Thursday, April 22, 2010

Roger Ebert: Video Games Can Never Be Art

Film critic Roger Ebert kicked in a hornet's nest in the geekosphere when he asserted that video games are not and never can be art (via Nerd Bastards).
Having once made the statement above, I have declined all opportunities to enlarge upon it or defend it. That seemed to be a fool's errand, especially given the volume of messages I receive urging me to play this game or that and recant the error of my ways. Nevertheless, I remain convinced that in principle, video games cannot be art. Perhaps it is foolish of me to say "never," because never, as Rick Wakeman informs us, is a long, long time. Let me just say that no video gamer now living will survive long enough to experience the medium as an art form.

Ebert wrote in response to a TED talk from game designer Kellee Santiago on the subject.

I would prefer to do a straight fisking of Ebert, but he wrote largely in response to Santiago, who I think provided an inadequate definition of art and thereafter proceeded in the wrong rhetorical direction.

So rather than defending Santiago's perspective and rebutting Ebert, let me argue positively that video games can be art.

We begin with the most foundational question: "What is art?" Here, I think, Santiago makes an early mistake by defining it as "the process or product of deliberately arranging elements in a way that appeals to the senses or emotions."

Without consulting other sources, let me offer this alternative: art is the outward expression of an inward conception of an ideal condition, such as beauty or terror. If a person thinks of something beautiful, it is not, in and of itself, art. If that person can effectively communicate it through text, performance, or a physical rendering, then he has created art.

It is necessary to note that some degree of technical skill is required. If a person is able to fully externalize his inner vision, then he has created good art. If he is hampered by a lack of technical skill, then the product represents a limited and obscured expression of the image trapped within the confines of the mind.

A person may attempt to disguise his lack of technical ability by choosing an expression that does not require great technical skill and claim that the original intent has been fulfilled. This is how we can discern the difference between Bouguereau and Pollock. Pollock chose more abstract expressions because he lacked the technical skill necessary for concrete expressions. Bouguereau, if he wished, could have created a Pollock. Pollock could never have created a Bouguereau.

So art is not fully egalitarian. A talented few, with training to hone their raw talent, will be able to outwardly express their inner vision. The rest of us will not. Or as Rudy Giuliani has been quoted "If I can do it, it's not art."

Therefore, one test of an activity as a medium of art is to ask "Can anyone, with sufficient training, do it?"


I'm inclined to think not.

Ebert suggests that the anonymity of game designers evidences their unworthiness of mention:
Yet she concedes that I was correct when I wrote, "No one in or out of the field has ever been able to cite a game worthy of comparison with the great poets, filmmakers, novelists and poets." To which I could have added painters, composers, and so on, but my point is clear.

Quick -- name ten composers. Now name just three game designers.

How well did you do? I'm not a musical person, but I came up with ten composers and not a single game designer. Does this mean that they are not artists? Does fame denote true art?

No -- and for a reason that Ebert of all people should understand. If game design may be compared to any medium, it is filmmaking. Both media are enormous collaborative projects that require between dozens and hundreds of specialized workers. Give Spielberg the job of creating a film entirely by himself, and he'll create something as mediocre as a game designed entirely by a solitary producer at Ubisoft. If filmmaking is an artistic medium, then so is game design. If art can be created collaboratively on film, then it can be created collaboratively in pixels.

But we can name Steven Spielberg. And Oliver Stone and the Coen Brothers and many more. But no game designers. Why? Because game production is a very rapidly changing industry, and viciously cut-throat. The technology that empowers it is growing so fast that the market rolls over any designer who can't keep up with the frenetic pace. A game made ten years ago is as crude as Georges Méliès' 1902 Le Voyage Dans la Lune. But a movie made ten years ago can be better than current releases because the medium is comparatively stagnant. Filmmakers can rest on their laurels; game designers cannot.

Both Santiago and Ebert actually mention Méliès and his film Le Voyage Dans La Lune. Ebert writes:
Now she shows stills from early silent films such as George Melies' "A Voyage to the Moon" (1902), which were "equally simplistic." Obviously, I'm hopelessly handicapped because of my love of cinema, but Melies seems to me vastly more advanced than her three modern video games. He has limited technical resources, but superior artistry and imagination.

How so? Ebert does not explain. To Santiago's most effective argument -- that video games are at an early stage of artistic development comparable to the earliest movies -- Ebert is almost silent.

But I won't argue from Santiago's perspective, which, as I've said, starts with a somewhat faulty definition of art. I define art -- and specifically good art -- as the effective outward expression of an inward conception of an ideal condition. If a person thinks of a story, and can express that story fully in text, that person is an artist and has produced art. If a person thinks of a sound and can fully express that sound in music, that person is an artist and has produced art. If a person thinks of a movement and can fully express that movement in dance, that person is an artist and has produced art. If a person thinks of an image and can fully express that image in paint, that person is an artist and has produced art.


If a person can envision a video and gather a team together that can accurately express that inner vision, that person is an artist and has produced art.


If a person can envision an interactive video and gather a team together that can accurately express that inner vision, that person is an artist and has produced art.

And that's what video games are -- interactive visual and auditory environments that express an inner vision. Not everyone is capable of producing good video games. I can't and Roger Ebert can't. The task requires people with a natural talent sharpened by formal training. They can create artificial worlds where we can experience their inner vision. Such people are artists.

And the product of an artist is art.

Now yesterday this post began as a comment at Nerd Bastards, and it grew and grew until I realized that I should write an entire post on the subject. While composing it, I encountered this excellent response from Jerry Holkins of Penny Arcade (via reddit). An excerpt of its brilliance:
so there's nothing here to discuss. You can if you want to, and people certainly do, but there's no profit in it. Nobody's going to hold their blade aloft at the end of this thing and found a kingdom. It's just something to fill the hours.

Also, do we win something if we defeat him? Does he drop a good helm? Because I can't for the life of me figure out why we give a shit what that creature says. He doesn't operate under some divine shroud that lets him determine what is or is not valid culture. He cannot rob you, retroactively, of wholly valid experiences; he cannot transform them into worthless things.

He's simply a man determined to be on the wrong side of history, the wrong side of the human drive to create, and dreadfully so; a monument to the same generational bullshit that says because something has not been, it must not and could never be.

All of this is true. Ebert, film critic, is no different from the people a century ago who proclaimed that film could never amount to anything; that it was not real art. His views will end up on the ash heap of history, and we know it, and he knows it.

What do you think?

What is art?

Do video games constitute art?

27 comments:

Anonymous said...

I believe that Tempest was art.

NERDESQUE said...

Ebert is, and has always been, an ignoramus.

Marcel said...

If a well-told story with memorable characters is art, then video games can be art. Ebert is so obviously wrong that what he says is uninteresting, and I'm left wondering why he says it. He's not stupid; he should see the parallel to early film, and recognize that 'nuh uh' is an inadequate reply; maybe he's trolling, maybe it's sincere snobbery, maybe he's just too set in his ways. I don't know a lot about gaming myself - "Does he drop a good helm?" - what does that mean?

A point in favor of something being art is presence of intelligent criticism. Maybe there isn't much academic criticism of gaming, but I think there has been some, and people do write thoughtfully about how particular games have told the story, and how the characterization succeeded or failed. Can't find it just now, but I remember some thoughtful analysis of Baldur's Gate, and that's a while ago now.

Another point is how games may be influencing other genres. It's seemed to me that watching Lost has been like following a party through a game.

Brian J. said...

Sid Meier is not an artist, he is a GOD!

I think video games can be art, and further, we're in the studio system of video game development. There are a couple of rock star name brand designers for video games, Sid Meier and Wil Wright amongst them, who can sell a game on their name alone, but that's probably where films were circa 1930.

(Romero at id completes my Trifecta of designers I can name without leaving this window. Can I count Noah Bushnell for extra credit?)

keith said...

Xenogears; I believe that is "nuff said".

Brian J. said...

I forgot to mention Todd Replogle at Apogee software. 17 years later, and I still play Cosmo's Great Adventure from time to time.

MC said...

Yes, I can certainly name more than three individual game developers and differentiate between their work based on the qualities they bring to the table.

When they put the developers name in the title or tell you that so and so is presenting a game, you know that a medium does indeed have "artists".

Anonymous said...

Further discussion, at great length, can be found here:

http://scienceblogs.com/pharyngula/2010/04/roger_ebert_ticks_off_video_ga.php

Anony said...

Video games as art... speaking now only of the best of both worlds, that's either saying far too little for video games, or way too much for art.

Most "art" is (at best) pretentious nonsense; most videogames are either uninspired or barely-veiled plagarism.

Videogames are also, in almost every case, far more work than any artwork you're likely to have come across in person.

But when it comes to the best, original, inspired works in both areas... "art" is flat and lifeless compared to the videogame; worth less time, less attention, less admiration.

Cover a park walkway in silk? Submerge a religious figure in urine? Throw some random shapes together? Dab some paint on a canvas? Spend a few weeks stitching together some "haute couture"?

Compare these "artworks" to person-years of time crafting a story, its every reaction space, look, feel, sound, input domains, underlying operational mechanisms, interface to the system mechanisms (hardware), tuning the effects of all these things against a series of human beings as they improve over the development process time...

No... sorry, what most people mean when they say "art" is yesterday's news, strictly for the unsophisticated.

Of course, that's not how they think of themselves, is it? I laugh myself silly every time I hear of some person choking up six or seven or more figures to own the only copy of children's scribblings like "the scream." In the end, they're happy, I'm happy, and Ebert is happy.

John said...

A point in favor of something being art is presence of intelligent criticism. Maybe there isn't much academic criticism of gaming, but I think there has been some, and people do write thoughtfully about how particular games have told the story, and how the characterization succeeded or failed. Can't find it just now, but I remember some thoughtful analysis of Baldur's Gate, and that's a while ago now.

Possibly, but it is possible to obfuscated insignificance with pretentious language. I've read enough criticism of abstract art to become convinced of that.

John said...

Brian J. wrote:

Sid Meier is not an artist, he is a GOD!

I must have been living under a rock, or not playing enough video games (that's more likely) because I've never heard of these people. I know of companies (RockStar, Eidos, etc.), but not people.

John said...

MC wrote:

When they put the developers name in the title or tell you that so and so is presenting a game, you know that a medium does indeed have "artists".

This would be indeed evidence, as it suggests that the creative people are not interchangeable technicians, but distinct artists.

John said...

Anony wrote:

Cover a park walkway in silk? Submerge a religious figure in urine? Throw some random shapes together? Dab some paint on a canvas? Spend a few weeks stitching together some "haute couture"?

This is a good reason why art or good art should pass a technical test to be considered valid. Can the artist do more than toss urine down a walkway? If not, he's not an artist, and his work is not art.

MC said...

When I said that I meant that they already do that.

Sid Meier's Gettysburg/Alpha Centuri

The Metal Gear Solid games have that they are Hideo Kojima games

Spore says that it is from the Creator of the Sims (Will Wright).

Bl0ss0m said...

Any art critic worth his/her salt will know that ANYTHING can be art as long as the viewer considers it art, but it may only be art for that viewer. This is a very well known academic understanding of art that has been with us since Modernism and before. It has nothing to do with skills shown, how it is produced, the difficulty of producing it or even inherent ideas - but all those things can help contribute to the artwork being considered art.

A perfect example is the Dadist visions of art concieved by people like Marcel Duchamp who placed a urinal in an art gallery, calling it art,http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fountain_%28Duchamp%29. Needless to say it is considered art and has sparked hundreds & thosands of papers exploring the meaning and impact of the piece. Obviously in this context computer games are certainly art, as enough people consider them so.

And as an artist myself who works in a computer games company, I believe that there is plenty of precedence for considering computer games as art, whether they are skillful, amusing, beautiful, ugly, well made, or terrible.

John said...

Bl0ss0m wrote:

Any art critic worth his/her salt will know that ANYTHING can be art as long as the viewer considers it art, but it may only be art for that viewer. This is a very well known academic understanding of art that has been with us since Modernism and before. It has nothing to do with skills shown, how it is produced, the difficulty of producing it or even inherent ideas - but all those things can help contribute to the artwork being considered art.

Well, if you're assuming a postmodernist epistemology. And I'm willing to go a little bit down that road when it comes to aesthetics. But I find that "beautiful" ceases to have meaning if we can't call anything "ugly". Nothing has meaning unless it has boundaries.

Vanja said...

It's incredibly hard to argue with someone from a different generation. He didn't experience video games the way later generations have.

Roger Ebert still sees video games as a hoodlum act. Something lazy teenagers do instead of going to school.

Obviously I believe it is an art form when executed correctly. Just like very art.

There are video games that are just churned out for the sake of making money. Almost like a Bob Ross. It's repetitive and requires skill but is there any innovation? So is it art?

Bl0ss0m said...

John, I actually agree with you about aesthetics, I'm an artist myself and I think everyone has a personal version of aesthetics that they apply to art. However, in contempory art, aesthetics are not a qualifying factor; personally I don't like Francis Bacon's or Lucien Freud's work from an aestheitc standpoint, but I can appreciate them as art even so. Art does not need to be beautiful to be art - how often have you seen something in a gallery and thought, "That's interesting, but I wouldn't want it on my wall!"?

Anonymous said...

Video games are not just art.. They are comprised of many different arts. It can be argued that video games are actually the highest of all art forms. They require scripts, acting, 3-D modeling, interactivity, 2-D illustration, storyboards, programming, and the list goes on and on. That argument made by Ebert is probably the most narrow minded, short sighted thing I've ever read. And it is nothing more than disrespectful to game designers. Shigeru Miyamoto (Mario, Zelda), Yasumi Matsuno (Vagrant Story), Tetsuya Nomura (Final Fantasy Series), Hideo Kojima (Metal Gear Series), Hironobu Sakaguchi (Final Fantasy Series) are some of my favorite artists.

Anonymous said...

Shadow of the Colossus is pure, unadulterated video game art. Fumito Ueda is the Shakespeare of game designers.

Dark-Star said...

Ebert is an envious old fart, with no talents besides whining that kids these days don't know what REAL art/music/etc. is. If he were to be carted off to a fogey farm, it would improve the national air quality by a substantial amount.

If anyone wants an easy example of video-game art, download and play A Tale of Two Kingdoms. And then marvel that it didn't need a multimillion-dollar corporation to make it.

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Mike Stanley said...

Great article man. Well written and your direction is spot on. Ebert's critique of gaming never came off as well-thought out anyway, so why even bother responding to him directly? There are so many examples over the years of the brilliant works of art a video game can produce and become that to me, it seems that any contrarian argument is wholly misinformed or soley designed as inflammatory.

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JabberJaw said...

You know what really isn't art? Critical commentary.

Critics are talentless hacks obsessed with scrutinizing the works of true artists in an attempt to compensate for their lack of any real talent. Like meteorologists, we tolerate their jibber-jabber mostly out of boredom. In our hearts we know they are ultimately useless.