Can video games be appreciated as art?

December 02, 2005

In a recent review of Doom, film critic Roger Ebert dismissed the entire platform of video gaming in the context of art. When questioned about it in his answer column, he responded:

I believe books and films are better mediums, and better uses of my time. But how can I say that when I admit I am unfamiliar with video games? Because I have recently seen classic films by Fassbinder, Ozu, Herzog, Scorsese and Kurosawa, and have recently read novels by Dickens, Cormac McCarthy, Bellow, Nabokov and Hugo, and if there were video games in the same league, someone somewhere who was familiar with the best work in all three mediums would have made a convincing argument in their defense.

Now, the arrogant tone of this blurb has drawn ire from the blogosphere round. I really don’t care about Ebert’s opinion on video games; for that matter, I wouldn’t ask Roger Ebert to review literature, opera, or rock and roll either. He’s a reviewer of a niche artform, and an extremely mainstream one at that. Ebert can only appreciate art forms that lay themselves out before him, and not ones that allow a user to interact and test the scenery. There are games like “Metal Gear Solid: 2” that present a storyline that draws the user in and challenges the viewers’ expectations in ways that M. Night Shamalan could only dream of. Games like “Silent Hill” will thrill users more than any horror movie, as the user is forced to assume the role of the main character, down to feeling her heartbeat in the controller vibration. In its relatively short lifetime, the video game industry has already crafted works that are unarguably artistic in nature, and have the capacity to surpass movies or books as captivating storytelling tools.

However, I ultimately have to agree with Ebert at some level. Although he fails to mention it, there is a serious difference between video games and more persistent artworks like literature, music and even movies. Video games are linked to video game systems, which compete with each other for market share and are obsoleted and replaced every five years or so. While certain titles have been “ported” to many platforms, most video games can only be enjoyed by maybe half of the video gaming at any given time, and will not have replay value five years down the line. While my Dad and I can sit down and enjoy a Clint Eastwood movie, it is unlikely that I will be able to recommend “Chrono Trigger” to my own children. I’m not saying that the ephemeral nature of video games invalidates it at an artform, but i do think that there is a fundamental technological problem that needs to be solved in order for video games to be respectable as a persistent work of art that can stand the test of time.


Written by Will who lives and works in New York. You should follow him on Twitter.