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Ebert: Video Games Can Never Be Art
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breakreep
homophobic yet curious


Joined: 27 Sep 2004
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The problem Mark is trying to convey seems to be at the root of most of the argument by either side. I'm more with Icarus in that I don't particularly care whether any given person defines any particular game as art, though if there's an obvious logical flaw involved I'm all over that for the fun of it. But none of these "can you win", "is it interactive", "must it be attached to video" arguments lead anywhere until one can settle whether the thing coming in is more, less, or equally important to the thing coming out.

The quality of the dialogue, the cinematography, the soundtrack, and so forth, is somewhat of a distraction. No one analyzing a painting, even in Art 101, would call each individual stroke 'art' in itself. They might discuss technique, or interaction, or the interplay of lighting and panel. Like foreknowledge possessed going into a new book, or the individual letters on those pages, these things aren't art. They are pieces of function mutually expressing one whole. Anyone would agree on this.

One of the main reasons why video games seem to be so confusing in these discussions--at least in those of honest exploration of ideas separate from the need to prove prior convictions--is their inability to fit into the framework. Like Mark has been saying, there is too much functionality involved. Games do, and often do, slip into a space not of a moving end held together by unexamined functions, but of a moving function. The entire point of the game is to do something else within the game.

My take on this point is tenuous. While I see merit in the idea there is a distinction between that phenomenon and, say, the building of a musical or literary narrative, I think that it is simply unfamiliar. This comes back to two things: 1) the notion that what we are experiencing right now as "video games" is too embryonic to even use as a base by which to judge what a "video game" actually will be, and 2) something which Icarus mentioned directly in another thread and alluded to in this one, namely his suspicion that discussion of video games belongs not in the realm of the humanities but in that of the sociologist, by nature of (among other things, but most obviously) the repetition of act through similar yet always mutually distinct attempts, compounded through the sheer time sunk into the medium as a neurological practice mat.

I probably would have agreed with that a few years ago, but I've read enough about the development of the reading mind over the past few years to know that a very...as in very...similar argument could have been made both of the repetition of individual symbols intended initially as mimetic representation (a large part of most popular definitions of art) to the point that they became functional commodities within the exchange of language, as well as the initial catharsis associated with the task of reading becoming, through very observable physiological stages, into a functional and even quite banal task, wherein the act itself is simply a means to an end, which is ultimately, regardless of intent, physiologically identical in every case: to gather information.

Notice that I'm not equating the written thing with the act of reading it. I'm pointing out that the potential confusion between the two, though seemingly trivial, is the same as that present in games now. The confusion is amplified for several reasons, but the one most relevant to the strand of thought I'm trying to extricate in the time I have is that, again, games are simply too new. No one knows what to make of them yet. Initially novels had not that connection to the past that some in this conversation have referenced--except to the extent that they referenced some already common myth or historical event in their genetive cultures, in the same vein that video games do today--yet no one now would seriously argue that, because of the confusion present toward the novel then, it could ontologically never have been or become art at some point in the future, as now.

Which is to say nothing of the fact (mine and subjective, of course) that most novels are trash. Garbage. Most books should never be read. They are by and large horrible creations filled with the most unpracticed, unintimate, uncreative noise which most people with the functional capacity to write have ever thought. This leads me to what is probably my primary of many haphazard points, which is that the novel is not an artform either, and I think most would agree with that if they thought about it. A very few novels are artful, fewer are works of art, and those very few which linger forever take the form of a bit of the fog fulminating in the sapient line--there is only one artform, though it can be represented through various media.

I would argue that several games partake of that definition, but I will not even mention them here. The naming game is possibly the most stupid, base result these dialogues. They always go like this:

"Games aren't art."
"Yes they are!"
"Name one."
"Such and such."
"I've cursorily examined it in the midst of an intellectually heated discussion, which in turn I entered with preconvictions. Your game is not art."

I'm reminded, every time, of those periodic hip-hop threads where the antagonist, new on the scene, downloads each 90's-era classic album in succession per member suggestions, then proceeds to dissect and disseminate--on first listen, no less!--why each one is, or isn't, good.

I realize that this discussion (at least, theoretically) isn't about good vs bad, or by common extension, bad vs art. I also realize that there are fundamental differences between the absurdities in these two circumstances, but there is a common thread underlying both--unfamiliarity with the subject. Knowing of some semi-obscure games and mods doesn't really count. It's like passing judgment on, say, 20th century composers from exposure to movie soundtracks. It's like how I hated Freud when I had only a passing familiarity with his ideas, hated him more as I learned more, and one day, years later, realized that I didn't know much about his work at all, not to any degree worth mentioning. I still don't, actually, but as I learn more I'm able to better appreciate the aesthetics of his approach in a way that was never possible while I ascribed judgment on non-immersion, even if I still think the majority of his conclusions are bonkers.

It's like how someone mentioned in this thread that there are (in a tenuous sense of the word) collaboratively agreed-upon definitions for things, and definitions of defining, and so on. Well, of course. But when a cannonball breaches your wall you won't get far trying to figure out what kind of arrow just breached your wall.

Also, leave out the issue of the 'performance' of playing the game. That's a red herring, and anyone discussing the issue in good faith knows and will readily admit that, in the same way that reading a book is not an artform--or, at least, it is not the same thing ontologically as the book itself. If one is art, the other is not, and maybe neither is an artform, whichever is art.

The discussion of the medium's relation to the consumer is a red herring as well, like I've said before, but in the context of the framework Icarus elaborated it makes sense. I simply don't share his framework, and thus disagree that it's relevant.

Finally, I didn't reference Icarus several times because of some venal obsession with his words. That's there, but it's not the reason. He's simply the most (perhaps only) interesting critic of games on this board, in the context of arguments put forth. Saying "Of course everything is art, even though some things are and some aren't!" doesn't go far, and frankly, I like the sociological beast in his criticisms better than the framework he contorted, however interestingly, around a discussion he admitted to not being entirely interested in. But I'll say the name a few more times anyway for future search engine results. Icarus. Icarus.



Icarus.



Would love to type more! No time.
Post Mon Apr 19, 2010 10:50 pm
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Raoul DeGroot



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Jaysis fucking Christ
That is reepy as sheyt.

You need to transform into Dagwood to consume that stack.
Post Mon Apr 19, 2010 11:08 pm
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Mark in Minnesota



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I read it all, but on the other hand he started it with my name, which is pretty much guaranteed to hold my attention.
Post Mon Apr 19, 2010 11:12 pm
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Neuro
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yo break

your powergraph is a work of art
Post Mon Apr 19, 2010 11:26 pm
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breakfast



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breakreep wrote:
While I see merit in the idea there is a distinction between that phenomenon and, say, the building of a musical or literary narrative, I think that it is simply unfamiliar. This comes back to two things: 1) the notion that what we are experiencing right now as "video games" is too embryonic to even use as a base by which to judge what a "video game" actually will be


Not to turn this into a breaks only love-in but I was just thinking about this! The fact that we can have a fifteen page debate about whether videogames are currently art kind of hints at their potential to be art in the future.
Post Mon Apr 19, 2010 11:48 pm
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Raoul DeGroot



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I was sorta taking the point to be that the womb is poisoned and the child turned out to be an adult baby.

Post Tue Apr 20, 2010 12:21 am
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breakfast



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That diaper clad man has a caterpillar on his eyes.
Post Tue Apr 20, 2010 12:24 am
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Raoul DeGroot



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I thought it was a failed groucho marx impersonation.
Post Tue Apr 20, 2010 12:25 am
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breakreep
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Also, why does anyone care whether a game can be beaten or not? That has nothing to do with it being art. Books can be beaten, too, dudes. It's called reading the whole thing.

But is the book art while you're reading it?! Or does it only become art when the back cover closes????

It's a diversion. It's asinine. And anyone who acts like it's pertinent is doing so in bad faith. I hope the Intro to Philosophy class I plan to take someday doesn't try to teach me the same egregiously broken logic Roger Ebert uses when he's annoyed at something and can't quite figure out why.
Post Tue Apr 20, 2010 10:03 pm
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GrantherBirdly
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breakreep wrote:
Also, why does anyone care whether a game can be beaten or not? That has nothing to do with it being art. Books can be beaten, too, dudes. It's called reading the whole thing.

But is the book art while you're reading it?! Or does it only become art when the back cover closes????

It's a diversion. It's asinine. And anyone who acts like it's pertinent is doing so in bad faith. I hope the Intro to Philosophy class I plan to take someday doesn't try to teach me the same egregiously broken logic Roger Ebert uses when he's annoyed at something and can't quite figure out why.


While I agree with most of what you said in your other, longer, post above, I think you're off base here. That a video game can be won or lost pretty much disqualifies it from being art. If after contemplating a painting or finishing a book, a person said, "I just beat that portrait," or "I owned that novel," we'd laugh and consider it a joke. This would be because we understand that appreciating art has nothing to do with categories like winning and losing. The relationship of audience to art isn't adversarial or competitive, it's sympathetic. Video games, once "beaten," are rarely returned to. Art withstands and is enhanced by repeated viewing / reading / listening.

A good analogy would be between the Hardy Boys books and Chandler's detective novels. The former are like games: kids read them to discover what lies at the end, or to learn what comes next. Poorly written but often enjoyable books (see the Da Vinci Code) rely on cliffhangers for this very reason, they recognize their book is to the reader as bait is to fish, an alluring trick that only works the first time around (well maybe not since fish are dumb as fuck). Chandler's novels, on the other hand, bear multiple reading because they aren't fundamentally objects of entertainment, but objects to be experienced.

All of the above is not to say that video games, inherently, can't be art. It is to say that once video games become art, we probably won't refer to them as games anymore.
Post Thu Apr 22, 2010 8:45 pm
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futuristxen



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You can't lose in a videogame, you can only stop playing. Losing is a part of the experience. It helps create a tension, and inform the player about the world they are active in. It's just a technique within a videogame.

But not all games are set up to win or lose. Something like Flower you just play and then stop playing. You can complete a chapter or section, but you can't lose or anything. You don't die.
Post Fri Apr 23, 2010 12:06 am
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SlickWillyP
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another opinion. i don't agree with all of it but there are some damn fine points.

http://www.cracked.com/blog/why-ebert-is-wrong-in-defense-of-games-as-art
Post Fri Apr 23, 2010 6:28 pm
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icarus502
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breakreep wrote:
The problem Mark is trying to convey seems to be at the root of most of the argument by either side. I'm more with Icarus in that I don't particularly care whether any given person defines any particular game as art, though if there's an obvious logical flaw involved I'm all over that for the fun of it. But none of these "can you win", "is it interactive", "must it be attached to video" arguments lead anywhere until one can settle whether the thing coming in is more, less, or equally important to the thing coming out.

The quality of the dialogue, the cinematography, the soundtrack, and so forth, is somewhat of a distraction. No one analyzing a painting, even in Art 101, would call each individual stroke 'art' in itself. They might discuss technique, or interaction, or the interplay of lighting and panel. Like foreknowledge possessed going into a new book, or the individual letters on those pages, these things aren't art. They are pieces of function mutually expressing one whole. Anyone would agree on this.

One of the main reasons why video games seem to be so confusing in these discussions--at least in those of honest exploration of ideas separate from the need to prove prior convictions--is their inability to fit into the framework. Like Mark has been saying, there is too much functionality involved. Games do, and often do, slip into a space not of a moving end held together by unexamined functions, but of a moving function. The entire point of the game is to do something else within the game.

My take on this point is tenuous. While I see merit in the idea there is a distinction between that phenomenon and, say, the building of a musical or literary narrative, I think that it is simply unfamiliar. This comes back to two things: 1) the notion that what we are experiencing right now as "video games" is too embryonic to even use as a base by which to judge what a "video game" actually will be, and 2) something which Icarus mentioned directly in another thread and alluded to in this one, namely his suspicion that discussion of video games belongs not in the realm of the humanities but in that of the sociologist, by nature of (among other things, but most obviously) the repetition of act through similar yet always mutually distinct attempts, compounded through the sheer time sunk into the medium as a neurological practice mat.

I probably would have agreed with that a few years ago, but I've read enough about the development of the reading mind over the past few years to know that a very...as in very...similar argument could have been made both of the repetition of individual symbols intended initially as mimetic representation (a large part of most popular definitions of art) to the point that they became functional commodities within the exchange of language, as well as the initial catharsis associated with the task of reading becoming, through very observable physiological stages, into a functional and even quite banal task, wherein the act itself is simply a means to an end, which is ultimately, regardless of intent, physiologically identical in every case: to gather information.

Notice that I'm not equating the written thing with the act of reading it. I'm pointing out that the potential confusion between the two, though seemingly trivial, is the same as that present in games now. The confusion is amplified for several reasons, but the one most relevant to the strand of thought I'm trying to extricate in the time I have is that, again, games are simply too new. No one knows what to make of them yet. Initially novels had not that connection to the past that some in this conversation have referenced--except to the extent that they referenced some already common myth or historical event in their genetive cultures, in the same vein that video games do today--yet no one now would seriously argue that, because of the confusion present toward the novel then, it could ontologically never have been or become art at some point in the future, as now.

Which is to say nothing of the fact (mine and subjective, of course) that most novels are trash. Garbage. Most books should never be read. They are by and large horrible creations filled with the most unpracticed, unintimate, uncreative noise which most people with the functional capacity to write have ever thought. This leads me to what is probably my primary of many haphazard points, which is that the novel is not an artform either, and I think most would agree with that if they thought about it. A very few novels are artful, fewer are works of art, and those very few which linger forever take the form of a bit of the fog fulminating in the sapient line--there is only one artform, though it can be represented through various media.

I would argue that several games partake of that definition, but I will not even mention them here. The naming game is possibly the most stupid, base result these dialogues. They always go like this:

"Games aren't art."
"Yes they are!"
"Name one."
"Such and such."
"I've cursorily examined it in the midst of an intellectually heated discussion, which in turn I entered with preconvictions. Your game is not art."

I'm reminded, every time, of those periodic hip-hop threads where the antagonist, new on the scene, downloads each 90's-era classic album in succession per member suggestions, then proceeds to dissect and disseminate--on first listen, no less!--why each one is, or isn't, good.

I realize that this discussion (at least, theoretically) isn't about good vs bad, or by common extension, bad vs art. I also realize that there are fundamental differences between the absurdities in these two circumstances, but there is a common thread underlying both--unfamiliarity with the subject. Knowing of some semi-obscure games and mods doesn't really count. It's like passing judgment on, say, 20th century composers from exposure to movie soundtracks. It's like how I hated Freud when I had only a passing familiarity with his ideas, hated him more as I learned more, and one day, years later, realized that I didn't know much about his work at all, not to any degree worth mentioning. I still don't, actually, but as I learn more I'm able to better appreciate the aesthetics of his approach in a way that was never possible while I ascribed judgment on non-immersion, even if I still think the majority of his conclusions are bonkers.

It's like how someone mentioned in this thread that there are (in a tenuous sense of the word) collaboratively agreed-upon definitions for things, and definitions of defining, and so on. Well, of course. But when a cannonball breaches your wall you won't get far trying to figure out what kind of arrow just breached your wall.

Also, leave out the issue of the 'performance' of playing the game. That's a red herring, and anyone discussing the issue in good faith knows and will readily admit that, in the same way that reading a book is not an artform--or, at least, it is not the same thing ontologically as the book itself. If one is art, the other is not, and maybe neither is an artform, whichever is art.

The discussion of the medium's relation to the consumer is a red herring as well, like I've said before, but in the context of the framework Icarus elaborated it makes sense. I simply don't share his framework, and thus disagree that it's relevant.

Finally, I didn't reference Icarus several times because of some venal obsession with his words. That's there, but it's not the reason. He's simply the most (perhaps only) interesting critic of games on this board, in the context of arguments put forth. Saying "Of course everything is art, even though some things are and some aren't!" doesn't go far, and frankly, I like the sociological beast in his criticisms better than the framework he contorted, however interestingly, around a discussion he admitted to not being entirely interested in. But I'll say the name a few more times anyway for future search engine results. Icarus. Icarus.



Icarus.



Would love to type more! No time.


I meant to cry "uncle" after this days ago. I did.
Post Fri Apr 23, 2010 7:07 pm
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Asterax



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http://blogs.suntimes.com/ebert/2010/07/okay_kids_play_on_my_lawn.html

Robert Ebert wrote:
I was a fool for mentioning video games in the first place. I would never express an opinion on a movie I hadn't seen. Yet I declared as an axiom that video games can never be Art. I still believe this, but I should never have said so. Some opinions are best kept to yourself.

At this moment, 4,547 comments have rained down upon me for that blog entry. I'm informed by Wayne Hepner, who turned them into a text file: "It's more than Anna Karenina, David Copperfield and The Brothers Karamazov." I would rather have reread all three than vet that thread. Still, they were a good set of comments for the most part. Perhaps 300 supported my position. The rest were united in opposition.

If you assume I received a lot of cretinous comments from gamers, you would be wrong. I probably killed no more than a dozen. What you see now posted are almost all of the comments sent in. They are mostly intelligent, well-written, and right about one thing in particular:


I should not have written that entry without being more familiar with the actual experience of video games.

This is inarguable. Many of the comments continued by debating the definition of art, which, it was pointed out, I never provided. Many others defined art in terms that would include video games. I received dozens of names for video games that the posters said had affected them like art, and they told me why. Three or four games came up time and again.

In my actual experience, I have played "Cosmology of Kyoto," which I enormously enjoyed, and "Myst," for which I lacked the patience. Both games are from the infancy of the form. I'd played no others because--well, because I didn't want to. I particularly didn't want to play one right now, this moment, on demand.

Gamers tried to make it easy for me. Kellee Santiago, whose talk in defense of video games was the subject of my entry, offered to send a selection of games. But I didn't have a game machine. No problem. I heard from my fellow Chicago movie critic Steve Prokopy, better known as Capone of Ain't It Cool News. He has a friend who works at Sony Games, and through this friend I was offered a PlayStation 3 unit and a copy of "Flower," which Santiago produced. To install it and brief me, Steve would bring over Simeon Peebler, the chair of Games and Interactive Media at Chicago's Tribeca/Flashpoint Academy. Steve had the box waiting at his place, pre-loaded with several games.

I stalled. I said I was headed for Cannes. I said I wasn't sure I should accept a gift from Sony. He said he'd wait until after Cannes. He said he'd see that the PlayStation was sent back to Sony when I was finished with it. I replied: "Gee, Steve...I dunno...sigh..."

Actually, I did know. I knew (1) I had no desire to spend 20 to 40 hours (or less) playing a video game, (2) Whether I admired it or not, I was in a lose-lose position, and (3) I was too damned bull-headed. I guess the PlayStation is waiting for me even now in Capone's vault.

My error in the first place was to think I could make a convincing argument on purely theoretical grounds. What I was saying is that video games could not in principle be Art. That was a foolish position to take, particularly as it seemed to apply to the entire unseen future of games. This was pointed out to me maybe hundreds of times. How could I disagree? It is quite possible a game could someday be great Art.

I was accused of not responding in detail to the arguments against me. This is the gratitude you get for responding to comments at all. I didn't respond because I was at Cannes, because it was taking so much time simply to vet and post the comments, and because...well, what could I say? The entry had expressed everything I had to say without going to the extreme of actually playing a game.

I first expressed my opinion on video games in 2006. At a 2007 "Hollywood and Games Summit" conference, the filmmaker and game auteur Clive Barker responded to some of my statements. Under the circumstances, he was quite civilized. I responded, and you will find the link below. Barker studied English and philosophy at Liverpool, and understood where I was coming from. He said:

"I think that Roger Ebert's problem is that he thinks you can't have art if there is that amount of malleability in the narrative. In other words, Shakespeare could not have written 'Romeo and Juliet' as a game because it could have had a happy ending, you know? If only she hadn't taken the damn poison. If only he'd have gotten there quicker."





Well, yes, that is what I think. There was actually a time in history when a version of Romeo and Juliet was performed with a happy ending, and I can't begin to tell you how much that depressed audiences.

Barker: "Let's invent a world where the player gets to go through every emotional journey available. That is art. Offering that to people is art."

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?"

Okay, I was being snarky. I imagine Baker would be the first to agree his example of Romeo and Juliet was not an ideal one. Sooner later these arguments all get around to Shakespeare, and have a way of running aground on him. If I could save the works of Shakespeare by sacrificing all the video games in existence, I would do it without a moment's hesitation. I suspect Clive Barker would, too.





But there are many forms of high art, and they have appeared at many times. The conscious creation of art seems to be one area in which humans have a monopoly among living beings. Perhaps the turning point in our evolution as a species came when we grew capable of creating art and stories; I illustrated that blog entry with prehistoric cave paintings, only to have a gamer describe them as "scribbles." Well, there's one in every crowd.

Who was I to say video games didn't have the potential of becoming Art? Someday? There was no agreement among the thousands of posters about even one current game that was an unassailable masterpiece. Shadow of the Colossus came closest. I suppose that's the one I should begin with.

But many other games were also mentioned. If I didn't admire a game, I would be told I played the wrong one. Consider what happened when I responded to the urging of a reader and watched Kellee Santiago's TED talk. It would finally convince me, I was promised, of the art of video games. I watched it. But noooo. Readers told me I had viewed the wrong talk about the wrong games. Besides, arguing with a You Tube video was pointless if I had never played a game.





They had me there. And I didn't want to play a video game. If I should dislike it, I already had a preview of the response awaiting me: I was too old, I was over the hill, I was too aged it "get it." That became the mantra: "Ebert doesn't get it." I disagreed with them about age, which I know more about than most of them, but I had some sympathy about the concept of not "getting it." There are many, many things I believe many members of our society don't "get," but I don't think they're too old or too young to "get" them, only differently evolved.

One bizarre exchange with a reader led to a debate about whether Mark Twain himself valued Huckleberry Finn above a table game he had been trying to invent. "Show me a man who believes a game can have more value than Huckleberry Finn," I wrote, "and I'll show you a fool." This debate became reduced to a squabble about semantics and technicalities, and in a quixotic moment I put the question to a vote, devising an online Twitter poll which asked readers which they would value more, a great game or Twain's great novel.

Of course this poll inspired dozens of complaints that it was simplistic (it was) and stupid (also true), and comments such as "if it were another novel yes, but not Huck Finn." The first wave of responses showed Huck leading video games 70% to 30%. But those would have been from among my first-line Twitter followers. I asked others to re-tweet it as well, and as the sample grew the numbers shifted.





I tweeted and was re-tweeted two more times. At 11:14 p.m. CDT on June 30, I declare these the final results:





Which of course proves nothing.

One thing I brought from this experience was that I lacked a definition of Art. I've been thinking about that for a couple of months now. There are countless theories of Art, many of them supplied by readers in the thread. The preferred dictionary definition is:





This might exclude video games on a technicality (are they works to be appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power?), but that won't do. I required a definition that would exclude video games (those up to this point, anyway) on principle.

I thought about those works of Art that had moved me most deeply. I found most of them had one thing in common: Through them I was able to learn more about the experiences, thoughts and feelings of other people. My empathy was engaged. I could use such lessons to apply to myself and my relationships with others. They could instruct me about life, love, disease and death, principles and morality, humor and tragedy. They might make my life more deep, full and rewarding.

Not a bad definition, I thought. But I was unable to say how music or abstract art could perform those functions, and yet they were Art. Even narrative art didn't qualify, because I hardly look at paintings for their messages. It's not what it's about, but how it's about it. As Archibald MacLeish wrote: A poem should not mean, but be.

I concluded without a definition that satisfied me. I had to be prepared to agree that gamers can have an experience that, for them, is Art. I don't know what they can learn about another human being that way, no matter how much they learn about Human Nature. I don't know if they can be inspired to transcend themselves. Perhaps they can. How can I say? I may be wrong. but if 'm not willing to play a video game to find that out, I should say so. I have books to read and movies to see. I was a fool for mentioning video games in the first place.


Ebert has too many random screenshots of Shadow of the Colossus. Not sure why he did that.
Post Fri Jul 02, 2010 9:10 am
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neveragainlikesheep



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Shadow of Colossus which is.... the successor of.... Ico.

Anyone who agreed with Ebert on this one is still, in my opinion, a complete bore and out of touch with contemporary reality.

He confesses his ignorance and still doubts. Egotistical to say the least.
Post Fri Jul 02, 2010 10:15 am
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