Why Roger Ebert Was Wrong – Video Games Can Be Art

Everyone ready for a self-indulgent rant?

Colin Dray

Contributor

Everyone ready for a self-indulgent rant? Because I bought this soapbox in from the car, and they only let you hire out these megaphones for the day. So, ready? Excellent. Testing. Testing. Is this coming across self-righteous enough up the back there? Can you hear me being all judgemental? Okay. Here goes.

I’d like to take a moment, if I can, to dive back into what I admit are the thoroughly fished-out waters of the film critic Roger Ebert’s now infamous declaration that videogames cannot be Art. I want to explore this premise again, briefly, because I think that it is still in this presumptuous, ill-conceived dismissal that we can see many of the most pervasive misconceptions that continue to stifle the discussion and celebration of the videogame medium in its relative infancy.

And yes, at this point you might be thinking to yourself: but why? Why bothering referencing Ebert again? I mean (you will probably ask) does it even matter if some film critic foolishly tries to wade into utterly foreign territory? Hasn’t he already revealed his own ignorance by superimposing foreign rules upon an artistic medium in order to point out how it has failed to live up to criteria under which it was never intended to function? And is this just because he recently (vaguely) slagged off Naughty Dog’s upcoming release The Last of Us, having neither seen nor played it, because he believed it would ‘leave absolutely nothing to the imagination’?

You might even inquire whether this is all just my petulant, thinly-veiled jab at a cantankerous nay-sayer because he disregarded a medium that I hold with genuine affection. ‘You’re not that petty, are you?’ you might very well ask.

…Well, yes. Yes it is. And yes. Yes, I most certainly am.

In 2010, after belittling the artistic merit of videogames, it was suggested to film critic Roger Ebert that he should watch a TED presentation by game designer and co-founder of thatgamecompany Kellee Santiago. It was hoped that he might get a greater perspective on the medium, even a vague respect for its potential, and its new breed of auteur. Ebert viewed the talk, but rather than gaining any insight, he instead responded by immediately doubling down on his comments, offering a condescending opinion piece in which he declared that videogames could never in his opinion reach a point at which they might be considered Art. He dismissed them as wholly devoid of any relevant narrative, tonal, or thematic potential; finally aligning them (at best) with intellectual sport:

‘Why are gamers so intensely concerned, anyway, that games be defined as art? Bobby Fischer, Michael Jordan and Dick Butkus never said they thought their games were an art form. Nor did Shi Hua Chen, winner of the $500,000 World Series of Mah Jong in 2009. Why aren’t gamers content to play their games and simply enjoy themselves? They have my blessing, not that they care.’*

He effectively likened them to time wasting amusements such as Jenga or Hungry, Hungry Hippos – mere exercises in rote memorisation or reflexes – and waved them away as not worthy of serious consideration.

He then went on to make several attempts to classify what Art actually was, arguing in each example that games do not and cannot fit any definition he could cite. In one notable instance he even referenced Plato’s discussion of mimesis. (Although if a philosopher who called all artists mad and who advocated the most draconian censorship of literature in history was his go-to for such classification, he might not want to throw stones: there’ll be no more watching Taxi Driver or Singing in the Rain in the Republic either, Ebert…) Believing he had seen off the possibility of their being confused with ‘real’ Art, Ebert then antithetically attempted to dismiss some examples as not even being games – at least by his extremely narrow, antiquated conception – arguing that he failed to see how a work like Flower could even operate in the absence of a scoring system or ‘win’ state.

As one might imagine, Ebert’s satisfaction at disregarding games he happily admitted not being bothered playing soon grows tiresome – he even goes so far as to describe a handful of examples ‘pathetic’ despite having only glimpsed seconds of them in action and without ever holding a controller in his hands. Reasoned, contextualised criticism at its finest this was not; indeed, using Ebert’s logic, if someone hadn’t seen Citizen Kane it would be okay for them to arbitrarily bin it as a dreary, pretentious, ill-lit bore – an undergraduate mess where people draw lines on their faces to indicate that they have aged. …And how come the dude likes roses so much?  It’s probably some dumb reason. Best not bother finding out.

When responders inevitably called nonsense on Ebert’s ignorant proclamations he swiftly bowed out of the debate – although conceding nothing – admitting that he was still unwilling to play a game to explore the experience for himself. He effectively shrugged, passive-aggressively asserted that some people just evolve their artistic perspective differently, and clamoured back out of the mire to return to the higher ground of novels and film, where the once hotly-contested battles for artistic integrity have already been fought and won long before he appeared on the scene.

But it was in this, his tactical retreat from the discussion, that Ebert revealed the fundamental disconnect at the heart of his position: he argued that in every conception he could conceive Art must remain static. His issue with the videogame form is that the very element of interactivity that gives them identity renders them too fluid to be artistically expressive. If one could re-spawn and replay the ending of Romeo and Juliet again, he said, it would render the tragedy and pathos of their original deaths meaningless. But this line of argument is, at best, misguided, at worst, wholly disingenuous: of course one can’t get a do-over on Romeo and Juliet. It’s a play. It obeys different conventions. Just like you can’t see a song, or listen to a painting. They necessitate entirely different engagements with their audience. And to demand that new media be dictated by the limitations of the old is a fatuous, knee-jerk response mired in outdated thought, one that stifles rather than elucidates artistic innovation.

Ultimately Ebert’s comments reveal that it is he and not videogames that had failed to meet the standards of Art. With the proliferation of games that flaunt expectation and convention, that provide innovative and immersive experiences that expand our understanding of communicative possibility, anyone arrogant enough to dismiss the possibility of games being Art based solely upon their personal failing to wrestle the medium into some preconceived notion of what Art must be, or what it needs to contain, exposes their own incapacity to adapt to the shifting dynamics of expression. Such categorisations are based upon outmoded, ill-conceived notions that have remained nebulous since humankind first applied colour to cave walls; and Art should never be shackled by the expectations of the old. Art is innovative, progressive. It manifests human experience; and if we are nothing else we are creatures of adaptation and evolution to new stimuli. A contemporary Art that remains mired in old thinking loses the capacity to meaningfully reflect anything of our existence back to us.

And if the purpose of Art is to articulate something of the human condition; then it must acknowledge that we are creatures of play. It is through play that we develop language; is how we learn social structure; how we develop our motor skills. Storytelling is a manifestation of imaginative play; theatre is an expression of imitative play; music; visual art; dance; all have their basis in the freedom and modulation of play. And it is arguably only now, in the birth of this new medium of videogames, that we can see one of the most natural and engaging forms of crafted play in our history.

Massive multiplayer online games like World of Warcraft or DayZ allow for explorations of play and social organisation on unprecedented new levels; game like Red Dead Redemption and L.A. Noire provide an immersion in genre arguably more striking and intimate than film can provide; an adaptive game like The Witcher 2 allows us to play out moral ambiguity and consequence; and this is all before even calling upon the more nebulous gaming beasts like Heavy Rain, Journey, Braid and Fez. To dismiss all this as childish fancy (as critics once did with graphic novels); or merely a tacky commercial product (as they once did with cinema), or a thoughtless leisure activity (as they once did with the novel form), only further perpetuates the same tired reactionary fear of the new that has consistently plagued all Artistic development.

Todd Howard (of Skyrim) spoke in his keynote address at the 2012 D.I.C.E. conference of the way in which games are the only form of artistic expression capable of evoking the sensation of pride in an audience. Because we as the player participate in the activity of bringing the game’s narrative to life, he said, we invest in an expression of the game that has the capacity to inspire triumph at our successes; and it is a form of satisfaction that is only possible because of the unique interplay between player and text. Games therefore don’t just communicate in new ways: they have the capacity to evoke whole new emotions and experiences; sensations that film, fiction, music, by the limitations of their form, cannot.

So while I’m sure that in many other discussions Ebert has some profound things to say (although lest we forget the man gave Speed 2 a glowing thumbs up), in his foray into the debate over videogames he has proved himself to be a critic staring at the precipice of something altogether new, but remaining utterly blind to its significance. His comments are a stark reminder of why reviewers have the capacity to be such dangerous creatures; his arbitrary definitions of Art are so ingrained as to have already begun the steady decline toward intellectual stagnation.

 

Ultimately, the final word should probably go to another critic, Anton Ego (a character from an animated film; yet another medium once patronisingly dismissed as being only for the frivolous delight of children) who said:

‘In many ways the work of a critic is easy. We risk very little, yet enjoy a position over those who offer up their work and themselves to our judgement. We thrive on negative criticism, which is fun to write and to read. But the bitter truth we critic must face is that in the grand scheme of things the average piece of junk is probably more meaningful than our criticism designating it so. But there are times when a critic truly risks something: and that is in the discovery and defence of the new. The world is often unkind to new talent. New creations. The new needs friends.’

- Anton Ego (Ratatouille)

I believe that We need to acknowledge that games can be Art (even if, as yet, not all of them are), because that sad truth is that if we players do not take it upon ourselves to defend the new against those who would ignorantly malign it: no one else will. If we, like Roger Ebert, rely upon trite, reductive patterns of analysis, striving to draw categorical lines around the expressive potential of gaming before it has even grown into being, we risk strangling the most experimental and dynamic medium to emerge in human history, missing perhaps the finest opportunity, through the Art of play, to better understand ourselves.

* (http://blogs.suntimes.com/ebert/2010/04/video_games_can_never_be_art.html)