Roger Ebert Pisses Me Off

Okay so today I wanted to do a popular media rant.

I tend to stay away from popular media on this blog.  I prefer to get angry over things that actually have a play in my life.  Politics being first and foremost because what the government does usually ends up directly affecting my life.  I try to stay the hell away from the entertainment industry and celebrity news because they are naught but idol distractions from real problems, my opinion really matters even less and because I just don’t care that much.  I like what I like, I’ll read/watch/play what I want, and your opinion won’t usually sway me in any direction either.  You have to be a form of glaringly stupid for me to want to say anything on the subject.

Roger Ebert is that form of stupid.

On his blog, he contends that video games can not and never will be a form of art. Be prepared for a long rant here folks, because I’m going to tear this thing to shreads like a big juicy steak.  And please think of it as me actually talking to Mr. Ebert.

Kellee Santiago is right.  Video games ARE already an art form.  I will also confess that you are right in saying “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.”  But there is a reason why these two things can both be right.  Mostly it is because those great poets, etc only became great after a very, VERY long period of time.  Video games have simply not been around long enough.  Perhaps years on, there will be video games compared to high art that you described, but it will be the high art of the time.  You try to compare it to the high art of yesteryear and it’s an unfair comparison.

One thing that I think you forget is that people were not necessarily trying to create those high forms of art when they did it.  This is very much true of writers in particular.  Lewis Carroll and William Shakespeare did not set out to create “art.”  They wrote what was popular at the time, what would entertain and possibly make them some money.  It took a lot of time before these works were considered “classic.”  In fact I would contend that only painters and the like set out to create that kind of art.  They spew a lot of bullshit in the process of it too.  But Monet and Degas and Picasso and Van Gogh only became quite so famous and worthy of the title of “art” after a large amount of time passed.  In fact, Monet’s art was condemned at the time, it (and the impressionist style in general) were considered to simply be crap.

I will contend that games like chess, football, baseball and even Mah Jong can be art, because it is not about how “elegant their rules are.”  It is about their execution.  There is a strange form of beauty to be found in an intense chess match, especially to the avid chess fan.  The same can be said of baseball and football, when an athlete pulls of a stunt of such epic proportions that you can simply do no more than sit with mouth agape.  They can spark the same emotions in people as a great book, poem, song or painting can.  Anger, sadness, elation…all can be encompassed in a book or in the viewing of a sport or game.  Video games fall into this as well.  Even a casual gamer knows the anger that comes with playing with someone who is insanely good and doesn’t give you a chance.  The happiness that comes with beating a level or boss that has stumped you and defeated you for weeks on end.

This, in fact, highlights Santiago’s favorite definition of art:

“Art is the process of deliberately arranging elements in a way that appeals to the senses or emotions.”

In some ways, a good book or movie has us doing the same thing that we do in video games or in watching a sports match.  We laugh, we cry, we scream and root and cheer.  But I can point out ways video games even fit the few definitions you also give, Mr. Ebert.

For instance if art is the “imitation of nature,” as Plato claimed and you seem to believe, then there is no reason any game, video games included, can’t fit that definition.  Nature has a constant struggle in itself.  That struggle to survive, to come out on top.  Survival of the fittest.  Sports and video games do mirror that.  Only the best team can survive to its inevitable finish.  Only by playing in the smartest way possible can you come to the conclusion of a video game.  They just have a happier ending, because for the most part it doesn’t end in death.

But there are exceptions to that rule even, for when you get to the end of a video game, sometimes your character dies.  Many video games now give you options on how to act and behave, letting you choose a path of good or evil.  It mirrors the free will humans have in the real universe.  War games have you mirror decisions and actions of real soldiers (and in fact some games are used to train the military. The same way all those famous painters are used to teach in technique in art schools, or those classic books and poems are taught to future writers and English majors.) Sports games, as well, mirror the sports of nature.  Even early man used to kick a ball around, so soccer games mirror that.

While the “free will” bit can be rather linear and pre-ordained in a video game, game makers are steadily evolving and moving away from it.  The choices are no longer quite as black or white, instead throwing in gray areas that make the decision more difficult, like in nature.  “Sandbox” video games expand the world, so that you can move much more freely and explore different places in the game that might have nothing to do with gameplay.  They mirror nature.  While these games are far from perfect in their execution, the fact that they are evolving more and more into this proves that they are indeed an art form, by Plato (and your) very definition.

Wikipedia believes “Games are distinct from work, which is usually carried out for remuneration, and from art, which is more concerned with the expression of ideas…Key components of games are goals, rules, challenge, and interaction.”

But in the execution of these things can come the expression of ideas.  Is it not an expression of an idea to put certain goals, rules, challenges and interactions into various settings either from the artists’ imagination or from real life?  To turn Renaissance Italy into a playground for an assassin (as in the game Assassin’s Creed) not an expression of an idea?  Despite that fact that you’ve given it goals, rules, challenges and interaction.  It had to start as an idea, and is a resultant expression even if it’s a bit more linear and less “free” than say a painting.

“One obvious difference between art and games is that you can win a game. It has rules, points, objectives, and an outcome.”

This would exclude games like chess or sports games, where there are clear winners and losers.  This would also exclude some video games.  But a lot of others can still be considered art.  Many games nowadays are simply interactive stories, and to “win” the game, we simply come to the conclusion of a story.  They are bound by the same rules that govern films and books.  In some ways those forms of “art” have to be bound by the rules of nature, even if you rewrite those rules for a newly created world.

Who hasn’t been thrown off in a book or movie by an introduction to something that clearly violates the rules of the world?  And I’m not talking about a surprise alien invasion.  I’m talking about something like male pregnancy, where it was never written that it can happen in this particular world.  It goes against nature, therefore you see it as a violation of the rules.

Even a book or a movie has a point.  How many films have been made to make a statement about something, a point about it.  The Crucible is a message about McCarthyism.  It has a point.  A disguised point, maybe, but a point nonetheless.  Objectives and outcomes are the same.  You don’t sit down to write a book or a screenplay without an objective for your character in mind.  Whether it’s romantic (get the couple together) or more action-minded (revenge against a certain person or group.)  Your plot doesn’t move forward without objectives.  You don’t have a story without an outcome.  There has to be a clear ending (or room for another story to put that ending in.)  If you don’t have an ending, it leaves your audience feeling unsatisfied.  Books, movies, plays, poems and yes, even video games, have to have objectives and outcomes

Poems may fit more with paintings and music in that it’s objective and outcome isn’t quite as clear as even those of books.  Most of those objectives and outcomes is the coercion of feelings and emotions in the audience, making Santiago’s definition of art a much more proper definition than yours.  Even if you don’t get the exact feelings or point (yes point) that the artist was trying to make, the fact that they made you feel something usually counts in its favor.

Video games are simply way less subtle than the other forms of art in its rules, points, objectives and outcomes.

Wait, I missed something.

“I tend to think of art as usually the creation of one artist.  Yet a cathedral is the work of many, and is it not art? One could think of it as countless individual works of art unified by a common purpose. Is not a tribal dance an artwork, yet the collaboration of a community? Yes, but it reflects the work of individual choreographers. Everybody didn’t start dancing all at once.”

Same is true of video games.  It takes many writers and developers, each with their own special purpose, to make a video game.  To tell these people that what they created is not art at all is to tell them that they’ve put all their energy into something useless.  They will get just as righteously angry as when you tell a painter or a writer that what they’ve done is not art.  It may not be art in its highest form, but it most certainly is a form of art.

Your bit on writers also amuses me.  Art really is something that can only be judged by the person viewing it.  I would say that any one who claims they have a “better” opinion of anything being considered as art is simply too arrogant.  You cite both Cormac McCarthy and Nicholas Sparks, saying that McCarthy is “better” in your opinion and that is made on the basis of your taste (which you claim is also better.)  It is there that you show your arrogance as well.  But I can cite a few other opinions that claim McCarthy is too boring and wrapped up in words to move a story along, where as Sparks is at least good enough to entertain you through a whole book, which gives him more value.

Any form of art can really only be judged by the person viewing it, and the only one who may have a higher or better opinion about it is the artist themselves (though that can be open to interpretation as well.)  You do concede this point.  Art is completely objective, which means you as well can not give a real definition of why video games aren’t considered art.

Yet at this point you try to anyway.

“Kellee Santiago has arrived at this point lacking a convincing definition of art. But is Plato’s any better? Does art grow better the more it imitates nature? My notion is that it grows better the more it improves or alters nature through an passage through what we might call the artist’s soul, or vision.”

You concede that this is still a matter of taste.  For the game Waco Resurrection you claim that it hasn’t even reached the chicken scratches of cave drawings in terms of art.  I would contend that this is only because you find scenes created entirely in computer pixels jarring.  The visuals don’t look beautiful and fluid to you and therefore you can not consider them art.  But that reveals your extremely limited exposure to video games.  Anyone who has seen the finely crafted scenery of Uncharted or the incredible detail of the characters in many of the newer Final Fantasy games (not to mention Kingdom Hearts) can not say the same thing.  Eternal Sonata was hailed for its beauty.

Her defense of the game is what you propose it to be: it alters the actual events of Waco as seen through the eyes of the artist.  But you still claim it to be a fail, based somehow on a documentary.  If what you mean is that the game somehow lacks the definition Santiago gave it (that is “as how we feel happened in our culture and society”) in comparison to the documentary, then say so.  As it is, that comparison is wrong because things are seen differently through the eyes of the two different artists.  Also, by saying that the documentary “made an enormous appeal to my senses and emotions” you are actually proposing it as art, because art stirs the senses and emotions.

Her next example is a game named “Braid.”  This is a game “that explores our own relationship with our past…you encounter enemies and collect puzzle pieces, but there’s one key difference…you can’t die.” You can go back in time and correct your mistakes. In chess, this is known as taking back a move, and negates the whole discipline of the game. Nor am I persuaded that I can learn about my own past by taking back my mistakes in a video game. She also admires a story told between the games levels, which exhibits prose on the level of a wordy fortune cookie.

Wrong, wrong and wrong again.  While in chess, taking back a move does negate the discipline of a game, the rules are different in this game.  Altered if you will.  Braid is not the same game as chess.  The point is to be able to go back in time, an enormously interesting idea to quite a few players.  Take the Prince of Persia games, for example. A way of rewinding for a second chance at life if you screw up and end up dead.  An interesting concept, used in books and films a lot as well.  Again, the game in some ways mirrors nature, but also alters it.  Who among us hasn’t remembered our past and wished to undo something?  This game makes that a reality; it alters our perception of the world.

Games are not meant to make you look at your own life and mistakes.  Much like some classical literature, if you do that then you lose all real perception of the book as a tool of entertainment.  And art is first and foremost a form of entertainment.  A distraction.  As for the story, while I will not say that either of you are right, classic literature has done the same thing.  Read Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha and tell me it does not sound like a wordy fortune cookie.

A run-down city apartment has a single flower on the sill, which leads the player into a natural landscape. The game is “about trying to find a balance between elements of urban and the natural.” Nothing she shows from this game seemed of more than decorative interest on the level of a greeting card. Is the game scored? She doesn’t say. Do you win if you’re the first to find the balance between the urban and the natural? Can you control the flower? Does the game know what the ideal balance is?

This only shows that you have a very narrow definition of a “game.”  Some games are far more complex than simply scoring and winning.  Video games have evolved into something akin to interactive movies.  Complex storylines that aren’t about points and winning.  Sometimes it’s about something deeper.  For instance, Kingdom Hearts.  The first game has you trying to rid separate worlds in a universe from a universal evil.  But in the end, while you have seemed to save this universe, you lose both the people you are closest to and have been trying to rescue.  So did you win?  Or did you lose?

Video games are different from games in that they have that added “video” bit.  The fact of the matter is that now they are moving farther and farther away from just a simple game.  Between cinematic cut scenes, highly detailed scenery and in-depth characters, they’re coming out more and more as interactive movies as much as they are games.

Video games are no more than a combination of a few different genres.  They combine storytelling and animation film making with a game’s rules and goals.  Much like the graphic novel has combined great authors with great artists to create more than just a simple comic.  While some are collected comics, many graphic novels are huge stories, as in depth as a novel but with great art to accompany it.  Would you claim that they are not art, because they don’t fit neatly into a category?

They deserve the same consideration we give every other expressive form of imagination, because that’s what video games are, what makes them different from other games.  They have new worlds, new rules, new races and lifestyles that books and movies also create.  To say that the world doesn’t matter, the thought put into the rules and limits of a new race don’t count because “it’s only a game” is to ignore it’s true potential.

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.

Development: the artist with the idea.  Whether the author of a book, the writer of a screenplay, the songwriter, the poet, the painter or the developer of a game idea.  Finance: the money.  The producer of a movie, or the financier of a video game.  Publishing: how it gets made.  The publishing house that puts out a book, the art store for the painter’s supplies, the record company for the singer and the company that manufactures the game.  Marketing: getting the word out.  The posters for the new book in the book store.  The trailers for the movies.  The art gallery’s promotion for a show.  The radio ads for a new single.  Education: telling people more about it.  Reviews, interviews, articles with the various artists involved.

Executive Management: the person holding it all together.  Don’t get me started on who it actually is, because let’s face it, it’s almost never the artist themselves.

I rest my case.

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~ by ladyruby07 on April 18, 2010.

2 Responses to “Roger Ebert Pisses Me Off”

  1. Wow. That’s some rant Amy and I think you raise some really interesting, really VALID points.
    I’ve love to see you go toe to toe with Roger! LOL
    Your Dad is very proud of you and would love to discuss this in great detail with you someday!

  2. […] a good excuse.  Rodger Ebert made me so mad on with this article I found on Sunday morning that I had to rant about it instead of politics.  I should have caught up later, but for that I blame Kozue Aikawa (xxxayu3 on […]

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