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Roger Ebert: I was wrong, I don't have enough experience of games

As Radar's resident art-waffler, I've had obvious reasons to take issue with film critic Roger Ebert over the last few years. Writing in 2006 (has this really gone on that long?) that video games can never truly be Art, he immediately incited the ire of gamers the world over, eventually leading to a fairly high profile 'engagement' with artist and game-dabbler Clive Barker.

While I thankfully never felt the flame-licking rage that many internet folk did, I was continually frustrated by Ebert's position. To me, it always seemed like the viewpoint of an obviously intelligent, media-savvy man making woefully misguided statements based upon a lack of real comprehension of the medium's current state of evolution. And now, in a new blog post on the matter (which you should read). Ebert has admitted that that's exactly what it was.

So while I've never really stepped into this particular debate before, I thought this was the right time to throw a few of my own musings into the ring. So I'm about to.

First up, much respect to Ebert for admitting his error and taking the time to further explain his position. While the admission took longer than I perhaps would have liked, a public admission of error is a hard thing to muster up, and all things considered, it was an admirable and intelligent thing to do.

One important thing to note though is that Ebert hasn't said that games can be art. He still claims not to have seen any real evidence of that, but he does state that there's nothing stopping games being capable of art as they evolve. In his own summation,

'I should not have written that entry without being more familiar with the actual experience of video games.

This is inarguable'


Above: Things have moved on

Which has pretty much been my problem with his standpoint all along. In fact it's a problem that continues to make erroroneous even his most recent perceptions. By Ebert's own position, he hasn't played a game since Myst. And he's fully aware that Myst is a game from way back in the infancy of the medium. So Ebert has been making statements about the potential of video games without any awareness of how far they have already come.

It's like if I wrote off the artistic merits of the cinematic medium as a mere entertaining diversion, having only seen a few one-shot shorts from the 1890s, and Georges Melie's Le Voyage dans la lune. It's an extreme simile, I'm aware, but games as a medium have evolved incredibly quickly since the early '90s.


Above: Things have moved on

Through years of experimentation and risk, games have finally found their feet as an expressive and narrative language, just as film did as its technical and creative practitioners evolved and innovated. I won't get too deeply into that here (if you're interested in that stuff, I discussed it a little more in this feature on Alan Wake's story-telling techniques. Though there's a hell of a lot more to say than that article touches upon), but the point is that certain game developers have already found ways of using the interactive nature of games as a new way of augmenting their narrative, intellectual, emotional content in wildly varying directions and levels of depth.

The future evolution of games that Ebert mentions as possible is already here, but through his lack of direct interaction with games, he has missed that, unfortunately. And as he admits, this is the key flaw in his argument. After all, as I've always said, no critic, whether a supporter of games or not, can truly appreciate the techniques and mechanics of an interactive medium without actually interacting with it. That would be like reading a film script and then passing judgement on the movie.

But while he currently seems to have no aspirations to change that gap of understanding, he has been paying attention to the games recommended to him. And from what he's written, he seems to think that Shadow of the Colossus is 'the one I should begin with'.

Not a bad start, Roger, not a bad start at all. C'mon, give it a go and join the party. We'll be happy to have you. There's a whole world of great media that you're missing out on, and it's always better to be wrong than miss out.

But what do you think of Ebert's semi-retraction? Would you like to see him build a real hands-on appreciation of games? And how important is Art in games to you? A vital piece of the experience and an important part of their maturation as a medium? Or are they just about shooting shit up for you? Le me know in the comments, or set your opinions' targeting systems on a course for our community portals on Facebook and Twitter.

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37 comments

  • Cleanser247 - July 2, 2010 8:49 p.m.

    @Wolverine08 Art Attack brings back memories : D
  • philipshaw - July 2, 2010 11:45 a.m.

    About time he recognises but his back tracking makes me trust his opinion less
  • Joshin69 - July 2, 2010 9:57 a.m.

    Of course he doesn’t think games are art. I have a friend who hates books, doesn’t read. Is Lord of the Rings going to be art to him? No, just words on a page. Does he except that others do think its Art? Yes he understands that others maybe in a much better position to honestly answer the question. So with that in mind, fair play Roger Ebert You are starting to "get it" even though you don’t "get it".
  • Gobblemeister - July 2, 2010 6:09 a.m.

    I'm surprised he actually took the intelligible ravings of a bunch of angry nerds seriously. I think art nowadays is so pretentious that it's not even something to aspire to anymore. But getting him to change his perception of games as an emotional experience is definitely a good thing. REcaptcha: Splits Hessian The funkiest of all the Hessians
  • nadrewod999 - July 2, 2010 4:45 a.m.

    I say forgive and forget. That is, until another old dinosaur comes along and says games will never mentally challenge anybody, or some other obvious error.
  • Metroidhunter32 - July 2, 2010 1:25 a.m.

    Shadow is a good starting point indeed. Ico is more "art like" but I perfer Shadow's gameplay.
  • miningguyx360 - July 2, 2010 12:18 a.m.

    DUDE PLAY OKAMI
  • Clovin64 - July 1, 2010 10:44 p.m.

    This Art debate again? Oh bloody hell. I have a headache today as well. Lets see... cant games be classified as art because of the amount of effort and talent that goes into creating an immersive world that we can lose ourselves in, and have characters that we will develop emotions for and cry when the die, or cheer when they save the day? Seriously, I've seen a lot of what qualifies as art nowadays, and it seems that good games are a far better acheivement than some of that tripe. Also, is being considered art always such an amazing thing? Surely art doesnt always have to be great or even good. I know I just condradicted some stuff I just typed before, but I felt like typing it anyway. Thats it. I cant be arsed arguing about the games=art debate any longer. Screw this, I'm off to play some games.
  • Shrimpandwhitewine - July 1, 2010 10:04 p.m.

    Glad he admitted it - and opened his mind a little.
  • TheyCallMeTheMeatMarket - July 1, 2010 8:40 p.m.

    Personally, I've never really cared about an arguement less than this one. Do I think games can be art? Sure. They sure do employ a lot of "artists" so if nothing else the "art" in games is well... art. If a picture of a locust is art, how is the digital recreation in the game not? The story can be art as well, but I've yet to see a game hit me like memento. Art or not, I sure do like playing them.
  • D0CCON - July 1, 2010 8:23 p.m.

    Gamer rage strikes again, causing another apology! You do have to give him credit. He never had to say that and if he ever does try out gaming, Shadow of the Colossus would be a great place to start.
  • oryandymackie - July 1, 2010 8:08 p.m.

    Whatever - if you as an individual find something beautiful or visually arresting, you have the right to call it art. Naming a game as 'art' or 'not art' simply makes me laugh, because it's probably the developer who encouraged the view.
  • crumbdunky - July 1, 2010 8:04 p.m.

    I think it's plain to see that EVERY new medium that comes along has a struggle to be taken artistically at first. Film had a tough time early on and so did popular music. This is the same in science and the same in society and politics. Things, for some reason, have to be seen to earn their acceptance into the mainstream perception of whatever field they straddle. Fact is Ebert's mistake (alongside knowing little about what he's knocking)is a common one and one made through the ages by a million elitist art critics. It's funny, actually, that he comes from a branch of the arts that only relatively recently got accepted as art itself and nobody would argue that every film ever made had artistic merit anyway-point is you'd imagine a film critic to be more understanding towards gaming's artistic allusions than someone from, say, fine arts like painting. He's also of the mind, seemingly, that he knows what art is and gamers don't and that isn't true, imho, at all. You put two paintings side by side. One's a masterpiece and one a cheap hack knockoff and 9/10 ANYONE will be able to tell which is which even with little or no prior artistic education. Why?B Because there's something special about great works whether it's a game or a painting or a record or a novel. We innately know that something was created by someone special, at a special moment or imbued with special emotion on some level. I don't know why this is the case but it's the nearest I get to understanding why there's any consensus AT ALL on what constitutes art itself. It's in this regard that we seem to FEEL SoTC or Bioshock are special. We suspect they're art even though games are NOT yet accepted as art. It's that special coming together that make something more than the sum of it's bytes. And it's present in EVERY form of art-every single medium. I say, in my populist, Marxist way, that this is why art exists BECAUSE of this unspoken and unlearned agreement over intangible quality. It's only when the establishment try to hold onto art as their own and be elitist about it that bright men like Ebert make berks of themselves. Art is about FEELING the special, not about how long you studied the form or the format and long may it remain so. If it stirs that something within you then to you it's art and the fact is most great works are considered such purely because they stir that feeling in MOST people. Take it to the bank and deposit it because otheriwse the elitists of academia will always try to stall new mediums and keep art for themselves foolishly thinking that because they express themselves better their opinions are somehow worth more than ours. As I say, this is bunkum as art is about the feel, about finding something wonderful and special and you don't need learning to sense wonder. Shut it Ebert -and your admission is half arsed at best. God, the terror in the ivory towers that us grimy gamers might actually have something special of our own! Thing is WE wouldn't try to keep it that way! Why must the gates of acceptance always be manned by the luddites among us? To quote Rousseau-"man was born free, but he is everywhere in chains". To me the same is true of what we consider as art. We were born with the tools to detect those special works and only the efforts of Ebert and Co through the ages erode that within us. We NEVER needed telling what was and wasn't art and shouldn't ever listen to anyone who makes out that it's only for the "cultured" or "educated" and I fear that was EXACTLY what was behind Ebert's original misinformed outburst. Of any human endeavour surely art is the one LEAST needing a degree to understand or grasp why it's good, no?
  • gilgamesh310 - July 1, 2010 7:19 p.m.

    I don'y see why there is such debate over this topic at all. Surely all that really matters is how much you enjoy the medium, be it games, films music or books. How can anything ever be objectively classified as art. Can anyone ever even give a proper definition of what art is?! I love shadow of the Colossus for it's unique, delicate ethereal feel just as I like modern warfare for it's satisfying semi realistic gunplay and epic moments. Does liking shadow of the colossus more for the aforementioned reasons make it moe of a work of art than modern warfare 2. Maybe but who really cares
  • TheWebSwinger - July 1, 2010 7:11 p.m.

    Shmeh. I think Roger Ebert's a good man, and frankly I don't give a shit about his opinions on games, he's simply not qualified. Great movie critic though, for sure.
  • Hexar - July 1, 2010 6:24 p.m.

    I'll sum up my feelings on this subject fairly succinctly: WHO THE HELL CARES?! Art, not art. One man, a guy who REVIEWS MOVIES says they can't and people will go on and on about this. Honestly he's just one man, going on about a subjective definition, a category that means absolutely dick. Please for the love of god let this all stop. It does not matter one damn bit.
  • CH3BURASHKA - July 1, 2010 6:10 p.m.

    Good on him for admitting a heinous mistake. It's still hard to believe that he, a critic, would dismiss a medium so easily, without any knowledge of it.
  • bedelicious - July 1, 2010 5:23 p.m.

    His unfamiliarity with games really nulls every argument he can put forward. So it's a good thing he admits to that. I think people will still take time to understand that art has evolved and no longer fits into previous frame, simply because many things didn't exist before to be put in that frame. I stand behind the notion that art cannot be described or reasoned, it can only be felt. I sure felt many games to be art, in many different ways. Okami, Bioshock, Silent Hill 2, Planescape: Torment... Some of these games are not even recent. If anyone wants to see games as art, I can't think of a better choice than Shadow of the Colossus. And if they can't see it, well, all I can say is, too bad. They're missing out.
  • Defguru7777 - July 1, 2010 5:07 p.m.

    At least he doesn't constantly flame games like some people. *cough*Jack Thompson*cough*
  • TFUPrivateIron - July 1, 2010 4:54 p.m.

    And with that, Ebert is more of a man than any fanboy could ever hope to be. Or anybody who comments on IGN or N4G, for that matter.

Showing 1-20 of 37 comments

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