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Why Ebert Is Wrong: In Defense of Games as Art

If you're a fan of inter-generational bitching and anonymous bickering over abstract concepts, you're in luck! Roger Ebert is stirring the hornet's nest again. Actually, that might be too mild a descriptor for what he's doing, but "urinating in a hornet's nest full of nerds" is a much less familiar saying, so the understatement will have to stand for now. Once upon a time, long, long ago, back in the frontier days of the Internet, Roger Ebert wrote a blog that scarred the burgeoning gaming community for years. Yes, all the way back in 2005--when you were lucky to get a byte all to yourself and "MMORPG" was just the sound you made when you got hit by a truck--Roger Ebert stated, unequivocally and without exception, that video games are not and could never be considered "art."

mario-artiste

Operating under the assumption that if you go on public record as being broadly, stupidly, ignorantly wrong one time, you may as well do it repeatedly and loudly, he's bringing up the debate again. A quick and dirty summation: Ebert posits that the interactivity and goal-oriented structure behind video games are directly at odds with what it means to be a work of art. This time around, however, he concedes that one day video games may eventually produce something worthy of the nebulous "art" label, but that day will be so far-flung into the future that no human being walking the planet now, regardless of any medical and technological advancements, could possibly live to see that day. And that's a pretty ridiculous statement to make about anything. It's casting a net so outlandishly wide and all-consuming that it steps out of the realm of criticism and starts doing wind-sprints between the realms of prophecy and fascism.

prophet

"From now until the stars go dark, I decree that this so-called 'painting' crap shall never be art. Let it be known!"

Now, I'm not a guy who loses respect for somebody because they voice opinions which I consider ill-informed or monstrously retarded--hell, some of my best friends are ill-informed and monstrously retarded, and I'm the only person I trust enough to call friend in the first place--so I'm going to try not to be insulting about this. I don't dislike Ebert for his stance, and I don't dismiss him automatically as being out of touch. I don't think he "doesn't get it" because he's too old; I think he's just too immersed in one medium to appreciate another. That happens all the time – you'll often find music aficionados with little appreciation for painting, or painters with no interest in novels. Age isn't an instant disqualification for appreciating innovation. Roger Ebert is a sharp, incisive and thoughtful man, and his many other opinions are not instantly rendered invalid simply because he's so full of shit on this one that it's spraying out of his ears like one of those clown sprinkler-heads.

clownsprinkler

You know, with all due respect.

First off, Ebert says that he's never seen a video game worth his time enough to play one. Sooo... this rebuttal doesn't really need to go any further, does it? Continuing this discussion is like setting a time and place for a structured philosophical debate on the importance of pacifism and restraint with a rabid badger: Your opponent is not only unqualified from the start, but it's obviously just out to attack you. With an opening salvo like "I've never played a game but here's a sweeping statement about them," you know that your pleas are going to go unheeded. You can have the greatest PowerPoint presentation in the world, but you're still leaving here with rabies.

badgerpoint

The next slide is a tutorial acronym for staunching the bloodflow from a severed femoral artery using only supplies you can find in your cubicle.

So how does Roger Ebert's rationale justify having such a severe opinion on something he freely admits to never experiencing? In his words, he understands video games thusly:

"By the definition of the vast majority of games. They tend to involve (1) point and shoot in many variations and plotlines, (2) treasure or scavenger hunts, as in "Myst," and (3) player control of the outcome. I don't think these attributes have much to do with art; they have more in common with sports."

I'll concede that point. Most games are more like entertainment than art, but condemning the few because of the many is faulty reasoning. By that same logic, my understanding is that the definition of movies is pornography. If you're factoring in Internet sites, amateur efforts and the vast machinery of constant orifice violation that I'm pretty sure most of California has turned into by this point, then pornography is the most prevalent use of film. Or if that example doesn't work for you: Movies are commercials. There are more commercials on television by sheer airtime than there are movies in the world, therefore that's what all film is. Would you take me seriously if I began a tirade against the value of cinema by stating that movies shouldn't be taken seriously because, by volume, most of them are surveillance recordings of parking lots, 7-11s and ATM Machines?

surveillance

"Man, I don't get why you like these things. The characters are shallow at best and the plot is practically non-existent."

But hell, let's even roll with Ebert's faulty definition and just talk about the blockbusters. So first off, must something be judged in its entirety to be considered art? Is there not art in fleeting moments? Look at Children of Men: I'm not sure if I'd classify that movie as a work of art, but there's one pivotal scene where, after an hour or so of relentless tension, action and pursuit, the main characters leave an apartment building--currently the scene of a tremendous firefight--holding the first baby anybody has seen in decades.

theo-baby

And everything just stops. The soldiers stand dumb-founded and slack-jawed, the soundtrack of booming explosions and rattling gunfire cuts out, leaving sudden, stupefied silence. The abrupt switch of pace is jarring enough to drive the scene's point home: There are conditions where even the most hardened and violent people can be awed by the sanctity of life. That moment was art.

Fifteen minutes prior, Clive Owen kills a dude with a car battery. That was ah…a different kind of art.

artbattery2

The kind that smashes your head in with car parts. It's big in Europe.

For the gaming equivalent of that, take Call of Duty: Modern Warfare. That game, despite being entertaining and well-balanced, was dumber than a bag of rocks after a childhood spent in the American education system. It was big, it was loud, it was the epitome of pointy and shooty. But then, after you've spent several hours blissfully sprinting through exotic locales and exploding new and interesting people, this scene happens:

A nuclear bomb goes off, and you're suddenly no longer playing the invincible super-soldier, you're playing the part of the dead and dying. There's no shooting here, no treasure or scavenger hunts and, not to spoil anything, but the player has no control of the ultimate outcome. It's the gaming aspect of this moment that makes it work: Your entire history of playing video games up until this point had conditioned you to believe that death is a just a momentary loss. Death is a tackle or a missed shot. If you die, you simply set yourself up better, and do it over again. Sure, other games would kill characters off in a cut scene, but up until CoD4 no game had abruptly killed you, the main character, while you played him, and with absolutely no other possible outcome. A lot of people started that level over again. "I did something wrong," they thought. "I wasn't fast enough, there's no way important people just die awfully in the heat of war with no recours-waaaiit a minute…"

isee

I see what you did there.

Ebert believes "the real question is, do we as their [games, movies, etc.] consumers become more or less complex, thoughtful, insightful, witty, empathetic, intelligent, philosophical (and so on) by experiencing them? Something may be excellent as itself, and yet be ultimately worthless." Sure, most games fail to live up to that criteria. So do most movies, books, paintings and songs. I could list off some of the more underground games that make the best case-by-example of the game as an art form – but Ebert and people siding with him would not play them anyway. They'd read a synopsis, and dismiss them by it: Like how Braid, as far as Ebert is concerned, is a game about time travel. In actuality, Braid was a game that used time travel as a hook to tell a disturbing story about obsession, domination, violence and most likely rape. You could say The Path was a survival horror game from its synopsis, like Resident Evil. In actuality, The Path was a complicated and metaphorical look at several young girls experiencing puberty, mortality and sexual awakening. But rattling off a list of games that we think are art does not satisfy Ebert's ultimate challenge. His challenge--and it's a good and perfectly valid one--is to show him any game that stands up against a classic work of art. According to Ebert, games, to the last one, "are, I regret to say, pathetic. I repeat: No one in or out of the field has ever been able to cite a game worthy of comparison with the great poets, filmmakers, novelists and poets."

Bullshit. Rez.

rez

Rez doesn't just stack up against a classical work of art; it succeeds above and beyond the classical work. It's just that there's a specific work it matches up with, not just "masterpieces" in general. Rez was inspired by the work of a Russian painter named Wassily Kandinsky. Artists create art for a reason: They have a goal or a message they're trying to convey, even if that message is not immediately apparent to them at the time. Kandinsky happened to know exactly why he created art. He said so on many occasions: He wanted to show how music and color crossed paths in his mind. Many psychologists now believe Kandinsky was probably suffering from a bizarre neurological condition called Synesthesia--he wasn't just talkin' art-queer when he said his paintbox "hissed" at him and cellos were "a deep blue"--his senses were literally crossed so that color had sound and sound had shape. He was often unhappy with his inability to express what was happening in his head. Even in painting, his friends and colleagues said he often seemed frustrated at the failure in communication.

kandinsky

"Fuckin'... fuck this thing! Purple is my jam; that's all I'm trying to say!"

As a game, Rez was not great fun--it was a rail-borne "shooter" where you didn't really "shoot" so much as select vast swathes of targets--but its presentation was brilliant. Rez inextricably tied the player's every action to the beat of the music, which changed and evolved along with your actions and play-style. The visuals, in turn, changed and evolved with the music. All of the senses in Rez crossed with one another, integrated into each other and bled into another in some way, shape or form. If Kandinsky painted to explain his Synesthesia to others, Rez actually let them experience a small portion of it. Rez shares a more complete Synesthetic experience than Kandinsky's paintings simply because of the player's involvement in it. For this one, particular arena, the less interactive medium (painting) is essentially crippled. That brings us back to the question: What is art? Is it the object produced or the experience shared? The former sounds more like consumerism to me, but the latter sounds about right. And if that's the case, I say Rez stands with Kandinsky's work any day.

artbattery1

...and possibly bashes its head in.

But why even bother with all of this? Ebert himself wonders: "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….Why aren't gamers content to play their games and simply enjoy themselves?" And he's already answered his own question: "do we as their consumers become more or less complex, thoughtful, insightful, witty, empathetic, intelligent, philosophical (and so on) by experiencing them?" Anybody who's ever felt even an inkling of something like that from a game is going to be understandably "concerned" when you insist that they're lying.

mario_battery


You can buy Robert's book, Everything is Going to Kill Everybody: The Terrifyingly Real Ways the World Wants You Dead, or find him on Twitter, Facebook and his own site, I Fight Robots or you can reconsider buying his book. It works miracles. This kid in Canada bought it, and now he speaks near-perfect English... practically overnight!

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