Monday, April 19, 2010

Roger Ebert, Games, and Art

Roger Ebert's comments that "video games can never be art" (both his original comments on the subject and his most recent update) have the Internet in an uproar. He wrote his latest comments three days ago, and already there are hundreds of blog postings both agreeing with him and castigating him. His own blog posting has, of this moment, 1,746 comments. The first one is representative of many of them: "Roger - as you are sure to be inundated with comments for this post, I will simply say: You just don't get it."

Many of the rejoinders criticize Ebert for never having played video games himself. How, then, can he presume to pass judgment on them as being "not art"? It's a fair point, so I would like to say, as someone who has played hundreds of hours of computer games in the last three months alone: Ebert is absolutely right.

No one who has played games would seriously argue that video games are not at times artistic. From the beautiful images of island and sea in Myst to the view from Dive Rock in Oblivion to the cinematic cut scenes in too-many-games-to-name to the movie-quality voice acting in Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic to the music compositions that grace the backgrounds of countless games, games have always featured artistic elements. Some of them are quite grand. But the games themselves are not art any more than The Last Supper or The Thinker are games.

You may disagree by supplying your own definition of "art" or by trying to shoehorn games into an existing definition of "art," and it will be difficult to argue with you because at its basis this entire discussion is semantic. But in the same discussion, I could prove that video games are "pornography," that pornography is "literature," that good prose literature is "poetry," that poetry is "religion," that religion is "comedy," and on and on until we just end up hitting each other with shovels. Let's try it this way: whether something is or is not any of these things depends on its primary purpose, not what it might happen to accomplish tangentially along the way. Video games do not have, as their primary purpose, the enrichment of human experience through interpretation, and thus they are not art. Don't like that definition of "art?" Choose another, but either you won't be able to make video games fit the definition except through selective examples, accident, or metaphor, or you'll be using a definition to broad to be useful.

Gamers are upset about Ebert's comments, I suspect, because they're equating "art" with "good" and "not art" with "bad." This is just silly. There are plenty of wonderful things in life that are unquestionably enriching and and enlightening and worth experiencing but that are just as unquestionably not art. How about:

  • The view from a balcony overlooking the Grand Canyon
  • A muffuletta on Decatur Street
  • A game of chess
  • The Winter Olympics
  • A Sunday New York Times crossword
  • Falling in love
  • Kant's theory of categorical imperative
Ebert sums it up nicely: "Why are gamers so intensely concerned, anyway, that games be defined as art? Bobby Fischer, Michael Jordan and Dick Butkus never said they thought their games were an art form. Nor did Shi Hua Chen, winner of the $500,000 World Series of Mah Jong in 2009. Why aren't gamers content to play their games and simply enjoy themselves?...Do they require validation? In defending their gaming against parents, spouses, children, partners, co-workers or other critics, do they want to be able to look up from the screen and explain, 'I'm studying a great form of art?'"

I just wrote a posting about how, as a young man, a CRPG shaped my moral development. I'm investing hundreds of hours in this blog and playing the games that it covers, and thus I have as much reason as anyone to make believe that playing games isn't a complete waste of time. But something doesn't have to be "art" to not be a waste of time. And games are not art.

Later Edit: For those of you stumbling on this posting years later, please read this comment below before getting all upset.


  1. dunno... i've been to quite a few expositions in various renowned centers of art where i literally played (with) the stuff exhibited.

    i'm not saying i created game saves or advanced a party of characters through a dungeon, but in general... yes, it was a game. modern art tends to be very interactive and involving and it would be narrow-mined to build unnecessary walls between the two.
    especially when, as you thoughtfully implied at the very beginning of this write-up, it's all just a matter of definition. cos after all, all art is shit and all shit is art. ;)

  2. I just found your blog for the first time, for which I will become an enthusiastic reader. I myself am a "published" CRPG author (click on my screen name to find out more--but I'm not in the big time or anything, just a fan who found his niche).

    As for being offended by Roger Ebert's opinion, well he has a right to one. On his website that you link to, he states:

    "I am willing to agree that a video game could also be a serious work of art. It would become so by avoiding most of the things that make it a game, such as scoring, pointing and shooting, winning and losing, shallow characterizations, and action that is valued above motivation and ethical considerations. Oddly enough, when video games evolve far enough in that direction, they will not only be an art form, they will be the cinema."

    I would say that Ultima IV (the very first CRPG that I ever played) comes very close to that definition as far as it's system of virtue goes. On top of that, it's a beautifully well-crafted game, and the music (at least on the Commodore 64) is as great as any movie epic's soundtrack.

    I suppose that this outpouring of negative reaction is done because Ebert is probably the most well-known critic.

  3. It's wonderful that you say games aren't art right after a description of Ultima IV that reads like a description of one's favourite art piece, and its meaning and impact. Good blogging!

    For me games are obviously an art form, but the piece is not the singular and linear narrative flow of a film or a book, but the space of possibilities that is contained within the game. This space of possibilities can be as small or large as designed. It can be limited and constrained to produce the vision of the designer.. to indeed exclude "scoring, pointing and shooting, winning and losing" etc like Ebert suggests is necessary, but I don't see how they'd not be games then.

    I played Ultima IV quite a bit around 2000, not to the point of completing it, but reading your wonderful writing I'm motivated to revisit it. I'm also looking forward to Wizardry VI and a few others games I've played. And several that I haven't!


  4. Ebert's done some follow-up postings since I wrote this, but neither his nor my opinion have really changed. One thought-provoking game doesn't make the entire genre "art." I would still content the definition of "art" has to do with the primary purpose of the medium. If you accept video games as art, I don't see how you can exclude chess and Monopoly and crossword puzzles and a host of other things. "Artistic," yes, but "art," no. I realize I'm in the minority on this one, though.

  5. "Don't like that definition of "art?" Choose another, but [...] you won't be able to make video games fit the definition [...] or you'll be using a definition too broad to be useful."

    the wikipedia definition of art is rather fitting and yet i don't think it's all that broad [to become useless]:

    Art is the process or product of deliberately arranging elements in a way to affect the senses or emotions.

  6. Rizla, I don't know if you're agreeing with my thesis or trying to counter it, but I think Wikipedia's definition supports what I say. A "game" does not deliberately arrange elements to affect the senses or emotions; it arranges elements to provide a challenge to one or more players. Yes, there are bits of dialog and music and images in computer games that attempt to elicit an emotional response, which is why I allow that they are occasionally "artistic." The best CRPG cut scenes and voice acting are cinematic, and I don't think anyone would argue that cinema isn't art. But these are not the primary purpose of games; they are elements sometimes included within the games. Hence, I remain committed to my statement that games != art.

  7. and there i thought that definition obviously defeated your stubborn delimitation ;).

    i can't even begin to think what else games do if not arrange elements to affect my senses or emotions.

    are my emotions affected while playing a game (rpg at that)? big time! are my senses affected? evidently.

    i fear for the life of my character, i genially hate my adversaries, i care for my henchmen, i so much want THAT sword of asdf. and all that happens while i marvel at landscapes, animations, heck even technological feats; what with my speakers booming sensory affection into my ears like any "music_art" out there.

  8. I have to agree with Rizla. It is true that games are arranging elements to provide a challenge, but even the progression of challenge is designed to create an emotional response in better games.

    I also think that you are right that not all games are art, but neither are all movies, music, or pictures and these are still generally considerd art.

    Some games do art better than others, but if you still don't believe me, go look up "Passage" by Jason Rohrer. It takes less than 5 minutes to play and has extremley modest system requirments but still manages to have emotional impact.

  9. It seems like you're arguing that since not EVERY game can be considered as art, then no games can. Can't some games aspire to be artistic, and others simply aspire to entertain?

    Some games simply "arrange elements to provide a challenge to one or more players", however others do "deliberately arrange elements to affect the senses or emotions". Ultima 4, Ico, Shadow of the Colossus, Braid, Passage - all of these games have directly used their gameplay mechanics to manipulate my emotions in ways that books/music/movies cannot. As such, I consider them art.

  10. Rizla is absolutely right; saying games are about challenging players makes me think that you have a very old-fashioned and limited definition of what a game is in the first place. Games aren't first and foremost about providing challenges, games are about providing memorable interactive experiences, and challenges are a tool they can use to achieve that goal.

    Great blog, btw.

  11. I don't know why I'm belaboring this, but Anonymous, you and I fully agree: games are about providing memorable INTERACTIVE experiences. Art is not. Have you tried "interacting" with a Matisse painting? Let me know how that goes with the security guards. Do you pop on stage during a symphony and play along with your own fiddle?

  12. I've sold some fine art. Had some displayed. Really prefer not to talk about it much, and I won't be providing a link. I kind of hate compliments.

    I want to agree with what you're saying, because you make such a powerful case for videogames not being art at the outset that I was forced to revisit my own thoughts on the subject. Eager for more mind candy, I read the comments section...

    I've had enough candy now. I need something more substantial.

    You don't understand art. At all. You've completely dismissed interactive art, giving my brain several large cavities and a nagging pain. This has nothing to do with videogames anymore. If you think any kind of interaction with an artist's work devalues it, it tells me things about you I wish I didn't know...

  13. I wouldn't worry about getting any compliments after that comment

  14. Damn mr.CRPGAddict you also broke my heart too with this post.. I disagree ofc with your opinion, especially as put Anonymous, from your point about interactivity!=art which is completely wrong ..

    For me, Planescape Torment for example is as much art as is Mulholland Drive, as is a PHOTO of a "great view from a balcony", etc etc...

  15. Totally late to the party here, but I'm in complete agreement with you on this. I remember some time back the pen and paper RPG community being in a similar uproar over comments the late Gary Gygax made about role-playing games not being 'art'.

    His quote:

    "Send anyone claiming that their RPG activity is an art form my way, and I'll gladly stick a pin in their head and deflate it just to have the satisfaction of the popping sound that makes.

    One might play a game artfully, but that makes neither the game nor its play art.

    Though to be fair, the uproar wasn't quite as big as the one Ebert stirred up, quite possibly because the comments came from one of the godfathers of the hobby itself. I wonder if there would have been quite as much ruckus if the 'video games are not art' treatise came from someone well respected within the gaming community - a Hideo Kojima type, for example.

  16. It's nice to finally have someone agreeing with me, but I've really come to regret this posting entirely. As a longtime subscriber to General Semantics, I should have realized that it's ludicrous to make statements that something "is" or "is not" art. "Art" isn't a thing so much as a concept--like beauty, or love--and it means different things to different people. I might say that games "are" not art, and you might say they are, but the more important issue is that we get the same fundamental experiences out of the games. If, having achieved those experiences, you want to call it "art" and I don't, I'm not sure why we have to argue about it.

    Ebert admittedly doesn't play games, so he can't argue from the perspective of someone who has those experiences. He thus probably shouldn't have said anything at all.

    For my last few commenters, especially 'Nym and Manolis, rest assured: I love these games as much as you do. And I think I see the same things in them that you do. I was just applying a different definition of a term that's almost impossible to define.

  17. not all games are art, but they can be. a recent example might be Flow, or even better, Flower (on PS3). There are plenty of other examples. Ultima IV being on the cusp, I think.

    Art is art. Undefinable, really.

  18. This comment has been removed by the author.

  19. "Video games do not have, as their primary purpose, the enrichment of human experience through interpretation, and thus they are not art. Don't like that definition of "art?""

    Since it fails to include the plays of Shakespeare, I have to reject it.

    Let's look at some of the things which are pretty much unequivocally referred to as art: Plays. Improv theater. Paintings. Films. Acting.

    Not all computer games qualify as art. But if you can't look at many computer games -- particularly CRPGs -- and see their commonality with vast swaths of that list of accepted artforms, then I have to wonder if you're not just kidding yourself.

    (I actually find it really weird that you could write this in the same week that you wrote this. How the devil you do you from:

    "But here, in Ultima IV, we have a game that invites us to apply its lessons to the real world--to improve ourselves in the same way that we improve our in-game character. And if we decline to do this--decline to take this system of virtues seriously--just because its source is a "video game"...well, what better example do we have of a failure to live up to the most difficult-to-master of the eight virtues: humility."

    And yet immediately end up at: "Video games do not have, as their primary purpose, the enrichment of human experience through interpretation..."?)

  20. I've already essentially rescinded this posting in my comments above, but my answer to you is: you're thinking of "art" as an experience, and I was thinking of it as a category. For something ("games") to fit in the category ("art"), most of them would have to meet the qualification. That a certain percentage of Muslims are Persian does not therefore support the general statement that "Muslims are Persian."

    By the definitions I was using, every painting or music composition would be "art" because these are recognized sub-categories of "art" regardless of one's personal experience of the specific item. But I would argue that for every "Ultima IV," there are 20 games that don't even make the pretense of aspiring to "art" and, thus, games as a general category are not art.

  21. To me, games are to art as fruits are to apples. Games include art; masterful music pieces, breathtaking panorama, brilliant dialogues, magnificent drama and everything that a good movie should have. On top of that, you put "interactivity".

    Sure, not all games include what I said, but I'll be damned if all game developers does not want it if they had the time and money to do so.

  22. This horse may be mostly dead, but...

    I would submit that the definition of art used so far is not precise. The key component of art is that it evokes something in the viewer/listener/experiencer that is not literally present in the art itself, something that the art implies, or triggers, that exists in the universal human experience or psyche. This is more than an allusion, because an allusion refers to something else that has been created, while art refers to archetypal memories or simply universal (or nearly universal) human experience.

    So, for example, watching a dance may elicit feelings of exhiliration. How is this possible? The dance is just movements in three dimensional space. But the dance evokes or triggers innate or experienced feelings or experiences. References to archetypal things are universal, but it can still be art if it evokes a near-universal experience, such as a love poem which may not have much of an effect on someone who has never been in love.

    That said, can computer games be art? They can certainly evoke archetypal experiences, so I would argue that they can be art. First person shooters I don't get a whole lot of artistic sense from, but the idea of role playing a great warrior or magician, in epic battles, certainly falls into this definition. Then again, since computer games are so interactive, the artistry of the effect depends heavily on the player, so at best, I think computer games require a collaboration between game creator and player. Some games are better at this than others - wasteland evoked in me a full world of survival and adventure, while graphics-intensive games often are too literal to evoke anything.

    How many times have you watched an engrossing movie, and "lost" yourself in another time and place? I have had the same experience with CRPGs many times, where I forget that I exist and I fully experience an alternate world, with all of its associated experiences.

    So for me, at least, some computer games are art.

  23. Chet, have you given any consideration to new developments in this field, such as Journey?

  24. I agree with the OP. And his inclusion of Kant's 'Categorical Imperative" in the "Not-Art" list is a sly and, frankly, ingenious pudding pop of proof to his point.
    Or maybe I read too much into that. Let's assume not.

    Aside from that, I know belated comments to your older posts have drawn surprised replies ("What are you doing back here?") from you, but I'm reading this chronologically from oldest to newest in an ordered, semi-obsessive, meticulous fashion. The way a true CRPG fan should!

    That said, absolutely brilliant blog. Your eloquence is only matched by your insights.

    Looking forward to slogging through this.

  25. I know this is an old post. But the argument that since "not all games are art, therefore games aren't art" doesn't hold water and is a logical fallacy. Not to mention that the basic premise wasn't "the entirety of games are art!" . This was in defense of Ebert's arguement, and he did say, categorically, "games can never be art". While he recanted the never later, he stuck to his premise that "no game in existence today or in any of our current lifetimes is art".
    You're just moving the goalposts so that you can still declare yourself to be correct ("I didn't mean it's IMPOSSIBLE! only that 1% or more games aren't art, therefore the entire genre "games" can't be defined as a subset of art!").

    1. To continue this train of thought, "a two wheeled vehicle can never be considered a motor vehicle", someone points out a motorbike, and you say "but... but... bicycles!"

    2. It is perhaps true that "Not all X are Y; therefore, no X is Y" is a fallacy. But it also must be a fallacy to say "Some X are Y; therefore X is Y."

      But whatever. If you read through the comments, you'll find that I've rescinded my opinion. That isn't to say that I believe "games are art," but rather, I've been reminded that to say that anything "is" something else essentially has no meaning. In other words, if you want to argue that "games are art," what is it that you're REALLY arguing? That more people ought to appreciate their artistic merit? That they should be eligible for NEA funding? That there ought to be museums dedicated to them? What is the purpose of making the equation?

    3. I did read the comments, in fact I was responded to the one where you rescinded your opinion, changing it to a category. Did not realize that you were saying that thinking of art as a "category" was wrong, to which I agree. You can't shoehorn "subcategories" into the mother "category" that is art. Even film is not always art (not a judgement... an instructional film on how to perform a root-canal is probably not art nor meant to be).

  26. CRPG Addict, have you considered that perhaps you are so awesome that you should call yourself art?

  27. Oh, I remember that debate well, and I didn't agree with Ebert's categorical rejection. But I also see that all the arguments in my head were already made by other commenters here, so I can just repeat, that by Ebert's definition, many movies aren't art either. In fact, in Germany we have a bit of a distinction between "entertainment" and "culture". Classical music, for example, is not regarded as entertainment, but as culture. If someone created an unusually popular piece of classical music, newspapers, writers, other artists etc... would look down on it. Culture is somewhat associated with elitism. Entertainment is for the masses... This is the direction Ebert is following, but he forgets that most movies are created to make money, and to entertain. Only very movies intend to create something that transcends time.
    However, only very few games probably qualify as art. Planescape: Torment was already's a novel, and it's a bit of an exploration of self. Ultima IV goes in the same direction, only on a more ...religious (?) plane. Myst might essentially be a collection of paintings connected by a narrative. A triptch with more than three parts, so to say.
    A controversial statement: I think most early game designers wanted to create art, but in the days of bad graphics, literary skills were required, and they often didn't match the technical skills of the first game designers. They were intended to be art, but are not recognizable as such...World-building is not yet recognized as a category of art...

    1. My opinions exactly. Having Ebert say that line is like hearing Gordon Ramsey say that movies cannot be art. For f*ck's sake, stick to your own field where your views will be more respected. I'm wondering just how many games have Ebert played?

  28. Take two kids: let one of them play mozart, read literatur or paint eight hours a day in a year. The other kid plays art (games) eight hours a day in a year! I think that after that year you could tell a difference both in the brain structure and in the physics!

    There is a difference between consuming and creating. Maybe making a video game is art but not playing it!

    I'm a gamer and fantasy/scifi lover but my love would never darken my judgement in a way that i couldnt tell the difference between the work of beethoven and richard garriot in the importance for humankind.

    Great blog by the way;) you rock!!

    1. Well, you're confusing the issue a bit by having one person create something and the other person consume something. A better analog would be to have one child LISTEN to Mozart, read literature, and STUDY painting for 8 hours a day and the other kid plays video games.

      Either way, the result doesn't prove whether the things they are consuming are or are not "art," but I agree with you that there would probably be a difference. For all my game playing and blogging, I wish I spent more of my time on music, literature, and visual arts.

    2. Depends entirely on the particulars of the media being consumed.

      If one child listens to Beyonce, reads Twilight and studies Playboy pictorials, I guarantee you they will struggle against the child who plays Portal, SpaceChem and The Longest Journey.

    3. What are you saying? Twilight novels and Playboy magazines are mutually exclusive of one another.

  29. I couldn't resist but to Google "define art". This is what I got: "The expression or application of human creative skill and imagination...". By that definition, games are art. Now who's foolish enough to argue with Google? On a different note, the merit I found in Chet's (I think that's the name he goes by, forgive me if I'm wrong) blog is the way his argument is formed. Agree or disagree, it was a well made point. He didn't simply put in a single sentence "Games are not art.". If he had, then you have a legitimate reason to be upset. Instead, his point is made, with supporting reasons, with even a fair share of acknowledged and intellectually refuted counter points. It's his opinion. Let him have it. You have yours. This is a blog after all. As always, love reading your blog.

  30. Are all games art? No, most are not. But are some games art? Sure.

    Replace games above with movies, paintings, statues, books, songs, anything you you want that's generally considered "art" and I would still feel the same.

    I would certainly consider some games to be art before I'd consider paintings where they just throw splashes of paint or random shapes on a canvas, or most of that "literature" I was forced to read in high school. And don't even get me started on "performance "art"". Yes, I used quotes in quotes, that's how little I think of that as being art.

    As it relates to RPG's, I generally wouldn't consider them to be art, at least not when they're actually focused on, ya know, role playing, but some, where there's more of a focus on the narrative (like a lot of the Final Fantasy games, just for one, probably bad, example) I say that could certainly fall into the category of art.

    As for non-RPG's, if Braid's not art, then nothing is (and I don't just mean in regard to games).

  31. In my opinion, the main flaw of the argument is: 'ALL x is art'. Which is not true of games, of movies, of paintings, of music, of anything.

    For every painting considered 'art', thousands of others get rejected for (sometimes arbitrary) reasons.

    I think the same applies (largely) to (video)games. For every 100 horrible, rushed, poorly planned games, there is a masterpiece, which one could genuinly label as art.

    Though, honestly, I don't care if games are considered art. I enjoy them for what they are and do. On the other hand, I do think the discussion has merit.

    Another thing:
    "Ebert sums it up nicely: "Why are gamers so intensely concerned, anyway, that games be defined as art?" My response to that is: The same could be said of movies, etc.

    Love the blog, by the way. been reading it for a week now.

    P.s. (My opening statement might not entirely apply to CRPG's initial argument.)

  32. I understand that you've been trying to put this one to bed, but I think this discussion will always be relevant. As a new reader, who reads your blog because of its effect on my artistic sensibilities, and someone who respects your opinion, I'd like to throw in my two cents.

    I think the problem with barring someone's work from being considered art, and the reason why so many were outraged (I was there, I remember it...) is the implication that it is "lesser than." As Alex Schulz above wrote, it's a form of elitism. You could argue that elitism isn't all bad- if you don't make the cut, you're not on the team. But as a relatively democratic fellow, I've only ever seen elitism as a negative.

    Take Ebert- he uses the word "cinema." He doesn't say "movies." The medium has transcended. But don't fool yourself- the origins of cinema are just as "common" as the origins of gaming (if not more so.) The nickelodeon is where cinema begins. Right next to the freak show at the traveling carnival. Step right up. The zoetrope- a child's toy. The first films were novelties (Train Coming Into the Station.) The first narratives were sensationalist and simplistic (The Great Train Robbery.) But for anyone who truly loves cinema, these first films are essential and beautiful in their own way. Ebert is studied in cinema history, he knows this- it's like he's the kid who grew up in the poor neighborhood, became a big success, and then went around telling everyone how all those people who he grew up with will never amount to anything, and will always be in the gutter. It's absurd.

    And the argument, "Hey, look at Bobby Fischer or Michael Jordan, they're not complaining! Why should you? You must be desperate for validation" doesn't work. First off, does anyone here actually know if Bobby Fischer or Michael Jordan don't consider their life's work a form of art? Second- if someone misunderstands and fails to properly identify your merits, it's an insult, and if you are vocally offended, it's not because you're insecure and desperate for validation, it's because you have integrity.

    And finally, I understand the impulse to see art as a "category," but as someone who considers himself an artist, I suggest looking at it differently. And it's not just a matter of "everyone defines it differently." Here's a good parallel, that y'all sci-fi/fantasy lovers may appreciate. If a replicant has the ability to feel, is it not human because it's not a Homo-Sapien? Either way, we're talking about the soul. So what does it matter how the soul presents itself? It's there, acknowledge it for what it is; how it fits into the world doesn't really matter.

    P.S. there is such a thing as bad art, which means that even bad videogames could potentially be art as well; simply art in poor taste.

  33. I personally consider art as a way for the artist to express him/herself.
    Therefore, I consider every game art, but not all art is good.
    Video games can be great artistic experiences, and developers have achived more than 'click that' or 'shoot that'. Art can make you feel something. For instance, I consider games like Gone Home, The Cat Lady, Sometimes Always Monsters, To the Moon, Pathologic... and many more to be more artistic than countless Call of Duty clones because they menage to convey the emotions the artist wanted you to feel.
    But does that mean that games like Call of Duty aren't art? No, of course not. It's just like comparing a child's drawing to Mona Lisa. They both are art and both can be enjoyed by different audiences, but one of them will be more artistic that the other.


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