Game Designer Kellee Santiago Responds to Roger Ebert's "Video Games Are Not Art" Rant

Grim Fandango

Aside from a certain leak of a certain phone, no topic has garnered as much blog and Twitter attention as Roger Ebert's expansion of his "video games are not and cannot be art" theory. His refrain? "No one in or out of the field has ever been able to cite a game worthy of comparison with the great poets, filmmakers, novelists and poets." Kellee Santiago, whose TED speech on the very subject was refuted, point by point, by Ebert, responded herself.

Ebert's theory necessarily rests on there being a specific concept of what defines "art" and separates it from merely entertainment or media. But, as Santiago is quick to point out, the famed critic neglects to provide a definition, or even explain why certain pieces of media are art and others are not. He merely states the branding of "art" or "not art" as fact. Says Santiago:

I’m assuming here he thinks films are an artistic medium, but he points to the documentary "Waco: The Rules of Engagement" as not being art, without offering up any explanation. (He also responded to a comment with "Very few films are art.") I can certainly assume my own reasons as to why it’s not art, but if half of the discussion is on what he thinks art is and why games don’t fit that definition, clarity is important here.

She also notes that there's a distinct problem of perception here. Ebert remains willfully ignorant of games; he has not played, nor heard of, any of the games Santiago cites as artistic examples (some of which even I, despite pretty much ignoring gaming for the past five years, have heard of). Yet he persists in making this blanket statement about a medium with which he is barely acquainted.

It doesn't seem that Ebert has played many, if any video games. And if that’s the case, then his opinion on the subject isn’t relevant anyways. The title of my talk was "Video Games are Art – What’s Next" because I felt it was time to move past the discussion about whether games are an artistic medium.. Similarly, it’s time to move on from any need to be validated by old media enthusiasts. It’s good for dinner-party discussion and entertaining as an intellectual exercise, but it’s just not a serious debate anymore. As a rapidly growing medium, we game developers have so many other issues deserving of our attention.

Going along with that point, Ebert's lack of knowledge about gaming shows up in one of his main arguments: He believes that gaming is merely a competitive field, more similar to sports or board games than to more traditional artistic media like film or music. This is branching off from Santiago's point, but I think it's an important illustration: Ebert's knowledge of gaming, I believe, simply stopped around 1990, in the arcade era. Back then, games simply were about beating a score, beating an opponent, or otherwise winning. Frogger needed to cross the road, Mario needed to save the princess, and those Space Invaders needed to be stopped.

Santiago's three examples include one nontraditional game, Flower, which she described as "about trying to find a balance between elements of urban and the natural." Even when presented with a game so obviously lacking this concept of competition or "winning," Ebert is unable to grasp that such a game could exist:

Is the game scored? She doesn't say. Do you win if you're the first to find the balance between the urban and the natural? Can you control the flower? Does the game know what the ideal balance is?

For me, that's the point at which I know I can simply dismiss the argument. I hardly game at all, but the games that really stick out in my mind are the ones that involve completion, not victory—you finish the story, just like a film or novel, rather than "winning." I'm thinking of the works of Tim Schafer, whose games like Grim Fandango (pictured above) and Psychonauts achieve what I consider art—moving beyond entertainment to transportation. Neither of those games are about winning; they're about character and narrative and visual awe and the pure pleasure of guiding a protagonist through the unique worlds Schafer's created.

Roger Ebert's a legend, the greatest critic (and hell, one of the best writers, period) of our generation. I couldn't respect the guy more. If he wants to stay relentlessly obtuse on the subject of gaming, that's fine with me. It doesn't make him any less wrong, though.

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2 Comments

  • Kevin Ohannessian

    I think the problem is that games are on a continuum between being toys and being art. Some games are squarely play things (Peggle), and others are like interactive poems (Passage). Most games fall in the middle of that spectrum. And much like Ebert's choice of medium, gaming has its equivalent of action films (Gears of War) and thoughtful masterpieces (Heavy Rain). Every medium is subject to Sturgeon's Law.