Someone Bitchslap Roger Ebert

Hot on the heels of the “controversy” surrounding him having the nerve to not enjoy a film that contains the beating of an eleven year old girl for fun factor, (and fans saying that he “just doesn’t get it,”) Roger Ebert again dives into the hot water that is the “Games are not art” debacle, with his new article: “Video games can never be art“. I respect the size of this man’s testicles. (In fact, I like him in general, but that’s neither here nor there.)

Having written a somewhat lengthy comment on his blog, I figured “Hey, why not put it here, too, as to simply get something on the blog?”

The crux of his argument, I feel, can be summed up in his included quote. What follows is my reply.

I remain convinced that in principle, video games cannot be art. Perhaps it is foolish of me to say “never,” because never, as Rick Wakeman informs us, is a long, long time. Let me just say that no video gamer now living will survive long enough to experience the medium as an art form.

While I sadly agree that games generally aren’t art, I find it not a fault of the medium, but the fault of the people involved.

It’s particularly in your accusation of “lack of authorial control” that I find myself annoyed. Yes, to give choice is to not dictate what the player does, but the authorial direction lies in how the system (the game) responds to the player’s input. It’s a conversation between the player and author that, in the end, the author has all control over. I’d like to cite an unusual example: “Sim City.”

You’ve likely heard of “The Sims,” the virtual doll house created by Will Wright. Long before that, he made his name on Sim City, a game in which players are tasked with building a city for virtual denizens by issuing zoning permits (Residential, Industrial, Commercial,) building roads, libraries, public transit, and the likes. How is this example valid? Because if you build a city with no public transit, people will eventually rage. If you build a city with no roads, people are only discontent. Ideally, public transit permeates your city, and roads simply “exist,” inverse to how many major cities are today. Choices like this and the judgment of if the placement of zoning is “correct” or not is not one made arbitrarily, it’s one of artistic intent, and to ignore than is to ignore how games function.

These things aren’t the result of some study of urbania meant to make a realistic simulation, this is purely the definitive example of a perfect city as described by the creator, Will Wright. This is his artistic vision put forth, largely (and obviously, given the game’s visuals,) influenced by his Californian upbringing. It’s by the player choosing different avenues of development, and seeing them marked as “incorrect,” that Wright makes his case to the player.

It’s with this view on games that you should consider a “win state” of a game as merely “an end” that agrees with what the creator puts forth as “correct.” Films end, novels end, poems end, and games end. Games just have multiple endings due to their interactive nature, but this doesn’t preclude them from all narratively driving to a singular thesis (not that such a thing should be required to meet any definition of “art,” but it does make the understand simpler in modern games. An alternate ending can simply be another viewing of the same point the game strains to make.)

Now, my definition of art (“a product of human creativity”) is likely vastly different from yours, but I would certainly love to hear a better justification for not considering games art than “lack of authorial control,” which games absolutely have. The issue of why you don’t see this more often is a much better question, and has partially to do with the old Hollywood studio system that permeates the Game Industry today, chopping potential artists off at the knees. More than that, it’s the fault of fans.

I agree that the vast majority of games are worth nothing artistically speaking, and I say this not with derision, but sadness. I see such potential and I see it wasted on Michael Bay levels of emotional exploration solely because it’s easier for developers to make with interactive explosions than it is with interactive emotion. This is the fault of gamers for preferring cheap and instant gratification to emotional and heartfelt. These are the same people who make death threats at you for having a different opinion and sharing it. But I certainly do believe games can drag themselves out of the era of cave paintings, but it will be dragging the majority of its fanbase behind it, kicking and screaming.

I think it certain that games will reach levels of artistry as complex as any other medium. I just really hope that I’m alive to see it. Though, like you said, I expect I won’t be, simple due to the complete lack of regard for subtext in interactivity.

Gaming is an artistic medium, despite the people involved.

Anyway, keep up the good review work, sir.