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Revisiting Ebert — Games Can Be Art, But Are They? 278

At the recent Game Developers Conference, industry vet Brian Moriarty spoke at length about the old videogames-as-art debate. Moriarty found himself reluctantly defending one part of Roger Ebert's infamous argument against the notion: "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." What followed was a thoughtful discussion of how games fit in with the definition of art and how the commercialization that almost universally surrounds them can inhibit true artistic expression. Quoting: "Unlike Mr. Ebert, I have played many of the games widely regarded as great and seminal. I have the privilege of knowing many of the authors personally. But as much as I admire games like M.U.L.E., Balance of Power, Sim City and Civilization, it would never even occur to me to compare them to the treasures of world literature, painting or music. ... Video games are an industry. You are attending a giant industry conference. Industries make products. Video game products contain plenty of art, but it's product art, which is to say, kitsch art. Kitsch art is not bad art. It's commercial art. Art designed to be sold, easily and in quantity. And the bigger the audience, the kitschier it's gonna get."
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Revisiting Ebert — Games Can Be Art, But Are They?

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  • True (Score:2, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday March 16, 2011 @07:08AM (#35501792)

    So ture

  • Again? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by ifiwereasculptor ( 1870574 ) on Wednesday March 16, 2011 @07:15AM (#35501816)
    The article has to be trolling. Are we supposed to point out that many novels, books, paintings etc. were also products of an industry? Plus who cares what is or isn't art, anyway?
  • by Tigger's Pet ( 130655 ) on Wednesday March 16, 2011 @07:16AM (#35501824) Homepage

    I feel that anyone seriously considering responding to this should probably do a little more reading first. A good start would be a published article by Aaron Smuts (Department of Philosophy, University of Wisconsin) which was published in November 2005. []
    He puts far more detailed discussion and argument in there than TFA listed above. At the end of the day though, as Len Wein said, "Art is always in the eyes of the beholder." If you think it is art, then for you - it is art. Doesn't really matter what anyone else says about it.

  • by clyde_cadiddlehopper ( 1052112 ) on Wednesday March 16, 2011 @07:18AM (#35501832)
    The motion picture INDUSTRY cranks out product art too. Green screens and CGI abound. But Hollywood puts on better self-congratulatory award shows. Sometimes. []
  • Art Snobs (Score:5, Insightful)

    Video game products contain plenty of art, but it's product art, which is to say, kitsch art. Kitsch art is not bad art. It's commercial art. Art designed to be sold, easily and in quantity. And the bigger the audience, the kitschier it's gonna get.

    People who talk about "Kitch" art are generally the kind of people who think that true "Art" consists of splotches of paint on canvas and rusty iron walls. I'm not going to dwell on this, but I will add that yes, some art is crass and cheap.

    But some art is heartfelt, and worked hard on, and that shows through in the final product. And there are video games which meet that standard.

    Since art is in the eye of the beholder, we could all list off a half dozen games which we consider to be artistic or art, or artsy. These all generally follow some notion of what the general public considers to be "high art", or at least we'd like to think they do. I'm sure art critics would probably scoff.

    But under one of the primary definitions of art, something that evokes emotional response or intellectual thought, it's actually very clear that games are art. I think most people on the forum will have played a game--however primitive--which moved them deeply in some way. And moved them in a more genuine and heartfelt way than any picture of circles has ever moved any art critic.

    I'm sure that for many years, if not forever, games will be dismissed as shallow, sophomoric art. And while it's true that many indeed are, such prejudices will always deny truely great games the recognition, or even the respect, that they honestly deserve.

  • Obviously... (Score:3, Insightful)

    by itsanx ( 1534709 ) on Wednesday March 16, 2011 @07:25AM (#35501864)
    ...he hasn't played Psychonauts by Tim Schafer. It is absolutely masterful in its depiction of humanity. While maintaining an amusing cartoonish style, it touches on the most difficult and painful parts of life. Like art, it teaches us something about life that cannot be taught in any other way.
  • by metacell ( 523607 ) on Wednesday March 16, 2011 @07:25AM (#35501874)

    I think it's a mistake to look at the storyline in a computer game and compare it to literature, look at the graphics and compare it to movies or paintings, etc. You need to look at the game as a whole to make a meaningful assessment. And to do that, you need to get your hands dirty and actually play it for an extended period of time. Only then do the strengths of computer games appear: interactivity, immersion and problem-solving.

    Different forms of art compete in different categories. If motion pictures had been judged by the standard of stage plays when they first appeared, they'd have been dismissed as shallow, crude and completely lacking in dialogue. And it would have been just as unfair as comparing computer games to literature or visual arts.

    Perhaps there are no computer games which can be considered truly great works of art (although I think the original Civilization game should qualify), but popular art is also an important form of art.

  • But is it art? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by lisaparratt ( 752068 ) on Wednesday March 16, 2011 @07:37AM (#35501924)

    I didn't realise art had to be *good* to be /art/. Like, I've seen loads of mediocre paintings, etc. and I'm pretty sure they're still counted as art.

    This whole thing sounds like pretentious BS to me, and that whole world revolves round having something to look down on.

  • No, it's bullshit (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Moraelin ( 679338 ) on Wednesday March 16, 2011 @07:40AM (#35501958) Journal

    No, it's bullshit.

    Almost all art ever made, was made to be sold and most of it was commissioned by some rich client.

    Probably the best example is the Sistine Chapel. It wasn't done as some work of vision and love by Michelangelo. Michelangelo was good at painting, to be sure, but he considered it an inferior art form and he preferred sculpture. He only did that epic fresco because he was offered a shitload of money to do something he didn't like. I.e., he sold out. And even then he hid various FU-s at the pope's expense in it, sorta the renaissance painter's version of hiding a "fuck the pointy haired boss" comment in some obscure source file.

    Is anyone prepared to say that that's not art, because it's commercial? WTF? When did that idiotic notion originate, anyway?

    Art done as an industry, again, is as old as recorded history. There were plenty of professional sculptors and painters who did it as a full time job, and as their way of earning their bread. In fact, the vast majority of them were, by sheer virtue of living in poorer times when you didn't have the luxury of sitting around on the dole and creating art not tainted by commercialism.

    Many made it into an extremely profitable trade, and were very much aware of money and of what the clients want. E.g., Titian is a prime example of that. He even diversified into grain trade in between painting masterpieces. Is anyone prepared to say that Titian isn't art? You know, THE fucking Titian?

    Many had studios where they created a ton of paintings with apprentices. E.g., since I mentioned Titian already, he started as such an apprentice for Giorgione, and apparently quite a bit of Giorgione's art is now considered to be most certainly done by his apprentice Titian. And when he started working in his own name, Titian too in turn took such apprentices to help churn commercial art to be sold, e.g., copies of his earlier paintings.

    He's not even the only one. Leonardo da Vinci is for example another guy who financed his other studies with selling art, started as a worker in such a painter's workshot, and later had one of his own. Mona Lisa, you know, THE famous painting, is heavily "photoshopped", or rather the renaissance equivalent of that: it appears that what was first painted was rounder face, and then he made her thinner and sexier. Presumably because that's what the paying customer wanted. And in the end it was used by Leonardo as basically a way to sell himself, as a sample of what quality shit he can paint. Is anyone prepared to say that Leonardo's stuff isn't art because he sold out? Or WTH?

  • "Modern" art. (Score:4, Insightful)

    by the_raptor ( 652941 ) on Wednesday March 16, 2011 @07:42AM (#35501962)

    If what passes for "modern" art is art than even the most kitsch, banal, and derivative of video games is high bloody art.

    It is true however that there are few "high art" video games. Most games if they were translated to movies would either be 2nd rate summer blockbusters or "made for TV". But that is due to the market not the genre. Most movies and books are similarly crap.

    However video games can impart an experience in a much more powerful way than any other form of media due to the amount players can relate to the character. When you as the player have to make an important decision it is much more real than reading about a character making that important decision.

    "Art" games are rarely made because there is little professional recognition and support compared to "art" movies or books. Which is needed because the public doesn't buy "art" enough to make it commercially viable.

  • Re:Again? (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Goaway ( 82658 ) on Wednesday March 16, 2011 @07:47AM (#35501988) Homepage

    Yes, presenting a well-constructed and knowledgable argument that says something you don't want to hear is definitely trolling.

  • by Arctech ( 538041 ) on Wednesday March 16, 2011 @09:03AM (#35502700) Journal
    Going to repost a write-up of an acquaintance of mine because he has this all summed up quite nicely. It was originally in response to Ebert saying games "could never be art" a few months back.

    I am usually the first person to defend Roger Ebert, but he is just talking out of his ass here. The terms of his argument are ludicrous, he's operating from extreme prejudice and ignorance, and he's using highly loaded terms that are selectively defined in a way that most supports his point of view. I don't care what he has to say here. Either games have provided meaningful personal moments for you or they have not.

    I'm going to refer back to Angel's post because I think "games as art" conversations become immediately bogged down in vapid comparisons to other media. The unique element of games, of any game, are the rules - a collection of agreed-upon (or enforced) mechanics that interact with player choice and action to facilitate some larger meaning.

    Chess is a great game. Its elegance and complexity and apparently limitless depth makes it compelling and endlessly intriguing. It clearly taps into something we find really, really fascinating. The game board is both entirely abstract and deeply metaphorical. If you don't want to call chess a work of art, then you're just being pedantic or snotty. How many artists have employed chess in their works? As a marker of intelligence? As a symbol of rivalry? Of friendship? As a metaphor for the futility of war, or its strategy and beauty? How many chess terms have entered popular vocabulary?

    Games are meaningful creative works. They've been around for a very long time and have long informed our popular consciousness, and video games are just another form. Games help people understand how simple ideas (i.e. rules) can interact in complex ways, or how complex ideas can interact in ultimately simple and exploitable ways, or how certain ideas will inevitably lead towards certain outcomes.

    When a great game comes to a climax, it is not because some animator somewhere really nailed an awesome cut scene. The climax of a great game involves a moment when all of the various rules come together in a way that reveals the meaning and depth of their interaction. In chess, this happens with a checkmate - a moment when the game comes to fruition, where the meaning of every previous move becomes clear, and when player actions intersect in a decisive moment.

    This is why Roger Ebert doesn't give a shit about games: because he doesn't play them. You can't understand games without playing them. You can't have someone sit you down and try to explain Flower with a powerpoint presentation. Games are about learning, not experiencing. When you play a game, you're learning it, and you're playing for those great "Oh" moments where something emerges out of the rules that you didn't expect or couldn't appreciate without seeing those rules in action. Some games do this once or very few times (such as "Train" or "Passage") but are nonetheless great. Other games do this many times (such as Chess).

    It's really frustrating to see essays like Ebert's. It's not because he upsets me (who cares?), but because gamers everywhere insist on ruminating about the "future of games" when in reality games are old as hell. Video games have done some great new things with them, but games are still games, and there's absolutely no reason to defend them when they've done a great job being important parts of our culture for the past few thousand years.

    src, []

  • Re:Artifact != Art (Score:5, Insightful)

    by tooyoung ( 853621 ) on Wednesday March 16, 2011 @09:49AM (#35503214)
    How do you moderate a post as pretentious?

"More software projects have gone awry for lack of calendar time than for all other causes combined." -- Fred Brooks, Jr., _The Mythical Man Month_