I’ve been fascinated by Roger Ebert’s ongoing reflections, conveyed via his Twitter feed and blog, about whether video games can be art. The debate intrigues me not only because it demonstrates the vibrancy of a public culture focused on issues of media criticism but also because Ebert’s questions address debates that have engaged scholars for decades: What is cinema? How is film different than other media? Does this change in an era of digital production and distribution? Can movies (or video games) qualify as art and under what circumstances? These are all “big” questions, and to my mind, they put to rest any suggestion that public film criticism is “dead.” If anything, it shows that these debates about the social role of art and entertainment, films and video games, matter for cinephiles, video game players, and many others.
The debate about whether video games can be art has a relatively long history (and I’ve worked through it in detail here: feel free to skim). According to a timeline assembled at the Independent Gaming website, Ebert’s original complaints about video game aesthetics date back to an October 2005 review of the movie adaptation of the popular video game, Doom, in which Ebert compares watching the movie to watching someone else (“some kid”) play the video game rather than playing yourself, introducing one of the key themes that will play into debates about art, and film art, in particular: the question of interactivity. Significantly, Ebert is clear to emphasize his admiration of the SF genre in his condemnation of Doom, even defending his positive reviews of Ghosts of Mars, Red Planet, and Total Recall, in order to make clear that the video game storyline is the film’s problem.
From there, as the Independent Gaming blog points out, Ebert defended his initial review of the film, first by asserting that books and movies are better mediums than video games, without any significant evidence other than the lack of critical consensus on what should be included among the canonical games, and later, on the grounds that video games lack the “authorial control” that films and novels have, a position implied in his initial comment about books and movies, in which he cites the great authors/auteurs of film and literature (Scorsese, Ozu, McCarthy, etc). Here, Ebert’s emphasis on interactivity becomes even more explicit when he argues that “video games by their nature require player choices, which is the opposite of the strategy of serious film and literature, which requires authorial control.” What gets lost here is the fact that a well-made video game can structure player choices in complicated ways, creating a story world or game narrative that can inspire reflection. It also grounds artistic expression within the individual genius, or in the collaborations of a pair of filmmakers such as the Coen Brothers, rather than in collective or collaborative authorship, a point that is reinforced in a response Ebert wrote to Clive Barker several years after his original claims about video games (note: Jason Rohrer criticizes this point in his response to the Ebert/Barker “debate”).
While the emphasis on authorial intent is problematic, the definition of what counts as art is ambiguous. As Rohrer notes, Ebert uses adjectives such as “complex, thoughtful, empathetic” to describe high art, leading Rohrer to respond that he gained more “profound insights” from playing Super Coumbine Massacre RPG than he did from watching a documentary and feature film about the event. Rohrer’s read on Ebert’s comments (as of 2007) is worth checking out in full and approximates my own skepticism about Ebert’s attempts to differentiate video games from film and novels.
Skipping forward to 2010, Ebert revisited this position in April after watching a TED talk by game designed Kellee Santiago (which I still haven’t seen, but Ebert seems to characterize it fairly enough). Ebert maintains his assertion that works of art are the expressions of individual artists, adding that collectively produced objects, such as cathedrals and tribal dances, originate in the genius of an architect or choreographer, a position that, to my mind, wouldn’t preclude an individual video game designer from sketching out a game that was assembled by others, including video game participants. Ebert goes on to dismiss games by suggesting that they have “rules, points, objectives,” but isn’t it true that quite a bit of interactive art entails a similar process of negotiation? More crucially, Ebert acknowledges that Santiago’s definition of “art,” which she describes as “a way of communicating ideas to an audience in a way that the audience finds engaging” is ambiguous to the point that pretty much any text might qualify. But Ebert’s response, rather oddly, seems to deny the very practice of criticism by arguing that “you can perform an exegesis or a paraphrase [of a work of art], but then you are creating your own art object from the materials at hand,” a position that seems contrary to many of the texts that he cites as works of art. After all, Picasso, Beckett, and Eliot (three of the artists he cites) are engaging with the history of their respective media (painting, drama, poetry) in their works. Picasso’s “Las Meninas” paintings, to cite just one example, are an extended series of citations and recitations of an earlier painting in an attempt to engage with the history of art. In a way, Picasso’s work is not just art; it’s a form of art criticism. Ebert concludes this blog post by asking why it matters so much to gamers that their medium be potentially considered as art, which seems like an odd question to me. Given the power of art to offer legitimacy to a form of expression, it is a way of recognizing that video games are important and worthy of study.
Ebert later responded to the avalanche of comments–some 4,599 and counting the last time I checked–in a series of blog posts and tweets, one of which offered an admittedly unscientific survey in which his readers asserted their preference for a great video game over Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn. By the end of his second post, Ebert is willing to concede not only that his argument about video games was ungrounded (due to his lack of experience with them) but also that his prior definitions of art may have been too ambiguous. And in his most recent post on the topic (as of July 9), he reports the results of his “meaningless poll” as a lead-in for asserting the importance of reading literature, which he ties to the ability of great works of art to promote empathy with alternative points of view. Again, gamers could easily respond that a carefully-crafted game could easily produce similar feelings of empathy, forcing a player to reconsider deeply-held assumptions.
I’ve rigorously avoided offering my definition of art in my deconstruction of Ebert’s positions, if only because I’m less invested in asserting that video games or films are art–why shouldn’t they be?–than I am in considering how media (and our responses to them) function within a larger social and political arena, a logic that informs much of my work on political mashup videos that not only challenge the positions of specific politicians but also seeks to challenge the legitimacy of political discourse as it is currently constructed, offering a populist critique of the influence of the rich and powerful on political speech. But I am interested in mapping some of Ebert’s arguments onto recent film theory debates about the role of the digital in shaping definitions of cinema (in the narrower sense of film as art), a question I’ve been thinking about as I’ve been reading Dudley Andrew’s recent book, What Cinema Is! (Blackwell 2010), at the suggestion of a fellow media scholar, but since this post is running a bit long, I’ll return to that in a separate post.