Video Games as Art--Who Cares?

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Roger Ebert's back at it, saying games aren't art, but also that they can never be art. Never ever. Or at least, invoking the Rick Wakeman clause, never for any of you reading this. (After you're dead, who knows.)

This, according to Ebert, is because "Video games by their nature require player choices, which is the opposite of the strategy of serious film and literature, which requires authorial control." Control, dear reader, i.e. there's nothing wrong with the view, do not attempt to adjust the picture, someone else is controlling the vertical and horizontal, etc.

This is also so, presumably, because Roger Ebert knows video games. Knows them backwards and forwards, inside and out. After all, anyone who invokes linguistic absolutes like "cannot" and "in principle" and "never" must know what he's talking about, right?

Even climate scientists employ more flex in their public output, using words like "likely" and "probable" (as opposed to "certainly" and "indisputable") when making predictions about future climate scenarios. Roger Ebert is predicting too, but with the prescience of Einstein channeling Nostradamus. Ebert doesn't just think it's "improbable" or "unlikely" games will ever be art, he's absolutely convinced they can't be.

And yet we know (and I suspect Ebert would admit) he knows very little about the medium. He's a film critic. He watches, occasionally makes, and mostly writes about movies. He has, on the other hand, never played watershed games like BioShock or ICO, Shadow of the Colossus or Heavy Rain, The Dark Eye or The Graveyard, Okami or Grim Fandango.

His generally civil (though at times supercilious) critique of a games-as-art TED talk? It stems from watching videos within videos of recorded samples of gameplay, but not from playing anything. He may have a point about the talk's persuasiveness, but he's mistaken verging on disingenuous to use it as so much ammunition for his preconceived, play-deprived assumption that games can never be art.

Would you review a car without driving it? A bike without riding it? A gourmet meal without eating it?

What if I cut the visual feed from a movie and judged it on the basis of the audio alone? Would Travis Bickle's "You talking to me?" monologue in Taxi Driver be complete without DeNiro crazed, smiling eyes? Daniel Plainview's "I drink your milkshake!" invective in There Will Be Blood without Daniel Day-Lewis's limping, bullying gait? Colonel Hans Landa's "Oooh, that's a bingo!" in Inglourious Basterds without Christoph Waltz wriggling around in his seat?

Ebert should know better, or if he intends merely to deconstruct the TED talk, then he ought to employ a less oblique blog title. Maybe the TED talk fails as a proof. It doesn't follow that "games can never be art."

Talking about art ticks most people off, so I'll just say this: If you're going to pontificate about something, then at least have some considered, up-to-date experience of it. Anything less is lazy.

Besides, the last thing you want to tell a gamer is what their medium can't be. Gaming by definition rails against that sort of arbitrary small-mindedness.

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