You know what? I'm sick and tired of this decades-old mantra being trotted out by every two-bit critic who can't even be arsed to involve himself or herself with the object of his/her derision. I honestly thought we were past this nonsense when Roger Ebert first decided to throw the idea that video games cannot be art out into the open years ago. One would have assumed that the immense number of people (both gamers and developers alike) who took offense at this might have made him re-think his opinion. No, it's not the gaming equivalent of, say, the Dred Scott decision (in which the courts of the United States claimed that no person of African ancestory could claim citizenship), but it's still a very narrow, short-sighted, and frankly irresponsible opinion held by a man who has shown, time and time again, that he should be smarter than this.
Roger Ebert's blog at the Sun Times currently hosts his article whereby he takes his time in preparing his response to a 15-minute talk given by Kellee Santiago at USC. Ms. Santiago was speaking extemporaneously, while Ebert freely admits to "tak[ing] an unfair advantage" by not having to respond in kind at the time. He already knows that he's going to wind up on everybody's shit-list, but at least he's up front about it.
Ebert brings out a whole host of arguments against Santiago's assertation that games are already art and attempts to play with every definition of "art" that he can find, including the one from Wikipedia which Santiago cites as being the most articulate one she's seen: "Art is the process of deliberately arranging elements in a way that appeals to the senses or emotions." By this definition, Ebert claims, the game of chess is an art. I personally don't think that this is too far off from the truth. After all, isn't there a reason we refer to those who have come closest to perfecting their play of a game which, by its very definition can never be fully perfected, as "masters"? We reserve the same title for the likes of Hokusai, da Vinci, Michelangelo, and Van Gogh who, like our modern-day game designers like Miyamoto and Wright, also deliberately arranged elements in a way that appeals to the senses or emotions. Why is there a gulf here?
Another claim Ebert makes that divorces a game from a work of art is that "you can win a game." The problem with this statement is that it assumes two things: first, there is no such thing as a video game that you cannot win; second, that once a game has been won, the ability to experience it again must somehow diminish its impact on its audience. Both assumptions are entirely false. The first assumption, that all video games can be won, can be wiped out by going back as far as the 1970s when video games were in their infancy. I'd love to have Mr. Ebert explain to me exactly how it is that one goes about "winning" a game like Space Invaders or Pac-Man, where there is no "final stage". In fact, it would seem that Pac-Man and Space Invaders are thus the antithesis of a video game under Ebert's definition, because you cannot win them, you can only survive long enough to lose later than another player. Unlike chess or checkers, where a winner is (usually) assured, games like this only offer the ability to place your initials on the High Score screen as a method of tracking one's prowess. It doesn't prevent you from eventually losing your last spaceship. But we don't even need to go as far back as the 1970s to find an example of this, thanks to video games like The Sims. You can't "win" The Sims; there is no point at which the game stops and congratulates you for reaching the final level, building the largest house, or having enough neighbors, children, relationships, or titles at your virtual job. The second assumption is likewise invalidated by the fact that other forms of art such as painting, sculpture, and even film, can be experienced multiple times while still having an impact on the one experiencing them. One can read the same novel by Nicholas Sparks and still be moved to tears. One can watch the same comedy and still be moved to laughter. One can observe the same work by Munch and still be slightly unnerved, or look at the same painting by Picasso and still be confused. A video game is no different in this regard at stimulating the emotions.
Ebert even manages to shoot himself in the foot with the assertation that: "Any gifted artist will tell you how much he admires the "line" of those prehistoric drawers in the dark, and with what economy and wit they evoked the animals they lived among." Of course they will - any gifted film director will tell you how much he admires the work of those who came before him, and any gifted poet will be happy to tell the world about her favorite inspiration. Guess what happens if you ask a game designer about the work that he or she admires? That's right - you get the same answers, for they too were motivated by the genius of those who were there to "invent" this artistic medium. It would be a rare thing indeed for the creator of an FPS to claim they weren't at all influenced by John Carmack and that little-known game called "Doom," for the developer of a simulation title to ignore the creations of Will Wright, or for the makers of a 2D platformer to say that Shigeru Miyamoto's "Super Mario Bros." didn't affect their desire to create something just like it. There, Mr. Ebert, are our gifted artists, the ones who inspire today's designers, and we respect them just as much as you would respect the likes of Charlie Chaplin, Peter Jackson, or James Cameron.
It wasn't very long ago that comic books weren't considered "art," and were in fact demonized as being morally repugnant and pornographic, having no merit in either a literary or artistic sense. Today, you'd be hard-pressed to find any sane individual who believes that outdated definition. Likewise, it's easy to point at a video game today and say, "Well, what about 'Game XYX', surely that isn't art!" It's also possible for me to point to a work by Jackson Pollock and shrug and claim it looks like something my niece created by dumping her Crayola tempra set all over the living room rug; my personal lack of emotional response to abstract art above "Eh..." does not universally disclaim the work in question from having artistic merit. And while Plato, Aristotle, Seneca and Cicero all agreed that art should be defined as "the imitation of nature," it seems like Ebert conveniently forgot that human nature includes a little something known as "the imagination". If you're going to start defining art as anything that imitates nature, then I'm sorry, but you have to exclude any work of fiction that has ever existed, or any element of any written word, painted picture, or finished film that doesn't stick 100% to nature as we know it. Know how "Lord of the Rings" won all those Oscars a few years ago? Sorry...according to our four philosophers up there, and apparently Ebert himself, neither it nor the books that inspired the films are art, because there are no elves, dragons, Hobbits, orcs, wizards, Ents or magic rings to be found in nature. What a shame, but at least the esteemed professor isn't around to see his work so cruelly dismissed; whatever shall we tell J.K. Rowling, Stephen King, and Guillermo del Toro?
Ebert likewise wants to know why gamers seem so intent on pushing this definition of video-game-as-art". "Why aren't they content to play their games and simply enjoy themselves?" Well, Mr. Ebert, maybe it's because game designers are sick and tired of having the rest of the "artistic" community look down their noses at them for "just making video games." Maybe it's because the rest of the world cheers and jeers at the Oscars, but at least the winners and losers are noticed by everyone else. When was the last time you saw the mainstream media reporting on the Game of the Year other than to perhaps quote a couple of sales figures? Maybe it's because avid gamers like myself are sick and tired of people, like yourself who don't even play the games they are so ready to demonize, telling us that no matter how much fun we are having, no matter what emotional responses are being provoked by our play, that we're just "wasting our time." We gamers can and do get emotionally invested in our works of art that we follow - we get scared when the zombies come after us and we're down to our last clip in the handgun. We break into fits of laughter when the comic relief shows up to save the day by pantsing the villain. We tear up a little bit when Sephiroth shows up to murder Aeris, a character in whom we see so much good and innocence suddenly ended for no reason. Maybe we keep trying to explain ourselves to you over and over and over again, but like a scratchy record being played on a worn-out victrola, the best you can do is trot out your tired old mantra from the last generation to say, "It's not art. It's not art." Maybe...just maybe...that pisses us off.
Finally, in an ending that I'm sure Ebert feels is the best way for him to get a subtle wink in at the audience, he lets Santiago have "the last word," and proceeds to quote the six components which he feels now form her definition of video games as art: "Development, Finance, Publishing, Marketing, Education, and Executive Management." He concludes by letting this list "rest his case" for him. It's a pity, because by doing so, he apparently fails to realize that claiming these six items disqualifies video games as an artistic medium, he also obliterates not just cinema but virtually every other modern form of what he clearly considers art from the list of art itself! I'd think it would be obvious to one so well-schooled in the nature of cinema as Mr. Ebert that those six points can all easily be applied to the creation of a modern-day motion picture, a television show, a comic book series, or even a modern-day classic such as the works of Cormac McCarthy that Ebert cites in his screed. By all means, find me an acclaimed film, an award-winning novel, or any other soul-stirring, well-known work of art produced in the last 50 years which has managed to do without just one of those items on the list.
I rest my case.