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Ebert: video games still can’t be art

Film critic Roger Ebert recently reiterated his position that video games can never be art.

Thus far, there have been 3,660 comments on his blog entry, along with countless other replies elsewhere on the web. But the question remains: why? Ebert himself seems curious about this, saying, “Why aren’t gamers content to play their games and simply enjoy themselves? They have my blessing, not that they care. Do they require validation?”

For some (game designers, for instance), it’s perhaps a point of pride. Or perhaps people are just irritated that Ebert (once again a film critic) has seemingly declared himself an authority on art, in all its forms. The truth of the matter is that expecting a film critic to have a coherent opinion about video games makes about as much sense as asking for marital advice from Larry King. Ebert knows next to nothing about video games, so what makes his opinion worth listening to? He’s seen thousands of films, so one can infer he knows a thing or two about the medium. How many video games has he played? Two? Ten? Less? He doesn’t say.

The biggest issue with this entire debate is the definition of art itself. Ebert critiques game designer Kellee Santiago’s definition of art, but fails to provide one of his own, vaguely referring to Plato. He contends one obvious distinction between games and art is you can win a game. Even this is incorrect. Many, many games created today feature “sandbox” modes, where there is no real objective. Gamers are left to their own devices to explore game worlds and do as they wish. There’s no specific end to be reached, no greater goal to strive for. Games don’t have to have a “game over,” they end when the player feels like they’ve gotten what they wanted, much like how a person will stop looking at a painting once they feel they’ve grasped its subtleties.

Movies have sets, actors, dialog, plot, score, and a director to decide how to frame the action. Video games have digital sets, voice actors, dialog, plot, score, and a player to decide how to play the game. Is the difference truly that vast?

Ebert says, “No one in or out of the field has ever been able to cite a game worthy of comparison with the great poets, filmmakers, [or] novelists.” This is true in a sense, but the video game medium is still in its infancy, while film has advanced significantly from its origins over a century ago. His inclusion of literature and poetry just muddies the waters even further, since these have of course been around much longer than either films or video games. Nearly 450 years after he was born, Shakespeare is still recognized as a great writer. Who’s to say how history will remember great game designers like Shigeru Miyamoto or Hironobu Sakaguchi?

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