Mar 21, 2011

Ebert's Apologist

Roger Ebert, whom I otherwise admire, has famously declared that video games can never be art.  The sensation of reading the article can be likened to that of watching a beloved philosophy professor walk into the biology department and announce that he has disproved evolution.  The furor died down somewhat, but I now see that one Brian Moriarty has written an apology for Ebert.  In it, he asks:

If Chess and Go, arguably the two greatest games in history, have never been regarded as works of art, why should Missile Command?

Chess never considered an art form?  That would be shocking news to the writers of every serious chess book I've ever read.  I also need to call up my old friend J and inform him that he was incorrect in calling my two-knight combination artistic.  And my poor brother, who used to go on to no end about the beautiful games of the old masters--he'll be heartbroken to hear the news.  Someone should probably tell Google, as well.

I get that most people aren't terribly familiar with chess literature.  But five seconds on Google will disprove the statement that "chess ... [has] never been regarded as ... art":
"Beauty in chess is closer to beauty in poetry; the chess pieces are the block alphabet which shapes thoughts, and these thoughts, although making a visual design on the chessboard, express their beauty abstractly, like a poem. Actually, I believe that every chess player experiences a mixture of two aesthetic pleasures: first, the abstract image akin to the poetic idea of writing; secondly, the sensuous pleasure of the ideographic execution of that image on the chessboard. From my close contact with artists and chess players, I have come to the personal conclusion that while all artists are not chess players, all chess players are artists." -- Marcel Duchamp, August 30, 1952 address to the New York State Chess Association
The main point that the article seems to make--and indeed, one of the main points that Ebert made--was that video games have choice, whereas art shouldn't.  Ebert is coming from the perspective of a movie critic after all.  But in denying that art can contain choice he effectively declares that whole swaths of poetry, all participatory art and most performance art ... aren't.  If art cannot contain choices--choices which ultimately greatly influence how the work is perceived--then what happens to opera, ballet, theater?  A movie might end the same way every time, but Swan Lake doesn't.  Even a choice as basic as the look of the person cast in a role influences perception of their character.  As a semi-professional singer, the idea that art can contain no choices actually made me laugh out loud.  Go look up a few different stagings and interpretations of some operas, and then we'll have a chat about choice in art.  Even in the written word there is choice: we were having a discussion in my poetry group the other day about how poetry is meant to be read aloud--the act of reading aloud and constructing the texts forces us to collapse ambiguities in the wording on paper and choose one way or the other to read the piece.  It depresses me that now I'll have to tell them the sorry news that such poems can never be art.

And there's the rub--if he's arguing that most games aren't art, then I would be hard-pressed to disagree with that, but why write an article?  If he's arguing that no game can ever be art ... well, there is no argument broad enough to cover all games everywhere that does not also apply to a whole slew of other art forms as well.  Certainly he hasn't found one.

Perhaps the most revealing thing about the article (aside from the insinuation that Schopenhauer--if only we could ask him!--would probably act patronizing towards us for disagreeing with its author) is that in an article about the possibility of video games being art, it mentions by name only Missile Command, Plants vs. Zombies, and Defense Grid.  To which we ask: if an article claiming that no movies could be art mentioned by name only 'Return of the Living Dead', 'Hellraiser', and 'Dumb and Dumber', would you take seriously anything else that it had to say?


  1. Trey says (I don't have a URL or ID)
    I agree. What about Aleatory (chance) Music? Minimalism (where some pieces require every performer to makes choices on the spot)? or even Jazz with its improvisation? What about certain visual arts that take different appearances based upon the vantage point of the viewer or the time of day? Choice is sometimes essential to art (particularly music). Video Games, while largely should not be considered art, are, I believe, starting to butt up against that edge and some may soon cross firmly into the genre of "art". In fact, I would argue that such artistic expression will probably mark the future of art, particularly in a phenomenologist (postmodern, not the renaissance phenomenology) perspective.

  2. Couple of quick points -
    The examples of choice you give are choices for the interpreter/performer (likewise aleatory music). Ebert is speaking of choice on the part of the experiencee of the art-work - i.e. the person viewing it shapes not only subjective interpretation of the work but objective courses of events in the work. The possibility of experiencee-involvement does raise lots problems relating to authorial intentionality, but there's an obvious counter-example to Ebert's argument: Britten's War Requiem is definitely an artwork, but calls for audience participation in the singing of a familiar hymn. Each audience member has a choice as to his participation and, crudely put, whether to sing the right notes.

    Further: is the pianist performing a work not also experiencing it - and making choices about it? (i.e. is their necessarily a separation between performer/interpreter and audience?)

    Ebert would do well to remember the linguistic identity of "play [music]" and "play [game]" across any number of languages: English (play), German (spielen), French (joue), Russian (igraye), etc.

    Wittgenstein found himself unable to define the term "game." Could Ebert differentiate between an interactive/multimedia Beethoven symphony (involving experiencee choice) and a game involving a Beethoven symphony?

    I have played any number of video games that I would consider to have strong artistic tendencies, if not necessarily to be themselves artworks - Final Fantasy X in particular comes to mind, as does Baldur's Gate 2. Hell, why not Icewind Dale 2?

  3. the final irony here is that the article talks at length about Duchamp while claiming that no one ever said something that Duchamp was famous for saying.


    for me it would be BG2, Morrowind, ChronoTrigger, and Thief, with several others getting pretty close: Oblivion, Fallout3, FF6, IWD2, DA:Origins, Crysis (the story is nothing special, but it's just gorgeous), Myst, and insofar as a sandbox can be artistic let's throw in Minecraft.

  4. Concur about Myst and ChronTrigger.