Article Response by Will Partin: Roger Ebert’s Critique of Games

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February 29, 2012 by wcparti

Disclaimer: The picture I selected to illustrate Marina Abramovic’s Rhythm 0 contains mild female nudity and may be disturbing to the easily offended.

Response to Roger Ebert’s Critique of Games

            Was there ever a question more tiresome and wrongheaded than “can games be art?” And yet several metric tons of digital ink have been spilled over this overwrought polemic, with little apparent conceptual gain. Even worse, the criticisms of either side are often stupefying superficial. Arguments that debase games’ claims to artistry on the basis of mediocre aesthetics, paper-thin plots, and cumbersome clichés’ are fundamentally inadequate, as there is nothing inherent to the game medium that prohibits satisfying visuals or engaging plot. What is too often missing from arguments is a powerful critique of interactivity in art. Games are interactivity; the rest is electronic icing. A serious argument against games as art must hold this singular revelation at its center.

Roger Ebert, the traditionalist film critic, was the first to effectively question the compatibility of gaming’s interactivity and its lofty aspirations. In a 2005 column (with further clarifications in 2007 and 2010), he cut past the superfluous buffoonery of his predecessors and engaged interactivity directly. I will spare you his turgid screed—the crux of his argument reads:

I am prepared to believe that video games can be elegant, subtle, sophisticated, challenging and visually wonderful. But I believe the nature of the medium prevents it from moving beyond craftsmanship to the stature of art…That a game can aspire to artistic importance as a visual experience, I accept. But for most gamers, video games represent a loss of those precious hours we have available to make ourselves more cultured, civilized and empathetic… There is a structural reason for that: video games by their nature require player choices, which is the opposite of the strategy of serious film and literature, which requires authorial control.[1]

Predictably, the gaming community was outraged (over 5000 comments, almost none positive), but few managed to mount a convincing argument against the eminent film critic. Ignoring his disclaimer, gamers responded with trivialities like “how can you look at Ico and say it’s not art” and “you just don’t get it!”[2] A truly pro-game response to Ebert will require either arguing that authorial control is not necessary for serious art or debunking his notion of interactivity. Here, I intend to do the latter, a critique that will also suggest that our definition of interactivity is inadequate to describe the all the forms it may take in media.

I should begin by saying that Ebert is right. Serious art does require authorial control. Art is dependent upon its autonomy; when meaning is externally embedded, in the viewer’s mind for example, it loses its ability to make a meaningful statement about the world. This view is a modernist one and, I am sympathetic to Ebert on this count. I disagree, however, with the application of his implicit definition of interactivity. As I see it, under his notion of the word, games are not interactive. To explain why I feel as such, I’d like to turn to two art works from the twentieth century which are both commonly ascribed to be “interactive”: Alexander Calder’s Spider (1939) and Mariana Abramovic’s Rhythm 0 (1972).

Alexander Calder, Spider (1939). MoMA.

Calder’s sculpture (shameless plug—it’s currently on view at the High Museum) is an example of the artist’s “kinetic sculptures,” more commonly known as mobiles. The primary genesis behind these works is to induce movement and temporality into an otherwise static medium, both of which are accomplished in some degree by interaction with the viewer. The large surface area of the hanging black planes combined with their apparent weightlessness allow even the slightest of forces to overcome their inertia. The draft of a passing viewer will spin the sculpture ever so slowly in its preordained circular path. The action can be conscious as well; blowing on a plane will cause the sculpture to spin with a little more vigor. For our purposes, what is most important is that the sculpture actively responds to the viewer’s input, but each possible result is predisposed within the artwork.

Marina Abramovic, Rhythm 0 (1972)

Compare this to Rhythm 0, a 1972 performance by Marina Abramovic in which she allowed gallery-goes to approach her and interact with her in any manner they desired while she remained impassive. Describing the piece, she wrote: “I felt really violated: they cut up my clothes, stuck rose thorns in my stomach, one person aimed the gun at my head, and another took it away. It created an aggressive atmosphere. After exactly six hours, I stood up and started walking toward the audience. Everyone ran away, to escape an actual confrontation.”[3]

It is tempting when looking at these two manifestations of interactivity to ascribe Abramovic’s piece to somehow be more interactive, thus implying the existence of a spectrum. Because Rhythm 0 allows for a greater variety of interactions, this is not an unreasonable assessment to make. But Spider and Rhythm 0 cannot be compared on the same spectrum, because their embodiments of interactivity are fundamentally different. I would argue that Calder’s work is a type of “closed interactivity”—there are a limited number of interactions a viewer can perform in conjunction with the work. Most importantly, the audience can only interact with the object on the object’s terms.[4]

Conversely, Rhythm 0 is an example of what I term “open interactivity.” It is infinite (effectively) in its scope—there is no limit to the number of ways in which a viewer can interact with the artist-cum-object. Perhaps a more accurate way of saying this is that the art-object itself does not limit the audience in its interactions. Necessarily, any limitations that do arise are not on the part of the art object; limitations are only possible in the audience, which in turn makes them the subject of Rhythm 0.[5]

The greatest distinction (and this is also the fundamental difference between modern and postmodern art) between these conflicting types of interactivity is where the meaning of these artworks rests. In Spider, the meaning is internally embedded; viewers have no claim over the meaning through their own interaction, for their interaction is mediated at every moment through the systems of motion extant in the work itself. This is the opposite strategy of Rhythm 0, whose meaning is externally embedded, because the form the work will ultimately take is not predisposed by the artist. Instead, it is handed off to the audience, who then become the subject.

For many, externally embedded meaning is not a desirable quality. Abramovic’s reflection on her performance is characteristic of this concern: “What I learned was that…if you leave it up to the audience, they can kill you.”[6] They can destroy the artist, which in this case is also the art. To return to where we began, this is simply another way of phrasing Ebert’s belief in the necessity of authorial control.

Ebert, then, considers games to be an example of open interactivity. He is wrong. Like Calder’s tremendous sculpture, every single element of a game was placed consciously placed there by the designer, whom we may now call an artist in his own right.[7] In Skyrim, there are billions upon billions of combinations for visual presentation; every permutation of armor, race, and skill, every perspective, every direction in which we may look from any of the billions of pixel by pixel places to stand in that overwhelmingly large world. This number, brobdingnagian though it may be, is finite. And in those limitations, that closed interactivity, we are only performing the game as it was meant to be preformed. Rules in games are no different from the floating planes of Calder’s Spider; we may approach it in any way we wish, but our interaction will ultimately be mediated by the artwork and its rules. In the finitude of games, meaning will be found. And where there is meaning, there is an art to reveal it to us.

-February 29, 2012


[1] Roger Ebert, “Answer Man,” Chicago Sun Times, November 27, 2005. http://rogerebert.suntimes.com/apps/pbcs.dll/section?category=ANSWERMAN&date=20051127.

[2] Both of these comments were taken from the “Comments” section of the article citied in the preceding footnote.

[3] As quoted in: Anna Daneri, Mariana Abramovic (New York: Charta, 2002), 29.

[4] Though it is beyond the scope of this paper, this type of interactivity allows for a spectrum from “low” to “high” interactivity, the latter requiring more conscientious interaction, generally manifest as physical responses through the game’s physical interface. For example, Starcraft II or any competitive shooter places constant and extreme demands on successful players. A game like The Sims requires less direct interaction—the nature of game play is more passive.

[5] In the case of Rhythm 0, then, any limitations that emerge are representative of limitations endemic to our culture at large. The elegance of this Heideggerian unconcealment of our shortcomings is the work’s greatest triumph and no doubt is why it has remained Abramovic’s most celebrated performance. The exodus of the audience at the work’s conclusion gives our culture a poor prognosis.

[6] As quoted in: Anna Daneri, Mariana Abramovic (New York: Charta, 2002), 30.

[7] We can call him an “artist,” not an “Artist.” The distinction is not just semantic. Videogames are their own medium, and to qualify them as “Art” instead of “an art” devalues the medium through inducing an identity crisis.

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4 thoughts on “Article Response by Will Partin: Roger Ebert’s Critique of Games

  1. jwildberger says:

    I agree that the question of whether videogames can be art is a silly question. I also agree that interactivity in and of itself does not preclude videogames from being art. However, I feel Ebert’s strongest claim in the selection you provide is not solely about interactivity. He argues that videogames do not fulfill the purpose of serious art. Serious art imposes certain experiences and ideas upon us that make us “more cultured, civilized and empathetic.” This necessities an authorial control which can challenge the viewer. Your example of Abramovic’s Rhythm 0, not Calder’s Spider, undermines this idea most effectively. Abramovic’s Rhythm 0 is interactive in a deep way, but the social situation that she brought about presents us with an opportunity to become, in Ebert’s words, ““more cultured, civilized and empathetic.” It clearly demonstrates that interactivity does not prohibit a medium from affecting us like other serious art forms.

  2. dbfeder says:

    Do you feel that open interactivity necessarily precludes the idea of art though? A truly open game, where narrative and results are entirely determined by the the gamer – something which may not exist yet, but conceivably could – could still remain a piece of art. If art is the ability to hold up a mirror to the world, shouldn’t an accurate reflection of life – with all its complexity and lack of authorial control – be considered art as well? I think Ebert’s criticism fails on multiple counts, not just a misunderstanding of the gaming medium.

  3. […] I am prepared to believe that video games can be elegant, subtle, sophisticated, challenging and visually wonderful. But I believe the nature of the medium prevents it from moving beyond craftsmanship to the stature of art…That a game can aspire to artistic importance as a visual experience, I accept. But for most gamers, video games represent a loss of those precious hours we have available to make ourselves more cultured, civilized and empathetic… There is a structural reason for that: video games by their nature require player choices, which is the opposite of the strategy of serious film and literature, which requires authorial control.[1] […]

  4. […] like “how can you look at Ico and say it’s not art” and “you just don’t get it!”[2] A truly pro-game response to Ebert will require either arguing that authorial control is not […]

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