Games As Ebert

Well shucks, he’s at it again. Roger Ebert – a man whose lifetime of work I respect above most others – wrote another diatribe about why games can never be art. Well this is awkward, isn’t it?

Anyhow, I spent far too long just now writing out a relatively succinct, pointed response to add to his chorus of comments. In case it never gets approved or gets completely buried, I’m posting it here for official record. See, I do write things once in a while.

“My greatest disconnect with your running stance on this is that you’re ignoring the most basic tenet of games as a medium: quite simply, they are defined by their interactivity. Not by goals, or by scores. If you’re not interacting with them, you’re not experiencing the relationship that makes them what they are in the first place.

Would it be fair for me to critique any film, never mind the entire medium, only ever having listened to films, or perhaps glanced a scene here or there? It doesn’t matter how many examples are thrown at you to dismiss; you’re not playing them, so they’re equally irrelevant.

Gamers’ frustration and outcry with your argument – or at least mine – isn’t based on defending them as art. We know that they are. It’s that we’ve had these incredible, literally life-changing experiences with them, as much as with any film, album, or book; more often than not, it’s a whole lot more than “simply enjoying myself”.  But I can understand why you wouldn’t appreciate that, or see the potential for it, based on the way you’ve interacted with them (or haven’t, more appropriately).

Sit down and play an hour of Flower – actually play it – and then you can condemn it or under-appreciate it all you like; most gamers do already. It’s relaxing, it’s exhilarating, it’s creatively and intellectually inspiring. And over the course of its narrative arc – yes, you read that correctly – it develops an emotional resonance and a lasting impression that dwarfs the simple mechanics that you could no doubt forcibly distill it to. Within ten minutes of playing the game, my complete non-gamer, 56 year-old father’s mouth was agape. He had no clue that that’s what games could be, and he didn’t know because he’d never interacted with them AS games.

If it means you’ll play it, I’ll happily mail you a Nintendo DS and a copy of Electroplankton – you can hold it in your hand, play it by touching it, and won’t have to bother with learning anything. The barrier of entry for you truly having an informed voice in this discussion is remarkably low. After all, if a random music critic watched a couple of scenes from your five favorite films and dismissed the medium as not being art, you’d simply laugh it off. If it was someone you greatly respected, you’d feel more than a little exasperated. No?”

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Published in: on April 17, 2010 at 1:39 pm  Comments (16)  

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16 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. The strongest point that you make here is that Ebert hasn’t played these games and EXPERIENCED them. Indeed, it’s difficult to make a generalization try to stand up when you’re missing out on a key element of the medium that you’re criticizing.

  2. Ebert takes a certain viewpoint, then extrapolates his result from that. For example saying that “A Voyage to the Moon” looks artistically better than Braid, but how or why he thinks that is missing. I could just as easily say that the movie is far less artistic as Kellee Santiago did, so therefore it is more artistic.

    If interactivity prevents something from being art, does that mean adding a button which switches a statue between two configurations (for want of a better word) means it is instantly not art?

  3. I like how you say that if you don’t like flower you are a douche.

    Ps. Electroplankton isn’t a game.

  4. i love it :)

  5. An interesting response to Ebert’s latest misfire Nick. Unfortunately I suspect your comments will have little impact as Ebert has painted himself into a corner on this issue. He seems happy to remain there too. (‘Exasperating’, indeed.) Thanks for fighting our corner and making some shrewd points.

  6. Thank you! This is what I would have wanted to tell him. Even games like Tetris are art. Boardgames are art as well. The way I control a character, the interface, and then the way it’s all shown to me is art.

  7. Never is a logical fallacy. Prove him once, even in the future, and we can and it shows his argument is null and void.

    Arrogance for not even experiencing the medium as needed.

    With this statement he committed the equivalent of a celebrity sex tape. I’m appalled that someone who has such a vested interest in his medium as an art form fails to realize that cinema at one point could “never be art”.

  8. Hey Nick, it’s great to read your writing again after all this time!

    An excellent rebuttal and I hope Ebert reads it. As someone who has proven himself to be consistently progressive and open minded about a great many issues, it’s very strange to see Ebert take this militant stance against a form of media, assuming it’s somehow different from all the other bastard forms that came before (rock music, comic books, etc.). It’s a strange blind spot to have.

    Anyway, thanks for writing this.


    Francis

  9. Unfortunately, your response is based on a fallacious presumption. Ebert’s criticism of the medium of gameplay as artistic is that interactivity is not consistent with the narrowest possible understanding of art that includes all other things notably accepted as art, for a variety of reasons. Your counter-assertion is as follows:

    1. But their interactivity IS art. This is begging the question. You aren’t addressing any of the specific criticisms of the effect of interactivity on the artistic nature of the medium, but are instead attempting to simply restate your position without any additional evidence or reasoning. Of course interactive experiences are different from non-interactive experiences – that’s why they have an extra adjective. That does not in any way directly imply that interactive experiences are more or less artistic.

    2. You assert that Ebert does not know what he’s talking about because he has never “experienced” a video game. This in no way addresses his argument and actually puts your position in an incredibly poor light. I do not need to experience a painting in order to understand that the fixed visual representation as interpreted by an individual of a scene is artistic. Experience of the medium should NEVER be an essential element of constructing a valid definition of whether or not that medium is “artistic” unless your definition of “artistry” is subjective, and subjective definitions are not particularly useful in discourse.

    I suspect that this all boils down to an insufficient understanding of just what a definition is for. Definitions are conceptual constructs which you use to separate a subgroup of everything in existence from the rest of everything to examine them specifically. Ebert asserts a definition for the term art that specifically excludes interactivity, and for at least arguably good reasons. You have not asserted ANY definition for art at this point, nor have you made an argument for why your peculiar definition would be useful for examination. You have created no context for your definition. Simply asserting that “you know that games are art” is sophistry of the highest possible order. Oprah Winfrey knows that if she imagines a large bowl of ice cream that eventually one will appear before her because of the mystical power of The Secret, but that does not make her right, and her experience is not particularly informative. You owe it to yourself, your subject, and your rival in this debate to engage with a clear and reasonable definition, which, unfortunately neither you nor the vast majority of writers taking the contrary point to Ebert have done.

  10. I do not need to experience a painting in order to understand that the fixed visual representation as interpreted by an individual of a scene is artistic.

    &

    Simply asserting that “you know that games are art” is sophistry of the highest possible order.

    Something seems off here…

  11. [...] 1up alumni Nick Suttner offers a good point along with a DS to Ebert. [...]

  12. I feel like so too many brain-cells have been wasted trying to ‘convince’ ebert into a more open-mindedness. After a certain age, the synapses in our brains have connected so thoroughly that introducing a new concept foreign to what is already in it (if it is radically different enough) would appear logically impossible to that individual.

    What is more interesting is the discussion that has been generated as a result of Ebert’s statement. Bitmob community of awesome. http://www.bitmob.com/articles/you-dont-have-to-play-games-to-judge-them

  13. [...] spot if I posted it last week, but Ebert continues to claim games are not art. Bloggers and other gamers continue to [...]

  14. [...] Sutter, formerly of EGM/1-up post this response the day after Ebert’s [...]

  15. Ebert defines art differently than you (or I). If someone’s definition of fun differed from ours and they claimed that games weren’t fun, would you spend as much time arguing that they were wrong? I wouldn’t.

    I disagree with Ebert’s opinion and his narrow allowance for what qualifies as art, but he’s certainly entitled to his own opinion.

  16. [...] so fucking inseparable from the personal experiences and interactions that you have with them. Defined by their interactivity, even. I could restart a movie, or find another copy of a book. But this feels like someone tore [...]


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