Right. Moving On… [My Response to Ebert]

Posted by on April 19th, 2010

April 16, 2010 unexpectedly became a new watermark in my career as a game maker – Roger Ebert wrote an article about me.

Specifically, he dissected my TEDxUSC talk which I gave back in March 2009.

I do want to state that I don’t think my talk was a perfect argument. It didn’t land in the right place in the end, and Ebert’s final quote in the article, which was taken from the last section of my talk and was not about games as art, but about the responsibility we have a media-creators in the 21st century, validated my concerns that I didn’t connect the dots as cleanly as I hoped. But the TED mantra is to “give the talk of a lifetime,” so I decided to make some bold claims, take the discussion a few steps further, and hopefully engage people outside of the “choir” to come to their own conclusions. Again, Ebert’s article was extremely validating in that I at least achieved that goal.

I remember reading Siskel & Ebert movie reviews and watching their TV show as a young artist. To say that I’m flattered by Ebert’s attention to my talk and my ideas is an understatement; however, being a long-time follower of his work, I don’t think he went the full mile in this critique.

For the most part, his argument seems to wander through some extremely muddy waters of defining art. Although he even states, “But we could play all day with definitions, and find exceptions to every one,” it doesn’t stop him from dedicating 50% of the entry to going back and forth on the subject. Ebert seems to lump “art,” “artistic,” and “artistically crafted” all into one big ball, which I think confuses any discussion on the subject.

For instance, the only definition he offers for art in response to my own is “usually the creation of one artist.” But this doesn’t define anything except a process, and arguably two of the three examples of artistic games that I offered in my talk fit this definition: “Flower” having been created under the direction of Jenova Chen, and “Braid” having been developed solely by Jonathan Blow.

I’m assuming here he thinks films are an artistic medium, but he points to the documentary “Waco: The Rules of Engagement” as not being art, without offering up any explanation. (He also responded to a comment with “Very few films are art.”) I can certainly assume my own reasons as to why it’s not art, but if half of the discussion is on what he thinks art is and why games don’t fit that definition, clarity is important here.

But the final nail on this argument’s coffin is the point that many, many of the hundreds of commenters have already made – it doesn’t seem that Ebert has played many, if any video games. And if that’s the case, then his opinion on the subject isn’t relevant anyways. The title of my talk was “Video Games are Art – What’s Next” because I felt it was time to move past the discussion about whether games are an artistic medium.. Similarly, it’s time to move on from any need to be validated by old media enthusiasts. It’s good for dinner-party discussion and entertaining as an intellectual exercise, but it’s just not a serious debate anymore. As a rapidly growing medium, we game developers have so many other issues deserving of our attention.

Ebert asks me in the section on “Flower,” “Is the game scored? She doesn’t say. Do you win if you’re the first to find the balance between the urban and the natural? Can you control the flower? Does the game know what the ideal balance is?” Well, it only takes you 2-3 hours to find out – about the same time you’d dedicate to a film! I’d be happy to send you a PS3 with a copy of the game installed on it so we can discuss in more depth.

Art is in the eye of both the creator and the beholder. And as those two groups of people grow and change, so will the definition and perception of art.

Categories: General



Comment by: James M

April 19th, 2010 at 9:48 am

You _can_ play Flower to “win”, sure. I think that in part is the concession to people who see this as a “game”. You can also just drift on the wind on a summer’s day or spin around in glowing flowers on a summer’s night. And that, that part is art. My kids taught me that you didn’t have to play the game, you could just live in the environment.

Comment by: Ben Bradley

April 19th, 2010 at 10:06 am

Although on the face of it it looks like what Ebert is saying is a bad thing for the games industry’s artistic reputation, it doesn’t seem to have had that effect. Although many people in the games industry have made up their mind on “are games art?”, most of the public haven’t even asked the question. His piece being posted has caused thousands of people to consider the question for themselves and care enough to write up their thoughts (he has 1200 comments on that page alone). Most are disagreeing and saying games might be art. Result!

Comment by: James O'Briant

April 19th, 2010 at 10:12 am

Good article. I think the bigger picture with most (especially older generations)is the inability to distinguish between “art” and “entertainment”. In most other mediums (like film) people have come to except this. However, it seems the public has not yet made the jump with video games, for they are still viewed mostly as “entertainment” – even though that may not always be the case.

Comment by: Seth

April 19th, 2010 at 11:39 am

I just wanted to mention that, although he probably hasn’t played any games recently, he has played them. After the “Games Can’t Be Art” article, it came up that he actually has been a game reviewer. http://www.wired.com/gamelife/2007/07/roger-ebert-g-1/
Now, he probably hasn’t played a game in ten or more years, but he shouldn’t be immediately discredited in that regard. I would like to see what he thinks of Flower after playing it, although I don’t think it’ll happen.

Comment by: Kellee

April 19th, 2010 at 12:22 pm

Seth – thanks for that tidbit. Interesting, although as a critic he should know better than to criticize specific games he hasn’t played.

Ben – I totally agree, but I think what’s more interesting is to bring up discussion on if games are relevant, meaningful, crafted, communicative, etc. The question as to whether they are art isn’t really useful.

Comment by: Kamil Kiedrowski

April 19th, 2010 at 12:49 pm

Excellent retort, Kellee. Ebert’s piece essentially boiled down to his belief that video games are more of an entertainment medium than paintings or cinema and therefore will lack the “artistic” merit of the latter. But, I feel your point about moving past the discussion is more valid. Time will be the judge as the medium is still in it’s infancy.

Comment by: Juan Letona

April 19th, 2010 at 5:45 pm

The biggest hurdle is not the number one critic in the US, but the study and preservation of older games. For the video game medium to be considered to have any arstic value, it needs to start transcending pass it’s current form.

Art should belong to the cultured people and not resold as goods to the masses.

An example would be the Super Mario bros franchise, the first game is an art masterpiece, but it’s sequels has watered our appreciation for it. Imagine the book War and Peace re-written every decade since it’s conception, or Citizen Kane, Sistine Chapel, The Trial, etcetera.

Comment by: Justin Ketterer

April 19th, 2010 at 5:59 pm

Nice write-up Kellee. Did he ever define art?

I think a good definition is what the philosopher Ayn Rand said on the subject: “a selective re-creation of reality according to an artist’s metaphysical value-judgments.” What are most modern games besides “a selective re-creation of reality,” eh Ebert? And of course game developers have to be selective when creating their in-game universe. Is it a malevolent world? Is the game fundamentally about a beautiful–but threatened–existence? Is the game taking place in a world of chaos? If game developers were not selective in creating a game universe according to SOME unifying view of an alternative existence, there would be no coherence to the game, and people wouldn’t find enjoyment in it. And of course, people play games largely to experience these “selective re-creations of reality.”

As just one example, there were many times while I was playing Halo 3 that I would stop advancing and pause for a moment, just to enjoy the wonderfully rendered scenery in the game, or to witness the equivalently hellish landscape which the game’s “evil” had wrought on the beauty and the humanity which you were trying to protect as the protagonist.

Comment by: Pete Davison

April 19th, 2010 at 6:00 pm

I’m glad you responded, Kellee. Ebert’s comments deserved a response and God knows he’s had plenty from other people around the Internet. It’s only fair that you had the chance to defend your position, too.

It was abundantly clear from his argument that he has not played any of the games you mentioned in your presentation. His woefully ill-informed discussion of Flower, in particular, is prime evidence of this.

You’re right that we should be moving past this debate. Art is different things to different people anyway, so if one person chooses to see Flower as art while another chooses to see it as idle entertainment, that’s absolutely fine. Arguing about it gets nowhere, and that is the point most people are trying to make. They objected to Ebert’s assertion that games can never be art – a rather presumptious statement.

Comment by: bobsmith

April 19th, 2010 at 7:48 pm

Ebert appears to be committing the “No true Scotsman” fallacy…

Comment by: kato

April 19th, 2010 at 8:22 pm

Is this debate really of any worth?

I support the notion that games are art having been a gamer for 21 years now. But think of the conventionally accepted art forms. They were new at one stage. Did films ever require debate on whether they were art?

I guess my point through all this is that art is subjective. Perhaps we should focus on enjoying and creating games and let the eye of history judge what is and isn’t art.

Comment by: Appliqed

April 19th, 2010 at 8:31 pm

just to clarify @kato

“Did films ever require debate on whether they were art?”

Yes. It was the 1930/40s formal theorists who fought against the general conception of film as mere entertainment.

Film studies have over 50 years of scholarly establishment now. We just began to take games as an academic material and academics from many different fields are trying to establish the aesthetics of games. It will take a while, but I would like to think the whole “is game art” debate will eventually be overcome.

Comment by: Nick

April 19th, 2010 at 8:39 pm

I think that Ebert did himself a disservice with his uninformed criticism of games. There didn’t seem to be any purpose to his post aside from an attempt to promote unfounded cultural elitism. To me, this discredits him as a professional critic.

Games are clearly results of (and tributes to) human creativity. All the way from conceptualisation and design, to player interaction and experience. If that doesn’t constitute Art… he is applying a very narrow definition indeed.

Comment by: cloud668

April 19th, 2010 at 8:59 pm

Saw the article over at Kotaku. I will have to say that I agree to some of the arguments from both sides.

I really disagree with Ebert’s statement that games that do not have points or goals mean that they are just stories. Video game is a sophisticated medium, and it can be expressed in many ways just as art forms like paintings, literature, or music can be. If a game that doesn’t have points would disqualify it from being a game, thus hindering the medium from being art, I guess those other mediums like music aren’t art either.

By the end of the day, though, I still think not all games–very few games, actually–qualify as art (Flower being one of these exceptions). Games are still very immature in that they often portray excessive violence or content that are otherwise not needed. Until designers can express most games in a near-perfect manner that everything in the game has a meaning, I doubt that the majority will consider games as an art form.

Comment by: Dr. Dib

April 19th, 2010 at 9:46 pm

Roger Ebert at least played one game, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles for the NES. Though it is probably true he seems to dislike games as a whole from some of his statements (Such as the rather take up professional knitting than playing games).

I do have to agree with him on one point though, does it really matter if games are ever considered art? They make people happy, or some other emotion, and I think that’s good. As a really amateur game developer, I just hope people will enjoy my games instead of praising them as art. After all, a game’s no good unless you can play it.

Comment by: Sue London

April 19th, 2010 at 10:25 pm

I don’t think it’s necessary to play a video game to appreciate them. To me this is more about being clear in the definition of art and discussing how video games match that definition. My intuitive (biased?) belief is that video games ARE art.

As for Ebert, he seemed to enjoy causing a stir and then constantly saying that those in favor of saying video games were art weren’t making a good argument (essentially an argument that he LIKED, not one that was impressive on a logic or rhetoric basis).

Ultimately, look at this like Oscar Wilde would. The only thing worse than being talked about it NOT being talked about. At least people are talking.

Comment by: Fran

April 19th, 2010 at 10:30 pm

Cool article. How do you think a Congressman would answer the question? Or the chief curator of the MoMA? Would their response be very different from Ebert’s?

Comment by: Amy

April 19th, 2010 at 11:14 pm

My take on it, which I just tweeted to Ebert:

I think I understand what you’re trying to say when you say that video games cannot be art. No matter how artistic the elements that go into a game may be (visuals, story, music), they exist to serve the game mechanic e.g. the rules, the goals, etc. It’s like presenting a beautiful chess set and saying that chess is art. However what happens when the gameplay mechanics themselves serve a greater artistic purpose? When the moves and the goals in a game are integral to the meaning, emotion, or message that the creator(s) are designing, doesn’t that make the game mechanics a piece of something that can (and in some cases, must) be considered art? I believe you have discounted this because you have not experienced this before, but it does in fact exist, and is becoming more and more prevalent.

Comment by: John Elder

April 19th, 2010 at 11:17 pm

I wish you had been at TEDxUSC 2010….I missed out with you not being there!

Back on topic, though.

I agree with you, of course, however let us give Ebert slack and see things from his point of view. It is not hard to understand how he gets to his conclusions and why.

Comment by: Dan

April 20th, 2010 at 12:52 am

This revolves around the definitions of “game” and “art”. We tend to call any type of interactive computer thingy a game. But there’s a fundamental divide between chess and an interactive narrative like Half-Life. And another divide between games with stories and “digital toys”.

Modern videogames are elaborate contraptions of visual, audio, and narrative design. They cannot be reduced to being equivalent to chess. You could conceivably also have interactive art which is neither a game nor a film. Maybe we should not use “play” and “game” for all such products.

Still, I have to agree with Ebert: very few films are art, and video games? It’s hard to point at any one. Almost all of them are commercial products and whatever artistic things in them are mixed with a large amount of distinct non-art. And it doesn’t help that most of them are still designed for 10 year old boys. 10-year old boys aren’t noted for artistic taste.

But “never can be art” is fairly obviously wrong.

Comment by: Dan

April 20th, 2010 at 1:19 am

I think it’s interesting to focus on the thing that makes games games: the gameplay. Does gameplay ever actually add to the artistic value?

Would Mona Lisa distributed as a jigsaw puzzle be more or less of an artwork than just the painting? Is the puzzle a journey, an artistic experience in itself, or only the artwork used in its production? What about if it came with a soundtrack?

It seems that challenge is a major issue for mainstream acceptance. Watching a movie or reading a book requires a minimal investment to experience. Getting through a typical video game requires tests of dexterity or puzzle-solving, and often a large investment of time. These factors inherently exclude a large portion of society from being able or willing to experience them.

Ebert simply does not desire to play the games, any games, which is probably because the effort to do so must seem like work to him.

Comment by: Amy

April 20th, 2010 at 5:27 pm

My own extended response to Ebert:


Comment by: Christopher

April 21st, 2010 at 2:27 pm

I would not conclude that the commercial purpose of any particular video game disqualifies it as art. After all, most artists (especially the best ones) in painting, music, etc., commanded hefty commissions or were on staff to produce their content (Michelangelo and the Sistine Chapel, Bach working at St. Thomas’ in Leipzig and its attached school, that sort of thing).

Comment by: Patrice Aubry

April 21st, 2010 at 4:29 pm

It’s ironic that a movie buff like Ebert (whom I respect) is trying to convince himself that games are not worthy of artistic merits when, at the beginning of the 20th Century, movies (aka. moving pictures) were considered as a passing fad by photographers, who themselves had been treated as frauds by painters during the 19th Century.

Like with any art form, some games are better than others.

Comment by: Adem

April 23rd, 2010 at 1:31 pm

Yesterday i sent you an e-mail regarding this question i surely hope u read it, because it gives you the answer to the question what art is. as a philosopher my job is to find the answers to these fundamental questions. games surely have the potential to be art, like movies, literature, fine arts do, every media has that potential, but it is in our effort to made them such, they can’t be by default art, we must put our humanity in it so that they can inspire other people, and therefore be art. ebert is confused here because he mixes videogames with sports and competition, which are opposed to art, cause they wake the instinctive competitive nature in us, that’s why he thinks games cannot be art, but that’s just plain stupid because every media has that potential. media is material that waits for an artist to come and awakes the potential in it. my elaboration on this question should be in your mail box or in that of your company. be sure to read it, there is some interesting stuff in it, as well as my wish to involve myself more in your topics i think i could be of good use on that matter. stay cool and never leave school;)

Comment by: Simulated Knave

April 24th, 2010 at 9:34 am

I think you’re greatly hampering your argument with your choice of games.

Firstly, I’m not sure you chose particularly strong examples. Flower is arguably not a game – it was approached as art first, and there is little for the player to do (though much for them to experience). Waco: Resurrection is about violence and is, frankly, not very good looking – both of which would make it trickier to sell as art (IMO). Braid…OK, I’ll give you Braid. Though I’d say Braid is hampered by its mediocre story presentation (in-between level text? Really? Are we playing Tyrian?).

These examples are also quite recent. If you want to make the argument for games being art, I would argue that there are many examples which are much older. Off the top of my head, a lot of the old Black Isle products were art (including the original Fallouts and Planescape Torment), many adventure games would qualify (Grim Fandango, Full Throttle, even King’s Quest), a lot of modern Bioware games (KOTOR being perhaps one of the best examples), what about Sid Meier with Alpha Centauri? Or Pirates?, and Team Ico stuff (Ico, Shadow of the Colossus).

There’s an entire history of gaming to draw on. Choosing examples from the past few years needlessly hampers your argument. I think it would be difficult to argue that Planescape Torment isn’t art – it’s a story presentation that relies intrinsically on player interaction. Shadow of the Colossus has beautiful art direction and visceral presentation. Grim Fandango has unique and original ideas and a quirky aesthetic. And that’s the ones I can think of. I have no doubt here are plenty more. Furthermore, it means you concede a point you might not need to – the whole “not comparing to the masters” thing. Gaming has its honored classics, and its titans of the field – Tim Schaefer or Chris Avellone both spring to mind, as does Sid Meier or even Peter Molyneux. People do haul out their old games and replay them – and the experience is not appreciably hampered by age. The enduring experience of many of these games is a point towards games being art.

All of the games mentioned can (and usually do) evoke an emotional reaction in the player (other than controller-snapping rage, which nearly all games can evoke :P ). All received a lot of effort visually and in their story. Hell, Planescape: Torment stayed on a lot of top ten lists until OBLIVION came along. That’s almost ten years. And it did that on the strength of its story and experience.

These are games pointed to as great by the community (or at least by journalists). And I’ve got to wonder why you didn’t take advantage of that? Gaming, like other forms of art, also has a rich history. And like other art forms, what was and was not art is more agreed upon than what is and is not art at this particular moment. Going back to pick the best examples of gaming three, five, ten, or even fifteen years ago would be a much better way of both demonstrating the artistry of gaming and of demonstrating the history and long existence of that artistry.

I think you weakened your argument unnecessarily. Not that I think it would have made a difference to Ebert, mind you. :P

Comment by: lonewolf2877

April 26th, 2010 at 7:57 pm

More importantly now is to spread the word that Ebert does not know games so this doesn’t come back to slap the video game industry in the face especially in the court proceedings that are happening now:


Comment by: Stef

May 26th, 2010 at 6:43 pm

Art really doesn’t have a definition. Everyone seems to have their own opinion of what it means and personally I think that art is the conveying and exploration of feeling. I’m an artist myself and whenever I’m drawing or painting I’m try to express feelings through poses, landscapes and atmosphere.

Personally, I think possible the best example as gaming as an art form is Flower. You don’t need to play the game to have fun, you can just sit back and take in the atmosphere. To me that’s what it’s all about and Flower, along with many other games, has done that so much better than some of the movies, music and paintings I’ve seen over the years.

Comment by: Teeth Grinding

October 31st, 2010 at 11:49 am

Great Post.bookmarked !!
Teeth Grinding

Comment by: maxmyth

July 31st, 2011 at 8:26 am

I see both you, Kellee, and Ebert being right and wrong. This debate stemmed from the fact that words are not black and white concrete concepts. So it follows that the word ‘art’ is open to interpretation as are many/most words. Art is in the eye of the beholder as many say. I understand that each of you had to defend your own idea of what art is. It seems we humans have to defend our perspectives as humans or we, rather our ego or reputation as being leaders/experts, get decimated.

Personally I feel ‘art’ is anything a life form, or any other natural process, thinks, does or experiences. Art is cause and effect. The floor affects my existence as does the manner in which my cat meows or what my friend says in an email. Our current thoughts are altering emotional and physical reality in subtle almost imperceptible fashion. So limiting the word ‘art’ to the realm of film, painting, sculpture, poems, video games, music, etc. I feel is unfair.

To further push the idea of language/words being a problem, as our consciousness evolves, words like science, sport, art, politics, etc. will merge into one grand concept. This grand conjunction or unification of separate categories will bring forth advancements that current humans would consider magic. Perhaps then our current spoken and written language systems will be depreciated and a new more powerful language system based on pictures will emerge. Think ‘techlepathy’ although I prefer true telepathy since techlepathy could backfire (further enslavement of humanity). Anyways I am tangenting a bit.

Comment by: Kellee

August 1st, 2011 at 2:47 pm

I agree with you, maxmyth. Which is why, when Ebert says “this can’t be art,” without providing any context or definition, is so maddening. I do believe we should broaden the definition, and in doing so, truly take into account the emotions we receive and are exposed to on a daily basis.

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