I’m a fan of the film critic Roger Ebert, and have been for around 25 years. He’s always been a marvelous writer, and more recently, his blog has been one of my favorite destinations online. But one thing about him has always bugged me: his dogged insistence that video games are not art, and can never be art.
Ebert has been saying this since the eighties, so I don’t expect him to change his mind anytime soon. But, frankly, I don’t understand his inflexibility on this issue. True, a lot of video games are crap, and whether any of them qualify as art is a legitimate debate (although I would argue passionately in favor of Myst). But to put one’s foot down and declare, now and for all time, that video games can never be art? That seems to me a colossal act of hubris.
I started thinking about this again because Ebert tweeted about an interview in Salon with Tom Bissell, author of the book Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter, in which Bissell offers the following to refute Ebert:
He based his argument on footage of the games in question. He made fun of the aesthetics of “Flower,” which is a really beautiful game. He’s kind of right in the sense that this isn’t going to stand up against impressionist painting, but it’s not supposed to. The whole experience of the game is floating through that world and steering yourself with the controller. So it’s this totally kinetic experience of mind, movement and atmosphere. It’d be like giving sex advice after having watched “Debbie Does Dallas,” but never having f—ed anyone.
I started thinking about this, and I think Bissell is essentially right: that you can’t evaluate video games without playing them. I drew a parallel with movies: that it would be like writing a movie review while having only seen stills instead of the film itself. I tweeted that to Ebert–who, as a movie reviewer, I thought might appreciate it–with no response. But, since then, I’ve thought about it some more, and figured out why I think it’s such a good analogy.
Take film. Film, as a medium, is defined as motion and sound. Those are the characteristics that distinguish it from all other media. So, if you only look at stills from a given film, you’re missing this fundamental part of the medium. No responsible critic would evaluate a film on that basis, and I think Ebert would agree.
With video games, the defining characteristic is interactivity–the feedback, the give and take, between the player and the software. If you don’t participate, but only look at video of the game in action, then you’re missing that essential aspect of the experience.
As far as I’ve been able to determine, Ebert has played very few video games in his life, if indeed he’s ever played any at all. He certainly doesn’t seem to find them interesting or worth his time to learn. He’s completely entitled to that opinion. But, if he refuses to play a video game, then he’s deliberately ignoring the most important part of the experience–and without that, he is completely unqualified to render any opinion about that experience.
Now, none of this has anything to do with his credentials as a film critic. To anyone who’s followed his career, it’s obvious that he loves film to the core of his being and has devoted his life to understanding it. He is probably the greatest film critic who’s ever lived.
But IMHO, where video games are concerned, he has no right to say anything at all about them–because the experience demands active participation, and he refuses to participate. He certainly has no place deciding whether or not video games are art or can be art.
(Yes, I’ll be sending Ebert a link to this. No, I don’t expect a response. But in case he looks at it: honestly, sir, no offense is intended.)