The Time Roger Ebert Dismissed Video Games and What Happened Next

Thumbs up for video games!SegaAcknowledgment of Roger Ebert’s passing today isn’t reserved to film buffs. His death is being noted by the video game press, thanks to some comments by the movie critic that inspired defensiveness among gamers but also introspection within the industry.

Ebert famously (among gamers anyway) declared “Video games can never be art,” subsequently explaining and defending his position in a blog post at the Chicago Sun-Times in 2010. He grappled with the always elusive definition of art and what has become these days an elusive definition of what constitutes a “game.” He concluded:

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.

Do they require validation? In defending their gaming against parents, spouses, children, partners, co-workers or other critics, do they want to be able to look up from the screen and explain, "I'm studying a great form of art?" Then let them say it, if it makes them happy.

His attitude didn’t resolve the debate. That one blog post garnered nearly 5,000 comments. A couple months later he addressed the matter again, admitting that it was unfair of him to judge a medium in part because he personally was not interested in engaging in it. He preferred books and movies. He didn’t want to play video games.

And yet, despite his lack of interest in the medium, the medium was still very interested in his thoughts. Ebert’s comments inspired a session at the annual Game Developers Conference in 2011. “Are video games art?” and “Can video games be art?” are topics endlessly debated among gaming enthusiasts and creators.

Ebert ultimately, accidentally, symbolized the engagement gap between Baby Boomers and younger generations in the role of video games in culture. It’s a fascinating rift because, really, Baby Boomers invented video games. But very few early video games ever aspired to anything as fancy as being “art.” Until the development of the adventure game genre they hardly even had what could be called a story.

Ebert could be excused for his ignorance of what has come since then in much the same way as a young millennial could be oblivious to the role of Motown on the development of the popular music we still listen to today. The expansion of video games from a hobby to a subculture to simply part of our culture — like every other form of entertainment — happened through Generation X and is now being passed along to subsequent generations. Baby Boomers just weren’t culturally connected to it. Ebert couldn’t include video games as art because video games didn’t include him and thus it inspires no connection. It’s nobody’s fault. Definitions of art are not timeless and rigid. Ebert himself acknowledged it and struggled to come up with a definition that would explain why video games should be omitted, but not other artistic endeavors, like music.

What’s happening now is that the children who grew up on video games are now the ones running the industry and have a cultural interest in creating a lasting legacy. Ebert’s observations were a challenge to them, whether he realized it or not. Generation X is defined in part by video games. Games have as much meaning to many of them as rock music and Motown did for Baby Boomers. The defensiveness and insistence of gamers and the gaming industry about elevating this culture into an art form may well be subconsciously based on the knowledge that games are what Gen. X will be primarily remembered for years down the line.

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  • MJGreen||

    Probably the most used response, but that's because it's the best:

    Shadow of the Colossus

    Boom.

  • Bam!||

    A crappy game consisting of nothing but empty fields and a few boss battles -- Why do you think that's art?

  • MJGreen||

    Because it is. As is Ico, which I think is the superior game. Ditto a game like Braid.

    Plenty of movies consist of nothing but shots of empty fields and a few pieces of action. It's still art, and it can still be great art.

  • Stormy Dragon||

    There's also Spec Ops: The Line which is a shooter whose only purpose is viciously deconstructing its own genre.

  • StackOfCoins||

    Didn't even play it, but as Bam! said, it's seriously hindered by the hardware it came out on. Minecraft is probably a better example of a game that can be, or at least allows, art.

  • Tman||

    There are moments in certain games lately -Red Dead Redemption for instance- where the developers specifically don't give the character anything to do other than admire the scenery, and during these scenes the immersion level is so intense that I cannot for the life of me describe it as anything OTHER than art.

    Ebert was a great critic and probably one of the most knowledgeable film minds of all time, but he could not possibly have been more wrong about video games.

  • Auric Demonocles||

    One thing that annoys me about some video games/gamers is actually the view that graphics are what a game is about. I care much, much more about gameplay and storyline. Yes, all things equal better graphics is better, but it's like 4th-5th on the list to me.

  • Hyperion||

    Ok, I see, you are one of those console guys, and it's like penis envy, you can't have good graphics, so you hate everyone who does! Right! Just admit it! PC GAMERZ RULE!

  • Hugh Akston||

    Avatar is Hyperion's favorite movie.

  • Auric Demonocles||

    That was a really good way to put it.

  • Hyperion||

    Actually, I hate that movie.

    You know, because it's really tough to get into a film where the underlying message is that the first goal of any corporation is to go find a pristine planet, find the biggest tree in the forest and shoot it down with heat seeking missiles.

  • ||

    At least it's better than your favorite, which is Cannonball Run II.

  • Hugh Akston||

    Hey fuck you, son. Telly Savalas was brilliant in that movie, do you hear me? Brilliant.

  • ||

    Did I say it wasn't my favorite too?

  • Auric Demonocles||

    I don't mind good graphics. I just don't think they are the end all be all. Perfect Dark on N64 is still the most fun game I've played. And my favorite PC game is Command and Conquer: Red Alert 2 despite the fact that the graphics are like the shittiest ever made. The balance and gameplay are just too good.

  • Hyperion||

    Dude

    I have started at least 3 long running console/PC pissing contests on here. Yes, I prefer PC. I own both. I like good graphics and good gameplay. I don't judge games just by their graphics.

    I forgot the /sarcasm, after that last post.

  • Hyperion||

    Oh, and my favorite game of all time, is Gothic 1. Only available on PC, but the game was almost 10 years old the first time I played it. Not exactly cutting edge graphics, released in 2000. just outstanding game in every way. I like it better than Skyrim, which is pure eye candy on PC with all the HD textures installed.

  • StackOfCoins||

    Another point, beyond hardware considerations, is PC games tend to be more open-ended. Not just on a title-by-title basis, but the modding community turns almost every PC game into a tinkering platform. One PC game can become many, many different experiences by virtue of mods alone.

  • Hyperion||

    Yeah, mods. Not to mention that you can upgrade your hardware frequently.

    And for me, I just prefer my G710+ keyboard and Rat7, over any game controller.

  • StackOfCoins||

    Yeah, but try playing a fighting/brawler game or a driver game with a keyboard. It's nigh impossible.

    Most games on PC are designed to be played on a keyboard/mouse, but a gamepad is a must for some games.

  • Tman||

    That's what I loved about RDR so much. I can't remember the last time a video game did such an incredible job of making me actually care about the story of the main character. His arc was awesome, which unfortunately lead to the downfall of the game itself in how they ended it.

  • Auric Demonocles||

    A couple months later he addressed the matter again, admitting that it was unfair of him to judge a medium in part because he personally was not interested in engaging in it. He preferred books and movies. He didn’t want to play video games.

    That was a good thing to admit, because if I used that logic I would say that music, painting, sculpture and dance aren't art.

  • Death Rock and Skull||

    Which one died? Waldorf or Statler? Which one was already dead?

  • Ted S.||

    The fat one died. The tall, thin, bald guy died in 1999.

  • Hyperion||

    PC games are art. Some of them. Anyone who says they can't be, is just ignorant.

  • ||

    They're entertainment. Since almost all entertainment (as in media, at least) is on some level an art form, it's art. The amount of work that goes into these games in terms of character design (drawing, which is art), map design (more "drawing", which is art), and storyline (writing, which is art) is colossal.

    ART ART ART ART

    And for Warty, Art Modell.

  • Hyperion||

    Entertainment and art. Take for instance, the stylized graphics and soundtrack in Borderlands. Not sure if you've heard of that one...

    Kingdoms of Amalur is very artsy also.

  • ||

    I'd like to see someone try to assert that Limbo isn't art, for instance.

    Also, think of the atmospheres of horror games like Resident Evil or Dead Space. That's art.

  • Hyperion||

    I've never seen Limbo.. I have to check that out, thanks for the link.

    Another game I just thought of that is very artsy, is Drakensang, River of Time. Also, check out the Book of Unwritten Tales, and The Cave.

  • ||

    Riven is another gorgeous game. That shit is art.

  • Brandybuck||

    Yes, absolutely. I liked Myst III better, but Riven was more art.

  • ||

    A very artsy game, similar in artistic style to Limbo, is Closure. Nothing in the game besides you exists unless there's light illuminating it.

  • ||

    I like Teller's definition: anything that you do after the chores are done is art.

  • ||

    Taking a dump is art? AWESOME.

  • ||

    Well, is that a chore for you?

  • StackOfCoins||

    For some it's the highlight of the day.

    I'm pretty sure there's a website out there for comparing turds, but I *really* don't want to go look for it.

  • RightNut||

    Considering the large and growing crossover between movies and video games, its kinda funny Ebert thought the former could be art and not the latter.

  • Generic Stranger||

    Last time I got into an argument with someone over whether or not video games were art, I sent him to a YouTube video of the opening sequence of Fallout 3. That shut him up fairly quickly.

  • RightNut||

    Ya I still remember that sequence and how impressed i was. Bethesda does good work generally.

  • Bam!||

    Why do you believe a cut scenes causes a video game to be art? No one denies that 3D graphics can be art, but video games are more than that.

  • Generic Stranger||

    Why do you believe it doesn't? In a world where a urinal signed by Duchamp is considered art, why are video games, which tell a story (like a movie or novel), are inherently visual and require a great deal of visual art to put together, NOT art?

  • MJGreen||

    It might be art, but there's no reason to consider it gaming art. Remove the cutscene and screen it as a short film.

    A necessary aspect of gaming-as-art, I would say, is the gamer's interaction.

  • Hyperion||

    Fallout 3, the entire game is art.

  • Generic Stranger||

    True, but the opening sequence is probably the best example and is easier to use in a debate than telling someone to go play a fairly time intensive game.

  • Agammamon||

    Very little about FO3 is art - New Vegas, on the other hand . . .

  • wingnutx||

    Even better is the opening scene from Fallout 2, with 'Kiss To Build A Dream On'.

  • phandaal||

    This is the first thing that came to mind when I read "Fallout" up above. The opening scene of Fallout 2 tells you almost everything you need to know about the atmosphere and setting of the series.

  • Brandybuck||

    More than just the opening sequence. From the opening until your character exits from Vault 101 into the dazzle of the sun is like being inside a movie. Even the cheesy theft of a sweetroll. The ending of the game was kinda lame, but like any good movie, you saw it coming a mile away.

  • Nazdrakke||

    "Ebert couldn’t include video games as art because video games didn’t include him and thus it inspires no connection. It’s nobody’s fault."

    Yes, yes it is. It's his for making definitive statement about something that he was in ignorance of. Like lawmakers and guns, for example.

  • RightNut||

    Or Ebert and everything?

  • phandaal||

    But as a pompous sack of hot air, it was his job to bloviate and insult those things that he did not enjoy. You know, because he was better than everyone else.

  • ||

    It is art if I like it. It isnt if I dont. My personal tastes are the infallible barometer for all that is right and good.

  • Death Rock and Skull||

    For real, I remember some dudez with names such as Ebert, Siskel, Roeper... but I can't remember which ones are which, which ones have died, which ones had the show, or which ones had any relevance to my life whatsoever. Didn't one of them have an aneurism or something?

  • Hyperion||

    I remember those guys, sort of in the same way.

    You would be flipping through the channels, and there they are. They're sitting there looking like old school versions of effiminate cosmotarians. You wonder why they aren't hold tiny little barking dogs in dog clothes. And then they start talking in their whiney effeminate voices, and you change the channel, because you don't give a shit what they have to say, and even if you did, you couldn't stand to listen to them for another minute.

    That's pretty much the way I remember it.

  • ||

    Are you talking about these guys?

  • Hyperion||

    Lol, yeah, like that, only whiter and more soft and doughy looking.

  • The Immaculate Trouser||

    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.

    Interesting, considering that historically, many games derive from an attempt to tell a story or exemplify some aspect of a culture's aesthetic sense -- or in the shorthand, they *were* art. Ullamaliztli, for example, was representative of Aztec religious beliefs regarding dualistic battle between opposing forces.

    And we all know what cricket did for our interstellar politics.

  • Jerryskids||

    I've seen Jordan play. Whether or not Jordan considered his performance 'art', I did. I suspect there are those who've seen Fischer play and felt the same way. Butkus, on the other hand, was just having fun.

  • np||

    There's Journey for PS3:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_mF8KkDiIdk
    Probably what most in the general audience could agree is artistic

    The concert for its soundtrack, as part of the annual Video Games live tour:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8vmLGQgLCHA

  • sticks||

    I think journey goes under the bad art category. Did not like that game one bit.

  • np||

    Far Cry 3 - Vaas (All cutscenes)
    Vaas and his actor is definitely the best of all the characters

  • Hyperion||

    My younger brother keeps raving about that game. I'm not paying $50 for a game when I have dozens of them already that I can't get time to play. I just paid $30 for Kingdoms of Amalur, only after much hesitation. It's hard to cough that kind of money up when you've bought lots of great games for $10 or less. I paid $4 for Dragon Age 2 a few weeks ago.

    Looks good though, I'll have to have it when it falls to $30 or less, depending on what else is on my list.

  • SKR||

    Well if there is one thing the guy who wrote "Beyond the Valley of the Dolls" knows, it's great art.

    C.C.

  • Generic Stranger||

    Those who can't do, teach. Those who can't teach criticize.

  • Michael||

    Does anybody remember Myst?

  • Death Rock and Skull||

    The Mist? That movie sucked.

  • Hyperion||

    The Mist? That movie sucked.

    It's just a good example of what happens when you give liberals guns.

    Moral of the story, don't let liberals have guns, but mandate that everyone else has them.

  • ||

    I mentioned Riven above, which is the sequel to Myst. So, yes.

  • Hyperion||

    Upthread, keyword, Riven.

  • PapayaSF||

    A few points:

    - The fact that something is "artsy" or "artistic" does not make it art. When I get an artistically-plated dish at a nice restaurant, that doesn't mean the chef is practicing something that should be called art. Saying "the chef is an artist" is a compliment, but not really accurate.

    - Like it or not, in the pure sense of the word, art is something that is its own thing, meant to be seen or heard or read but not used. Hence a sculpture of a car is art, but an actual car, no matter how beautiful, is not really art. Games, like vehicles or tools or houses, aren't purely art. (However, something useful can be seen as art, either because of its antiquity [e.g. a bowl that was a useful object in ancient times but is now in an art museum], or because an artist used it to make an artistic statement [e.g. Duchamp].)

    - If you do include games as art, I think you pretty much have to include every human creation as art, so it muddies the waters and you end up having to invent some new term for fiction/painting/sculpture/music.

    But then I am closer to Ebert's generation than a lot of you whippersnappers.

  • Generic Stranger||

    - Like it or not, in the pure sense of the word, art is something that is its own thing, meant to be seen or heard or read but not used. Hence a sculpture of a car is art, but an actual car, no matter how beautiful, is not really art. Games, like vehicles or tools or houses, aren't purely art. (However, something useful can be seen as art, either because of its antiquity [e.g. a bowl that was a useful object in ancient times but is now in an art museum], or because an artist used it to make an artistic statement [e.g. Duchamp].)

    Your last sentence completely refuted everything you said in the rest of that paragraph. You basically stated that useful things can be art because we say so. Now, to reiterate my point, how is it that something that requires a massive amount of visual and aural art as well as movie or novel like story-telling become not-art simply because you interact with it?
  • PapayaSF||

    I'm making a distinction between turning a useful object into art, and considering all useful objects to be art.

    Designing and building a car or a game or a website all require large amounts of "artistic" effort, but I think they fall into a different (and much larger) category than the category of art that includes paintings and poems and plays.

  • Auric Demonocles||

    Do choose-your-own-adventure books not count as art?

  • PapayaSF||

    I wouldn't put them in the same category as Hemingway, no.

  • Auric Demonocles||

    That's the difference between good art and bad art.

  • sticks||

    All entertainment is art. Somber worse than others.

  • MJGreen||

    What is the difference between reading a book and "using" a book? A book is meant to be read; reading is an activity, demanding engagement from the reader.

    A game is meant to be played. You "use" a game the same way you "use" a book.

  • ||

    Apparently in Ebert's world, you can't use a game as shitter paper.

  • PapayaSF||

    I'd say reading a novel is equivalent to looking at a painting or listening to a song. Games just seem like a different category of thing, as artistically-done as they might be. Is the game of Risk a work of art? Only in the loosest sense. Similarly: an amusement park ride, a haunted house, a maze on a piece of paper.

  • phandaal||

    Pretty sure this argument as it pertains to video games has been dissected and dismissed further up in the comments. You can't say a sculpture or landscape painting is art but claim it's only entertainment when the image is generated digitally.

    Likewise, you can't say the story in a book is art but claim the story in a game isn't.

    Art is meant to be used like anything else. Its function is to evoke certain emotions and thoughts in people who experience it. Unused art is no better than a tree falling in the forest.

  • Tony||

    Video games are intensely demanding art forms. An artistically successful video game has to succeed at visual and audio design, plot, user engagement, and technical execution--that is, on more levels than any other art form I can think of.

  • Generic Stranger||

    Holy shit, Tony said something sensible. Is this the first sign of the end times?

  • Auric Demonocles||

    The hand in the sock puppet must have forgotten to change handles.

  • ||

    Art is whatever you want it to be. The definition of art cannot be nailed down by someone's opinions on the matter. What one person considers grand art is another person's elephant shit on a canvas (or some other medium.)

    To "define" art is to limit art. And I'm an old fart too... that doesn't make Ebert right.

  • Mike M.||

    Personally, I've never completely understood why anyone cares what some media dick thinks about a movie. The opinions of my friends, family, and coworkers carries about a hundred times more weight with me than that of the typical media dick.

  • buybuydandavis||

    What a putz. Of course a video game can be art.

  • Acosmist||

    wait did he seriously say Bobby Fischer?

    PLENTY of people think chess is an art. Holy crap.

  • Nooge.||

    I was pretty blown away by that comment, as well.

  • wingnutx||

    A man can be an artist... in anything, food, whatever.

    It depends on how good he is at it.

    Creasey's art is death. He's about to paint his masterpiece.

  • ||

    Great movie.

  • ||

    Of course, of course, games are art. Jesus, this isn't even up for debate. And they don't have to be fancy and "thoughtful" games like last year's Journey to be so. Even Custer's Revenge is art. Crappy, offensive art, but art nonetheless.

  • DRM||

    Can any discussion of video games as art be complete without mentioning Planescape: Torment?

    (Now with a Kickstarter to create a successor.)

  • Nooge.||

    Heavy Rain was flawed, but it is artful. And artfully done. Ebert didn't mind dismissing video games because they held no relevance to him. I've noticed that people my mother's age (60) and older think all video are stupid diversions for children, beeps and blips and noises, no more artistic than a carnival game. They are wrong, but it's not a battle worth fighting. I once asked my mother if her mother ever told her that rock music was disgusting noise. Yep. She sure did.

GET REASON MAGAZINE

Get Reason's print or digital edition before it’s posted online

  • Progressive Puritans: From e-cigs to sex classifieds, the once transgressive left wants to criminalize fun.
  • Port Authoritarians: Chris Christie’s Bridgegate scandal
  • The Menace of Secret Government: Obama’s proposed intelligence reforms don’t safeguard civil liberties

SUBSCRIBE

advertisement