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Video games as art? Not according to Roger Ebert

A screenshot from Flower.
A screenshot from Flower.

Roger Ebert made some big waves in the entertainment software industry a while ago when he stated bluntly that "video games can never be art". (He refused to address his comments until just recently in an article on his blog.) The industry seemed to balk at the idea - could video games actually BE art? And that's what Kellee Santiago took as something of challenge. In a recent TEDxUSC talk, she described three games that she felt elicited emotions that were similar to those that more traditional art would elicit.

There were a couple of things that were disappointing in her rebuttal. The first was her selection of games. She selected Waco Resurrection. This seems an exceptionally odd choice given the fact that it looks more like a less-refined version of Counter-Strike set at the Branch Davidian Compound. There are definitely some intriguing decisions made in the end-games that can take the player into some darker territory mentally, but is it art?

The second choice is less surprising as Santiago selected Braid. While pretty, the game's primary focus for emotional engagement comes from the main plot and the critical interpretation by the game designer. The gameplay, of course, scores highly as the puzzles are intricate and difficult but enjoyable. It's truly the interplay with the soundtrack that creates the emotional interface for the player and where the game excels.

What was most surprising about the two initial picks was how distant they were, visually, from "traditional art", as Ebert seemed to frame the discussion. Neither Waco Resurrection nor Braid are particularly stunning visually. This is where the third game stepped in to take center stage - Flower. Flower is just visually, jaw-droppingly amazing. It was nominated for "Artistic Achievement" in video games by the British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA). It was the "Best Indie Game" according to Playboy. It won Spike's "Best Independent Game Fueled by Dew" at last year's Video Game Awards. And that it was Santiago's company that provided the best example is the proverbial icing on the cake.

Flower is one of those games that is just engaging to watch, let alone actually play. There are players who don't play to win - they play to enjoy the experience. Is that less of art form than a movie? Some games are just beautiful to watch and enjoy. Some of the Final Fantasy games have a beauty and elegance that transcends gameplay.

Ebert listened to the talk (which was extemporaneous rather than considered, an advantage he notes he had in his article) but did not agree with Santiago that video games are art. However, where Ebert fails notably, is in his inability to actually define "art". He seems to rely on the same kind of guideline the courts use in pornography cases - I know it when I see it.

Given this very limited interpretation, it's highly unlikely that even if something were to come across that were completely artistic, on any level - writing, artwork, cinematography - he would be loathe to actually admit that it could count as "art". There are many barriers being broken in terms of gaming. Stories are becoming more intricate and engaging. Cinematography is improving by leaps and bounds.

He sums up his evaluation thusly:

"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."

It's hard to believe he doesn't see the same similarities in his own backyard for film: Actors, Producers, Editors, Marketing, Directors, and Studio Executives. Ebert thinks that if an artwork isn't the product of a single individual's vision, it's not art. Few would argue that any film is the product of a single individual's vision - too many compromises and directions prevent that from being possible in any but the most unusual circumstances (i.e., Kubrick, Spielberg, Cameron). Given the number of people required to perform a play, or an opera, or a film, this seems almost a trite evaluation. Few would argue that any of those forms are not art. Not all art is the culmination of a single individual. To that point, what of those games that are written by a single individual? Would those be considered in Ebert's simplistic framework?

The final summation for Ebert's evaluation is, unfortunately, that just knowing it when you see it isn't good enough. Are video games art? Perhaps. Will they transcend and cross firmly into that arena in the future? Absolutely.


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