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Feedback: Gamers and artists

A screenshot of an "Electroplankton" composition.

Many readers have responded to "Games vs. Art: Ebert vs. Barker." Here's a sampling:

From: Eric-Jon Waugh, Oakland, CA

The thing is, videogames -- like film, novels -- are about establishing a particular perspective of the world. Whereas film and novels explore this perspective through a linear narrative, videogames define the world of the observer through a limited set of laws. The artist's control is in defining the world, the laws that govern it, and thereby -- critically -- the potential consequences of action.

For that is what videogames explore, on a basic level: cause and effect, action and consequence. That few explore it well is beside the issue of the potential of the format. Imagine if you will a world defined by the rules of childhood -- all of the little baseless paranoias and insecurities. Now imagine the issues an elaborately staged, highly psychological design could explore by playing the player's responses to the game's stimulation.

Hitchcock is considered master of his form in part because of his skill in playing the audience. The same is the key skill in a game designer; the craft just isn't there yet. And the interface sucks. (The Wii is a nice step.) And maybe the technology isn't where it needs to be yet, either.

The key issue, I think, is the difference between freedom and liberty. Sure, there's no art in freedom -- in being able to do anything you want at any time. Liberty, though -- an allowance of choice, within a limited scope of options -- now we're getting somewhere. Especially if, within that narrow web, there is real, meaningful consequence to every action.

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From: Christian Pilling

Reading your article “Games vs. Art: Ebert vs. Barker,” I did tend to agree with Barker that your knowledge of video games (it’s not your field of expertise) limits your ability to judge their artistic merit. You say that the malleability of plot elements disqualifies games from being considered high art. I wanted to point out that not all games—not even a majority—have “choose your own ending” conclusions. Traditional games have a story with a start and an end, the player simply progresses through the story line, in an interactive way.

Most games have a pre-determined plots with deliberately written singular endings. The audience has the unique ability to move through the environment and control the angles of the camera and, seemingly, the actions of the character. But those actions usually fall within the intentions of the gamemaker and are directed toward the goal of advancing the linear plot. This is best exemplified in the “adventure” genre of games (games that are like ‘Myst,’ but are less atmospheric and puzzle-based than story driven).

So when it comes down to it, the difference between film and games is the introduction of camera and movement control. The ability to look around and move through a cinematic game sequence is a powerful and deeply immersive experience that engages the audience in to an extent that film could never reach.

Please remember, Mr. Ebert, that video games are an extremely young medium and that many art critics famously and prejudicially denounced film in the exact same way during its infancy. Much to the dismay of visual art critics, Ricciotto Canudo declared in 1911 that film was the “sixth art.” I’ve heard video games referred to recently as the seventh art, much to the dismay of sixth art critics like yourself.

I do, however, agree that most games are made for entertainment and moneymaking purposes primarily. Games that I would classify as high art are extremely few and far between. This doesn’t mean that the medium of video games should be dismissed altogether or that it doesn’t have great potential for the future. Just like some of the most groundbreaking films in history were made outside the influence of major studios, high art video games are mostly being made outside of major developers. Super Columbine RPG is a famous example of this.

Thanks for reading. Please keep an open mind.

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From: Daniel Rudolph, Cedar Rapids, IA

Despite the way you've come off in the video game press, it's clear to me that your claim video games aren't art isn't so much a dismissal of games as an argument about the definition of art. I have no problem with the video games and sports analogy. As far as I'm concerned, James Naismith was a great artist and one's who's had considerably more impact on the world than Ingmar Bergman, not that makes him any better.

However, under your relatively narrow definition, I think it is still quite possible for a video game to qualify as art. Movies have certainly dealt with the idea of multiple versions of events. "Ran" comes to mind. I could easily imagine a video game with a similar structure where you have multiple ways of going through some premise and the artistry is in the way it responds to your actions and the larger picture of what the mere fact all of these outcomes can be achieved means. Just because the events are, to some degree, in the hands of the player does not mean that the theme is. "Third World Farmer" is an example of a game that I believe would fit your definition of art:

Granted, it would be very difficult, if not impossible with current tech, to make a game that was about something other than the effects of your actions or lack thereof, but that's a broad category and it seems to me video games are better suited than any other medium to making this point.

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From: Steven J. Steiner, Seattle, WA

The obstacles for video games as art are much the same as the obstacles for film as art. Artistic goals are typically secondary to commercial goals, and it can be outrageously expensive to produce a work in either medium.

I believe you may not have considered all of the attributes of the medium, in your claim that video games cannot be high art. One shouldn’t expect browsing the typical uses of a medium to define the artistic capability of that medium. Does looking at the average movie give any indication of the artistic possibilities of film?

The goals of art are incredibly varied. There are certainly cases where the specific attributes you define as artistic weaknesses in video games are precisely what an artist will want to use to accomplish a goal.

Choice in a video game is illusionary. The choices available are precisely those provided by the designer. The illusion of choice, combined with the game designer’s complete control of the outcome is an incredibly powerful tool for shaping both emotion and thought. The fact that it is complicated to create such an experience is irrelevant in this debate, since it is also quite complicated to make an artistic film.

I do agree with you that it is quite pointless for you to play video games to appreciate the medium's capabilities. You would be much better off browsing the chapters of one of the few recently compiled books about the medium. “Rules of Play: Game Design Fundamentals”, by Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman, will give a better overview of both the strengths and weaknesses of the medium for art, then any amount of game playing. It will also be far less time consuming.

Finally, I am very interested to know what specific films you consider art. Is the movie is “Dark City” art, or does it fail on some criteria?

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From: Grayson Towler, Longmont, CO

I am reminded most forcefully of an old Peanuts strip. Linus has been working vigorously on his crayon-based art, and shows his latest creation to his sister, Lucy. Instead of commenting on the technique and effort, Lucy surprises her little brother by asking how long it took him to draw this. "45 minutes," he replies.

Then Lucy bowls him over, declaring with absolute certainty: "Great art takes at least one hour!"

Your ongoing critique of video games is an argument that you can neither win nor lose. All you are doing is making arbitrary declarations, like Lucy Van Pelt. Art cannot be interactive? Art must lead you to one story conclusion? These positions are so rooted in personal taste as to defy any substantial discussion. It's as useful as arguing whether or not tomatoes taste good.

Really, I have the deepest admiration for you as a movie reviewer. But tell me honestly, sir: how much weight would you give to the opinion of a movie reviewer who never actually watched movies?

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From: Ben Hojem, Brooklyn, NY

I'm writing to respond to your latest discussion of the video games as art debate. While I'm in general agreement with your assertions about the nature of art, I was wondering how familiar you are with academic movements that empower the audience to a work to create limitless interpretations (the beginnings of post-modernism slightly predates your undergraduate days I believe). Critics such as Roland Barthes have made careers out of de-emphasizing the "intentions" of artists and have argued for creating readings of works of literature that are subservient to different schools of thought. I know that you were a graduate student and I imagine you must have encountered these theories that were gaining momentum during that time. Still, your discussion of the definition of art sidesteps the schools of thought that desire more malleability and audience input in how art is experienced.

One could argue that video games offer an opportunity to take the empowerment of the audience even further and allow them to create art through their own subjectivity.

At any rate, although I'm not a fan of the every-interpretation-is-as-good-as-any-other school of thought, I thought I would throw this into the mix.

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From: Min Hyo-shin, Bucheon, South Korea

(First, sorry for my crude English.)

I just want to say there are other games.

Have you heard about "Electroplankton"? It's not a narrative game like "Silent Hill" series. It's more like an artistic tool. There is no goal in the game. You can just compose your own visual art. The creators call it "Touchable Media Art"

There are some other games like "SimCity." It's not an art. But you can create an art work with this game -- your own city. It's not a Michelangelo but it's still an art.

And there are some games like Sims and The Movies. They give us some backgrounds and characters and we can create our own movies with them. (Check Sims movie in YouTube.) They are crude. But it's just a beginning. And there are some serious artists who make animation movies with game engines. Their works are much better than the average Sims movies.

There are some more interesting stuff. There are some Starcraft fanfictions based their own game plays. It's possible because we have more freedom in online games. It's a geeky idea but to some people, the game is life and it can be a basic source of an art. Like real life.

Someday, the games will be an artistic tool like camera. It's not an art but we will use it to create an narrative art. Don't you think it's amazing? You can create your own "Final Fantasy" movies with your own computer. It's not a detour because creating stories is the goal of the games. The game itself is still not an art but writing "Romeo & Juliet" is not an art. It's a creative work or 'game.'

Many video games imitate narrative art. I can understand why. Young medium imitates old medium. Typical. But I don't think video games make good narrative art. Most of gamers are actually know about it. They look like narrative games but they are not. They are something different. I don't think they have to be a good art. If a game is good it doesn't have to be an art. "A good game' is good enough. I think gamers need more self respect. Maybe someday, some proud gamers will say something like that. "Hey, it's not an art! It's a game!"

BTW, I think the "Silent Hill" games are good art. The narrative sucks. I know. But there is something more. It's more like moody, interactive visual art. If you want to make a good "Silent Hill" movie, you have to reinvent the story. Most most of script writers of game based movies just follow the story line. I think that's why they failed.

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From: Sharon Rauenzahn, Sunnyvale, CA

In your article responding to Clive Barker, you write: Ebert: If you can go through "every emotional journey available," doesn't that devalue each and every one of them? Art seeks to lead you to an inevitable conclusion, not a smorgasbord of choices. If next time, I have Romeo and Juliet go through the story naked and standing on their hands, would that be way cool, or what? I've sampled dozens (maybe hundreds) of video games, played a few through to the end, and have only encountered one that might meet this definition. While some games are more like "Choose Your Own Adventure" books than like novels or movies, most modern video games are really just short B-grade action movies with very frequent intermissions -- that is, you hack your way past a bunch of monsters and are rewarded with a "cut scene" (mini movie fragment) telling you the next bit of the plot. Guy gamers seem to think of the movie bits as interruptions in the real action of running around and shooting things. Girl gamers sometimes think of the video game part as an interruption in the movie. Rarely do the two aspects work together all that well. And yet... I know one game that might approach art in itself, even in your definition. It's a strange title called "Shadow of the Colossus". "Shadow" begins the usual way -- a little introductory movie showing the protagonist arriving in some strange place, where a disembodied voice tells him to slay some monsters in order to bring his dead girlfriend back to live. Then the game begins, and the player runs the protagonist around seeking out and then slaying a handful of gigantic monsters. As expected, there are occasional (fewer than usual) movie tidbits interspersed with the action. Some riders on horesback approach the temple. They are in a hurry. They are worried about the protagonist and what he's up to. Meanwhile, the players have an odd experience. We start worrying too. Why are we killing these enormous, unique, almost gentle creatures, who've done us no wrong and don't seem to be harming anyone or anything else? Why are the approaching riders so frantic? What's with the black smoke that escapes when the creatures are killed, and what's with the shadowy black smoke men that appear around the protagonist each time he kills a beast and is re-awakened in the temple? Are we doing something bad? There is a subtle, but ever-increasing, sense of dread and wrongness. Yet the player is caught up in the action and the challenge of the battles (and spent $40 on the game) and keeps playing. It all leads to an inevitable conclusion that still manages somehow to be a surprise. The whole game probably has less than 10 minutes of "movie", but without the extended fights (and long spans of travel by horseback across barren, sun-streaked wilderness), those bits of movie wouldn't have the impact they do. The end is puzzling, cathartic, frustrating, and satisfying. People who played it a year ago still talk and argue about it. I think it might actually be art.

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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