Roger Ebert: Don’t feed the troll
If there’s one rule on the internet I find truer than all others, it’s the one on trolling. If you haven’t heard it before, it’s simple; don’t feed the trolls. It’s almost an anthropic approach to argument or discussion resolution, but for the sweeping majority of internet disputes, it’s the only higher-road way to approach those topics.
That said, what I’m going to do here by acknowledging and refuting something (that I consider trolling) directly breaks that rule. But bear with me.
Fishing for publicity
There’s been a lot of that going on this week, but what really started the week out for me was movie critic Roger Ebert’s second assertion that “games are not art,” and later that games can never be “high art.” It’s another attempt to fish for publicity and generally incite a wave of semantic debate stemming from a completely incorrect pretense of his. He did it five years ago, albeit in a very small blurb on his website:
I did indeed consider video games inherently inferior to film and literature. There is a structural reason for that: Video games by their nature require player choices, which is the opposite of the strategy of serious film and literature, which requires authorial control.
I am prepared to believe that video games can be elegant, subtle, sophisticated, challenging and visually wonderful. But I believe the nature of the medium prevents it from moving beyond craftsmanship to the stature of art. To my knowledge, no one in or out of the field has ever been able to cite a game worthy of comparison with the great dramatists, poets, filmmakers, novelists and composers. That a game can aspire to artistic importance as a visual experience, I accept. But for most gamers, video games represent a loss of those precious hours we have available to make ourselves more cultured, civilized and empathetic.
That was in 2005. Flash forward to 2010, and what does he decide to address just a month or so after his return to work from battling cancer? That very topic. Except, this time, his assertion is even more definite: video games can never be art. But never is a long time, so he hedges later by noting that games will never be art within our lifetime. Perhaps he refers to his own, admittedly shorter lifetime (seeing as the majority of gamers are at a median of 30 years old), but the clarification is nevertheless a “you know, just in case,” type of cop-out.
First of all, the timing of his post is telling; it’s obviously a publicity stunt to draw more attention to his recent return to movie reviewing. But I think it’s a relevant discussion to have at this point, whatever Ebert’s possibly misguided, possibly earnest motives for bringing up such an academic issue again.
Ebert is confused about what kind of argument he wants to do battle with gamers. In fact, if you break it down, there seem to be three.
- His claim in 2005 was that nothing truly interactive can be artistic like “serious film and literature.” He makes this claim again in his 2010 piece, in so many words, by claiming that games can never be art in principle because gamers actively participate in the outcome. He argues that art is, because it guides one’s experience through a singular, common vision or experience crafted by the artist. It doesn’t rely on decision making or input from the user to convey its message; a novel or painting appears – at a superficial level – the same way to everyone. It’s static and timeless, not interactive.
- The purely academic side of him wants to see formal, academic citations and comparison, like a critical essay or critique. He challenges, “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.” Perhaps Ebert is waiting for someone to write a really good critical essay with numerous citations and academic form. I’ll show in a few moments how absurd this point is.
- He takes issue with videogames as a money-making industry, noting that art cannot be commercial. He quips, “I allow Sangtiago the last word. Toward the end of her presentation, she shows a visual with six circles, which represent, I gather, the components now forming for her brave new world of video games as art. The circles are labeled: Development, Finance, Publishing, Marketing, Education, and Executive Management. I rest my case.” Apparently, art isn’t art if it requires the infrastructure a business does.
Theses are Ebert’s primary theses.
I’m going to tear them down.
Argument 1: The folly of a straw man
Ebert builds a classic straw man argument in his first argument. He claims art need to be static for it to be art. For example, that The Return of the Native ends the same way regardless of what the reader does; you can’t change the outcome, you can’t win, you can’t lose, you can’t stop Eustacia from drowning, and you can’t influence characters outcomes. You could tear pages out of the book, write a critical essay about how different Thomas Hardy’s message might have been if several small events happened differently, or even burn the novel and mail him the ashes – but the novel’s story, plot, and message are immutable and common. It isn’t interactive. Much the same way, painting, photography, and sculpture – other perceptual art forms – don’t rely on user interaction superficially. They just exist however the artist finished them, and remain that way. They aren’t interactive either.
But are they?
In fact, I would argue that interaction and perception is one of the bases of art. In fact, the unique interpretation of some art form – the ability for something to be singularly and dynamically interpreted by a viewer in a personal way – is what makes art powerful. Sure, superficial and first-order art is important, but what makes good, high-level artwork powerful is that it can be dynamically interpreted. The experience of viewing some real piece of art, I would argue, is that it can be dynamically interpreted in different, meaningful ways for different viewers. The message can indeed be timeless, but art doesn’t exist in a vacuum – there always will be context, and that context continually ensures that the mere thought of viewing it makes real art an interactive experience.
I’m confused why Ebert, or any critic, would want to define an experience that isn’t engaging as being desirable.
What decade are you living in, Ebert?
But all of this is beyond the point! Ebert is so out of tune that what he considers videogames are primitive constructs that existed, perhaps at latest, in the late 1980s. The vision of videogames he is stuck on is one where games existed solely to be won or lost, where perhaps the only secondary reward or outcome was some arbitrary high score. If you don’t believe me, consider this: Ebert constantly uses the example of someone playing a game of chess as an example. Yes, chess. Or mahjong. Or other basic board games. He’s so out of touch that at one point he brings up sports at one point. Yes, as in athletes and commercial competitive activities. This absolutely couldn’t be further from what gaming is or is about today. This isn’t “gaming,” it’s gaming, and this is where Ebert built his straw man. He’s arguing about an entirely different kind of video game than what people are thinking about; he’s talking about videogames that are little more than evolutionary progressions of board games. He’s thinking of things like frogger, tetris, or pac man. They exist to be played, not experienced. But videogames have changed completely since Ebert stopped paying attention and formed his misguided conclusions.
The irony, of course, is that telling a common, linear story for each player is actually a negative characteristic of a modern videogame. Titles like Crysis, for example, were lauded early on for allowing players to experience a game world in a unique and distinct way. Players can decide to charge enemies head-first and be destroyed in the uphill battle, or flank through the jungle, surprising an entrenched enemy force from the side, or perhaps snipe, miss the shot, and find themselves being flanked from both land and sea (since the entrenched force since radioed their buddies for help).
But at the end of the day, the game’s story remains the same. The outcome of the level is guided, and although the player’s decisions might have been unique at a small level, they still arrive at the same inevitable outcome. If you’re so inclined, it’s like a path-independent line integral – it doesn’t matter how you go through the scalar field, between two points, the difference is still the same. In the game, at a level-level, the beginning, middle, and end remain the same. These levels then (hopefully) tie together and lead to a story that ties levels together, giving the game a story that gives it some purpose.
To put it simply, modern games have a plot, a story – a beginning, middle, and end. In fact, you can extend the novel analogy further: Game levels are essentially chapters. The game itself is like a novel. There are even trilogies or series – look no further than Halo, Metal Gear Solid, Final Fantasy, Bioshock or hundreds, perhaps thousands of other spectacularly well put together, coherent game franchises.
Argument 2: It isn’t recognized by academia
It’s obvious to me that Ebert is living in the past, in a world at least 20 years ago. If he was willing to do some research, read an academic paper, or just use google scholar, he would’ve heard of Ludology by now. If you’re going to write about something, guy, do your research, or you just get caught with your pants down looking patiently ignorant. Here, Ebert looks just that: confused, outdated, and misguided. Nobody has engaged you, Ebert, with serious arguments about why videogames constitute a true artistic form, probably because they’re too busy out making their art. Even more likely, because, until now, you wouldn’t entertain the dialogue. You’ve picked your battles against a straw man, and against titles that nobody has ever heard of or cares about. That modern videogamers have never heard of. That they don’t identify as art, or are so crude and basic that they’re a mockery. They aren’t mainstream. They aren’t good.
I could go out, shoot a 20 minute movie of the sky, write a couple hundred words about how it lacked story, purpose, plot, or thought – and then claim that all movies aren’t art. That they’re for children. But you know what, I wouldn’t, because that’s not a valid argument. Just like movies, games span the gamut when it comes to quality. It doesn’t do justice to make claims about any medium solely on the basis of a few bad examples.
So you know what, fine, I’ll give you a list of some games worthy of comparison “with the great poets, filmmakers, novelists and poets.” (poets must be awesome in Ebert’s 1980s world, because he mentioned ‘em twice. Freudian slip?)
- Bioshock is gaming’s Citizen Kane. It’s as simple as that. It’s literally a game that retells Ayn Rand’s objectivist philosophy in a reimaged form.
- Zork is often cited as one of the first text-based interactive video games. It’s an immersive, engaging story without flashy graphics or artwork. The interaction and story are the game.
- Half Life is a narrative epic famous for being told almost entirely through the first-person perspective of the player. It’s a classic that’s nearly unrivaled in its genre. Doom, Quake, Return to Castle Wolfenstein – these are equally as epic.
- System Shock. This is a classic. System Shock is “the benchmark for intelligent first-person gaming”, “[it] kick-start[ed] the revolution which … has influenced the design of countless other games.”
- Fallout is an RPG staple that I would cite largely for being an example of great storytelling that isn’t linear. In fact, that’s the point of RPG – the story is almost your own.
- Knights of the Old Republic, the Jedi Knight series, X-Wing, TIE Fighter, X-Wing vs. TIE Fighter, and X-Wing Alliance are some of the best examples of games crafted from a movie world. Ebert seems to only consider video games that are awful adaptations of movies. Perhaps he’s under the impression every video game adapted from a movie is as godawful as the Back to the Future game, which has nothing to do with the movie. Or perhaps his mind closed with the E.T. Video Game, which many seriously cite as the tipping point that led to the video game crisis of 1983.
- Mass Effect is literally what Bioware (who developed Knights of the Old Republic) wanted to make when set loose. It’s a fully developed future universe, complete with characters, environments, races, and plots that are fully immersive. It’s amazing that movies like Avatar can be lauded over and over again for being so comprehensive in their vision, when games like Mass Effect have been doing the same for nearly a decade. Anything less would be half-baked.
- Heavy Rain is literally a game-novella for adults. It’s an absolutely amazing experience that plays like a movie, much the same way Metal Gear Solid IV plays just like a movie.
You want the modern equivalent of poets? The authors of prose presented in modern form? Look no further than:
- John Carmack
- Shigeru Miyamoto
- Cliff Bleszinski
- Casey Hudson
- Stieg Hedlund
- Sid Meier
- Yuji Naka
- Gabe Newell
- Will Wright
This list is only a 10th of the numerous acclaimed videogame designers, writers, programmers, and visionaries. Perhaps Ebert never ventured to this wikipedia page of famous videogame visionaries, or looked at any of those titles. Almost every single one is art. He’s paid to do write these pieces, why does it take me to find peer-reviewed sources of acclaimed examples that rival his acknowledged novelists, directors, and poets. Is it honestly beyond him to do research before writing? Or is his expertise so limitless that it needs no foundation?
Argument 3: Videogaming is an industry
Wait, and film-making isn’t? This point is so pleasantly confusing, conflicted, and wrong that anyone with a room-temperature IQ can see right through it.
- There are indie film-makers.
- There are indie video game designers. (look no further than the App Store, Xbox marketplace, Android marketplace, or homebrew communities)
- There are independent movies.
- There are independent game developers.
- There are huge companies making movies.
- There are huge companies making videogames. (Electronic Arts, Rockstar, Blizzard, e.t.c.)
- The bar of entry for making movies is as low as having a computer and a video camera.
- The bar of entry for making videogames is as low as having a computer and possibly a console, iPod Touch/iPhone/Android Phone.
- There are cult classic movies.
- There are cult classic videogames.
See what I did there? What the heck kind of argument is it that videogames are an industry? Last I checked, movies and film-making is also a huge industry. In fact, both are subsets of the “entertainment” industry. So is music, yet nobody is blue in the face or 1,400+ comments into an argument about those mediums.
If running a successful industry (and thus “Development, Finance, Publishing, Marketing, Education, and Executive Management”) makes an entire medium not art, then movies, music, and videogames are all not art. This is the classic argument fine-art photographers use to exclude photojournalism from being true art. Are we really going to have this argument again?
I guess what I find alarming really isn’t that Ebert doesn’t get it, it’s that he’s seriously vehemently engaged in killing the perception of videogames as an art form.
For the longest time, movies, cinema, film, whatever you want to call it (it’s the same thing – images presented in rapid visual succession to give the impression of continual video, perhaps accompanied with audio) fought an uphill battle to be considered art. In fact, cinema seemed no more of an art form than perception itself – it merely existed. No doubt some of the very first directors and cinema visionaries fought and argued with established critics of the time for the respect and accredited art form that Ebert takes for granted now.
Take a step backwards, and think about how long and how hard painters and photographers argued about which form was truer art. Which form was better. Is something captured, rather than crafted, artistic? Or can anything be crafted? Aren’t photographs taken with some form? Which one is art?
Go backwards again and consider the evolution from one media to another time and time again. Was realist art a truer art form than impressionism? Is modernism, pop art, or contemporary art less of an art form than photography? Than sculpture? Than cinema?
What makes art, art? Wikipedia defines art eloquently, as:
Art is the process or product of deliberately arranging elements in a way to affect the senses or emotions. It encompasses a diverse range of human activities, creations, and modes of expression, including music, literature, film, sculpture, and paintings. – Wikipedia
So how is a videogame – which arguably is what you’d get if you convolved all of these together – not art? Modern videogames include all of those, well, arts. Musicians for directing soundtracks, scores, and guiding the player’s emotions and the game’s feel. Literature for the game’s story and plot, tying it into a cohesive experience. Film for cutscenes, directing, posing, and when the player isn’t in direct control. Sculpture for the artists crafting player models, environment models, scenes, levels, and objects. Painting for those creating textures of virtually everything mapped on the models. All of these aren’t just part of the process, they are the process. So isn’t the sum of a videogame greater than its parts?
It’s a rhetorical question, of course. My theory? Ebert is jealous. Video games are already dwarfing all of the other entertainment forms. Music, literature, and cinema. Look no further than Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare. Halo. Fallout. Unreal. Half-Life. All huge blockbuster titles dwarfing mere cinema.
But you know what? It doesn’t matter. At the end of the day, it’s semantic. What is “art?” I’d argue, art is that feeling left stirring in you after you’ve left the experience behind. After you’ve put down the controller, left the museum, closed the novel, or exited the theater. It’s that nagging presence you can’t ignore after you’ve been presented with something compelling. It’s obvious, really. Maybe video games aren’t art to Ebert – fair enough, but don’t presuppose that they can’t be art for everyone else, that art is something only you are equipped to appreciate, unless you really are arrogant.
Pundits can argue for all eternity; artists will still be out there practicing their trade – and real connoisseurs will appreciate their work, whatever the medium.