Game Design as Make-Believe (1): Imagination
Game Design as Make-Believe (2): Props

Ebert's Fence and Games as Art

Fence As many will be aware, in response to Kellee Santiago's TED talk defending games as art, Roger Ebert has kindly returned to the question of games as art on his blog. (Kellee's own response can be found on Kotaku). Mr. Ebert has attempted to erect a fence on the boundary of the art world which he claims videogames may never cross, or at least, will cross no time soon. But how well has he understood the nature of games, and more crucially, how well has he understood the nature of art?

Ebert's argument is centred upon the question of whether a goal-oriented activity can be art; whether the possibility of winning is an anathema to artistry. He also asserts (following a line traced through the Greek philosophers) that art “improves or alters nature through a passage through what we might call the artist's soul, or vision.” Finally, Ebert attempts to underline his case by derisively noting Kellee's mention of the facets of the modern videogame industry (Development, Finance, Publishing, Marketing, Education, and Executive Management) believing this makes his point. But here, Mr. Ebert has gone completely doolally – surely he recognises that these are the very same facets of the modern film industry? Where do you think videogames got its current business model from? Shame on him for such an asinine claim. The rest of his argument is far more pertinent.

There is a temptation, as Ebert observes, to think that this is simply a matter of semantics and thus not a big deal. This attitude embodies the widely reflected prejudice against philosophy. Ebert, thankfully, has some respect for the philosophical tradition and thus, I hope, would be open to the claims I will present here – although, of course, he will likely never read them. This is of no matter. What matters is that the debate about “games as art” is a question of the clarification of concepts, and as such is the proper domain of philosophy. Sadly, battlegrounds of this kind are all too often pursued dogmatically via the erection of boundaries such as Ebert's fence.

Can a goal-oriented activity constitute art? A murder mystery story invites the reader or viewer to figure out the murderer, and if they do, they can be said to win – even though a story is not normally thought of as a game. This analogy has some significance, since Mr. Ebert has given his endorsement to films of this form in the past. He might argue that this aspect of those movies was tangential, and that the artistry present in their representations bears more weight. This would effectively concede that videogames could be art, since the creativity of the artists and musicians who work on these projects can be considered apart from the goal-oriented elements of the games they work upon. If his fence doesn't keep out murder mysteries, videogames might also leap it.

Ebert's claim that by virtue of the fact they can be won games cannot be art is weakened by the murder mystery example but it is not overturned. In fact, Ebert has an important point that does indeed work against the conception of games as art: in so much as a player is in love with such-and-such a game because of the exhilaration, satisfaction and ecstasy it has evoked in them, the claim to artistry could be irreparably damaged. An argument that videogames should be considered under the remit of art cannot rest on the joy of victory that a player experiences when they win. Our comprehension of what is valuable about art cuts deeper than such blunt pleasures.

In James Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Joyce advances via his protagonist an argument concerning the nature of art in which that which provokes desire or loathing is improper art. Proper art, according to Joyce, “awakens, or ought to awaken, or induces, or ought to induce, an aesthetic stasis, an ideal pity, or an ideal terror, a stasis called forth prolonged and at last dissolved by... the rhythm of beauty.” Proper art is rare. Most art provokes either desire, which Joyce terms pornographic art, or induces loathing, which Joyce terms didactic art. Almost all videogames are pornographic, they provoke the desire for progress or victory, some are also didactic. Few are what Joyce terms proper art.

Few, but not none. Tale of Tales The Graveyard, which failed to make much of a stir among gamers because, frankly, it wasn't sufficiently pornographic in the game-sense, is a relatively clear cut case of games as art. Even Ebert would concede that The Graveyard is art – what he would not concede is that it is a game. He says that an “immersive game without points or rules... ceases to be a game and becomes a representation of a story, a novel, a play, dance, a film. Those are things you cannot win; you can only experience them.” The Graveyard fits his description, but I believe his claim that it is not a game is mistaken – most obviously in the fact that Auriea Harvey and Michaël Samyn, the artists who made The Graveyard, specifically call it a game.

Michaël and Auriea's vision inhabits this artistic videogame in precisely the manner that Ebert stresses is characteristic of art, and the same can be claimed albeit in an entirely different manner of the work of game designer Shigeru Miyamoto (Mario, Zelda etc.) and a few other talents working in videogames. I would even be willing to extend this claim into boardgames; there is a vision at work in the games of Reiner Knizia, for instance, that may seem worlds away from art as we usually conceive it but is nonetheless on a continuum with more recognisable artworks. Let's be honest, if a simple difficulty in appreciating the artistic dimensions of something were a barrier to it being considered art, a great deal of modern art would be excluded from consideration. All art requires an appreciator familiar to some extent with the forms and conventions of the relevant art form in order to fully appreciate it.

As a boundary case, The Graveyard serves an important role, but it would not convince Ebert because to him “game” means “goal-oriented activity” (specifically “activity that can be won”) and this game doesn't fit his definition. It is here that his case begins to unravel, for in so much as the artistry of The Graveyard is apparent it demonstrates an important problem with Ebert's fence. The murder mystery does not cease to be art for him because it can be won, so why should we exclude games with goal-oriented or Joycean pornographic elements such as winning? Star Wars was meant to sell merchandise – a pornographic purpose yet we can still admire its artistry. So too we can admire the artistry of videogames, even when they fall into improper art in Joyce's terms. Let us not forget: improper art is still art.

The foundation of this issue rests in our comprehension of a representation. Were he versed in videogame culture (and there is absolutely no reason he should be since it is not his chosen medium), Ebert would more clearly recognise the artistry of the representations at work in games, which display a creativity difficult to appreciate without considerable experience (what I term game literacy). But gamers attempting to defend games as art all too easily fall into defending their addiction to videogames instead of the medium as a whole, citing titles they thoroughly enjoyed as a strange kind of evidence. The defence of games as art can more gainfully commence with the observation that all representations, as philosopher of art Kendall Walton has noted, are at root a kind of game.

In Mimesis as Make-Believe, Professor Walton painstakingly documents the line that connects children's toys and games of make-believe on one end with the Cistene chapel, Michaleangelo's David and Van Gogh's Starry Night on the other. Our appreciation of representative art relies upon the games of make-believe we play with the works in question that allow us to interpret them. It is not a question of whether games are art at all – all art is a game, and thus videogames are merely a more recognisable instance of the play at the heart of art. (For more on both these points, see my current weekly serials on Walton's philosophical theory, and the parallel serial on how his theory adapts to game design). Roger Caillois similarly recognised the connection between mimesis and games, noting in particular that theatrical play was essentially a form of play – a connection preserved in the word we use to describe such a performance.

All the many activities I have discussed here – paintings, sculpture, theatre, movies, boardgames and videogames – are forms of play, and as Johan Huizinga remarked play is the root of culture. In attempting to exclude games from art, Ebert is perhaps (unknowingly) taking a stand against our cultural obsession with victory. Perhaps Ebert's fence is an attempt to exclude Joycean pornography from the world of art; this could be a worthwhile goal, however misguided the construction of this particular fence. But films are just as at risk from this pornographic fixation as videogames: are we so sure the Oscars don't denigrate films as an art form by reducing the merits of the medium to a mere competition? Aren't superior box office receipts still the principal measure of a movie's success?

Why erect a fence that attempts to cut off certain media from access to the domain of art – and with it the cultural esteem we have afforded to that which we deem worthy of the appellation “art”? Would it not be fairer to accept the role of play in culture, and the dependence of representational art upon games of make-believe? We justifiably admire the finest works of art that we use as props to play games of make-believe when those props are paintings, sculptures, plays and films. Many of us also admire the finest boardgames and videogames that we use as props in closely related make-believe play. Those of us of the latter view are concerned about this debate precisely because that which is excluded from “art” runs the risk of being excluded from respect.

Videogames, undoubtedly, still have a long way to go. For a start, we have almost no videogame critics of any merit, and the artistic achievements of the genre are buried under a mountain of trash. But of course, one might claim the same of novels and movies. Yet the potential of the form is still inescapably present, and the attempt to exclude this medium from cultural esteem embodied by Ebert's fence is unworthy of such a distinguished critic. I do not ask that Ebert changes his mind. I do not ask that he attempts to play videogames, for there aren't many he could appreciate and his critical talents are intimately wed to another medium. I merely thank him for taking this question seriously enough to write about it at all, and rest confidently in the belief that historians of art will ultimately knock down his fence, just as they have already done with the barrier earlier critics erected in a similarly mistaken attempt to exclude his beloved movies from respectability.

Please share your views on games as art or Ebert's fence in the comments, preferably politely.


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Well made points, and I agree for the most part. Most rebuttals of Ebert's post that I have seen completely miss the point that he was dismissing games on the basis of their being goal oriented activities, something which I am pleased to see you address from the start. Where I differ could probably be seen as only a matter of semantics, where in the latter part of the post you appear to conflate the definitions of game and play. It is my understanding that games are by definition goal oriented activities, structured around the rules which define play. Rather than say that "all art is a game", I would say that all art is a play space upon which the artist imposes his or her own rules, restricting and guiding the observer's experience and thus defining it as art. Whether a game as a goal oriented activity can be considered art is another thing entirely, and is something the post addresses well.

Mitya: many thanks for your thoughtful comment! My work on play follows down from Roger Caillois, who as a speaker of French has the same word - jeu - for both play and game. I have inherited this perspective to some degree, and see "game" as simply structured play, versus "play" as a wider category which included spontaneous unstructured play as well as games.

But structured play can still be process-oriented. Take tabletop role-playing as an example. True, most such games offer a goal-oriented mode of play (indeed, all commercially successful ones have made this central) but the process-form is still present, and certain forms (Tweet's Everway, for instance) make it the focus.

I don't dispute that there is a considerable common usage in English of "game" as a synonym for "goal-oriented activity". But in practice, I find throwing the net of this word wide is a fairer interpretation when looking at the world of play.

There is, undoubtedly, a question of semantics involved, but I do not find it helpful to tie the notion of winning to the term game, as it excludes too many things (such as tabletop RPGs, The Sims, Second Life and certain ways of playing sandbox games such as GTA) which I would claim are clearly games in spite of the fact that many players enjoy these activities in the absence of goals or win-states (or by ignoring such things).

In my early game design writings, I defined a toy as "a tool for play" and a game as "a tool for play with some measure of performance"... I might now revise that definition of game to a "structured tool for play".

Ultimately, I'm aware that "game" is often interpreted in the narrower context - as Ebert does - but I believe this usage contributes to the denial of artistic respectability to the various games mediums. I therefore campaign philosophically for the wider perspective to prevail. :)

Thanks for sharing your viewpoint!

It seems a largely pointless debate - a matter of drawing a line across a continuum to suit one's point of view. It seems to me that the much more useful debate is to distinguish art, or games, from work - that can be constructive since the worker is vastly aided by leavening his toil with a little art or play.

zenBen: unlike most who have weighed in on this, I don't think Ebert's stance is entirely misguided. There's a lot of gamers who are insistent that the participatory nature of videogames gives them greater potential as art... I don't believe this is the case. Rather, the artistry in videogames is of a different kind to that found in other media, and is of a form that may be inherently more constrained, but certainly still has its own merits. I take Ebert's objection very seriously, even though I believe he is misguided in drawing so firm a line in the sand.

Now distinguishing art or games from work is distinguishing work from play... and this is a whole new can of worms! Ed Castranova has made the point that "the magic circle is leaky" - the boundaries between play and work, which Caillois (for instance) trusted as clearly demarcated, are now far from clear. Instances such as "gold farming" really blur the lines.

I suspect that it is not possible to clearly distinguish the two. The issue might turn out to be not a case of separating play and work, but rather establishing how to make work more playful... and this necessarily means taking into account the fact that different people enjoy playing in different ways.

If there is a separation to be made, I am almost tempted to say it can be made between play and bureaucracy - but then some people don't seem to mind bureaucracy... Perhaps, as Huizinga suggested, play is the substrate of all cultural activities, and we need to consider new terms if we want to distinguish different qualities within it.

Best wishes!

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