Saturday, April 17, 2010

Video Games, Ebert and Art

I hold a great deal of respect for Roger Ebert. I remember watching At The Movies with my dad late at night, either Saturday or Sunday, my recollection is hazy Later when I began to write reviews I looked at how he reviewed, specifically in At The Movies. Even more recently he has become one of my three main sources for reading movie review, the others being The A.V. Club and Rotten Tomatoes.
He has taken flack for his opinion that video games are not art and I respect the man's opinions in general. Of course this is the Internet and apparently "everyone" wants to defend video games as being art. Frankly, without being a gamer at all, he is simply speculating that a game cannot be art. In a 2007 article where he commented on Clive Barker's opinion on the matter and he stated video games will never be art because:

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.

Now I rebut this by saying, "Hey, look at the movie industry! "
1. If you replace "point and shoot" with "romance between two people" for example this creates a giant variation in genres from "From Here to Eternity" to "Grease" to "500 Days of Summer" to I" Love You Man" and so on a so forth.
2. The treasure hunt genre is a classic film trope. if you look at Indiana Jones, National Treasure, etc there are many treasure hunt movies, Ebert seems to be complaining because you have to do the looking.
3. Player control of the outcome is less widely used in the film industry but it is also rarely used, well at least, in the video game industry. While most games end when you beat them or die, you really will continue on till you end. Even then endings rarely vary considering the massive number of games and when they do vary, the endings are barely different between extreme evil and extreme good. The ones that go beyond are classic games. I will submit though that few films did well with multiple endings as well. I can think of Clue though I am certain that Mr. Ebert could name several more.

The points simply mean that three genres of gaming keep all games from being considered art. Therefore I might raise that horrible parody films ala Date Movie, bad acting and linear storytelling in movies keep films from being art. The points make no sense and logically I would consider his arguments moot, though I am not the greatest logician so there might be a fallacy in my statement.

Of course, those points only defend why games cannot be high art. High art is a pretty loaded term. Is it something that cannot be swallowed by the masses and enjoyed by them, only to be reserved for people in berets with cigarettes? If that is the case, I honestly don't care for most high art films. The ideas that come to mind are those much maligned and stereotyped faux-Ingmar Bergman films shot in black and white while pointless symbols float around the screen. Perhaps equating video games to high art is making the wrong case, somewhat. The games that would be made to be considered high art are most likely unpopular so perhaps equating video games to films Ebert likes would make a better argument.

(On a side note, of the three games mentioned in the Ebert's recent post as being art games, I was only familiar with Braid which in some ways over-touted itself as being better than all other video games.)

These are films that moved me deeply in one way or another. The cinema is the greatest art form ever conceived for generating emotions in its audience. That's what it does best. (If you argue instead for dance or music, drama or painting, I will reply that the cinema incorporates all of these arts).

Roger Ebert - Ten Greatest Films of All Time

I rebut video games incorporate all of the arts along with video into itself. Consider the cutscenes of video games - an amazing one is resonant within you. Some games have even turned into hour long cutscenes interspersed with brief moments of games, though I personally am against this movement.
Nonetheless, I see that the best games have a wonderful directorial sense to them. The video game critic Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw has mentioned frequently his love for the opening of the game Bioshock where you are immersed in the world through exploration, though it can be considered linear. I'd put this game as being art. Technically its offspring, a film adaptation, will be art, if all films are considered art, which they are not.

Ebert defines his favorite films of the decade as those which made a "direct emotional impact." I have cried during video games. I have felt betrayed. A creative and immersive story draws you in even more than a film as you take the role of the character, or you should. There are a lot of bad games out there, but there are also a lot of, if not more, bad movies. In those truly immersive games, every time you play through the game, you come back and are awarded again and again, even if you know the ending. Good films are the same way. Good paintings are the same way. Good songs are the same way. All art is the same way.

Art and its definition are generally very sticky subjects. I am an art student. I can barely paint, my drawing skills need work. I study web design and interactive media. I am a web design artist and I don't consider any website "high art" because most sites lack depth and emotional resonance. Depth and emotional resonance are not part of the medium though since they commonly clash with the utility. The content on them might be art. The content might be that point of which all art is reaching where all mediums meet together.

Really though in the end, this is mostly to you readers who are pestering Roger Ebert, if Roger Ebert doesn't want to consider video games art, who needs to care? He reviews films and he is generally very wise on that subject, as he should be. If you are a gamer and you care what his opinion is, unfounded as it may be as he lacks personal experience with video games, move on. There are people who consider video games art and those who do not. It is just the way the world is. Stop worrying about Mr. Ebert and have fun playing some games. Perhaps if you stop being so insistent, he might even be willing to join.

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