A note to Roger Ebert on art and video games.

I love Roger Ebert.  He is, in my view, not only the finest film critic of all time but also a tremendous social critic, political gad-fly and general Fan of Life Well-Lived whose stories and commentaries on everything from rice-cookers to Russ Meyer films utterly intrigue me.

I hold his opinions in high regard.  That is not to say that I AGREE with them all the time, but I find that he regularly displays an extremely difficult-to-balance mix of advocacy and objectivity in his writing.  Objectivity, contrary to the notions put forth by cable news outlets and the like, is NOT simply the act of “presenting both sides” or of creating a bullet list of positive and negative aspects of the thing being considered.  Objectivity allows you to (even DEMANDS that you) take a stand and defend your position, so long as you are willing to have your mind changed by a reasonable counter-argument.

This is, in my view, what made his work with Gene Siskel so compelling. They were two smart, strong-willed people who could ferociously disagree, but who could also be reasoned with.

And Ebert has had his fair share of public dust-ups that could easily have challenged that objectivity to the point of failure  (his feud with Vincent Gallo who – after Ebert gave a scathing review to “Brown Bunny” – mocked his weight and put a hex on Ebert’s colon, for example).  But he’s displayed a fine capacity for tolerance and reconsideration (going so far as to re-review a recut version of Gallo’s film positively).  THAT’S the Roger Ebert I love.

Tough as nails, honest, but fair.  A man who says what he thinks, but who is not dogmatic in his thinking.

Which is why I find his zealous criticism of the idea that there is potential for art in games so troubling.  This is not a new assertion from Ebert, but he has chosen to renew his dismissal of games with greater energy and volume as of late and it has garnered a great deal of attention (and an enormous volume of contrary arguments) as a result.  I’ve found many of these counter-arguments to be trivial (usually asserting that Ebert is “too old” or some such), but there are also a few that I think are quite worthy.  For example, Brian Ashcraft’s open letter on the subject is insightful and compelling.  I find Ashcraft’s comment that “[film criticism has moved past the question] “Is film art?” and has now settled on “Is this film art?”” to be worth consideration.

In spite of this, Ebert remains steadfast and, unfortunately, has primarily chosen to respond to his critics with derision and the kind of petulant defenses I’d expect of (and I admit that this is a cheap shot) someone like Glenn Beck or Intelligent Design “advocates”.  Arguing that the lack of  “a game worthy of comparison with the great poets, filmmakers, novelists and poets” means that games cannot be art is preposterous.  What, then, was art before there was GREAT art?

Is there only “great art”?  Is anything less evocative that the Sistine Chapel simply to be dismissed?  I assume that Ebert would not claim that this is the case, but it IS the logical conclusion of the (quite weak) line of argument he puts forward.

His other significant act of rhetorical “Beckery” comes from his constant, but subtle, confusion of the act of CONSUMPTION and the act of CREATION.  He routinely targets the act of PLAYING a game as a means of arguing that the game, itself, is not artful.  But the same can be said of watching a film, reading a book, listening to music, etc.  Is there “art” to be found in the simple act of being part of an audience in those cases? If not, how is it a valid criticism of the artfulness of games?

This leads to the most profound weakness of Ebert-as-game-critic.  He has no idea HOW games are made.  He says things like “I tend to think of art as usually the creation of one artist” and then calls out the idea that Kings are responsible for the “vision” behind cathedrals or that film directors control and dictate the creative and artistic force in the production of a movie.  This may be the case (though it’s rare that a film gets made simply through the force of will and creative chops of a director, the art is collaborative and diverse beyond simple direction), but it is NOT something that game development lacks.

Quite to the contrary, we’ve had more than our share of “auteur” creators over the years – people without whom revolutionary and inventive new games would never have come about.  Will Wright, Sid Meier, Shigeru Miyamoto, Peter Molyneux, Richard Garriott, Hideo Kojima – the list goes on and on.  But Ebert chooses to cite John Carmack – an engineer, not an artist or designer – to flesh out his “insight” into the creative process of game making.  This may simply be an error of inexperience, but it displays an ignorance (willful or otherwise) of the vision and creativity necessary to develop games.  Yes, we work in large teams and we look to market trends to help get projects green-lit and we are interested in creating challenges that can be overcome by our audience, but so do movies.  Just because OUR puzzles require basic physical interaction in order for you to overcome them doesn’t mean they are substantially different from the puzzles often presented in great films.

Is there REALLY a difference between the “a-ha” moment that comes when you fully realize what’s been going on all throughout “Dark City” and the feeling you get from working out a puzzle challenge in a game?  It’s a sense of satisfaction that comes from ACCOMPLISHMENT in both cases.  The “big reveal” in a film is basically just a puzzle for lazy people – it does the work for you.

And as for the “creation of one artist” argument, I’ll just assume he means “controlled or overseen” by one artist – since it’s obvious that dozens if not HUNDREDS of people are necessary to make a “great film”.  We video game makers also regularly work with singular, creative visions that are controlled by a single person.  We don’t just feed engineers head-first into a marketing computer and wait for a game to pop out on the other side. For every new game that comes out, there is a person who has put their neck on the line CREATIVELY – a person who has loved, believed in, struggled for and advocated on behalf of a creative and – yes – ARTISTIC vision for that game.

We face the same trials that film makers do.  It’s hard to get money for bold work, but it’s a worthy thing to fight for and many, MANY people do.  It’s hard to control a team of hundreds of people while struggling to maintain your vision.  Compromise looms at every turn, but still people fight – and sometimes WIN – to make games according to that vision.

No, there isn’t great “art” in the PLAYING of a game, but it is intellectually disingenuous to judge a creative work simply by the mechanisms through which it is consumed.  The art lies in the CREATION, not in the CONSUMPTION.  If we are exclusively beholden to how our work is consumed, then nothing can ever be elevated beyond the simple label of “product”.

After all, I’ve watched “Citizen Kane” in my underpants and it somehow survived the indignity.  It’s STILL a great work of art.

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  1. [...] Beauty is in the Eye of the Beholder What is art? I love Roger Ebert, I grew up on his insights of film. To him and a multitude of people film is a type of art. I won’t go into all the arguments again, but here’s Roger Ebert’s post, and here’s a really compelling post by a game developer Josh Drescher. [...]

  2. [...] on the subject of gaming and whether or not it constitutes art.  You can find Josh’s post here.  I also have to admit that I have always enjoyed Roger Ebert’s work.  He used to be the [...]

  3. [...] at, then you’re usually treated to an assortment of everything from concept and in-game art (yes, games ARE art!) to actual playable demos. Conventions are where you get to be in the same space as the developers [...]

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