Roger Ebert is 100% right. For him.

I deeply wish I knew Roger Ebert as a person. Over the past few years I have gained an enormous respect for him.  I’ve been reading his reviews for 20 years, and more recently, his excellent blog where he covers a variety of topics. His DVD commentaries for Dark City and Citizen Kane are the content equivalent of a month of high quality film school. One of the things I like about his writing is that he makes it easy to divine his reasoning for the positions he takes, which allows one to accurately assess whether or not you agree with the underlying ideas that he uses to reach conclusions. Sure, I’ve vehemently disagreed with his reviews on occasion*, but I have always enjoyed reading his work.  His recent physical challenges have done nothing but increase my respect for him, and perhaps have contributed to what I think is some of his best writing.

Yesterday he wrote a lengthy blog entry entitled “Video Games will never be considered Art." Of course it’s simple to see why a person like myself, whose livelihood is based upon video games, would object. In addition, because the argument is so charged, there’s been a ton of Internet opinion provided. Most of it has either insulted Roger Ebert as old and silly, irresponsible in expressing that opinion due to his influence, and the occasional passionate defense of gaming as an art form.

Set all of that aside for a moment.  I’m not arguing Roger Ebert’s conclusion.  Instead I am arguing his conclusion is largely irrelevant, and is based on an intellectually poor methodology.  It’s not interesting to say "X will NEVER be Art" to me.  It is far more interesting to say "Art is X." and debate that point. Because with that point, everyone can win because either everyone is right to some degree, or no one is.

Ebert applies his view of games to his conclusion, writing the article as a rebuttal to the opposite assertion by another party. His view of games, from the writing, appears to be informed solely by the viewpoints and arguments of others supported by a few videos and captures, not actual playing of video games itself. And we should keep in mind Mr. Ebert has already jabbed his thumb into the eye of this debate before, and I encourage everyone to read his arguments from those previous posts, for they are more well formed than his recent ones.  In his previous positions he has stated he means “high art” in the form of Michelangelo or (and this is never clearly stated on Ebert’s part but one can assume) the works of Kurosawa, Allen, Or Fellini. But now he has lowered the bar it seems, and stated video games can *never* be art.  Surely such an assertion from a widely respected mind involved in-depth hands-on analysis and critique of a wide breadth of games!

Of this new position I have one major objection: his opinion is needlessly uninformed by experience. Look at his dismissal of Braid for having a rewind feature, which he likens to being able to take back a move in Chess.  Having not played the game, it’s easy to dismiss it.  But if he chose to play it instead of hearing someone describe it or watch a passive video of the play, he would understand that not only is the rewind not a "take back", indeed it is essential to solving many of the puzzles.  And by that I don’t mean using it as trial and error. There are some puzzles that can only be solved by the application of the feature. The feature is part of the puzzle, not a band aid to make solving it easier.

Towards the end he throws in a point I found probably the weakest thing he could have possibly brought up: That the debate itself somehow indicated that the side that argues that video games are art is somehow defensive and therefore the assertion itself is automatically weak, ipso facto.  He notes Baseball players don’t defend their sport as art.  This seemingly observant straw man blows right by the fact a vast majority of video games have a narrative arc as an integral element of the interactivity. One might compare physical baseball with the video game version of baseball thusly. However it is as ludicrous to suggest Baseball and Bioshock are artistically the same as it is to suggest Soccer and Blade Runner are artistically equal. While some video games are competitive and might have an analogy to physical games, his dismissal of many of the crucial elements of what comprises a video game serve only to underscore the problem I have with how he justifies his conclusion. It is at best dismissive, it is at worst willfully ignorant. I write these things factually not pejoratively.  The regard for his opinion and reasoning is unassailable by the likes of me.  I just point out in this case, our emperor doesn’t have any clothes on.

Well, that doesn’t make his conclusion objectively wrong, for two important reasons.  One, the definition of Art (even “High Art”) is extremely subjective; it encompasses both a compliment ("That double eagle was a work of art!") along with an abstract meant to convey creative achievement of some type.  In this, his conclusion is completely subjective and supportable within the framework he’s established.

So Roger Ebert is 100% correct that video games or other interactive entertainment can never be art, provided you’re not a person who plays video games, have ever played video games regularly, don’t appear to want to play video games to inform your theory, use other’s arguments in favor of gaming artistry as a proxy for direct experience, and define art rigidly to exclude many of the Interactive aspects of gaming, oh and require comparative achievement to historical geniuses such as Da Vinci, Mozart, Scorsese or Lynch.

For my part, I don’t worry or obsess over whether video games are art, it’s more interesting to talk about the various interpretations of the definition of the word Art. Whether or not video games are now, or will be in the future, considered works of art will be decided by time.  Not Internet debates.

In that regard, for a man I have significant respect for, I take no issue with his conclusion though I disagree with it.  But I have some mighty big problems with his methodology, as it does his reputation for intellectual prowess and insight no service whatsoever.

*Dear Roger, if you ever read this, thanks for all the fantastic reviews.  However, I think that The Usual Suspects is a movie about a battle of wills to find the truth in a police interrogation room, not about the details and timeline of a crime heist.  There was a lot to solve actually, and the detective failed utterly to solve any of it, until it was too late.

Leave a Reply