A Brief History: Leaving a Presence in the Video Game-Art Debate

Can video games be considered high art?

I had originally written the below article way back in 2013. It was published on the former online gaming news source, GameHuddle, in the spring/summer of that year. Unfortunately, the company was sold only a few months after that and the website ceased to exist.

In having a conversation with fellow gamer Gee Marsh on my podcast, Decipher the Media, we had touched on the topic of gaming as an art-form in comparison to other media, such as film. Obviously, Gee and I both agree that it belongs in this category.

This discussion had originated from reading about commentary from the late Roger Ebert, a popular film critic who had passed away on April 4, 2013. He had his own opinions about video games as art, which led to the piece that was written for GameHuddle.

My discussion with Gee led me to revisit this article, as I had always found an interest in the topic and the opinions that Ebert had on the medium of video games. 

In an effort to build upon the original opinion piece, I added some information that I had originally left out of the initial publishing, such as Clive Barker’s comments on video games as art and an embedded video of Kellee Santiago’s TED Talk.

Here is that article, in full:

“In response to your repeated requests to bring back the TV show ‘At the Movies,’ I am launching a fundraising campaign via Kickstarter in the next couple of weeks. And gamers beware, I am even thinking about a movie version of a video game or mobile app. Once completed, you can engage me in debate on whether you think it is art.

Those were some of Roger Ebert’s final words. He held a strict position against considering video games works of art. Can they have the same kind of artistic value as other categories such as filmmaking, painting, photography, sculpting, etc? With Ebert’s recent passing, let’s delve into the history of this debate.

Doom (2005)
Image source: https://www.imdb.com/

Throughout the years, Roger Ebert had firmly believed that video games can never be classified as art. This began in 2005 when Roger Ebert’s review for the film Doom included some negative comments towards the entire medium of video games. The video game community retaliated. Later that year, Ebert fueled the fire by stating, “To my knowledge, no one in or out of the field has ever been able to cite a game worthy of comparison with the great dramatists, poets, filmmakers, novelists and composers. That a game can aspire to artistic importance as a visual experience, I accept. But for most gamers, video games represent a loss of those precious hours we have available to make ourselves more cultured, civilized and empathetic.” Ebert did attempt to explain his reasoning by saying, ” Video games by their nature require player choices, which is the opposite of the strategy of serious film and literature, which requires authorial control.”

It seemed Ebert believed that by making a medium malleable (providing free-will or choice), it removes some of the mysticism or magic that helps us to grow as an aware and experienced individual. We aren’t retaining the same kind of lessons that we would learn from highly-acclaimed film or literature. The power to choose means that the message, or overall theme of the medium is lost. Players can choose their own message by molding their own outcome. For example, a player can choose to play a game, such as Grand Theft Auto IV, and decide to that he/she doesn’t want to complete the story or main campaign. Instead, they choose to drive around, cause chaos, ignore the main plot, and simply play it for the entertainment value that comes with the “sandbox” genre. Does it lose the message intended by the developers, if played in that style?

Keep in mind that this debate isn’t just black or white. There are many factors that come into play. By criticizing the power of choice, Ebert is focusing on only a small perspective of this debate.

Clive Barker
Image source: https://www.imdb.com/

In the span of two years, the debate flared to point of including other famous figures. Specifically, Clive Barker (film director, Hellraiser), responded to Ebert’s claims at the Hollywood and Games Summit in 2007, saying “You have to come at it with an open heart… Roger Ebert obviously had a narrow vision of what the medium is, or can be. It seems so high-handed. A lot of very, very smart people, here in this room, are working to make these experiences extraordinary.”

He concluded his argument with: “We can debate what art is, we can debate it forever. But if the experience moves you, some way or another, even if it just moves your bowels, I think it’s worthy of some serious study… Games mean something to a lot of people.”

Ebert countered by responding to Barker in a blog post. In this post, Ebert developed his own sum definition of video games: “They tend to involve (1) point and shoot in many variations and plotlines, (2) treasure or scavenger hunts, as in Myst, and (3) player control of the outcome. I don’t think these attributes have much to do with art; they have more in common with sports.” Ebert failed to explain the similarities between video games and sports in this article. However, he did try to justify every claim that Barker made against him at the Hollywood and Games Summit. Admittedly, Barker did come off as a little hostile toward Ebert, calling his previous argument a “prejudiced vision.” At the same time, Ebert remained unmoving on his own views, saying that the medium of video games will never be “Shakespeare” (or a high form of art). Ebert’s case seemed to directly address all of Barker’s claims, but still left many questions unanswered in the debate, such as the emotional impact of the medium and the influence of having the power of choice.

Campbell’s Soup Cans by Andy Warhol
Image source: https://www.moma.org/

Ebert concluded this article by saying, “Barker is right that we can debate art forever. I mentioned that a Campbell’s soup could be art. I was imprecise. Actually, it is Andy Warhol’s painting of the label that is art. Would Warhol have considered Clive Barker’s video game Undying as art? Certainly. He would have kept it in its shrink-wrapped box, placed it inside a Plexiglas display case, mounted it on a pedestal, and labeled it ‘Video Game.’” Take these inconclusive statements with a pinch of salt.

Speaking of which, many more gamers and critics made it known that Ebert’s comments seemed rather inconclusive, so in 2010, Ebert wrote a piece focusing on  his opinion of video games, in hopes to clarify his views. He even admitted to avoiding more explanation by saying, “ …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.” He attempted to clarify previous comments by explaining, “ …I remain convinced that in principle, video games cannot be art.”

Then, instead of returning to previous comments he made and elaborating on the point he was trying to make, he remained stubborn and made yet another attempt discredit a key figure that made the point that video games can be art. This time, Ebert attacked Kellee Santiago, who gave a TED talk at USC on video games as art.

After dismissing every key point made by Santiago, Ebert concluded with, “I allow Sangtiago the last word. Toward the end of her presentation, she shows a visual with six circles, which represent, I gather, the components now forming for her brave new world of video games as art. The circles are labeled: Development, Finance, Publishing, Marketing, Education, and Executive Management. I rest my case.” Ebert continued to remain unmoving on the issue, taking his ideas and opinions to his grave. Yet, he still left little clarification or explanation, despite being given multiple opportunities to expand upon his opinions.

Cosmology of Kyoto cover
Image source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cosmology_of_Kyoto

It’s worth noting that Ebert didn’t always think so negatively towards all games. In fact, he wrote his own review in 1994 of a game called Cosmology of Kyoto.  He specifically noted that the game gave him no apparent objectives or goals to reach. Was this Ebert’s idea of the perfect game? Was it one where the objectives are hidden, thus making it less possible for the player to stray from the focus of the game? Should games be a mix between the malleable and non-malleable? Was journeying into the unknown, rather than being provided with a clear objective, Ebert’s vision of video game art? The world may truly never know.

You, as an individual, develop your own definition of art. There is no concrete concept behind art. Art can be many things, and one movie critic doesn’t have the power to decide what specifically isn’t art and set it in stone. I’d like to leave off with a quote from the top comment on Ebert’s post, “Video Games Can Never Be Art.” “The truth is, unless you’re willing to play a game, you don’t really get a say in the matter,” said commenter Dave. I rest my case.

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