Roger Ebert’s Challenge to Gamers

Film critic and Pulitzer Prize winner Roger Ebert has gathered a degree of infamy amongst gamers, and specifically gaming related press, for his view that video games are not art. In this article I am taking the view that Ebert’s position is a challenge to gamers and designers to produce art in the gaming context.

Roger Ebert: Video Games Are Not Art

Ebert’s argument against games being art is often misunderstood. Ebert is not arguing that the musical score behind the game cannot be art, that the imagery cannot nor is he arguing that the plot is not art but rather he is arguing that the aspect of the game that is played is not art¹. I think most gamers can agree that if you remove the cut scenes from the game, the part you play is more akin to getting to control the main character in the action scenes of a movie than the relevant plot scenes.

Ebert’s argument is thus:

Premise 1: Art implies authorial control and some type of message, question or statement.

Premise 2: The aspect of games that makes them games is interaction

Premise 3: Interaction implies the author losing control of the message, or simply loss of any message altogether.

Conclusion: Therefore, video games are not art.

This argument by Roger Ebert has a lot more strength than people give it credit for and the attacks made against him often do not actually address his point. As such, I will address some of the arguments made against him.

Arguments Against Ebert’s Position

Who Are you To Say What is Art?

This seems to be a particularly common argument against Ebert’s position and seems to be caused by a mistake of his in using the particular term ‘art’. The use of the term art was mistake that he in fact acknowledges, causing him to change the term to ‘high art’¹. However, while this argument against Ebert’s position has some validity it employs rhetoric rather than reason. Ebert’s argument is not so much that games are not art but that the part of them that is a game cannot be meaningful. As such, his challenge to gamers is to show how interaction can produce a meaningful message, not how a game has beautiful visuals, great voice acting or a well written plot as all of these things are not the elements of the game that may be interacted with, making it a game.

Intractability as an Exploration of Governing Principles

A further argument against Roger Ebert’s is that intractability with a pre-designed environment allows people to attempt creative expression by breaking the pre-set rules. In other words, a game with a gravity engine would allow creative and artistic expression through breaking or attempting to break the rules of the game world as set by the author of that world. To use a film example it is akin to having a film in which you can suddenly make a change and force the characters therein to react to your change. Authorial control, to some degree, remains over the characters in that the creator scripted and designed the sort of inclinations they may have. The game world is also designed in such a way. The idea is that a game is essentially equivalent to an exploration of the rules of reality, the metaphysics, by creating a setting in which logic exists to be challenged². The logic of the setting exists to offer the chance of breaking it. This argument is an interesting one, but whether or not it actually opposes Ebert’s argument is another matter. Ultimately it is still difficult with this argument to say precisely how the game element is meaningful in regards to the human experience, in regards to how we should live.

My Argument Against Ebert’s Position

Personally, I tend to largely agree with Ebert that many games that are considered artistic are not artistic ‘games’ in so far as the part you actually ‘play’ has no real meaningfulness associated with it. The plot, as told with voice actors and cut scenes, is likely art. The music, designs, sound production etecetra may all be art, but the part that the gamer plays is rarely meaningful in that it carries with it no message. I do, however, have an example of interactivity in games being artistic and that is Silent Hill 2.

In order to understand how Silent Hill 2’s interactivity is artistic a quick run down of the plot is needed. The lead character, James Sunderland, received a letter from his late wife telling him she is waiting for him in their ‘special place’ in the city Silent Hill. The game starts with James arriving at the city and beginning the search for her, before he is confronted with a series of monsters as he searches.

What Silent Hill 2 specifically does that makes the interactive elements of it artistic is examines the way in which the player plays the game and alters the ending. However, this is different from a choose your own adventure because what it is doing is examining what the underlying motivations of actions might be. For instance, the suicide ending is likely to be arrived at if the player goes around fighting everything. The logic being that if the player of the game runs around stabbing and shooting everything, getting hurt in the game and such then it is clear that in order to resolve this plot they are behaving in a self-destructive manner. As a result the interactive elements of the game have artistic merit because they tell us something about ourselves, forcing us to confront our violent tendencies in video games by examining how self-destructive they are. In essence, we simulate throwing ourselves in the path of danger and the plot simply provides the justification for doing it. The second example of interactivity as art in Silent Hill 2 is via the character Maria. Maria is attractive, flirty, sultry but also a fantasy. As a result if the player focuses too much on her, seeks her out too heavily and the like they receive a negative ending based around that. This is a confronting idea: that women in film, games etcetra are not real and being attracted to them is a mistake.

Conclusion

Interactibility can potentially be meaningful and maintain some variety of authorial control, though the absolute majority of games fall far short of this goal. Ebert’s argument is theoretically flawed, but in practice is pretty well valid save for a few exceptions.

Reference:

1. Ebert, Roger 2007, ‘Games vs. Art: Ebert vs. Baker‘, in Roger Ebert.com, accessed 13th May 2011.

2. Kate 2010, ‘The Metaphysics of Morrowind: part 4‘, in falling awkwardly, accessed 13th May 2011.

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