Video Games Are Platypi

The Platypus is, according to Wikipedia (and science), “an egg-laying, venomous, duck-billed, beaver-tailed, otter-footed mammal” that was considered for many years a hoax, and defied classification by even the most learned of naturalists.

It was simply too new, and too novel, to fit in the standard buckets created for life on Earth during the late 1700’s when it was first reported. Who can forgive the initial reaction among the very developer’s of those classifications that something so unique that defied everything about them must be a hoax?

The famous naturalist and member of the London Natural History Museum Dr. George Shaw said himself after examining an actual specimen “It is impossible not to entertain some doubts as to the genuine nature of the animal.”

This was a famous and revered man, someone who actually (before the days of movie industry fakery involving silicone or fake bones) examined a specimen of this creature; a man who was known for being a defining voice in the world of what is or is not a creature in the animal realm.

The science of “naturalists” was young, and unused to challenges to the original orthodoxy that was built off of so much deep study, and nature’s obvious lines and partitions.

Along dared come this thing only found in Australia and New Zealand (untrustworthy sources of anything at the time) to be accepted, after a long debate, somewhat imperfectly into the schema.

And likewise so from the world of the game console, the handheld, and the PC come video games to resident definers of “art.”

I wasn’t going to get into this discussion, I really wasn’t.  People like Roger Ebert have held my respect despite my many disagreements with them for a long time.  Roger Ebert is a great example of someone who has enthusiastically embraced new methods of communication and discourse. This is a person who revels in the debate of ideas and meanings.  He has a wonderful blog, and tweets on a regular basis.  This is not some cranky luddite.

Let me laud the good sides: Ebert’s reviews of “The Last Temptation of Christ”, “Dark City”, “Lawrence of Arabia”, “Citizen Kane”, and “Jaws” (just to name a few) are must reads (very nearly archetype) essays about the nature of film.  His commentary tracks on Citizen Kane and Dark City blu ray’s alone are worth an entire semester of film class.  This is a man who not only understands the nature of his craft, he has taken a huge part, along with the (only when justified) acerbic and much missed Gene Siskel, in defining it.

But…  well everyone knew a “but” was coming right?

Occasionally he exhibits tenacious stands of principle which are puzzling.  We all do this of course.  However like the Platypus it goes against the intellectual nature of the person being described.  One example is his review of “The Usual Suspects” (1.5 out of 4 stars) where he confuses the plot of the movie from being a heist story as opposed to what it is really about: a battle of wits between two men in a room. He bemoaned that the twist rewrites the heist story.  What it does is reveal the victor of the battle of wits in the room. He states we only get one side of the story, omitting entirely Agent Kujan’s repeated alternate interpretations of Verbal’s story. Verbal won. That’s what the film is about.

Or his review of “The Frighteners” (1 out of 4 stars), certainly not Peter Jackson’s best film.  But I enjoyed it and upon reading Ebert’s review felt some form of cranky hyperbole had come into play.  He spends a sentence stating the entire film is sound and fury with no plot, then spends the next 40% of the total word count of the review describing the plot.

A quote from the review:

It is better, I think, to sit through a movie where nothing happens than one in which everything happens. Last year, I reviewed a nine-hour documentary about the lives of Mongolian yak herdsmen, and I would rather see it again than sit through “The Frighteners.”

I eventually watched the 9 hour Yak Farmer documentary he alludes to.  It was ok, probably about 4 hours too long.  But given all his zero star films he’s written about, truly did The Frighteners deserve more ire that movie year than say, Space Truckers? or Savage?

This is all just to say that before even examining the “Are Video Games Art” argument, one of the principle voices who has sparked the discussion has already been much followed and examined by myself in terms of his credentials both positive and negative.

And the following is to politely suggest to Mr. Ebert that he is in the position of Dr. George Shaw*.

The argument about Video Games as art has long bemused me.  Not over the substance but instead over the semantics. The real question that gets hidden in the dual meaning of the word “art” (I know painters who insist writing is simply not an art) is whether or not something is an “art form”.

Video Games are quite clearly an art form. The Slate article most commonly tied to Roger Ebert’s recent reemergence into this debate states this:

These are questions victims ask, people taken advantage of, left with less than they started out with. The purpose of art is the opposite of this, to leave you with more at the end than at the beginning, to give you something you can carry with you.

What a silly definition.  Anything, even the realization that you have wasted your time, can define art.  One can go to an exhibit, realize you enjoy none of the art and have wasted your time, and this does not detract from the offering as art.

Art, it might be better said, exists at the intersection of intellectual reaction and emotional reaction.  Intellect to understand what has at least at some level been offered by the creator; and emotion, the feeling that what you have sought to understand has evoked a reaction, be it revulsion or sadness or joy.

Consider for a moment, the Video Game Child of Eden. This is a game that uses the Xbox 360 Kinect sensor to use your movements to guide the game.  Watch this video, and pause it at around 1 minute in.


Beautiful game right? But at minute 1, it shifts to show you a person actually playing it.  Unpause the video.

You only get a few seconds, but look at him move.  Look at his motions. Watching a person playing this game evokes an emotional response in me. Especially when someone is really good at it.  Is this art?  I certainly think so.  It’s a performance, perhaps not for my specific benefit but still evokes a pattern of human movement I find intriguing and intellectually stimulating, because I know their actions are those of a person striving toward a goal against a programmed set of obstacles.

Even playing a game can be art.

Let’s move to one final point in the argument of Video Games as art.  The concept of propaganda.

Propaganda is defined as a form of communication whose sole aim is at influencing the attitude of a population towards a viewpoint. This is most effectively done through subversion of the arts, where the very fact the form is “artistic” hides the propaganda effect.

There have been very few examples of abject propaganda in the video game world. But in 2011 one of the more insidious attempts was released for the Xbox 360: Blackwater The Video Game

That’s right, *that* Blackwater. A video game was released with the sole intent of, through an art form, changing or influencing the perception of a widely reviled private mercenary organization. One, ironically, that since the commission of the game was forced to change its name several different times in order to escape public disgust at its behavior. The game was commissioned specifically by the organization’s founder Erik Prince. Not only was it a terrible game it was a blatant attempt to use the medium to undercut criticism of the organization (which again, is laughable because it had already changed names twice before the game was release)

Throughout history one use of art has been to be repurposed as propaganda. We see here the same is true of Video Games.

The idea of Video Games as an art form certainly goes down wrong in a lot of minds of the people who work to evaluate, critique, and categorize “art”. Much like the Platypus, occasionally something comes along from the “Australia” segment of culture that defies easy explanation.  But if it waddles like, and acts like, a creature beyond description then perhaps let us not be so quick to declare it not an animal at all and some hoax or outlier. Perhaps it is simply something we cannot easily classify in the wealth and breadth of all that can be considered art.

In a century I feel this argument will be quaint indeed. I see those in opposition much like poor Dr. George Shaw, facing something he cannot classify, but being something he eventually has to.



*Of course, if he’s read this, he reached my point long before I got there. I can only offer in my defense Mr. Ebert that those in Australia and New Zealand must have exclaimed “Who the *FUCK* is George Shaw” when it was proclaimed their commonly encountered creature was a fake.


  1. An excellent post, thank you.

    I share your feelings, as someone with a great deal of respect for Ebert and who is baffled by his occasional stance on video games.

    I don’t even need him to “admit” that he’s wrong. He’s got his opinion and his definition of art, and that’s fine. What really irks me is his snarky insistence. Take his recent tweet that referred to Dark Souls as a “soul-deadening experience.” Without even talking about the questionable logic of making Dark Souls your first gaming experience, what is the point of that tweet? What does that accomplish other than to stroke the egos of those who agree, and needlessly goad those who don’t?

    I disagree with Ebert but I don’t dislike him for his position, but his actions/remarks as a result of that position are starting to erode my respect.

  2. Blackwater does look like a new benchmark in horribly bad games, i’d almost like to try it for comedy sake, but I wouldn’t want to be mistakenly viewed as supporting questionable mercenary vendettas or poor game design.

  3. Simon Dufour says:

    A video-games is composed of multiple pieces of arts fitted together into a wider art piece. The music, for example, is very important. Deus Ex: Human Revolution, Final Fantasy, Guild Wars,… A lot of games were defined by their soundtrack. Then, there’s the graphic themselves. It’s hard to see Metro 2033 in action without drooling over the details. Quantic Dreams are, in my opinion, masters of animation and acting in games. Then, there’s the story-telling part, where writers do what they can to provide us with an interesting story. Bioware are good at that.. If you’re looking for masters though, simply look at the old adventure games like Monkey Island.. which mixed puzzle and awesomely good writing together to create something funny and head scratching at the same time. The game design is also an art form. Taking all the pieces of the puzzle and mixing them in a way to make the game fun and emotionally involving.

    What is both wonderful and completely outrageous is that all these pieces individually are only average.. it’s when you merge them into one great product that it becomes what it is. And that’s what is most fantastic about gaming.

    When you play a game and can see all the different parts and how they’re working with each others.. that’s when you understand how video-games are such an art form.

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