Video Games as High Art

If you’ve been paying attention in the past few weeks, Roger Ebert is back in the video game news again. I have talked about his position on games as art, but apparently he has amended his statement. Now instead of saying that games can’t be art, he says that games can’t be high art.

N’Gai Croal dissected Ebert’s arguments way better than I could.

If Ebert had done a bit more research–well, any research–he could have bolstered his argument by citing some notable game designers–e.g. Hideo Kojima, Shigeru Miyamoto and Keiji Inafune, each of whom has gone on record as saying that they don’t believe that videogames are art–and engaged what game creators themselves have said. Or he could have elaborated on the distinction that he’s drawn between high art and low art. No such luck. Instead, he’d rather dismiss videogames with the sarcastic magnanimousness of “Anything can be art. Even a can of Campbell’s soup,” as long as we vidigoths don’t attempt to desecrate the Temple of High Art, where presumably the gods of Cinema stand comfortably next to those of Theater, Dance, Painting, Sculpture, Opera and Literature.

As you read, you’ll find that Ebert’s writing is meant to persuade without letting the reader think too much about the topic. Ebert isn’t trying to engage anyone in a discussion about video games as art. When headlines are run as “EBERT VS THE GAMERS” for articles featuring everyone’s favorite film critic arguing against the sometimes incoherent arguments of 12-year-old Halo fans, how can a reader who isn’t familiar with video games not believe that “the things that make it a game” are “scoring, pointing and shooting, winning and losing, shallow characterizations, and action that is valued above motivation and ethical considerations.” Never mind that there are many counterexamples of games that are not about scoring, shooting, or winning.

My favorite part about the article was Croal’s well-researched point that I had guessed was the case in a previous post: when film was only thirty years old, there were plenty of critics who considered it a base form of entertainment for the lowest common denominator. There was no way that film could possibly aspire to anything greater.

And yet, here we are.

Ignoring Ebert’s opinion on video games (again), what are developers doing to create art out of games?

Last month, Warren Spector wrote about his frustration-driven creativity. After finishing Paper Mario for the Wii, he felt that it was fun but left him with nothing afterwards. What frustrates me is that Paper Mario is typical of so many platform games–nearly all games, when you get right down to it.

As developers, we almost never think about what games can do to enrich our players and, as players, we almost never encounter anything that informs us about the human condition. The audience certainly doesn’t seem to be clamoring for anything more than diversion. … There’s no other medium that routinely and without much self-reflection offers consumers so little.


For the most part, games are all surface, no subtext. They’re about doing–they have to be about doing–but rarely about the WHY that drives the doing and even more rarely about the consequences of doing whatever it is you’re doing in the game.

You know, he has a lot of the same arguments as Ebert…except when Spector talks about it, he’s analyzing. He’s thinking. He’s not dismissing the entire medium. He’s talking about the problem of games not being more than they currently are as something that can be solved.

It took about 60 years for “Citizen Kane” to arrive. I can see Spector wondering what the video game equivalent would be. When he talks about what games can be, I’m thinking about it, too. Ebert’s arguments only serve to shut down the thinking process. Thanks, but I get enough of that kind of talk in politics. Give us more thoughts like Spector’s, and we can figure things out for ourselves. We can’t help but actually think about the issue when the option is presented.

8 comments to Video Games as High Art

  • Sigh, I totally disagree with you, for many reason, but I’d like to first point out that it should be the Lumière brother’s and their “short film” of a locomotive arriving that really show people what those fancy moving pictures could do.

    To me, honestly, its less about what games people make, but the level of discourse about them. I’d read an *amazing* article about Mario Sunshine (http://www.edge-online.co.uk/archives/2007/02/edge_173.php) and in my opinion, we need MORE discussion like this.

    I doubt blogs and user comments are a substitute for a serious discussion, but at the very least they fill this void. So I should also thank you GB for doing your part.

  • It’s ok to disagree with me. It’s nice to know that I’m not the only one thinking about the topic, and I can’t possibly be right all the time. B-)

    I keep hearing good things about Edge. I’ll have to track down that issue and read that article.

    As for the level of discourse about games, wouldn’t it be easier to talk about them if they had something to offer as a subject? The Illusion of Gaia stands out in my mind specifically because of the story and morals. Otherwise, who would remember it?

  • I’m arguing that games today have enough substance that they can be discussed this way. Poor Jonathan Mak has to self-promote his game and explain his vision repeatably to everyone who interviews him. Dead Rising is a fantastic statement about survival, the Metal Gear games are beautiful anti-war expressions, etc…

    And I’m talking more than story, as in your example with Illusion of Gaia. Film / Literature discourse discusses the film / literary techniques used by the author. Yes, Citizen Kane’s story was told in an innovative way, but its the film techniques (deep focus, the makeup, framing, etc). Shakespeare recycled stories, but its how the stories are written which make them great, the alliteration, rhyming schemes, the iambic pentameter!!!

    Thats not to say people can’t and shouldn’t ask for more. And its kind of odd, people don’t see a crappy movie and complain about the the Mis-En-Scene blowing, or the framing sucking, or the editing being mistimed…or the crappy use of wipes. Its story and acting that they’ll pay attention to, which I guess translate to story & graphics for video games…

  • RohoMech is just trolling. Ideally the artist (not critics or historians) would decide the underlying meaning of the game, but in some ways RohoMech is right. Games will become art once the people (i.e. academics and “high culture” gatekeepers) decide they are art.

  • Impossible, imo it tends to be less about the artist defining the underlying meaning of his/her piece. If only Robert Frost was here, he’d set you straight.

  • Yes, a lot of artists don’t define the meaning of their work or get other meanings projected onto their work. Which is why I said “ideally.”

  • Hmm, yea, I guess that’s true.
    So we indies have another set of gatekeepers to take on then!?!

  • First, people need to ask themselves, “What is art?”. To me, a beautiful picture, an amazing soundtrack, great character depth, an understanding of where the cast is (in terms of morals, beliefs, and understanding), CGI. However, the most important aspect is the story. Without it, most games wouldn’t even have playability. No matter the depth of the story, without it, you have nothing. I find more art in a game than I do in a movie. most movies only play 1-2 hours. In this time span, you find that the story is often rushed. This causes horrible character development. At least the typical Final Fantasy, you can get 20-40 hours of game play, in which the story is as good as the person who developed it.

    To say that Video Games are not art, is like saying movies and music aren’t either. People can keep telling themselves that it isn’t, but art is truly seen by the beholder who sees it. What is art to one person, may just be a pile of crap to another.