My Response To Roger Ebert, Video Game Skeptic

Kellee Santiago, the game developer whose recent talk about games and art was critiqued by Roger Ebert, is ready to move on. But first, she has an argument to defend and an offer to make.

April 16, 2010 unexpectedly became a new watermark in my career as a game maker – Roger Ebert wrote an article about me.

Specifically, he dissected my TEDxUSC talk which I gave back in March 2009.

I do want to state that I don't think my talk was a perfect argument. It didn't land in the right place in the end, and Ebert's final quote in the article, which was taken from the last section of my talk and was not about games as art, but about the responsibility we have a media-creators in the 21st century, validated my concerns that I didn't connect the dots as cleanly as I hoped. But the TED mantra is to "give the talk of a lifetime," so I decided to make some bold claims, take the discussion a few steps further, and hopefully engage people outside of the "choir" to come to their own conclusions. Again, Ebert's article was extremely validating in that I at least achieved that goal.

I remember reading Siskel & Ebert movie reviews and watching their TV show as a young artist. To say that I'm flattered by Ebert's attention to my talk and my ideas is an understatement; however, being a long-time follower of his work, I don't think he went the full mile in this critique.

For the most part, his argument seems to wander through some extremely muddy waters of defining art. Although he even states, "But we could play all day with definitions, and find exceptions to every one," it doesn't stop him from dedicating 50% of the entry to going back and forth on the subject. Ebert seems to lump "art," "artistic," and "artistically crafted" all into one big ball, which I think confuses any discussion on the subject.

For instance, the only definition he offers for art in response to my own is "usually the creation of one artist." But this doesn't define anything except a process, and arguably two of the three examples of artistic games that I offered in my talk fit this definition: "Flower" having been created under the direction of Jenova Chen, and "Braid" having been developed solely by Jonathan Blow.

I'm assuming here he thinks films are an artistic medium, but he points to the documentary "Waco: The Rules of Engagement" as not being art, without offering up any explanation. (He also responded to a comment with "Very few films are art.") I can certainly assume my own reasons as to why it's not art, but if half of the discussion is on what he thinks art is and why games don't fit that definition, clarity is important here.

But the final nail on this argument's coffin is the point that many, many of the hundreds of commenters have already made – it doesn't seem that Ebert has played many, if any video games. And if that's the case, then his opinion on the subject isn't relevant anyways. The title of my talk was "Video Games are Art – What's Next" because I felt it was time to move past the discussion about whether games are an artistic medium.. Similarly, it's time to move on from any need to be validated by old media enthusiasts. It's good for dinner-party discussion and entertaining as an intellectual exercise, but it's just not a serious debate anymore. As a rapidly growing medium, we game developers have so many other issues deserving of our attention.

Ebert asks me in the section on "Flower," "Is the game scored? She doesn't say. Do you win if you're the first to find the balance between the urban and the natural? Can you control the flower? Does the game know what the ideal balance is?" Well, it only takes you 2-3 hours to find out – about the same time you'd dedicate to a film! I'd be happy to send you a PS3 with a copy of the game installed on it so we can discuss in more depth.

Art is in the eye of both the creator and the beholder. And as those two groups of people grow and change, so will the definition and perception of art.

Kelle Santiago is the president of ThatGameCompany. Critic Roger Ebert's recent comments about video games not being art was a reply to Santiago's TED talk on moving beyond discussions of gaming as art.