Roger Ebert on the Inherent Worth of Video Games


I agree. (And I like video games)

Video gamez rulz!!1!! Bow to my mad skillz. I pwn you all!!1!!

I think he’s right in a sense–no video game which has yet been created has been worthy of serious comparison to great film or great literature.

But he seems to be arguing that no video game possibly could ever be so worthy, simply by the nature of the medium. This seems false to me.

His argument is odd–that the element of player control in a video game prevents video games from being capable of becoming works of art rather than mere craft.

There are two things wrong with this reasoning.

First, it is false that literature and film do not include an element of “player control” so to speak–or in other words “viewer control” or “reader control.” Certainly, the viewer/reader has no control over what will be portrayed to him in the next scene or on the next page. But the viewer/reader has control over his own interpretation of the work. This may not seem to be an important point, but it is widely acknowledged that what makes great art great is in part this very element of freedom contained in it–the ambiguity that makes the thing so interesting and compelling to look at and think about.

Well, that’s kind of a difficult point to make compelling, I admit. But my other point is more direct and clear.

It is not true that there is a lack of total “authorial control” in a video game. Certainly, the player can change the course of presentation by pushing the buttons on his controller. But the author of the game has complete, absolute control over what will happen to the player given that player’s button-pushes. I see no reason to think this complete authorial control is any relevantly different than the complete authorial control present in film and literature.

Can we not imagine a truly great work of art which involves, say, a maze, which patrons must make their way through, and which involves in some clever way a set of stunning images and ideas weaved together to make the maze-crawling experience a truly artistic one?

I can imagine this, anyway.

If such a thing could exist, it seems clear a video game which is also a true work of art–and a great one at that–could exist as well.


Sorry: just a little more to say.

Think of the game Myst. With just a little more depth to the writing, and with just a little better coherence between puzzles and the plot’s subject matter, I think the game could have been a work of art.

Something to think about anyway…


I would say that he has valid points of criticism, such that it is much easier to make a powerful film or write a moving book than it would be to make an equally moving video game. In both the former media, the author can steer you much more directly towards the plot points and revelations that they wish you to see, whereas a video game that does too much steering can seem forced and annoying. Providing that gentler touch while moving the plot forward can lead to simplification and very few developed relevant subplots.

On the flipside, I would raise a couple of points those quotes overlook:

  1. The gaming industry is young. When speaking of truly plot-driven games, I would say the industry has maybe twenty five years under its belt. Much, much less if you consider when it had enough tech behind it to even dream of reaching the same immersive visual depth as a movie. We are just now seeing the leading edge of those who grew up surrounded by games, people who have seen what the platform might be capable of creating, which I think is an important growth point in any medium of expression.

  2. The video game industry, as it stands right now, is just that: a game industry. It’s like saying Monopoly can’t hold a candle to Casablanca. Well of course it can’t, because that was never the intent of the creator. Could a video game be developed that can stand comparison to movies for depth as well as entertainment? Probably. Is there one coming down the pike? Not yet.

  3. I think, along with the challenges, video games can offer a distinct advantage in making us “more cultured, civilized and empathetic”. The immersion factor, the sense of being free in the world designers have created, can be exponentially higher than even the best movie or book. That freedom to make what seem to be our own choices inherently make the results of those choices more powerful. A character in a book or movie dies because of something the main character did? It can be a gutwrenching scene, but does it have the same kick as the choice you made that caused the same death in a video game? All else being equal, I say no.

There’s power in the industry, but it hasn’t fully spread its wings yet. I think that in the coming decade we will get a better understanding of where trends will take us.

The other thing to keep in mind is that, as recent console RPGs show, video games are becoming a medium to tell a story, with very little input from the player. If you look at any of the recent games in the Final Fantasy series, it’s pretty clear that the player has almost no ability to influence the story–it is what the creators wrote. I agree that no game we’ve seen so far is going to be remembered as a great work of art, but we’re getting closer and closer every year.

I think that comics are a good comparison. They were created originally as fluff, to tell an entertaining story, but you look at stories like Maus and it’s hard to say that they haven’t come a long way since then.

For what it’s worth, I think Final Fantasy X and Legend of Dragoon are the closest we’ve come so far to games with serious artistic merit.

I think video games are a baby step in the human-computer interface, which will eventually change what it is to be human in ways that films and books are but pale reflections of. Eventually we will immerse ourselves in environments created in computers and have experiences that are at present unimaginable. Video games are not the artworks that books and movies can be, but they point the way to artforms that are far beyond what books and movies can be.

I also think text adventure games might eventually have led to some pretty wild stuff, had graphic adventures not overtaken them.

I think when games focus on story they can be every bit as artistic as movies or novels. Recently they’ve gotten away from that in favor of whizz bang graphics, but as that levels out hopefully we’ll see a resurgence of GOOD plot driven games.

IMO the best examples of games that reach the level of art are Gabriel Knight: Sins of the Fathers, and Planescape: Torment. Both could have worked in other mediums, but work best as games, and both have much more artistic worth than something like Gladiator.

It’s unlikely in the extreme that a video game produces any sort of art. A narrative art like a movie involves characters, and games just don’t allow for such things.

The main character of any game is the player, and is thus deliberately void of personality (otherwise, it wouldn’t match the person playing the game). In addition, because of the nature of game playing, subsidary characters tend to be stereotypes (since you don’t want to have to spend a lot of time learning about them).

Since the characters in video games are one-dimensional at best, it’s under a major handicap even before you get involved in the plot. You don’t see any game player gaining emotional insight or growth (the basis of all great art) because there’s no way to make the persong playing the game develop. They just go through the paces and find the clues or kill the dangers. While it’s fun to do, it isn’t all that fun to watch (how many gamers would prefer watching other people play games than play themselves?).

That may have been true ten or fifteen years ago, but it’s just not the case any more. Well-developed and dynamic characters are the norm rather than the exception these days (see Auron from Final Fantasy X, Yuri from Shadow Hearts, or Rose from Legend of Dragoon for good examples).

First: Do you have a link or reference to where those quotes came from?

Second: This is going to be long, because it’s a topic I’ve thought a lot about and am even a little defensive about.

I agree with his first quote, and strongly disagree with his second. He was off to a good start, admitting his unfamiliarity with videogames. But then he made the arrogant leap to say that because he had never seen a game that qualifies as a work of art, then the medium is inherently incapable of art.

The first problem is that he assumes that games have to work on the same level as movies to be “art.” You can’t fault Ebert for that; not only is he a movie critic, but it’s the same mistake most people in the videogame business have made. They’ve tried more and more to emulate movies, because we’re all familiar with how movies work and can recognize what separates a good one from a bad one.

The problem with that is that it sets up an end goal of an “interactive movie” which ends up being neither as interactive as a game or as artistic as a movie; it’s either an interesting short film that keeps getting interrupted for you to make a choice (like Grim Fandango for example), or an engaging game that has no “soul” to it and no artistic relevance (like a bajillion other games, the Quake games for instance).

And now more and more, we’re seeing games that have a good game mechanic and a well-presented story, but the two parts just coexist instead of really working together (like the recent Final Fantasy games).

But there are people who get it and are making games that I totally think are artistic works, and work so well only because they’re games:

Half-Life 2: It got criticized for not being a great FPS, which is missing the point. It’s a story that (to use annoying academic cinema studies speak) uses the “language” of first-person shooters and of sci-fi movies to make you a central part of the story. The point isn’t to give you choices in the outcome of the narrative, or even to engage you by figuring out how to continue the narrative. The point is just to drop you into the middle of a kick-ass science fiction story.

The Sims 2: This one proves that you don’t have to supply narrative to make art. The level of abstraction and game balance is genius, and the art comes in having pre-scripted sequences (animations, voice, cut-scenes) that don’t just get unlocked, but actually become real as you make them happen.

Shadow of the Colossus: One of the most frustrating games I’ve ever played, but undeniably a work of art.

And this quote is just dumb:

Anyone who prides himself on knowing film history as much as Ebert does, should recognize this as the exact same thing that was said about early movies. Saying that games don’t provoke empathy is absurd; that’s what they’re all about – the best games, like Colossus, set up situations where you are the character, in a way that even the most immersive movies can’t emulate.

As for “civilized,” I’ll just point out that I learned more about how civilizations work from Civ 3 and Civ 4 than I did from any history courses and definitely from any movies. Same with the SimCity games and the way cities evolve. And The Sims and how different personality types interact with each other, and how our daily routines can be broken down into abstractions.

For “cultured,” well… we’re still working on that part.

Isn’t art just a peron’s attempt to reflect reality, or his interpretation of reality? If so, than modern video games are obvious attempts to do so with greater depth than any other medium can acheive because of it’s interactivity. A game like Civilization isn’t an objective simulation programmed by a robot - a person made this game. His perceptions and prejudices regaurding the subject matter are coded into the program, telling the players more about his thoughts on civilization than a two-hour movie could have. And wasn’t the Sims series an effective way for Will Wright to tell us about the short-cut to happiness that consumerism provides? Some games are pure mindless fantasy just like some books or movies are, but others are plain attempts for designers to share their thoughts on life.

I think video game playing is a sport, not an art, and thus the comparison is invalid.

I’m normally quite fond of Ebert, but I think sport is an essential part of the human experience, part of the endless drive to test and witness the various forms of human excellence, which in turn is an important part of culture and civilization.

Whether video games are inherently exempt from artdom, I’m not sure, but I think he may be right. Priam said the industry is young, but if it’s a matter of quality (in the sense of the nature of the thing) rather than quantity (of time, of the refinements to the existant elements), then that doesn’t matter.

If, however, video games do develop so far beyond their current quality as to be a whole new shebang - as I agree with ** Evil Captor** they will - then of course that will have to be re-evaluated. I still suspect, though, that they’ll stay in the area of sports.

It’s true that we have the input of interpretation with traditional art, as Frylock says, but the dynamic reaction to a static form, that process itself, informs the nature of art, I think.

First, thanks for all the truly thoughtful responses. I was expecting half the responses on this thread to be along the lines of “Who cares what that fat guy thinks?” You’ve all made the SDMB proud.

Personally, I’m more or less of a bystander as far as video games go. I’ll occassionally pull out the N-64 and play MarioKart or a game of Jeopardy!, but that’s about as far as I go these days. It’s not for lack of respect for the genre; just limited amounts of time, money, and energy. Frylock pretty well says what my gut instinct tells me though.

SolGrundy – here are the links: first quote, second quote.

Videogames contain the tools and the components of art; they contain the potentialities of art.

But if a videogame is art, then a block of marble and a chisel is art.

Videogames are reactive. They take bits and pieces of art-like components, and form a whole from them according to the directions of a microchip. A videogame is an artificial construct. Not a product of a mind, but of a machine. Sure a mind made the machine. But if a videogame is art, then the painting of a trained elephant is art.

It can be made art by altering its context, but the context is where the art lies, not the strokes the elephant made on the canvas.

I can’t understand what you mean.

A work of art is an artificial construct, so how does a video game’s being one make it not a work of art?

A video game is the product of a mind, not of a machine. It wasn’t a machine which invented Pac-Man–it was a guy in Japan.

Your comparison regarding the painting of an elephant escapes me.


I gotta agree with Frylock here: I have no idea what you’re trying to say here. Is it something to do with player interactivity? If so, see my earlier point about recent console RPGs.

With all due respect: bullshit.

That implies a total ignorance of the current state of videogames and how videogames are made. And I’m sure that the thousands of people who make videogames (or have in the past, such as myself) would object at having our hours and hours of work reduced to the brushstrokes of a trained elephant.

Even Ms. Pac Man and Donkey Kong had narratives and scripted sequences, and it may surprise you that games have progressed quite a bit since then. As much as people dismissive of games would like to think, the state of the art isn’t one where hundreds of professional artists, animators, game designers, and programmers spend thousands of hours assembling the components of a game only to say, “Well, fuck. We don’t know what to do with it now. Let’s sell it to this 12-year-old and let him figure it out.”

As has already been pointed out, there are plenty of games that just emulate sports, whether they’re real sports like football or soccer, or games-as-sports like Quake and Unreal and Counterstrike.

But what some of us are talking about are games that stand as artistic works. And they’re not just left to the whim of the player. When they work well, they are participatory, in that the player is engaged in unlocking content and furthering the experience that the creator designed. Even the most toybox-like games, like The Sims, aren’t completely open-ended. There’s always some experience that you’re meant to see – whether it’s a single, linear narrative, or a branching series of events. The art is in how the creator of the game engages the audience (the player) in revealing this content and participating in it.

Claiming that videogames are bad at getting their point across is a fair criticism; there’s a lot of garbage out there, and still a lot of different opinions even within the industry about what games should attempt to be. But to claim that videogames have nothing to say at all is offensive.

I’m glad someone started this thread. Ever since I read Ebert’s comments, I’ve been thinking about starting one myself, but wasn’t sure how to go about it.

The problem with viewing computer games as art is that it’s too easy to try and judge it by the standards of other mediums. Sure, there are no games that have narratives equal to the very best narratives in film or literature. By that same token, there are no buildings that have narratives equal to the very best narratives of film or literature. Does that mean that architecture is not art? Or that it’s a lesser art form? Of course not. A narrative is only one possible way of artistic expression. There are few artforms that rely on it exclusively, and there are several artforms that, by their nature, cannot employ it at all.

So, what standard do we use to judge the artistic merit of a video game, if not the narrative? This is where it gets confusing, because if the narrative isn’t the most important part of a game, what is? Graphics? Sound? What else is there? Why, the gameplay, of course. That’s what makes a great game great. That’s where the art is in the art of videogames. The first Doom game was a work of art not because of its deep storyline and engaging characterization, but because it had a gameplay mechanic that was accesible, fast paced, exciting, and scalable. It was a work of art becuase of the way it played, not because of the way it looked or what it was about. And that’s something that cannot be replicated by any other medium, which makes it hard to recognize it as its own artistic discipline. Really, video games are the first new artistic medium in more than a century. Longer, if you want to view movies as a subset of drama, and not a unique artform unto themselves. Unfortunetly, this makes it hard to defend videogames as an artform, because there’s very little terminology or standards that we can borrow from other mediums. When film was new, it was easy to defend it as a valid artform by the simple expedient of taking something with an established reputation - Shakespeare, for example - and filming it. If movies aren’t art, what do you call a movie about Hamlet? It’s very difficult to do this with video games, because the nature of the medium would require substantial changes in the translation. How do you make a video game out of Hamlet, without losing everything that makes it Hamlet? Video games need to judged on their own merit, as video games, not as movies, or as books. What’s that old quote? Writing about music is like dancing about architecture? Comparing works of art from different mediums has only the most limited utility: being part of a different medium by definition means that they are aiming for a different end result.

As for the idea that reading a book makes one cultured, while playing a game does not, I suspect that this is only true for brutally limited definitions of what “cultured” means. Culture is not something that stopped with the Elizabethans, or the Victorians, or the Modernists, or the Post-Modernists. Culture is being created every day, and increasingly, video games are where it is being created. Can anyone say that Grand Theft Auto has not had a gigantic impact on contemporary culture? It might not be a lasting impact, of course. That’s impossible to know at this point, just as no one can say what contemporary books, or movies, or music will be remembered a hundred years from now. Sure, its easy to dismiss it as pop culture trash now, but people said the same thing about Shakespeare in his day, and Dickens in his, and the Beatles in theirs. Video games get snubbed because they don’t have any historical importance. Yet. But I find it difficult to believe that, when the history of the late twentieth and twenty-first centuries is finally written, one will be able to do so without understanding the role of video games as an artistic force, shaping the popular culture of the day and laying the groundwork for the societies that will come after.