Videogames aren't art and we shouldn't apologise for it

XBW's Michael Gapper says games don't need to be high culture to gain legitimacy

Back in 2010, veteran film critic Roger Ebert announced on Twitter that games could never be art, inadvertently declaring war on every gamer who ever legitimised their pastime by claiming it as an artform.

It was one man against millions, but Ebert had won before the battle even started - since the millions were fighting on a battlefield built by Ebert.


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When Ebert says games aren't art, he's coming at it from a film critic's perspective, and from that perspective he's absolutely correct. Ebert's argument breaks down to two neat halves - quality and authorship - and on both points games come up short. Ebert, you see, is looking for the Mona Lisas and the Stanley Kubricks that videogames don't have.

"To my knowledge," he said back in 2005, "no one has ever been able to cite a game worthy of comparison with the great dramatists, poets, filmmakers, novelists and composers." He's right, too. And he's right when he says "videogames by their nature require player choices, which is the opposite of the strategy of serious film and literature, which requires authorial control."

This all comes back to "auteur theory" (author theory), a cinematic movement that started in 1950s France with critics and filmmakers such as François Truffaut. At the time, there was a widely-held view that movies could never be art because of the industrial, collaborative nature of their production. In response, auteur theory claimed that individual filmmakers could be identified as authors - placing film alongside accepted artforms such as painting, sculpture, music and writing.

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A director can be called an 'auteur' if a film is recognisably his or her vision regardless of the film being touched by so many other hands. When you can tell a Martin Scorsese movie is a Martin Scorsese movie - despite the sundry investors, execs, producers and Hollywood jackasses involved - you can tell the director is an auteur. Only a tiny number of movies pass the auteur test; practically all games fail. Ebert wins, because we let him choose the rules.


At first glance it's a model which seems perfectly applicable to videogames, but in fact it's difficult to apply auteur theory to even the indie-est of indie games. Some of the best games with the clearest stylistic, artistic, and creative visions of the last five years have been the work of dozens or hundreds of individuals, all contributing in a way that could never happen on a film set.

Portal's commentary tells a story of gradual iteration and refinement with contributions from everyone, right down to random crazies from the street. Valve love testing and spend months NDA-ing people and letting them loose on the Portals and Half-Lifes and Left 4 Deads to make sure players look in the right direction when something explodes, or respond to the art cues so they don't get lost. (Hollywood tests rough cuts too, and I'm sure plenty of critics would argue that any director who opens his film up to such a test isn't an auteur.)

Warren Spector underlines how collaborative games development can be: "What I try to do is make what I call 'the creative box'," he said at Gamescom 2010, talking about the making of Epic Mickey. "Here's the box that defines the game we're making. The team can fill the box with anything they want, but if they try to put in something that doesn't fit, I say, 'No! Not in the box!' I've put a couple of things in that box, but most have come from the team."

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