In 2005 film critic Roger Ebert set off a cyber lucha libre when he declared, “Video games can never be art.” In his own words, “No one in or out of the field has ever been able to cite a game worthy of the great poets, filmmakers, and novelists.” Ebert delivered his statement through his Chicago Sun Times blog. Almost immediately, it was countered with a mix of arguments coming from game designers, gamers, critics, and scholars.
First to jump in the ring was game designer Kellee Santiago, who felt that Ebert was out of touch. “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,” claimed Santiago. The two squared off multiple times in the blogosphere with Santiago, concluding that Ebert’s argument was weak because he defined art as, “usually the creation of one artist.” In her Tedx Talk, Santiago cited two examples, “Flower” and “Braid,” as having been created and developed by individuals. In Ebert’s defense, Chris Baker, a blogger for Wired.com wrote, “And no one can say Ebert doesn’t understand or value the open-endedness of games, or the joy of exploring a compelling virtual world.” Baker offers up an example of a 1994 review of the game, Cosmology of Kyoto, where Ebert wrote, “The graphics are hauntingly effective, using a wide-screen landscape format. The individual characters are drawn with vivid facial characteristics, a cross between the cartoons of medieval Japanese art and the exaggerations of modern Japanimation. The speaking voices are filled with personality, often taunting, teasing, or sexy. There is a sense, illusory but seductive, that one could wander this world indefinitely. This is a wonderful game.” So the question was not Ebert’s ability to appreciate games, it had more to do with how he defined art. Ebert’s felt, “Art is created by an artist. If you change it, you become the artist… Art seeks to lead you to an inevitable conclusion. Not a smorgasbord of choices.”
Tagged and ready to rumble, Clive Barker, a novelist and video game auteur said, “I think that Roger Ebert’s problem is that he thinks you can’t have art, if there is that amount of malleability in the narrative. In other words, Shakespeare could not have written “Romeo and Juliet’ as a game, because it could have had a happy ending, you know? If only she hadn’t taken the damn poison. If only he’d have gotten there quicker.” Then Ebert got trapped in a corner, when he referenced Andy Warhol. “I mentioned that a Campbell’s soup could be art. I was imprecise. Actually, it is Andy Warhol’s painting of the label that is art. Would Warhol have considered Clive Barker’s video game “Undying” as art? Certainly. He would have kept it in its shrink-wrapped box, placed it inside a Plexiglas display case, mounted it on a pedestal, and labeled it “Video Game.” In his attempt to personalize his attack, Ebert comes across shortsighted by not understanding Warhol’s relation to other twentieth-century artists, such as Marcel Duchamp. Duchamp was part of the Dadaist Movement that had only one rule: Never follow any known rules. Dada was born in Europe in response to the horror of World War I. It was created to promote an emotional reaction from the viewer (typically shock and outrage). In using Warhol as an example Ebert misses the bigger picture. Gaming unlike cinema is still in its early stages of development. The question of whether or not it is truly an art form may be premature. As a whole it reflects the same model as Hollywood with its thirst for popular, blockbuster-like titles. But very similar to independent film it is beginning to exhibit more sophisticated storylines and concepts that fully exploit the interactive medium. In recognition of this trend, the British author, journalist and critic Steven Pool writes, “A beautifully designed videogame invokes wonder as the fine arts do, only in a uniquely kinetic way. Because the videogame must move, it cannot offer the lapidary balance of composition that we value in painting; on the other hand, because it can move, it is a way to experience architecture, and more than that to create it, in a way which photographs or drawings can never compete. If architecture is frozen music, then a videogame is liquid architecture.”
It’s been seven years since Roger Ebert’s stated that, “Video games can never be art.” Huge things have happened since then. For example, in 2011 the U.S. Supreme Court recognized video games as art. According to the ruling, “They deserve the same First Amendment protections as books, comics, plays and all the rest.” This year, the Smithsonian Museum of American Art will open an exhibit titled, “The Art of Video Games.” Chris Melissinos, the curator believes that, “The responsibility of this exhibition is to enlighten and inform in terms of what games really are.” Visitors will get to play video games while looking at them through a historical platform. To add another dimension to the exhibit, the Smithsonian selected their games by launching an “Art of Video Games Voting Site.” Participants were offered a chance to vote for 80 games from a pool of 240 proposed choices in various categories. The show will span many eras from Pac-Man to Flower and everything in-between. Will this exhibit set the record straight once and for all? Perhaps it will, but what has become evident is that when it comes to art and in this case gaming, “Beauty is in the eyes of the beholder.”
“The Art of Video Games.” American Art. Web. 06 Feb. 2012. <http://americanart.si.edu/exhibitions/archive/2012/games/winninggames/>.
Baker, Chris. “Roger Ebert, Game Reviewer | Game|Life | Wired.com.” Wired.com. Web. 06 Feb. 2012. <http://www.wired.com/gamelife/2007/07/roger-ebert-g-1/>.
“Clive Barker’s Undying – GameSpot.com.” Video Games, Video Game Reviews – GameSpot. Web. 06 Feb. 2012. <http://www.gamespot.com/clive-barkers-undying/>.
“Faster Forward – A Conversation with Video Game Exhibition Curator Chris Melissinos.” Blogs & Columns, Blog Directory – The Washington Post. Web. 06 Feb. 2012. <http://voices.washingtonpost.com/fasterforward/2011/02/qa_with_video_game_exhibition.html>.
Poole, Steven. Trigger Happy: Videogames and the Entertainment Revolution. New York: Arcade Pub., 2000. Print.
“Roger Ebert’s Journal.” Chicago Sun-Times Blogs. Web. 06 Feb. 2012. <http://blogs.suntimes.com/ebert/>.
“TEDxUSC – Kellee Santiago – 3/23/09 – YouTube.” YouTube – Broadcast Yourself. Web. 06 Feb. 2012. <http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K9y6MYDSAww>.
“Thatgamecompany | TGC » Kellee Santiago.” Thatgamecompany | TGC. Web. 06 Feb. 2012. <http://thatgamecompany.com/about/kellee-santiago/>.
“Why Video Games Are Indeed Art – Our Far-flung Correspondents.” Chicago Sun-Times Blogs. Web. 06 Feb. 2012. <http://blogs.suntimes.com/foreignc/2011/04/video-games-are-art.html>.