Game Eaters

Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Ebert just cannot let go.

Roger Ebert has had a long antagonism with the medium of videogames... or so it would seem.

I first remember hearing his thoughts on games at a film festival I attended in 1999. I don't remember his exact words, but I do remember him commenting on the subject during a panel Q&A. He said something about videogames not having any substance or soul to them, that they were just pure stimuli. Those are my words, but I remember his gist was similar.

I am kicking myself right now because I used to have two e-mails from Ebert on this topic, but I lost them at some point. I'll try to remember them...

The first was a response sent to me after I offered to speak with Ebert on videogames. I was motivated by what he said at the festival, so I e-mailed him afterwards offering to teach him a bit about the medium just so he could have a more informed opinion. (This wasn't a completely silly offer since I was a student studying videogames and new media at UWMilwaukee at the time.) He politely declined but did claim--again, I'm paraphrasing from memory--he probably shouldn't have opened his mouth on a subject he admittedly didn't know much about.

The second response was to another e-mail I sent him about a year later. (I only e-mailed him twice.) My second message was in reference to a comment he'd made about current machinima being artistically empty because of its connection with the iconography of videogames. This really annoyed me because I thought he wasn't going to say stuff like that anymore, so I asked him why he insisted on judging videogames without real knowledge of them. That's when he told me [paraphrasing] he'd decided videogames were fundamentally different from movies in that they were interactive so they could never be what cinema was.

That was 5 years ago. And here Ebert is again, in 2005, spouting the same rhetoric on his website:

I [do] 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.

Ebert is a reasonably and literate fellow. I'm not expecting him to be converted to liking videogames, and I don't think it's important that he is either. What bothers me is his on-going insistence that videogames are, in fact, inferior to other media. I don't understand why he needs to make this claim. Why can't he just say he doesn't see art in the medium in its current form, say he's not interested, and just leave it at that?

Ebert is making a theoretical argument here. He isn't just saying he doesn't get it. He's saying he does get it. He's saying "I have analyzed the fundamental properties of these media and concluded that videogames cannot be art." I find this disappointing for someone of Ebert's intelligence.

Ebert will probably never change his mind, and that's fine. He can say whatever he wants. He doesn't have to care about videogames. He doesn't even have to understand the culture. I just wish he would realize that because so he has no business judging videogames, or gamers, or the value of videogame culture.

I've spent the last few years of my life with people who are considered pivotal figures in Game Studies. My thesis at MIT was about how cultural meaning is constructed in gaming culture. I am not claiming to be the greatest expert on videogames, but I am more of an expert than Ebert will ever be... and I am not alone in that.

When Ebert decides he's finally ready to sit down and learn something about videogames, I and others like me will be available to help him understand why games are meaningful to a generation of people. But until he decides to do that, he really should refrain from making such comments. They are obnoxious and insulting to an entire culture.


  • Games tend to be compared to narrative media such as film and novels simply because of surface stylistic similarities and commercial realities. It's funny to realize that it wasn't that long ago when films and novels were considered trashy entertainment and unworthy of being termed as "art," and in that context Ebert's comments do come across as ironic.

    I personally think the games-as-art dialogue will be more adequately served by comparisons to architecture and sculpture, in the sense that their vocabulary and underlying value systems can readily be applied to various kinds of 3D games. It's a pity that neither of those art forms are currently in vogue in the public eye, though, and sculptors and architects who dabble in the field of games tend to get derided, not engaged, by game makers and players. At least Keita Takahashi made his mark with Katamari Damacy before growing tired of the industry.

    By Blogger Philip, at 9:36 PM  

  • I agree. I don't find Ebert's comments surprising, just annoying. I'm not really afraid that videogames will never be appreciated. It's just that, at the present moment, there is a huge overlap between the videogame and film fan communities. Many gamers read Ebert and love his work, so it is always disappointing when a cultural gap like this rears its ugly head.

    By Blogger Matt, at 10:52 AM  

  • There's another negative part, and it goes for people who are *not* gamers, and by reading Ebert, whom they trust as a critic, acquire an opinion of something they don't know, through someone that doesn't know about it either.

    Ebert's comments are the reflection of what a vast majority of people still think, so it's not news. The problem is that he's in a position to get to a wide audience, and he's taken as an autority. It's up to *us* to demonstrate that videogames are an art too.

    By Blogger Clara, at 10:52 AM  

  • You're right, it is up to us to demonstrate their potential as art. The only problem is that the nature of the industry is such that publishers put out a few innovative products and then we see clones ad nauseum. Top that off with industry blockbusters like the GTA franchise that draw negative attention in the public eye, and we have ourselves a pickle.

    Not that it can't be done, it's just might take a while. Maybe we need another new media form to place the blame on? ;)

    By Blogger Nick, at 1:20 PM  

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