In the eye of the beholder

Posted by SpaghettiOh on Monday, April 26th, 2010 in Gaming Life /Rants
Roger Ebert
Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert, some famed and worshiped movie critic, recently rebutted a previous rebuttal he’d made years ago about video games, originally rebutting that they “could not be art.” So then this other wildly unknown dood by the name of Clive Barker had something to say about that statement, rebutting that Ebert “thinks you can’t have art if there is that amount of malleability in the narrative.”

Ebert was quick to revise and extend his remarks on his flawed video game statement, most likely to reduce the amount of hatemail he’s probably getting from angry video game nerds all over the universe and YouTube. “What I should have said is that games could not be high art, as I understand it.” Great Job(!) clearing up that statement, guy! You’ve now left your haters with something to scratch their heads about before blasting you with spiteful emails; I mean, of course, pondering on what exactly Ebert’s version of “high” might be.

Clive Barker
Clive Barker

Barker puts words in Ebert’s mouth very well with the “malleability” thing, and that could be a fairly strong argument on Ebert’s part. But what game exists that’s infinitely open-ended that could be considered art? Should art be finite? Should I not be able to watch a movie over and over again and learn something new every time, or should I watch it once and know exactly every facet of the director’s ultimate vision? At the same time, Barker’s proposal that “if a game moves you … it’s worth serious study” does justice to art’s very definition. Art should ultimately be something that impacts its audience in some way, shape, or form. To expand on that, “high”, or fine, art could be defined as something so deeply beyond the basic definition that everyone can appreciate it, even if its affect different for every person.

Sadly, neither of these cards really have enough experience to be attacking or defending a medium they know oh so little about. Even with Barker’s unnoticeably small utility belt of premises written and used for video games, he still lacks the heart and attachment of core gamers, and most likely only took his stance to gain backing from an industry fan base larger — and now thanks to the Wii, more demographically diverse — than any other form of entertainment. Besides porn probably…

Ebert’s recent blog for the Chicago Sun-Times only dug his hole of ignorance even deeper. While I definitely respect his sarcastic tone and blunt criticism, he failed yet again to come across as someone who’s open-minded to the concept of video games as art, or video games in general for that matter. Instead, he continually defends his stance with irrelevant points and high-horse comments furthering his bias and bashing the industry & those opposing his argument. In this monologue, though, he flatters Kellee Santiago of a TEDTalks video (below) who argues that video games are “already art.” She proceeds to suggest Waco Resurrection, Braid, and Flower to Ebert as proof of her statement.

Kellee Santiago
Kellee Santiago

To be honest, Ebert grants Santiago way more credit than deserved. To start, she seems to present Resurrection about as well as Sarah Palin could, or anyone else in the position of describing, positively, a satirical game about a disgustingly ridiculous confrontation. “And in this compression between the player and their character is made even tighter as the player has to go and cast spells using their voice.” What the fuck does that mean and how the hell does this relate to the argument? OK, so I use my voice to interact. Gee, that’s never been done before. The video presentation alone, without sound even, is enough to hand Ebert the torch in this debate. Horrible choice of ammunition, you tool.

Braid is a step in the right direction, I suppose; at least it looks pretty. While the game was very fun to play, it failed to move me in any direction other than frustration most of the time. Don’t get me wrong, the seamless composition of artistic visual style, simplistic gameplay, and soothing sound is definitely easy to appreciate, but these hardly make up for the lack of depth and explanation in the story.

Braid on XBOX 360
“To live, or not to live… Ah what the hell, I can always rewind.” *suicide*

I’m really not even going to touch on Flower. Not only have I not played it, but the awesome editor of the TED video does this cool thing where we can’t actually see what everyone’s looking at, and I don’t feel like spending hours watching videos for it on gaming sites that fail. But again, Flower doesn’t exactly seem like the game to move a player to do anything but take screenshots for desktop wallpapers.

Flower on PS3
Ooooohhh… preeeettyyyyy

So here’s where I come in and say how wrong I think everyone is. Ebert, your thoughts are likely relevant to the industries you critique, but I hereby deny you the right to judge a medium you’ve never interacted with beyond walking past a game demo end-cap in a Best Buy. Barker, your input is valued, but taken lightly because you’re seriously missing the point, and likely only taken at all because you managed to squeeze in an opinion and it happened to catch on. And Santiago, please shut up. You’re really not doing the argument any good with your piss-poor examples of “artistic” games and how “well” they’re doing financially.


Here’s the thing: Most video games themselves… aren’t really art. Video games are as much “art” as museums are. They’re more like collections of art. They are collaborations of artistic triumphs by passionate sculptors, painters, musicians, coders, animators, and any other “artists” passionately involved during their development (keyword here is “passion” in case you missed it). Video games, like museums, are the means through which the creative expression of those passionate artists is conveyed to their audience; a “channel” if you will.

I don’t discredit museums, however. Some museums could be considered art if the architecture was designed with aesthetics in mind. The same goes for video games, again, as long as the goal of the team was to convey it as such. I dare not list examples of which games I describe as artistic, but such games should only be allowed an absurdly small margin of deviation away from what gamers could agree is a true artistic gaming experience. I guess that would make them “high” art in their own right.

But even still, not everyone could consider them art, being that part of that consideration would be to actually play it. Some people just can’t do it; others just don’t want to.

Chicago Sun-Times | Roger Ebert’s blog/commentary |