Roger Ebert Vs. Video Games as Art

The well-respected and popular film critic Roger Ebert has made his fairly negative views in regards to video games no mystery with statements such as ‘video games represent a loss of those precious hours we have available to make ourselves more cultured, civilized and empathetic’¹. The question then is: is Roger Ebert right or wrong in regards to video games and their value, specifically artistic value?

Why Ebert Thinks Games Are Not Art

The root of Ebert’s argument is that art requires authorial control over the content, so he argues that the game itself by its nature offers choices. He argues that to limit those choices so as to deliver a certain message might as well be a movie or a piece of literature, whereas giving more choices removes authorial control over the message that is being delivered. As such, his view would suggest that the stories of games like those in the Final Fantasy series do not so much count as games being art because they are presented in a movie-like fashion through cut scenes. As such, Ebert considers games more akin to sport than art. There is a winner, a loser and they may be fun but they do not say anything about what it means to exist in this world.

Why Ebert is Right About Games Not Being Art

Ebert’s view that the win-or-lose aspects of games are not art does have validity. For example, while a chess board and its pieces may individually be called artworks, calling the rules of the game itself and the manner in which it is played art is quite a stretch. This same argument is basically what Ebert argues against games, that whilst the animations and character designs are artwork, the aspects of it that make it a game are not and hence games are not art. The core of this argument is that art is meant to make some kind of commentary on what it means to be human, whereas these games concepts and rules are only truly internally relevant and make no statement on what it means to be a human being.

Why Ebert is Wrong About Games Not Being Art

There are two scenarios that Roger Ebert does not consider in regards to video games being art.

The first one of these is a scenario in which a game can offer the person playing it a choice that says something about humanity and that person specifically. For instance, depending on how a player acts in Silent Hill 2 the protagonist will receive a different outcome based on the emotional reasons for those choices. For example, if the player is reckless with the main characters health and well-being by charging into any battle they see, the ending will more likely be a negative ending due to the protagonist having no respect for his own health and well-being. This is due to the monsters being apparitions rendered by the main characters mind and as such attacking them is akin to the protagonist attacking himself. As such, depending on how a person actually plays the game the game changes to deliver a certain message to them and the artistic message comes to depend on the player’s actions during the game.

The second scenario that Roger Ebert does not consider quite correctly is that no matter how certain and set in concrete a filmmakers view on the message his film is meant to be delivering, ultimately it is open to interpretation and as such the audience participates in the meaning of a movie, or for that matter any piece of artwork. As such, to say that movies have a clear authorial meaning as opposed to games is flawed because that meaning is not necessarily delivered to audiences in tact. The audience can make the exact opposite interpretation or make interpretations in cases where none were intended by the author.

Conclusion Regarding Roger Ebert’s Views of Video Games

In practice, Roger Ebert is correct in his statement that games are not art as the majority of them really are not attempting to say anything about what it means to exist and be human. Despite this, though, the odd example exists of games having artistic merit due to their nature as games due to the choices being presented to the player saying something about what it means to be human or to exist in this universe. Furthermore, even if the author does not intend for something to have a profound meaning, never the less it seems that audiences interpret extra things into games, books and movies creating them as art through their experiences of them.


1.Ebert, Roger 2005, Answer Man, Questions and Answers, 27 November, .

Related posts: