Ebert admits games can be art, but not 'high art'

In an editorial published last weekend, film critic Roger Ebert seems to renege somewhat on his previous insistence that video games, a medium he finds to be "inherently inferior to film and literature," cannot be considered a form of art. "Anything can be art," admits Ebert. "Even a can of Campbell's soup. What I should have said is that games could not be high art, as I understand it."

The "high art" label is almost as old and heavy as most of the works one would apply it to, and expecting a medium as young as video games (never mind the superior class of film) to hold it up would surely be met with crushing disappointment. While it's not impossible for video games to eventually reach such a lofty status in our culture, Ebert's clarification is far more agreeable than his previous statements. Of course, since we can beat down the status of art with a can of soup before allowing video games (and seemingly any old thing) entry, it's not much of a change. The same problems Ebert has always had with the medium are reflected in the rest of his response to Clive Barker's recent comments on the subject.

Ebert offers up this woefully simplistic definition of video games to support his argument: "They tend to involve (1) point and shoot in many variations and plotlines, (2) treasure or scavenger hunts, as in 'Myst,' and (3) player control of the outcome. I don't think these attributes have much to do with art; they have more in common with sports." While said summary is generally applicable to the "vast majority" of games today, it fails to rule out the medium's artistic possibilities. Ebert's idea of "player control" appears to be far more extensive than that currently found in games -- perhaps this unfamiliarity has its roots in the fact that one of only two examples mentioned in the entire article is a fourteen-year-old adventure game.

The central problem Ebert encounters is that of control being wrestled away from the artist, akin to a reader rewriting Shakespeare as he flips the pages. "If next time, I have Romeo and Juliet go through the story naked and standing on their hands, would that be way cool, or what?" While we'll reserve judgment on whether or not said interpretation is "way cool," the comparison gives game design far too much credit. Much as publishers and marketing drones would like to have you believe, you can't do whatever the hell you want in a game. Every one of your actions is determined by a complex set of unseen rules, technical boundaries and art assets that entwine to form a game. You're just plucking options from a pre-determined list; seeing, hearing and playing what a developer wants you to. The trick to good game design is making you feel otherwise -- a form of artistry in itself.

You may have a sprawling world to explore in Shadow of the Colossus, but the game is inescapably concerned with the murder of those majestic monsters that roam the landscape. You cannot go through the story naked and standing on your hands, as the limited abilities granted to you inevitably push you down the designer's path and towards the game's bittersweet climax. Even sandbox titles such as Grand Theft Auto provide limited interaction -- you're not going to become an omnipotent superhero and irrevocably ruin the creator's vision. It's still his sandbox. If Ebert means to say that playing however you want and running into a wall for three hours takes away from a game's artistic aspirations, then perhaps a painting is similarly devalued when you stare at it with only one eye open. For Shakespeare's sake, read past the first page of Romeo & Juliet!

"That said, let me confess I enjoy entertainments, but I think it important to know what they are," concludes Ebert. Perhaps the biggest contention to be had in this piece and the one prior is that the film critic has not yet demonstrated enough knowledge of what games are. The opinions still seem to spring from someone aloofly judging a strange new medium and utterly precluding the possibilities offered based on the poorest of examples. The staunch adherence to art being a static, one-way experience from "creator" to "consumer" feels positively outdated.

This article was originally published on Joystiq.