There was a firestorm created about a year ago when famed movie critic Roger Ebert declared "rather rashly" (his words) that videogames are not art. What's more, Ebert declares not only that videogames are not art, but due to their interactive nature, can never be art. Predictably, Ebert's comments put gamers in an uproar, and this debate has been ressurected somewhat as horror writer extraordinair Clive Barker, in an article at GamesIndustry.biz, took Ebert to task for his comments. Ebert has responded in kind on his website, going so far as to pettily insult Barker by equating him to a 4-year-old. If Ebert had any legs to stand on, he wouldn't need to resort to such childish tactics.
But I'm getting ahead of myself. Now, I can't presume that Ebert is wrong just because he lacks credibility. But his lack of credibility certainly casts an ambiguous shadow over his understanding of the medium. Clearly, Ebert is not a gamer, as evidenced by his frequent use of "them" rhetoric to describe gamers. He makes no claims of being a gamer in any capacity, yet he believes that despite his utter ignornance of the medium, he's enough of an expert on it to declare that it is not, and can never be, what he calls "high art".
I'd like to respond to Mr. Ebert's comments, but before I do, I think that it's important to recognize that any conversation about "what is art" is going to be so full of ambiguity and ego as to be nearly devoid of productive rational discussion. The problem is simply that "art", and it's even more pretentious sibling "high art", are defined so vaguely, subjectively and arbitrarily that neither can be effectively utilized in any discussion. Ebert even states on his site that videogames cannot be high art "as [he] defines it". He doesn't bother to take the time to enlighten us as to what exactly his definition is, but he leaves us some clues to which we can respond.
The statement that caught my eye the most is this:
"I believe art is created by an artist. If you change it, you become the artist."
What Ebert does not understand is that videogames are created by artists, and they are created as a medium in which the audience interacts. So the fact that the player makes choices in a game does not render the player the artist, because the artists who created the game designed it with the intent to be experienced as an interactive medium. Additionally, no game is defined by player choices. While many games offer multiple paths and branching story arcs, and while many games create the illusion of freedom and control, the player is ultimately being guided within the framework that the developers planned and created, making it fundamentally no different than literature, film, or any other medium Ebert finds more "artistic".
Ebert also caught my attention with the statement,
"If you can go through 'every emotional journey available,' doesn't that devalue each and every one of them?"
This is his response to Barker's statement that "We should be stretching the imaginations of our players and ourselves. Let's invent a world where the player gets to go through every emotional journey available. That is art. Offering that to people is art.
Not only does Ebert fail to explain how experiencing "every emotional journey" devalues any of them, but he fails to explain why he feels that an artistically created medium that is designed to allow its audience to interact within its given framework is less artistic than mediums in which the audience participates passively. We're just supposed to believe that games are less artistic because he said so. The truth is that videogames' interactive nature allows their creators to craft experiences that can evoke a much broader array of emotional responses than any passive medium, because the story can change as the player interacts with the game – leading each time to different consquenses, different resolutions, and different revelations.
Ebert closes his article with comments about escapism, likening videogames to escapist entertainment but claiming it falls short of being "art". He claims that certain movies, such as Spider-Man, are great entertainment, but not great art. Much of this requires a debate I don't have the space for here, as it really boils down to each person's arbitrary definition of "art". So, I can't say much about the art thing because it would just take us around in circles, but I can answer a more relevant question Ebert's comments raise: are games mere escapism, or are they (and can they be) as provocative and as emotionally compelling as films and literature?
Games may often fall under the umbrella of escapism, provoking neither emotion nor intellect; however, many games effectively do one or both. Ico gave its players a powerful emotional connection to its lead characters; the Metal Gear Solid series deals with complex themes of peace, war, humanity, and indentity; Brother In Arms brought to life the camaraderie and humanity of World War II battles; Half-Life 2 brought to life a dystopian future in which humans are encouraged to yield to genocidal aliens under the guise of humanity's evolutionary destiny; and S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl allows players to make moral decisions in a plot that tackles fundamental questions about the ethical boundaries of profound scientific discoveries. These are just a few games rattled off the top of my head. The list could go on and on. The point is, games are every bit as capable of tackling provocative and relevant themes as any other artistic medium. Their interactive nature belies the fact that the player is ultimately still the audience in the experience the developer – the artist – has crafted. Perhaps the only real difference is that, like early films, videogames are a technologically evolving medium. As technology improves, so will developers' abilities to fully realize their artistic visions.
The issue, then, comes back to Ebert's credibility. I've seen hundreds of movies in my lifetime, but it seems quite dubious whether Ebert has played even a single videogame in his. Until he takes the time to experience what the interactive medium has to offer and can construct a more coherent and substantive argument, his criticisms will lack the validity to be taken seriously by his contemporaries, gamers or not. You're a fine film critic Mr. Ebert, but when it comes to videogames, you're out of your league.