finite, but perhaps the avenues to recreating those experiences through artful means is not.  Videogames are a new avenue for experiences, feelings, adrenaline rushes, feelings of conquest and superiority, feelings of failure and shame and hate and fear.  The haunting voiceovers of the crazed and depraved in Bioshock, the eye-widening adrenaline pumping electro of Geometry Wars.  The feelings created as you stab the life out of a stone giant in Shadow of the Colossus, as it falls to the ground and you wipe the real sweat from your forehead.

These are things games did not have before, these are the things that force us to make the distinction between games and videogames.  Ring around the Rosy is a game.  Halo is a videogame.  Games can be transfused into videogames, but movement the other way is simply impossible.

The Process of Investment 

Game developers, believe it or not, want to control how people feel.  Believe it or not, game developers invest just the same quantifiable meaning into their content as film makers. 

When a game level changes shape seven times in a year, when an art style is ripped off and a new one applied, when a narrative is rewritten or a new character invented -- these are all changing for what reason?  They are changing because a different player interpretation is wanted.

Mister Ebert, even Grand Theft Auto 3 thought about how the player was going to kill a hooker.  How does the baseball bat feel?  Is it brutal?  How do we animate that?  Does she scream?  How intensely should the voice actress scream?  How will that make the player feel?  What does it feel like when the player runs over a body in their car?

We are creating virtual interpretations of worlds and we are telling the computer "this is how we want them to seem 'real'".  Just as the painter puts brush to canvas, countless people must put pen to paper and finger to keyboard to willingly create things that other people will interpret in a desired way.

Yes Mister Ebert, you cannot win a film.  But why would it be logical to follow by saying that since a film cannot be won you can only experience it, implying that you can only win and not experience a videogame?  Mister Ebert, a videogame allows both, by virtue of its existence as a thing to be played.  You cannot win without first experiencing, or else you have not been playing, and if you have not been playing then, well, you have just been watching. 

The Ease Of Artistic Expression In Film

Film is the capturing of the real world -- apart from 3D films (Pixar, Avatar) -- it is very similar to photography.  It is photography in motion and with the added stimuli of, sometimes, sound.  

Now I will form here my own polemic argument: any film can claim it is artistic through interpretation.  A thirty second shot of a tree swaying in the wind is just a record of a tree swaying in the wind.  But a director can apply any sort of meaningful bombast to that scene either through use of cinematic technique or, quite frankly, in saying so publicly after the film is done.

Videogames have to build that tree.  They have to build the world that tree is in, build the sunlight that shines on it, and build a vessel for the person that sees it.  There is a lot of overhead here -- a lot of places where it is proven how difficult the simple beauty of reality is to recreate.

If Mister Ebert is convinced that the visuals in Flower are the equivalent of a greeting card, then he is making a strange argument.  Grab a camera and sweep it through a swaying field of grass -- is that art, because it appears more authentic?  Is this saying that the imperfect -- the impressionist -- virtual rendering of that field is at fault because it does not appear genuine?

It seems an argument directed towards visual perception and imagination rather than one against videogames.

In Conclusion

"Play is a uniquely adaptive act, not subordinate to some other adaptive act, but with a special function of its own in human experience." -- Johan Huizinga

It seems that this is the same case against videogames as any other.  As a film critic, Ebert is complaining about the taste of the food without tasting it.  He sees the steak on the plate and says it does not have enough marinade to be tasty.

Mister Ebert, I would ask that you pick a videogame and review it.  So that you can review the artistic efforts of a videogame as the experiencer, rather than as the observer.  Videogames cannot be observed as film, they cannot be listened to as music, they cannot be mused over as a painting.  Videogames must be played. 

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