Agree to disagree Mr. Ebert

I came across an article through digg the other day that agitated me a little bit. Roger Ebert posted an article on his blog in defense of his unwavering opinion that video games will NEVER be art. His article takes aim at a TED talk in which a woman named Kellee Santiago posits and defends her position that games are art. Ebert attempts in his article to dismantle Santiago by claiming she has certain problems with the way she frames her argument. However, Ebert doesn’t really deliver on his points at all, and leaves me scratching my head with confusion. The confusion stems from the flatness and subtle hypocrisy of his statements.

Arrogance is bliss

Ebert opens with the most logically flawed argument he makes in the whole piece.

“She begins by saying video games “already ARE art.” Yet she concedes that I was correct when I wrote, “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.” To which I could have added painters, composers, and so on, but my point is clear.”

I agree that a game has to yet to be good enough to be in the same league as the artistic greats. However, Ebert draws a false dichotomy with the language he uses and the point he makes. When it is boiled down the argument comes across as, “If something is not worthy to be compared to the greats, it is not art.” Perhaps Ebert didn’t mean to truly convey that sentiment, but that’s how it reads and the statement applies to much more than just video games as art. Ebert disincludes many pieces and forms of art from his own definition. I doubt Ebert would say that interpretive dance is on-par with the greats in history, but I also doubt he wouldn’t call it “art.”

The term “art” casts a wide net. Perchance my net is wider than others, but never the less art is a very inclusive playground. I have had the “is it art?” argument many times, with many people, over many mediums. We butt heads throughout the argument and nothing is solved. It usually devolves into a dick measuring competition where the parties are simply trying to debase, or invalidate the other’s definition of art, as opposed to positively proving their own. “Is shit in the middle of the room art? NO you say!? AH ha! Therefore you are prude and crass, and by your own definition games are not art.” The bottom line with this reductio ad absurdum is that it serves to devalue the deliverer’s argument completely. That is why Ebert’s argument falls flat. He makes big claims as to what can be called art in small statements, leaves very little room for rebuttal, and leaves lots of room for interpretation.


Further into his piece Ebert takes issue with Kellee’s statements regarding cave painting, and her point that it’s basically “Chicken scratch on walls.” He makes the valid point that the expression of cave painting was so ahead of its time and beautiful that to not call it art is absurd. I completely agree. Back in that time, it was quite possibly one of the only, if not the only, form of artistic expression. It holds more weight than simple shapes and representations of animals, weather and other hominids. However, I understand her point that art is something that evolved, and got better. It wasn’t always considered art. Do you think that the cave painters were concerned with it’s artistic value, as opposed to it conveying a message, or telling a story? Art (visual, specifically painting) didn’t even come into it’s own until it was finally seen as a form of expression, and not a form of record. Many amazing works of art were requisitioned simply to record in glory the events of the times, and not truly express the artist’s vision or point of view. Should we not call those classics, which were not explicitly created for the sake of expression, art? Considering this it seems totally backward to say that games will NEVER be art. Do disavow the possibility that they can someday transcend is laughable. The argument could be drawn to it’s tangential infinitum at this juncture, but my point is that the definition of art is a nebulous and rather subjective one. However, Ebert speaks as if it is an easy line to draw which deflates his point of view entirely in my opinion.

Another major point in Ebert’s piece I took issue with was his disclusion of games based on the fact they inherently carry with them certain parameters that [some] “art” doesn’t.

“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 a[sic] 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.”

Ebert’s point here is that once these things are removed it would cease to be a game, and become a manifestation of something else. The removal of rules hasn’t changed games in the least. The shining example of this is the Grand Theft Auto series. It is a piece that has rules, points, objectives and an outcome in place, but the game can be played and enjoyed without all four of those parameters. The game becomes something completely different. It becomes a trip to a fantasy world of very little personal consequence, and a gives us dose of primal catharsis whereby we act out and internalize barbaric acts. It ceases to be its original self, but it is still a video game, and it is still art. It doesn’t stray into any murky realms of undefined media. Moreover, by nature of his argument he says that art cannot be won. Would it be a terrible comparison to draw a parallel between winning in games, and attempting to win film festivals with your pieces? There are logical hurdles to overcome to come to where I’m standing on this, but it seems like the aspect of competition, of winning, or completing exists in the art world, and is simply on a different scale in the video game world. Take installation artwork for example. This art form consists of many pieces designed to be “played with” or interacted with in some forms of guided manipulation. Many times this interaction has a defined path, or set of goals in place. Are installations with these characteristics truly that different from a video game at a fundemental level? I concede that more thought is needed to flesh out this little point of mine, but I feel it valid none the less.

Another way to look at this would be by comparing a story driven RPG to a novel. As you read a hardcopy novel, you turn the pages, you read and internalize. As you play an extensive RPG you progress from place to place, and battle to battle (turn the pages) to propel the story and continue the narrative. Is it not the same thing to read the final paragraph of a novel, and read the final words in an epic RPG story as it concludes? My argument is not based on contextual value, or quality of content, but I do believe the mechanics of the two to be ideologically linked. There is a contract between the artist and the observer in both video games and novels, that as you absorb you will physically continue to imbibe the story. Is this too pragmatic and semantic? I do not believe so. The comparison can be made, as I see they share some fundamental components related to story telling. They are entangled in the aforementioned nebulous definition of art, and not for lack of trying, can not be cleaved apart. You'd better believe it...

Ebert continues his defense by saying:

“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.”

This argument is simply too subjective to really make a broad objective point. What Ebert basically says is, “being motivated by a desire to touch the audience is not a definition of art because things I don’t like have the same ambition. If I don’t like it or consider it art, it’s not art.” I would have no issue with this line of reasoning as long as he didn’t snidely infer that his opinion of art is also the arbiter of its definition. He overtly says he thinks that his opinion is better, or more valuable than those of Nicholas Sparks’ fans. Do I disagree? No. I think Sparks is formulaic and campy, but that in no right allows me to objectively categorize his works as non-art, and his fans as people of lesser intellectual integrity. I am guilty of arrogantly defending my opinions whilst mocking others’ all the time (“You like Twilight? Loser.”) but that doesn’t give me the right to judge anything, let alone DEFINE what art is. I don’t understand how Ebert in his right mind can say that the intention to touch and inspire an audience isn’t enough to define art, but his opinion is. It borders on the absurd.

The critic’s most offensive words come as he writes:

Why are gamers so intensely concerned, anyway, that games be defined as art?…Why aren’t gamers content to play their games and simply enjoy themselves?…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.

“Offensive?”, you may ask. “Absolutely”, I would reply. This is a simple matter of condescension. To make a broad and bold statement that video games are not art, when clearly many people regard them as such will upset certain people. It doesn’t matter what medium it is, or venue, it is frustrating and offensive when people make judgemental statements about something you enjoy and is a part of your life. Do I think gamers around the world should be up in arms? No. Some of us will do the caring for all gamers, but it is so arrogant to attempt to debase something someone enjoys, and then tell them they shouldn’t care because it’s not worth it. Moreover the hypocrisy in this discourse is palpable. If it is gamers that care too much, and are making such a fuss, why are you the one attempting on more than one occasion to ensure people know and agree that games are not art? I understand this point is a little childish, but it is simply true. It reminds me of a school yard bully who would punch you, and if you cry or wince they say, “come on, it doesn’t hurt you wuss. Davie didn’t cry.” (I just made gamers all over look like wimps didn’t I?).

Ebert sums up his argument in the following way:

“Kellee Santiago has arrived at this point lacking a convincing definition of art. But is Plato’s any better? Does art grow better the more it imitates nature? My notion is that it grows better the more it improves or alters nature through an[sic] passage through what we might call the artist’s soul, or vision. Countless artists have drawn countless nudes. They are all working from nature. Some of there[sic] paintings are masterpieces, most are very bad indeed. How do we tell the difference? We know. It is a matter, yes, of taste.”

In saying this, Ebert reduces the argument surrounding the definition of art to a matter of pure subjectivity. While it is apparent that art could possibly be the most subjective aspect of human culture, it is ridiculous to posit that it can be defined completely subjectively. How can anything be purely one way or the other? He says that art comes down completely to taste, yet in his previous argument rails against Sparks’ fans and implies that HIS opinion of art is what defines it. He totally neglects to consider that others’ tastes are truly valid. What is his point? In paraphrase Ebert says, “My opinion is better than Sparks fans. Cormac is art, my opinion says so, but Sparks fans opinions and taste don’t count. Why? Because it’s all a matter of taste…my taste.” The reasoning is illogical. Perhaps, however, it is simply the fact that Ebert thinks that art should be defined completely subjectively, and work by work that makes me completely disagree with him. But I doubt many people would dare say objectivity be absent from the discourse. It seems inherently wrong to leave any definition up to the individual. Consensus would be impossible in that circumstance.

There is a small smattering of alternate arguments Ebert makes about some games that Santiago uses as examples of games as art, but he fails to convince me of his point of view beyond simple opinion. The article concludes with more of the same vein of argument. Ebert reads as a curmudgeon; an old man slightly out of touch, but proud of it. I didn’t really feel as though Ebert was an old man, as he has always just been Ebert to me, but then the other day I was online and facebook chatted my friend Chris about this article, and in the course of a small conversation about it, he said “…he’s an old man.” It was finally put in perspective. However, for someone who loves film and certainly appreciates art, he is very crass about how he views games. It seems very illogical and counterintuitive to be so black and white about a subject steeped in subjectivity. And here in-lies the problem with Ebert’s whole diatribe: he himself leaves the definition of art as something completely subjective, as a matter of taste, but makes a broad objective statement about games as art, or non-art actually. It’s hard to take him seriously with such a rigid stance on the issue. Perhaps he could have turned my chin slightly and grabbed my attention with some grace, but he certainly lacks that in this context.

...I dare you...say it isn't.

It is obvious at this point that I fundamentally disagree with Ebert, but I take more issue with his delivery and attitude. I was compelled to respond because I truly was offended by the tone of what he said. I love video games, and I consider them art, as many people do. Ebert seems to think we’re wrong, but doesn’t defend his point of view too well at all. He comes across as out of touch, old fashioned, stubborn and arrogant.  So the next time you have the opportunity to name a narrow-minded, arrogant, throw away character in an RPG, or shooter, or create-a-character in a sports game, you know what to do.



~ by humanmoves on May 4, 2010.

3 Responses to “Agree to disagree Mr. Ebert”

  1. You’re going to make me start writing essays again. But all my essays use cursing instead of citing specific points. And then there’s the every day problem of who the fuck am I to suggest how the military should be run and why everyone deserves at least one nuke.

    • hahaha. im glad i motivate you in that way…even though it seems i’d be motivating you to create a world rife with death, destruction, and birth-defects.

  2. And the Nominees are:

    Magus = Ebert (Chrono Trigger)
    Cait Sith = Ebert (FF7)
    Strago = Ebert (FF3/6)
    Tellah = Ebert (FF2/5)
    The horse = Ebert (TLofZ-TP) “You can ride {Ebert} whenever you want…”
    Orlandau = Ebert (FFT)

    and lastly (not really a nameable character, but I think it must be said)

    Lisa Simpson = Ebert

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