Games General

Roger Ebert On Games and Art. Again.

In the Sunday Chicago Sun-Times, Roger Ebert once again makes his beliefs known about the ability of games to be artistic. Someone asked about “Silent Hill” director Christophe Gans and his comments in an interview in EGM, and Ebert responded in his Movie Answer Man.

Ebert gave a bad review (1.5 stars) to “Silent Hill”, the latest movie-based-on-a-video-game that everyone will hope to be good but will almost always disappoint. I haven’t seen the movie, nor have I seen “Doom”, another movie that Ebert gave a low rating to. I figured that “Doom” would be a terrible movie adaptation, and I haven’t played any of the “Silent Hill” games so I had no urge to see something that might spoil the game for me. Besides, it would probably be bad as well. Most video game-based movies are. I liked “Super Mario Bros”, even though I was one of a handful of people in the theater, but I wouldn’t claim that it was a good movie by any stretch of the imagination. I was very young and a big fan of the game series, after all.

Anyway, “Silent Hill” got a bad review, and Gans had said that he thinks that video games can be a form of art. I read part of the interview, and the big quote is:

EGM: It certainly doesn’t help our industry when a major critic like Roger Ebert comes out and says that “games are not art”
CG: Fuck him. You know, I will say to this guy that only has to read the critiques against cinema at the beginning of the 20th century. It was seen as a degenerate version of live stage musicals. And this was a time when visionary directors like Griffith were working. That means that Ebert is wrong. It’s simple. Most people who despise a new medium are simply afraid to die, so they express their arrogance and fear like this. He will realize that he is wrong on his deathbed. Human beings are stupid, and we often become assholes when we get old. Each time some new medium appears, I feel that it’s important to respect it, even if it appears primitive or naive at first, simply because some people are finding important things in it. If you have one guy in the world who thinks that Silent Hill or Zelda is a beautiful, poetic work, then that games means something. Art only exists in the eye of the beholder. You know, I saw The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly when I was eight, and I thought it was a masterpiece. And at that time, I felt like I was alone thinking that. But now, it’s commonly accepted as being a classic, so I was right!

I will disagree with the assertation of the question. I think it does help when someone like Ebert says that games aren’t art because it gives us something to focus on. Do I believe games are art or could be art? Yes, and I’m not alone. Now we just need to show how. I don’t expect anyone in movies to point to very early film and claim those were masterpieces of theatre. “Citizen Kane” came out many years after the first motion picture was available. I don’t believe we’ve seen our “Citizen Kane” yet.

That said, I don’t believe that games are intrinsically incapable of being art. Ebert’s argument?

I am willing to agree that a video game could also be a serious work of art. It would become so by avoiding most of the things that make it a game, such as scoring, pointing and shooting, winning and losing, shallow characterizations, and action that is valued above motivation and ethical considerations. Oddly enough, when video games evolve far enough in that direction, they will not only be an art form, they will be the cinema.

Scoring makes a game. Pointing and shooting makes a game. Winning and losing makes a game. Shallow characterizations make a game. Action valued above motivation and ethical considerations makes a game. If you’re amazed, I understand. It was news to me, too.

Are there games that include scoring, shooting, winning and losing? Yes. What about games with stock characters? Action for the sake of action? Check, and check.

But if I remember correctly, there are quite a few movies about winning and losing. There are quite a few movies with terrible characters. There are action flicks that have no reason for a lot of the violence and explosions. We can point to films that have “evolved” past those, so they don’t count anymore, I guess. We could point to games that have evolved as well, but it would be similar to comparing very early film to modern theatrical performances. How would a motion picture about a bunch of people running and spinning around in dresses stack up to “Rent” or “Wicked” or even Shakespeare’s works in terms of artistic value?

Ebert is writing about video games as if he can really talk about them as an authority. To Gans he argues:

As David Bordwell has pointed out, it can take at least 100 hours to complete a video game. Do you really feel you have mastered the mature arts to such an extent that you have that kind of time to burn on a medium you think is primitive and naive?

Not all games are 100 hour marathons, and no one is expecting Ebert to play the games that are. What about the six or eight hour games? Two hours? The twenty minute ones? We can’t expect Ebert to know about them, let alone play them, but I’m sure he’ll still have something to say. After all, they are video games, and apparently all video games are just shallow action flicks.

Most games are just games. Most games are not meant to be artistic in any way. There are motion pictures that have no artistic value, and I’m sure that Ebert would agree. It took some time before movies were treated as anything more than a novelty, and even more time before film critic became a respected position. Video games are still being treated as children’s toys, even though most gamers are over 20 years old. It is hard to have serious discussions with people from other industries when they continue to get their best opinions from “our side” from a 13-year-old gamer who would think that “Super Mario Bros” was a great movie if it came out today.

I don’t care about the people who thought that the Doom movie was the greatest thing ever. I doubt anyone cared what I thought about “Super Mario Bros” when I was younger. I don’t go to the movies to watch video games, and I thought it was incredibly dumb to have a first-person perspective in a movie to try to mimic the game. 11-year-old Joey and 10-year-old Tommy might disagree with me, but who made them authorities on movies? So the headline “Ebert vs the gamers” is supposed to make it seem like there is a huge intellectual debate when in reality it betrays how the game industry is being perceived. It’s just for kids, after all.

10 replies on “Roger Ebert On Games and Art. Again.”

I dont believe we’ve seen our “Citizen Kane” either. I believe it may be a way off in the future as well. I dont worry about Ebert because his mind is made up and he doesnt really matter to the game industry. I like this quote from Chris Hecker about where we are now:

“Games are amazing. Like really amazingly amazing. And they’re just getting started รขโ‚ฌโ€œ thirty years is peanuts for a new medium. Gaming isn’t even an infant yet. It’s an embryo. It’s a zygote. And here we all are, developers and press, academics and businesspeople, players and producers, all here at the very beginning, the inception of something really exciting and really important. How often do you get to be there at the start of an art form? Once every 100 years?”

Are games as simple as point, shoot and score? Perhaps they are for now. Games must evolve to produce the emotional responses people feel when they see film. Unlike film, where you must except the directors outcome, games give you the oppurtunity to mold and effect the outcome, for bettter or worse, according to the mental and emotional make-up of the player. Film just cant do that. That is why, one day, the definition of games as an art form versus film will blur.

Just MHO. ๐Ÿ™‚

I agree with your GB. I started writing up my comments and realized that they were way too long so I wrote a blog entry as part of the discussion. It seems the trackback didn’t work, did you turn them off?

Anyway, here are my comments: Games as Art?

I don’t believe that games have yet achieved greatness as an art form. But I think there are moments where you can catch glimpses of it from where we stand.

I think it’ll happen once game developers and hot-air-balloon critics alike come to the realization that games a re a COLLABORATIVE medium between the audience and the artist that opens up a whole new dimension in art that we haven’t begun to understand yet. It changes the whole foundation upon which you evaluate art, as the work or presentation itself cannot be viewed in a vacuum. The audience experience is inseparably bound with it, as it should be.

The only other ‘collaborative media’ like this that I can think of are stand-up comedy and improvisational theater.

Some people think that games are just games and shouldn’t try to be art. Other people don’t see how interactivity automatically eliminates any artistic merit to a work.

I don’t see how we can conclude that games can only be art if they aren’t actually games. That isn’t to say that a game is an inherently artistic medium, but neither is film. Can’t a game give you choices and still show you a glimpse into the creator’s mind?

It isn’t always about winning or losing. Sometimes in books and movies, winning or losing is a choice of the lesser of two evils. Sometimes winning means you actually lost something. I don’t see why a game that puts you into the main character’s shoes to make those choices yourself somehow loses the ability to make you think about such things. If anything, it would enhance it. You’re no longer passively watching someone else make a tough choice. YOU’RE making the choice, and you get to live with the consequences. Isn’t it possible that such choices will make you think about it long after you power off your computer?

And isn’t it possible that when a game does so, it could be considered a work of art?

good lord. that was a great post and there were loads of good comments to read too. i’m not going to get into a long debate here in regards to gaming and art. the only thing i’ll say is it’s a very silly thing when people who actually PLAY games and interact with them on a nearly daily basis can so very easily say that games aren’t art.

so, i take it cartoons aren’t art? how do we define art? i can put a piece of blank paper on a piece of cardboard put a sign for sale on the bottom and call that art. you can paint yourself in silver paint, put on a funky costume and stand still for hours and call it art. but you sit there and play a game for hours on end enjoying the story line, the landscapes, the sunsets and different lands that people have CREATED for you and it’s not art? this isn’t a rollercoaster ride. it’s something that stimulates you visually and mentally…sometimes even physicaly.

art has the tendency to do that doesn’t it?

on a last note. LOVED silent hill the game and loved the movie. as a fan that is. as a frequent movie goer it was lacking. sort of between a b-movie and a great flick. just not quite up there. not to mention the fact that i wasn’t expecting the story to follow the wife’s point of view the whole way threw. sort of sucked like that but hey… i’m sure we’ll get to see a great one in our life times. cross your fingers. ๐Ÿ™‚

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