Roger Ebert Just Doesn’t Get It

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Video Games Can Never Be Art (rogertebert.suntimes.com)

The first comment Ebert got in response to this article pretty much says just that, and in a lot of ways that may be all that really needs to be said about it. However, I’ve had such a strong reaction to this piece over the past few days that I can’t let it go at just that. As an artist, and as someone who used to play video games a lot (not so much these days because of work and writing demands), I think Ebert’s column not only demonstrates a lack of knowledge of the subject matter, but a form of reasoning that is illogical, needlessly exclusionary, and, dare I say it, conservative.

I know that we liberals are supposed to lionize Ebert, and he’s certainly made a number of political insights over recent years that I’ve found myself in strong agreement with. However, in this particular article, Ebert’s arguments are so weak that I’d consider them below the level of those I see from my composition students. Ebert’s arguments are based on little more than his viewing of Kellee Santiago’s video, which is not only far from an exhaustive treatment on the matter, but is far from what I would consider a good argument. Of the three games she mentions, Waco Resurrection, Braid, and Flower, only one has any overt mention of storyline, and even that is borrowed (and rather poorly at that) from real life. Worse yet, Ebert admits to never having played any of them, and demonstrates so little knowledge about them that it feels like he didn’t even bother to do a Wikipedia search on them. He even passive-aggressively dismisses Flower as a “greeting card” in a sly insert, much like someone could slyly insert into a criticism of Ebert’s definition of art that he has no business talking about art when his biggest contribution in that area has been the screenplay for Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, one of the stinkiest pieces of cinematic sludge ever produced. See what I did there?

Ebert admits that his definition of art is incomplete, and goes on to contradict himself so much that it makes it even harder to accept his assertion that video games cannot be art. He makes the claim that interactivity renders any given work “not art,” which is preposterous. By that definition, the DVD release of the 1980s movie Clue could not be considered art because it allows the viewer to choose from one of three endings, but the VHS release of the same film would be because it presents all three endings in order as possible outcomes. He would consider a screenshot of Flower a work of art, but because of the (most rudimentary of) gameplay elements in the game, it is not art. Assuming the gameplay elements were taken out and you were simply navigating through the in-game world, would that be art or not? Yes, there is still the “interactivity” of moving around the in-game world, but is that any different from walking around a sculpture to see it from different angles?

Here’s three words that kill Ebert’s argument that video games can never be art dead: Final Fantasy VII.

Let me expand on that. I believe a lot of the definition of art comes from the intentions of the creator, and that if the creator of something believes it to be art, and created the piece with artistic intentions in mind, it is art. This sounds hippie-dippy, I know, but honestly I believe this should hold true because it makes it that much funnier when someone with no clue does something really stupid and calls it art. The self-classification of something bad as art just makes it that much funnier to look at, so I think it has a lot of use, whether we talk about something simply bad and poorly conceived, or something that can be more ambiguous like Piss Christ or a Jackson Pollock painting.

I don’t have firsthand knowledge of the intents of every video game designer, but I find it hard to believe that the creators of Pong or Pac-Man had artistic intentions in mind when they created their games, as excellent and revolutionary as they might have been. On the other hand, I don’t think anyone could play any Final Fantasy game after VII (and I might throw four through six in here as well) and not say that the creators and designers had high art in mind. I would put Final Fantasy VII’s story in the same league as many of the greatest films of all time; thirteen years later there are still several parts of the game that make me not just cry, but sob. Even the music that plays during those scenes can be enough to set me off. It’s not just the Final Fantasy series or console role-playing games in general that I would call art, either; I don’t think anyone could deny that Kojima Hideo had art in mind when creating each of his Metal Gear Solid games. I think it’s bad art that got overinflated by a masculinist backlash to Final Fantasy VII, but like I said, even if it’s bad art, it’s still art, and even though I have much more respect for Roger Ebert than Kojima Hideo, I think Ebert’s poor argument is insulting not just to Kojima, but to all the other video game designers who have been creating, whether Ebert agrees or not, art.

Given Ebert’s physical problems of the last decade, it is perhaps cruel to expect him to play and experience the games himself. Nevertheless, that doesn’t excuse that Ebert’s arguments are at best incomplete, often flimsy, and reek of the desperation of someone who wants to keep the definition of the word “art” to himself and the forms of art he grew up with and championed. I’d say Ebert should stick to politics and film reviews, but given that he gave away the ending of a film in one of his reviews this past weekend without so much of a hint of a possible “spoiler alert,” maybe he should give up on the latter as well.

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