Roger Ebert and Video Games as Art

In 2005, renowned American film critic Roger Ebert sparked a controversy among the gaming community by declaring video games to be, by their very nature, incapable of “moving beyond craftsmanship to the stature of art.” In the years since, many game bloggers, critics, and players have taken part in a dialogue with Ebert over the artistic merit of digital games. This dialogue has primarily played out on Ebert’s blog, where he has devoted three entries to the subject. While Ebert has not abandoned his initial position, he has conceded that he has not played many games and is therefore not qualified to evaluate their artistic merit. However, this middle-ground is an uneasy one and only proves that Ebert has not played (and does not wish to play) video games. A true argument for games as art must begin by addressing Ebert’s central concerns regarding the medium.

In his initial 2005 statement, Ebert claims that video games will always be inferior to film and literature because games require players to make choices, which steers the medium away from authorial control. This, the core of Ebert’s argument, has gone largely unaddressed. Instead, the majority of responses focus on a statement Ebert issues later: “no one. . . has ever been able to cite a game worthy of comparison with the great dramatists, poets, filmmakers, novelists and composers.” This second claim is flawed, because it is precluded by the first. If games are by their very structure outside the realm of serious art, then no example could ever be given of a game that has artistic merit equal to a great work of film or literature. However, instead of addressing the question of whether video games are inherently inferior to film and literature, most responses to Ebert’s argument have focused on providing examples of games that seem cinematic or philosophic, hoping to refute Ebert’s second claim.

These responses to Ebert’s second claim, that no game can compete with great works of art in other mediums, prompted Ebert to write a blog entry entitled ‘Okay, kids, play on my lawn’. In the article, Ebert identifies and addresses an aspect of this argument that prevents him from playing and evaluating any game: “If I didn’t admire a game, I would be told I played the wrong one.” This realization stems from the nature of the proof, that a particular game is art and therefore all games have potential to be art. In order to definitively prove no games are art, Ebert would have to play every game, which is something he does not want to do. Additionally, the definition of art is fuzzy, so it would be hard for Ebert to prove that no game is art even if he were to play every game. Due to these characteristics of the argument for games as art, the discussion has come to a standstill.

In 2007, Ebert responded to Clive Barker, a British horror novelist responsible for the movie “Hellraiser”, who argues that games are art. In his comments, Barker remarks “I think that Roger Ebert’s problem is that he thinks you can’t have art if there is that amount of malleability in the narrative. In other words, Shakespeare could not have written ‘Romeo and Juliet’ as a game because it could have had a happy ending.” Ebert responds, “He is right about me. . . Would ‘Romeo and Juliet’ have been better with a different ending? Rewritten versions of the play were actually produced with happy endings. . . it’s such a downer.” This remark sheds light on Ebert’s underlying argument against games as art: that actions a player takes in a game may have effects that contradict the author’s desired narrative outcomes. However, this is not necessarily true.

The contradiction that Ebert has identified can be characterized as the balance between a player’s freedom to act and an author’s ability to create a good story. This balance between user agency and story structure happens to be a question the interactive narrative community has set out to answer. Namely, can we create games that make players feel like they influence the events of a story, yet simultaneously maintain a well-structured narrative (i.e. the tragic ending of Romeo and Juliet)? A forthcoming paper from this lab (Fendt et al. 2012) suggests that one possible answer is to remove all but the illusion of a player’s agency from a story world. In the paper, Fendt et al. find that players of an interactive text adventure with no branching structure (no change in the story due to player choices) report the same feeling of agency as those of a similar adventure game with an actual branching structure, given that the game acknowledges their choices in some way.

In any case, the American public is growing more and more receptive to the idea of video games as an artform. In 2011, the National Endowment for the Arts expanded its guidelines for funding qualifications to include video games and mobile art, and from March to September of 2012 the Smithsonian American Art Museum is running an Art of Video Games exhibit, which “focuses on the interplay of graphics, technology and storytelling through some of the best games for twenty gaming systems ranging from the Atari VCS to the PlayStation 3.” I expect this acceptance to grow as the medium of interactive digital games continues to mature in the upcoming years.


Fendt, Harrison, Ware, Cardona-Rivera, Roberts. Achieving the Illusion of Agency. To appear in The Proceedings of the International Conference on Interactive Digital Storytelling, 2012.

Predictive Raging in Video Games

By Matthew Fendt

I am curious as to whether or not a human opponent in a adversarial video game can be guided to perform a desired action based on textual or verbal cues from the player.  For example, in Starcraft, aggressive messages in the beginning of the game from the Zerg player may convince the opponent that the Zerg player is going to perform a “Zerg rush,” or early attack gambit.  If the opponent plans for a defense against the Zerg rush, they will likely fend it off, but at the cost of early game development.  If the Zerg player then performs a different early game, they would gain value extra time from the fooled opponent.

Starcraft would be a good test environment for the experiment, since it is easy to make a bot to play and give text communication during the game.  Also, it is possible to observe the difference in building or unit production the human player takes based on the cue given by the bot.  The players would have to be somehow convinced that they bot’s messages are reliable, such as mixing in these cues with real information that the bot gives.  The player’s actions would then be compared with how a player would really behave in the simulated situation, and see if they change their gameplay to match the expected results.  The baseline would be that the player does not change its behavior based on the message.

If player behavior can be changed by giving messages to the player, designers could use this information to improve AI behavior in video games.  This would allow for the AI to act more like a human player.

An Intelligent User Interface to Create Plan-based Game Level Behavior

By Julio Bahamon

Narrative is an important component of modern digital games. As computer graphics have become more sophisticated and realistic, it has become increasingly necessary for game designers to develop new techniques to capture the attention of their audience. One such technique is the introduction of a narrative element as an integral part of the game experience [1]. The ability to effectively tell a story, or allow the user to be immersed and interact with a story thus becomes an important asset in the toolkit of game designers. However, Narrative generation and editing can be very time consuming and effort intensive processes. Moreover, the implementation of a quest or an adventure in a game environment may often result in several months of effort that translate into just a few hours of game play once the game goes live [2]. Factors like these can have a very significant impact on a developer’s ability to deliver a game on time, or deliver it at all. It is in this inherent difficulty presented by the creative process where I find the motivation for an Intelligent User Interface (IUI) that reduces the complexity and effort needed to develop narrative for digital game environments.

The main objective of the proposed IUI would be to provide game designers and content developers with a user interface that takes full advantage of the computational power provided by modern Artificial Intelligence planners –in particular their application as story-generation systems– while insulating the user from the complexities involved in the operation of a planner. It should be our goal to facilitate a process where users do not require any expertise in AI planning (or in AI for that matter) in order to be able to create stories for a digital game environment.

These ideas have theoretical foundation on two areas of Computer Science that have been the focus of much research in digital games and artificial intelligence. The areas are Interactive Narrative and Collaborative Problem Solving. Interactive Narrative focuses on the development of computational models that support algorithms and processes leading to the implementation of systems that can generate stories in a procedural manner. Collaboration can be defined as mutual engagement among participants in a coordinated effort to solve a problem together [3, 4].

The interface should be designed with an emphasis on ease of use and above all with the core objective of insulating the user from the complexity introduced by the planner. Being able to provide an abstraction that hides the details of the planner functionality is paramount. My working hypothesis is that game developers can best benefit from the use of planner technology if they are able to do so without having to master plan description languages or AI concepts. The solution I propose would use a plan-based approach to story generation that enables users to create short narratives without the need to write complete scripts and detailed character actions. The design guidelines of such software could be based on the theories of collaboration previously mentioned and on mixed-initiative techniques that rely on a well-defined collaborative interaction between a human operating the software and an intelligent agent that is tasked with providing assistance.

[1] Mateas, M. and Stern, A. Façade: an experiment in building a fully-realized interactive drama. In Game developers conference, game design track. 2003.

[2] Morningstar, C. and Farmer, F. R. The lessons of Lucasfilm’s habitat, Cyberspace: first steps. 1991.

[3] Roschelle, J. and Teasley, S. D. The Construction of Shared Knowledge in Collaborative Problem Solving. In Computer supported collaborative learning, 69, Springer. 1995.

[4] Roschelle, J. and Teasley, S. D. The construction of shared knowledge in collaborative problem solving. NATO ASI Series F Computer and Systems Sciences, 128:69 – 69. 1994.

[5] Horvitz, E. 1999. Principles of mixed-initiative user interfaces. In Proceedings of the sigchi conference on human factors in computing systems: the chi is the limit, CHI ’99, 159 – 166, New York, NY, USA,  1999. , ACM.

Self-Similarity and the Potential for Fractal-Based Stories

By Stephen Ware

Last weekend I came upon an interesting article about generating random terrain using simple fractals.  If you’ve played games like Minecraft, you’re already familiar with the results of these techniques: surprisingly natural landscapes that are significantly and interestingly different almost every time.

The article points out that fractal-based terrain is simple to implement and scales well because fractals are self-similar.  A self-similar design is one which, if you isolate and magnify a small part, it will look like the larger whole.  The Mandelbrot Set is a famous fractal that you’ve probably seen before.  It looks something like a large circle with smaller circular polyps growing out of the perimeter.  If you zoom in on any of those polyps, you will eventually find an exact image of the larger set.  In short: each small part contains the whole.

I wonder to what extent the principle of self-similarity applies to stories?  What kind of output would we get from a fractal-based story generation algorithm?

The article is dedicated to the Diamond Square Algorithm.  It’s a little too complicated to reproduce in this blog post, but the introduction eases you in by way of a simpler predecessor: the Midpoint Displacement Algorithm.  Imagine a straight line.  Now, take the midpoint of that line and move it a random amount upward or downward.  Repeat that process for the left and right halves of the line: find the midpoint and move it randomly up or down.  Keep dividing the line segments in half and repeating this process, and eventually you get something that looks like the silhouette of a mountain range off in the distance.  This basic principle can be extended to 3 dimensions to get a 3D landscape.

The mountain range silhouette produced by this algorithm is self-similar.  If you zoom in on any one part, it will have the same basic properties as the whole.  They won’t look exactly the same because of the random movements, but essentially each peak of the mountain contains an entire mountain range in itself.  Now, how is this relevant to stories?

Firstly, these self-similar algorithms are very simple to implement.  Obviously, no story generation system that hopes to cover a wide variety of human narratives is ever going to be simple, but we might be able to push the complexity down into the low-level realization of the story while keeping the high-level design simple.  Imagine using midpoint displacement to create the conflict arc of a story—natural rises and falls in intensity as the story progresses.  The Midpoint Displacement Algorithm can be seeded with values to define its basic shape.  In other words, you could start with a slanted line or a curve rather than a straight one.  Freytag’s Triangle seems like a good place to start for a fractal-based intensity arc.

More importantly, fractals scale well.  Novels are made up of chapters, chapters of scenes, etc.  A fractal-based story generator could maintain a single theme or basic structural element throughout the story at large and each constituent part (with enough random variation to avoid stagnation).

More complicated fractal generation methods, like the Perlin noise heightmaps used in Minecraft, allow you to sample any part of the space at any time.  Chunks of a Minecraft map are generated dynamically as you explore them, but they are guaranteed to fit together seamlessly no matter what order you visit them in.  Imagine creating one single, unified story for the entire community of an MMORPG.  This task would be daunting for even an army of human writers, but if the story generation was guided by a fractal, perhaps a truly massive story could be generated that had a single theme, while still maintaining the property that each local element was consistent with its neighbors and fit seamlessly into the whole.

Fractals are useful for terrain generation because they produce realistic looking landscapes.  Their usefulness to story generation will hinge on whether or not they can produce natural and realistic storyscapes.  As story generation research continues to progress, I will be interested to see what role fractals have to play.

“You’re just making games.” – The Importance of Marketing in Our Controversial Science

I have been on the receiving end of the title quote.  Often, I receive it verbatim.  Other times, I receive it in spirit.  As games researchers, we walk a fine line between art and science.  In my short academic career, I have found that justifying our work to scholars of the arts and the humanities is not as difficult as justifying our work to scholars in the sciences; not for lack of scholarly rigor in the arts and humanities, but rather because artists and humanists already know that it is important to look at games for what they represent, as well as their ubiquity and communicative power.  Our peers in the sciences, it seems, need a little more goading.  However, it is not their fault.  It is ours.

I admit, on the surface, it is difficult to imagine how the scientific process fits inside the machinery of video games. Games are primarily known for entertainment, and so, what possible science could there be?  What compounds the problem is that it is very easy to imagine that video games are a waste of a person’s time.  My anecdotal experience is very telling of this:

Exhibit A:  at a conference that was not focused on games, I had the very challenging experience of explaining my research to a community of scientists and non-scientists.  I had the opportunity to engage with some of the brightest minds the world has to offer…who (without fail) asked of my research:  “where is the science?”  I smiled every time, and tried as best I could to explain the complexity and the implications of my work.  Some got it (and were genuinely excited), others didn’t (and diplomatically dismissed the work).  Those who didn’t are especially memorable, for reasons I won’t go into here.

Exhibit B:  when I applied for the Graduate fellowship from the National Science Foundation, I received praise for the general quality of my application.  However, I got one specific bit of feedback that I will never forget:

his proposed research topic – digital games – may be less critical for the society.

My gut reaction to these experiences is always the same:  diplomatic anger, followed by personal disappointment.  It is not easy to get a Ph.D. in the first place, and it becomes more difficult to justify its worth when a community of scholars cannot see why games research is real science.  My mentors have often said that it is important to have thick skin and mental toughness for getting a Ph.D.  However, nothing really quite prepares you for a scientific community that routinely reminds you that “your problem is not worth solving.”

It’s easy to say:  “The scientists are bound by the shackles of the old guard.  They’re old, and close-minded.  They have lost touch with what is really important.  They don’t realize that games are a multi-billion dollar industry, eclipsing Hollywood and providing a pillar for the U.S. rebound economy.”  All these comments and many more are whispered in the halls of game research centers, and screamed in the heads of the scientists that study games.  However, I do not fault scientists for being skeptical; a healthy dose of skepticism is necessary for science.  It is our own fault.  I blame ourselves for not knowing enough marketing.  And I don’t mean marketing in terms of buzzwords (adding the terms “crowdsourcing” or “metaspectral” add fluff and will only impress marketers by trade),  I mean marketing as in “communicating science.”  We are not the only ones under this pressure; the government funding agencies have recently come under fire for funding basic science research that has no apparent immediate benefit or application.  This cascades into making video game funding especially hard to come by (who wants to fund a bunch of graduate students to make games?)

We games researchers are not doing enough to communicate the importance of our science, both to our scientific peers and the (much greater) non-scientific community.  And who could blame us?  We already know that it sucks to talk to scientists that look down upon your work.  As junior scientists, we seek experiences that help us grow professionally.  Pungent criticism stunts growth if you’re not prepared to handle it (and junior scientists, myself included, often aren’t).    This leads us to become a recluse of the general community – we prefer hanging out with our own crowd; publishing in blogs, conferences and journals devoted to games research, preparing posters that other games researchers will appreciate, and eventually establishing a network of games researchers.  This has to stop.

Rather than making the critical feedback personal and seeking the relative security of the games research community, I have set myself the goal of improving my science communication, actively seeking ways to engage and publish in other communities and I urge all games scientists to do the same.  The mindset of “they don’t understand and therefore they are close-minded” is not helpful nor productive.  Instead, ask yourself what I ask myself every time I encounter someone critical of my work:  “what am I not communicating that makes my audience think this is trivial or not worth doing?”  This becomes an issue of developing a deep understanding of your work, as well as anticipating potential criticisms, and knowing your audience, challenging aspects of research that are nonetheless do-able.  When someone tells you that you are just developing games, the correct response is:  “It may seem like it, but this is why it’s so much more than that: …”