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Roger Ebert On Why Video Games Can Never Be Art 733

Roger Ebert has long held the opinion that video games are not and can never be considered an art form. After having this opinion challenged in a TED talk last year, Ebert has now taken the opportunity to thoughtfully respond and explain why he maintains this belief. Quoting: "One obvious difference between art and games is that you can win a game. It has rules, points, objectives, and an outcome. Santiago might cite an immersive game without points or rules, but I would say then it ceases to be a game and becomes a representation of a story, a novel, a play, dance, a film. Those are things you cannot win; you can only experience them. She quotes Robert McKee's definition of good writing as 'being motivated by a desire to touch the audience.' This is not a useful definition, because a great deal of bad writing is also motivated by the same desire. I might argue that the novels of Cormac McCarthy are so motivated, and Nicholas Sparks would argue that his novels are so motivated. But when I say McCarthy is 'better' than Sparks and that his novels are artworks, that is a subjective judgment, made on the basis of my taste (which I would argue is better than the taste of anyone who prefers Sparks)."
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Roger Ebert On Why Video Games Can Never Be Art

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  • Winning? (Score:1, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Monday April 19, 2010 @05:45PM (#31902670)

    I've never seen a person win a visual novel

  • They can be art (Score:4, Interesting)

    by Locke2005 ( 849178 ) on Monday April 19, 2010 @05:47PM (#31902704)
    Art is anything that has the ability to inspire emotions in people. Some videogames certainly fit that definition. Few videogames currently have really artistic artwork, but good 3D immersion increases, not decreases, the emotional impact of artwork. Some areas of World of Warcraft are enjoyable just to wander through, e.g. the silence of the snow covered woods or flying on a Griffin. But then, I guess I believe that "art" and "play" are not mutually exclusive.
  • Didn't the end... (Score:4, Interesting)

    by Hangin10 ( 704729 ) on Monday April 19, 2010 @05:47PM (#31902714)

    Didn't the end of that quote just become "I know it when I see it"?

  • Re:They can be art (Score:1, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Monday April 19, 2010 @05:53PM (#31902816)

    Then war is art.

    No one wins in war, so it must be art.

  • Art For Whom? (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Rary ( 566291 ) on Monday April 19, 2010 @05:56PM (#31902874)

    Okay, so it's not art because you can "win". That's fine if you're the player. What if you're watching someone else play a videogame? It's kind of like watching a movie, and you can't "win" at it. So, then is it art? And if not, then why is a movie art?

  • Re:They can be art (Score:1, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Monday April 19, 2010 @06:03PM (#31902970)

    Wow you're worse at defining art than ... well anyone. Many things inspire emotion that are not art. Dogs for example. A newborn. Are they art?

    You can't come up with your own definition and show how it applies to video games and say Ah HA! see! ART! It doesn't work that way.

    Actually, art is something that serves no purpose other than being itself. That is why video games can't be art. Because they serve a purpose. That is why a newborn isn't art despite it's ability to stir up emotions. Because technically that is so we go on as a species.

  • by Aeros ( 668253 ) on Monday April 19, 2010 @06:06PM (#31903008)
    Is he referring to all types of art such as storytelling, music, visual art. Some of these games definitely contain all three but especially the visual aspect. They have some amazing visual artists out there.
  • by RyanFenton ( 230700 ) on Monday April 19, 2010 @06:11PM (#31903100)

    If that's his argument, then how does he argue that movies are art? They're just a container for art, writing, stageplay, and audio. It could be strongly argued that camera movements (cinematography) are just mechanics placed on art, not art itself.

    Arguing that game rules applied to art isn't art is just as absurd a line of argument - it doesn't matter if it's a game, if the content is art, the product itself is artistic.

    Ryan Fenton

  • by cptdondo ( 59460 ) on Monday April 19, 2010 @06:18PM (#31903208) Journal

    Google for "Lance Armstrong is not an athlete". Seems about 8 years ago, some wanker of a sports reporter wrote this long idiotic oped piece that Lance Armstrong is not an athlete, because cycling is not a true sport. A true sport, like baseball, involves several motions, like running *and* throwing. Cycling does not; ergo cycling is not a sport and Lance is not an athlete. (At least according to this idiot, cycling only requires pedaling.)

    So boxing (which this idiot covered) *is* a sport because it involves punching *and* falling down.

    This is in the same vein; start out with a personal dislike of something or other, then write convoluted logic justifying your personal prejudice.

    And this crap gets published because you are a member of the press, not because it makes any sense.

  • Re:Schopenhauer (Score:5, Interesting)

    by NickFortune ( 613926 ) on Monday April 19, 2010 @06:22PM (#31903264) Homepage Journal

    He argues that artistic judgment is the disinterested contemplation of beauty or the sublime

    That might have value as a definition of artistic judgement, but seems lacking as a definition for art itself. Otherwise any artist that creates with passion would have his works disqualified as art, and that doesn't seem to accord with the way we understand art.

    I suppose if you consider the game creator as the artist and the player as the appreciator, then I can see your point. But suppose you see the player as artist, and the game as his canvas? A good run through a Far Cry level can surely be considered art, at least as much as an improvisational dancer can.

    Or maybe we need to look at game playing as an artistic collaboration between the game creator, and the player, producing performance art that arises uniquely from that combination.


  • Re:Art For Whom? (Score:4, Interesting)

    by interval1066 ( 668936 ) on Monday April 19, 2010 @06:29PM (#31903344) Homepage Journal

    Okay, so it's not art because you can "win".

    I'll be damned if the people who walk off the podium after accepting an academy don't "act" like winners. Would appear to be that those stupid awards appear to gauge winners and losers, as well as the constant report of ticket sales every week with regard to new box office draws. I do respect Ebert, I've been a long time fan of his show going way back before Gene Siskel passed on and Richard Roeper came on board (the new show by the way with Scott and Philips is schytte, the producers have ruined it with their game show-like nonsense), but he's sounding a bit like Grandpa. Art is a changing canvas, technology advances everything, even the definition of art. If you live in the Age of Technology and are stuck in static definitions for every day life experiences, your pretty much screwed. Movies will probably evolve to include more and more viewer interaction anyway, its inevitable. Then where will ya be, old man Ebert??

  • Re:Then (Score:1, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Monday April 19, 2010 @06:46PM (#31903568)

    Any sport without an objective scoring method isn't. It's merely performance art.

    and take gymnastics and diving and figure skating out of the olympics then?

  • by Grishnakh ( 216268 ) on Monday April 19, 2010 @06:49PM (#31903594)

    Drawing a beautiful picture on your personal copy of the tax code does indeed make that copy of the tax code "art". Not the tax code in general, only that copy of it (and really only that page, though separating the page from the rest of the book might not be a good idea if it gets ripped).

    The whole problem here is, why is this even an argument?

    What constitutes "art" really isn't a black-and-white thing. Some things are simply gray areas, just like what constitutes a "game". For example, is "Second Life" a "game"? There's no points, there's no way to win, etc., but it can be called a recreational pursuit. Maybe in the strictest technical sense it's not a "game", but in everyday speech it's called a "game", and anyone who argues this will probably be bashed for being pedantic.

    It's just like architecture. The design of a building can be considered artistic to some degree, but is a building "art"?

    We could go on and on splitting hairs about this stuff. The question is, why?

  • by tsotha ( 720379 ) on Monday April 19, 2010 @07:07PM (#31903808)

    I doubt, at this point, Ebert is going to go out and play a bunch of videogames and have a change of heart.

    In any event, I always sort of suspected he didn't watch some of the movies he critiqued, so the fact that he's knocking games from a position of ignorance doesn't surprise me.

  • by phantomfive ( 622387 ) on Monday April 19, 2010 @07:08PM (#31903822) Journal
    That wasn't my interpretation (from actually reading the article, I know that's a bad idea). It seemed to me he was making a kind of exploration, he wasn't trying to bash everyone's head in and convince them that his way is right, rather he was giving an explanation of how he sees things, hoping to advance the quality of the dialog a bit.

    In the actual essay he somewhat backed away from the firmness of his argument "video games can never be art" and restated it as, "no video game now is art, and I don't see how video games can be art." He is addressing the arguments of one person, and he found them lacking, but he is open to hearing new arguments if they come along.

    And frankly I don't think she presented her case very well. She used the case of a video game portraying Waco Texas, and he presents a movie that does a much better job. She shows a game that has pretty visuals, and he rightly points out that the visuals aren't that much better than what you would find on a postcard.

    I think the biggest problem is he doesn't understand how emotionally captivating it is to play a video game, how it makes you 'become' the character. He would probably say that movies do this too, and that movies have better graphics, better scripts, and better camera work (and he is definitely right), but he misses the fact that games succeed even without all that. The fact that you personally have to save your partner is incredibly engaging, even without a decent script, realistic graphics, or decent camera work. Imagine what someone could do with all those elements. It could be something truly great.

    Incidentally I also disagree with him that chess cannot be art. The rules themselves are not art, but some of the games that have been played are extremely beautiful dances between two minds.
  • by interkin3tic ( 1469267 ) on Monday April 19, 2010 @07:17PM (#31903922)

    How was Portal art? It was just a fun, quirky first-person puzzle game. People have stretched the word art to far that it now includes anything they think is clever or memorable. I saw someone call Braid a work of art. No, it's just a side-scrolling puzzle game with piano music and pretentious level transitions.

    I feel like you could say that about any work of art. For instance

    How is the Mona Lisa art? It's just a nice looking painting of a smiling chick. People have stretch the word art to far that it now includes anything they think is clever or memorable. I saw someone call "The Scream" a work of art. No, it's just an expressionist painting with a lot of orange, pretentious people fawning over it, and people trying to steal it.

    a lot of people here are just attacking him because they're gamers and want to attach some kind of significant meaning to their World of Warcraft characters or something.

    Again to turn that around, a lot of artists and art critics are writing off games as insignificant because they want to attach some kind of significance to their equally pointless profession or something.

  • Correct.

    Art has a pretty clear definition, in that it's symbols of things that bring to mind other things, often emotions, but they don't have to be.

    I.e., anything where you're supposed to experience it and get something beyond the actual symbols is 'art'. Be it cave drawings trying to show a good outcome and thus bring one about, or a photograph that makes you feel sorry for the person, or a video game where you're feeling excitement, or a French farce where people are running in and out of bedrooms making you laugh.

    Good art is subjective. Art itself is not. Art is anything humans make that isn't diagrams and maps and C-SPAN, anything trying get across something besides a flat 'Here is what happened'.

  • by Dr Herbert West ( 1357769 ) on Monday April 19, 2010 @07:32PM (#31904088)
    Please mod parent up! He is ABSOLUTELY correct. I've been working as a fine artist for 20 years, I have multiple degrees at the graduate level in fine art, I ran a gallery that featured "interactive" and game- based projects, and I damn well know my way around contemporary art theory-- Douchey is right when he says that INTENTION is everything. Did you intend for your action/object/project to be viewed as/judged as a work of art? Then it is. That's it, end of discussion. Emotional response, narrative, winning/losing, all that stuff-- merely aesthetic judgment calls.

    Whether or not it it is a good or interesting work of art is another matter. And (flame away if you must) without the intention of being "art", the artistry of video game creation (as freakin amazing as it is) is in service to a craft.

    So... I guess Ebert is more right than he knows- I can't think of a COMMERCIAL video game that has ever INTENDED to be an art project (maybe flower...). In fact, video game projects that explicitly intend to be art projects, in my opinion, cease to be video games in the same way Duchamp's "fountain" has ceased to be a piss-pot.

    A quick google gave me this result, I'm sure there are more-- video game is the media, but the intention is art project. Counter strike game that squirts real blood []

    Why does video games have to be "art", anyway? To be in a museum? Museums are where art and creativity go to die. Let video games live-- LIVE, I say!
  • No. He's managed to trick you.

    Art has a perfectly good objective definition.

    Humans use symbols and representations of things. Normal, straight usage, such as saying 'I'm going to the store', or a map, or a whatever, is not art.

    Art is when, in addition to the actual standard representation, the creator is attempting to convey another meaning. For example, 'beauty'. Or 'excitement'. Or whatever.

    Art is simply what we call symbols and representations that are 'two deep'...the normal literal one, and one on top of that.

    Anything else, any quibbling beyond that, is not trying to define 'art''s trying to define good art.

    Now, there's an argument to be made that art has to be able to convey some primary meaning or some secondary meaning to least some of the viewers, and hence some non-representational art (What you called abstract, although that just means 'deliberately incorrect'...Picasso paintings are abstract.) actually fails the 'art test', as it's often not possible for people to grasp the second meaning without being told it, and there isn't any 'first meaning' beyond 'blobs of stuff'.

    But that's a very very very small subset of things that are 'art', and have an amount of attention paid to them that is way out of proportion with their actual experience.

    Likewise, a technically good drawing that doesn't (try to) convey anything beyond the drawing, is not in fact art, in much the same way a security camera recording is not art.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday April 19, 2010 @08:06PM (#31904458)

    "No one in or out of the field has ever been able to cite a game worthy of comparison with the great poets, filmmakers, novelists and poets."

    But video games don't have to be better than the greatest painters to be art. They only have to be as good as a 1st grade art project (actually, not even that good.)

    Assasin's Creed 2 is certainly better than the majority of the action movies that I have seen.

  • by afxgrin ( 208686 ) on Monday April 19, 2010 @09:52PM (#31905318)

    So live theater is not art because actors cannot have the EXACT same performance every single time - nor do they necessarily want to.

    There are moving pieces of art at exhibits around the world. Is that no longer art?

    The story is linear in many games - just because Roger Ebert can't make Mario jump past the first hole doesn't make Super Mario Bros not art.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday April 19, 2010 @10:44PM (#31905728)
    So if I write "you win" at the end of my novel, does that mean it's no longer art?
  • by Scrameustache ( 459504 ) on Monday April 19, 2010 @10:52PM (#31905772) Homepage Journal

    The "winnable" criteria seems completely arbitrary.

    Some art is a riddle, and you "win" when you "get" it.

    Once there was an AMAZING part of an art installation I only got when I was walking out: In the middle of a large installation, they had a vampire-mirror! It reflected the room but not the people in it (they had half the room with a mirror and the other with half the room replicated in reverse on the other side of where the mirror was on the "wall", and it was a very messy room, lots of stuff strewn about, a very intricate trick). I watched quite a few people walk past without noticing this amazingly awesome work of art: they lost the museum game. I only noticed it because I was wondering why there was a security guard nearby, it made me look around for something worth the extra protection (same guard going in and going out, not a random guard sighting).


    The game "Ico" is a work of art. Anyone who disagrees is an old man who doesn't really understand the things that were new when he already was a grown up, and/or is someone who hasn't played Ico.

  • has no deeper meaning,

    Taking apart GlaDOS at the end, piece by piece, suggests a deconstruction of an artificial psyche.

    evokes no emotion,

    The companion cube evoked no emotion? How about the cake? You yourself admitted to loving Portal -- is that love not an emotion?

    teaches no lesson.

    Aside from the lessons of the portal physics themselves, it teaches that games are meant to be fun, and that you can have a fun, innovative game with solid production values.

    But of course, is art required to teach a moral lesson? I sure don't think so.

    It certainly isn't abstractly beautiful or otherwise uniquely aesthetically pleasing (well, any more so than an average, technically competent game).

    "More so than the average" isn't required. And the gameplay itself is abstractly beautiful.

    But is it art? I sure don't think so.

    I think it's unequivocally art. You seem to ask whether it's better than the average art, and it's certainly possible to say it's bad art, but I don't see how you can say it's not art.

    Look at Dada for an example. If "found art" is legit, then someone can certainly take a urinal, declare it "found art", and erect it as a statue in a public park -- which I think I remember someone doing as an exercise in Dada. If Dada is legit, it doesn't seem like there's much you can say is not art.

    More relevantly, though, it's aesthetically pleasing, humorous, entertaining... It contains all the elements required to call it "art" in the same way that any movie deserves to be called art. You clearly enjoy it, so you think it's good art, you just might not think it's particularly highbrow art, which is fine.

  • by russellh ( 547685 ) on Tuesday April 20, 2010 @12:42AM (#31906452) Homepage
    No no, see - your two year-old can do what you can't. Artists are just trying to get back to their two year-old selves that are free from all this cultural baggage that comes with growing up. But what the two year-old does isn't art because he hasn't taken the journey. Like a karate blackbelt that has worn through to white.
  • by fractoid ( 1076465 ) on Tuesday April 20, 2010 @02:09AM (#31906912) Homepage
    "Anyone at a reasonable level of reading comprehension" reading your list of attributes that you claim Portal lacks would, as I did, interpret it as your reasoning for why Portal is not art. The argument you seem to be making now is that art cannot be rigorously defined and instead, is something that you just "know when you see". Am I closer to the mark now?

    Art is subjective, down to its very definition. I can no more convince you that Portal is art than you can convince me that some hideous postmodern arrangement of random colours is art. So you're right, and I'm right, when we're talking about our own definitions... and neither of us are when talking about each others'.
  • by im_thatoneguy ( 819432 ) on Tuesday April 20, 2010 @02:34AM (#31907034)

    Art is any creative work which is designed to offer a unique perspective on the world. Stories, novels, paintings, scultpures etc all hopefully offer something to the listener, viewer or player new ideas or ways of feeling about the world in which we live.

    Art is important because it can deeply affect those who are enriched by it. I find films in particular important to my own life because they've expanded my perspective on the world and my place in it.

    To deny that video games are Art is to say that all those who have had profound experiences which have enriched and expanded their understanding of the world are essentially lying. Roger Ebert is saying that games can be exciting and stimulating, that they can be challenging and entertaining but he's denying it's even possible for them to be a medium in which an artist can convey an emotional and philosophical idea that transcends literal expression. That is idiotic. Or at least on first glance it appears idiotic until you read his caveat and his caveat is that as a game becomes more than what essentially amounts to chess or Mario it's NO LONGER A GAME.

    So he's right. Any game which is less sophisticated than Mario can never be Art. But I completely reject his position that a game which transcends simple mechanics of competition and score keeping suddenly ceases to be a game and is now a "story" "novel" or "film".

    It's like saying film can never be Art. It's just plastic and silver running in front of a lens. As soon as someone puts it together and captures intent and meaning it's no longer a film, it's then a story. And that story can be art. But not film.

    Art has always been about using an 'inert' medium to carry an emotional payload. Dyes and Inks have no artistic merit. Neither does a game engine. But when a designer has something they want to express beyond competition and entertainment then it's art.

  • by sammyF70 ( 1154563 ) on Tuesday April 20, 2010 @10:32AM (#31909942) Homepage Journal

    Of course I do, but it's not a distinction between "art" and "non-art". The distinction happens on a purely subjective level as to what I prefer. I'd take a PKD short story over Portal's story anyday, but a video game generally isn't limited to its narrative (grafic and soudn design, the way the story is told), nor are books for that matter (writing style, even presentation plays a part in the way book impacts on the reader). Anyway, I'm really not trying to say that Portal is a masterfull art piece, just that it IS art.

    Similarly, and sorry for bringing her in, but it's not meant in any offensive way, your own mother would probably take your short story over Dickens.

    To get extreme, porns are art too. For the most part I'd say very bad one, but they have a ~function| beside being purely descriptive. Being utilitarian doesn't even stop things from being pieces of art. Think about architecture or object design [].

Each new user of a new system uncovers a new class of bugs. -- Kernighan