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Posted on Saturday, April 17th, 2010

Dave!Roger Ebert, one of the very few movie critics I respect, a writer I admire, and one of the most fascinating people on the planet, recently wrote a column on his blog stating Video Games Can Never Be Art. Since I've made artistic contributions to a couple of video games, I was tempted to dismiss the article outright. But it's Ebert, so I am compelled to consider his premise. Then Livvy Collette wrote a nice rebuttal that touched on why I can't agree with Ebert's conclusion: there's such a huge amount of creativity involved in crafting a good video game that they can't help but be art.

Which brings us to this immutable fact:

I love my Weighted Companion Cube from the video game Portal more than most people I meet.

Lil' Dave with his Weighted Companion Cube

Sure it's wacky, improbable, and borderline psychotic... but it's also inexplicably true.

Because not only is my Weighted Companion Cube just a "character" from a video game... it's also an inanimate object from a video game. Yet, the artists at Valve have created a fully realized environment so involving that it causes an emotional response from me towards it. And while I'll be the first to admit that this feeling is not as powerful as the one I get from looking at a painting like Starry Night or watching a film like Cinema Paradiso or reading a book like Jonathan Livingston Seagull or standing in a structure like St. Peter's Basilica... it's still the kind of reaction I get when exposed to a work of all-encompassing art.

Portal is also a lot of fun, which is just a bonus.

The thing that makes art so fascinating is that it is ever-changing and cannot be easily defined. Many of the things we know as "art" today would have been inconceivable a century ago. Or, if not inconceivable, certainly not defined as "art." I once went to a gallery installation where a room was fitted with video screens on the walls and electronic sensors in the floor. The sensors calculated the combined weight of all the people standing in the room, ran the data through a mathematical formula, then displayed beautiful graphics on the wall accordingly. If there were few people in the room, the graphics would be serene. As more people entered, the displays became more chaotic. I accepted the room as artistic expression, even though I had reservations as to the premise (the number of people is easily skewed... twenty small children register as fewer people, three NFL linebackers register as more). Everything in the room was created (albeit dynamically) to affect the senses, perhaps even provoke a reaction. Just like a video game.

Just like art.

And if technology keeps progressing, eventually virtual reality will involve people within the simulation creating art that only exists inside a computer. Thus making a video game out of life. The ultimate artistic expression.

In the end, no one person can define what is... or is not... art. That's because art is subjective and not quantifiable. Art is something you feel. Art is something you sense. Art is something you believe.

Art is in the eye of the beholder.

And lest you think that my opinion is flawed because of my admitted video game psychosis, I would be remiss not to disclose that my Weighted Companion Cube agrees with me completely.


  1. Michelle M. says:

    Though I don’t play video games I know some very talented artists who work on them. In my opinion, what they create is art. From backgrounds to character design to movement, what they do is amazing. And I agree with your definition of art as something you feel.

    *And completely unrelated – a little Betty White:

  2. Sybil Law says:

    I am really tempted to dismiss a LOT of art I see hanging in museums (the big orange circle on white canvas is the one that kills me the most) as “not art”, but truly – art is in the eye of the beholder. Just like music, it comes down to mere opinion, and arguing the point to me is kinda useless.
    (That said, I maintain the orange circle is bullshit! 🙂
    Oh, and I’ve seen some amazingly gorgeous video games, so yeah -that shit’s art, fo sho.

  3. I don’t know a ton about art, but I love exploring art and definitely consider it to be in the eye of the beholder. And now I want to find out more about that video game 🙂

  4. Badger says:

    Hee! Dude, I agree with you AND your weighted companion cube.

    (Did I tell you I made my teenaged boy child a plush weighted companion cube last Christmas? He carries it around with him when he’s sad, even though he is now in the latter stages of puberty.)

    (He’s a Half-Life 2 junkie now so I might have to make him a plush crowbar for NEXT Christmas.)

  5. scott says:

    Although I have a decent respect for Roger Ebert, he has demonstrated on more than one occasion a tendency to fall back on an more traditional mores and sensibilities in matters of aesthetics, though on social and political issues he is very progressive. He has, as I see it, a bit of a Garrison-Keillor-like nostalgia, a sort of romantic Luddism where art and culture are concerned. He has gone, it seems to me, as far as he’s going to go into certain emerging aspects of culture that do not interest him.

    Hello, Dave.

  6. josh says:

    I LOVED “Half-Life” even though it scurrred the turd-turtlez outta me! The giant fetus alien was SOOOO HARD TO MURDER!

  7. Sarah says:


    I love reading posts like this from you. You’re just so awesome.

  8. Avitable says:

    The emotional resonance they created with that one little part of the game was impressive. It’s like some of the resonance with Half-Life characters. And H-L2 is definitely art.

  9. Troy says:

    I find it funny that someone who likely hasn’t played video games in a very long time can decide that they are no art. Especially coming down on the side of “not art” without even playing them.

    How could I call a film art without watching it?
    How could I call a painting art without viewing it?
    How could I call music art without listening to it?

    So how could you say a video game isn’t art without playing or at the very least viewing it?

  10. First of all, thanks for the shout-out! 🙂

    I want to add that I’ve seen a lot of people try to compare an emotional reaction to video games and the one you get from watching movies. Honestly, I think it’s unfair. The two things are totally unlike each other. When you’re brought to tears by a movie, it’s a complex combination of relatability and projection. Mechanically speaking, this can’t happen when you’re actually “in” the story, like in video games.

    Some of the craft that goes into filmmaking can be found in video game development, but we need to stop comparing the two. They’re both artful and both worthy of inclusion in the greater art dialogue, but they’re just not the same.

    Also, an emotional reaction does not art make. Sometimes, one’s response to art can be philosophical (e.g. “this represents the meaning of blah blah blah”) or even technical (e.g. “how’d they do that?”). When I saw the graphics in Final Fantasy XIII, I was like, “wow, nice!” But I wouldn’t call that an emotional response. I admired the work, and that’s all. Maybe I’m dead inside, or maybe we’re giving art a little too much credit.


    • Dave2 says:

      Hey Livvy!

      I wasn’t comparing movies to video games, as I agree that they are two different things. I was very careful to say that there’s a feeling I get when exposed to a good video games that’s similar to what I get with good movies, paintings, buildings, books, etc. Great food could be created in a way that it is highly artistic, but just because it doesn’t have obvious comparisons to great literature and shares no properties with a novel doesn’t immediately disqualify it as art. I agree 100% that just as art can defy description, it can also defy comparison.

      Also, I was very careful not to single out “emotion” as a requirement of art… I was merely using my love for the Weighted Companion Cube as an example of a reaction that can happen when exposed to art (as you note, there are certainly legitimate non-emotional responses as well). And just because you don’t have an emotional response to a particular work of art (or an entire form of art) doesn’t make you dead inside… it makes you discerning! 🙂

      • Aw geez, Dave! I’m sorry. I think I came on a little strong, there.

        Your articulated your point very well. I promise you my comment wasn’t a critique of your post. 🙂

        More than anything, my comment is geared towards this whole discussion that has us justifying video games as art. Because Roger Ebert is a film critic, the natural course of things would be to compare the two media. I’ve seen it in the comments to his blog, in the comments to mine, and I just want to tell people: Hey! We don’t have to compare the two, cuzfer they’re not the same! 🙂

        Same goes for the emotional response. That was Wiki’s definition, and I think it’s inadequate. But because it was brought up in Santiago’s presentation and Ebert’s blog, people are addressing it. It’s fair enough, but I’m like: Hey! That’s not the only way to react to art, dudes!

        Know what I mean, jellybean?

        Otherwise, your post was super interesting, and I love the insights it brings to the discussion. 🙂

        • Dave2 says:

          Oh I didn’t take it that way! Not at all!

          Roger Ebert has said in multiple tweets that nobody in defending video games has stepped up and compared them to what “old people” consider art. It was your post that got me to thinking that they shouldn’t be compared, and video games don’t have to be compared in order to qualify as art. I just wanted you to know that I wasn’t disagreeing. 🙂

          And while I wholeheartedly agree that art is not required to create an emotional response, I think the best art does provoke an emotional response for the person in question (though what each individual considers “best art” and “emotional” is obviously going to vary).

          What I really don’t understand about the whole debate is how the individual elements of a video game (the music, the background paintings, the architecture design, etc.) can be readily accepted as art if removed from the game… yet putting them all together in an interactive environment is “not art” for some reason? Odd.

  11. Suebob says:

    Art is so amazing and unpredictable. I can go through a whole museum and not get The Feeling, but other times one piece just reaches inside me and takes over. I am normally not a huge fan of abstract sculpture, but I saw this Isamu Noguchi piece up in Santa Barbara that made me feel like I had been removed from space and time. It was wonderful and magical and just…perfect. It can’t be described in words, which I suppose is part of what makes it so great.

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