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Games are Fingerpaintings

posted on April 21st, 2010 by christian

I told myself I wasn’t going to write about this, but the silly debate between Roger Ebert and the gaming community has got to stop.  Before, I was able to ignore these near seasonal exchanges between the respected film critic and every Tom, Dick and Harry who has ever picked up a controller, but this time around, even the most well respected writers are doing their part to raise our hobby’s embarrassment levels to critical mass.

The commentary over at Penny Arcade is either supremely honest, or stiflingly elitist.  Tycho’s post does its best to rip into Ebert, to the point of calling him a “creature”.  Meanwhile, in the comic, there is an admission that one day, we too will get old and hate young people.  Tycho’s approach is akin to the typical way in which people debate gender issues – everything comes down to nature, except for when it all comes down to nurture, and never shall the two meet.  Quite frankly, that’s bullshit.  Either he’s blaming Ebert for acting in a way that can’t be helped, or he believes that the film critic actually can change his views, at which point the strip itself is a hollow attempt at softening the blow in a situation which does not call for fighting fire with fire.  And while I know he has a tendency towards self deprecation, I wonder whether Tycho, who serves a similar role of authority in the gaming world, will graciously pass the torch when it comes time for him to do so. Whatever the case, nothing about PA’s stance here feels genuine or well thought out.  That’s something that I never thought I would type, which just goes to show how messed up this situation has become. If we’re trying to debate against an incredible critic and writer, it would help if two of our strongest voices wrote something that couldn’t be busted after five seconds on wikipedia.

Now, about Ebert’s opinion.  Is it really as bad as it is made out to be?  I don’t think so.  Here’s a man who has spent years watching some of the greatest films of all time, and reading some of the greatest literature.  He has access to all sorts of landmark material.  His life has been rich with great works of… whatever you want to define them as.  Furthermore, he hasn’t had years of training and familiarity with games, which will have a profound impact on how he views them.  So here he is, asking for a video game that will be genuinely worth his time.  And if I factor in all these points, I can’t think of any suggestions.  I can’t think of any one game that would enrich him in a way that is better than his favorite forms of art and entertainment.  Maybe different, but then this whole debacle simply comes down to a matter of taste and preferences. I also can’t think of a game that he could easily begin to study and examine.  Even something like Flower has a bit of a learning curve, since it’s motion controls require a specific level of precision.  I can’t think of many games that are considered great examples of interactive storytelling that wouldn’t look ridiculous to someone in his position. If you’re thinking of something like Bioshock, remember the fact that Ebert doesn’t play games.  The awkward animations, Disney-ride scripting, and recycled Splicer models are aspects that our brains often ignore, because we understand the limitations that cause these issues.  But for Ebert, or anyone else like him, these will stick out like a sore thumb.  If gamers want to convince him of anything, they need to stop asking him to make all sorts of exceptions.  They need to look at games from the perspective of an outsider, and have the honesty to figure out the flaws in the games we like.  When you do this, you realize that video games have a long way to go, no matter how entertaining they are.  The consensus is that Ebert has destroyed his argument by refusing to play any games, but in reality, the burden of proof in this philosophical debate lies entirely on us.  Until we show him something worthwhile, until we learn to accommodate a little, Ebert has every right to sit on his “throne” and spend his time with something he knows how to work with.

Maybe gamers are also interpreting Ebert’s words as some vicious attack on gaming. That is, if games aren’t art, then they’re not worthwhile.  I am reminded from the following quote from his latest essay:

“Why are gamers so intensely concerned, anyway, that games be defined as art? Bobby Fischer, Michael Jordan and Dick Butkus never said they thought their games were an art form. Nor did Shi Hua Chen, winner of the $500,000 World Series of Mah Jong in 2009. Why aren’t gamers content to play their games and simply enjoy themselves? They have my blessing, not that they care.”

This is a man who clearly enjoys games like chess, and clearly has respect for the feats of great athletes.  He doesn’t think that games and sports are art, but he still considers them a valuable part of life, and something worth participating in.  I’m not sure why this can’t be enough for our hobby.  Of course, the next paragraph gets a little nasty:

Do they require validation? In defending their gaming against parents, spouses, children, partners, co-workers or other critics, do they want to be able to look up from the screen and explain, “I’m studying a great form of art?” Then let them say it, if it makes them happy.

Now he’s treating us like a bunch of bratty children. But you know what?  Anyone who kicks and screams for validation for the sake of it deserves such treatment.  This isn’t someone like Jack White, taking pot shots at our hobby solely to get attention.  Ebert has no problem with people playing video games.  I don’t get the sense that he would think less of us for doing so.  He would think less of us if we played games at the expense of everything else, but that’s a reasonable stance.  To put it all another way, I can’t stand when someone states their opinion on smoking by saying “I don’t care if you fill your lungs up with toxic smoke.  Do what you want.”  It’s a veiled insult disguised as trumpeting freedom. I don’t get this vibe from anything Ebert says, but it seems to be exactly how some gamers interpret his words.  They’re hearing what they want to hear.

So here’s my rant; Roger Ebert doesn’t have to try hard to argue his side, because we are doing all the work for him.  This debate has shown all the worst sides of our hobby, from the way we play to the way we make to the way we discuss.  We were the ones who said “games are art”, and as soon as anyone dares to call us out, we play the victim.  It doesn’t work as well, but it requires less effort.   We think through our arguments while never leaving our own shoes, and wonder why no one else finds it to be as simple and easy as we do.  Again, less effect for less work.  Hell, we can’t even pick our games right.  If we are trying to choose an example of what gaming can accomplish, why do we pick these overly scripted first person hybrids with film major quality scripts, rather than something like Halo, something that is simple, well executed, and demonstrates great technology and a great relationship between creator and playerbase?  I swear, it seems like half the time, the only criteria for establishing a game as being deep and artsy is that the developer says it is.  At the very least we could try and choose games worthy of our attention, rather than whatever a salesman tells us we should like.  Many film buffs have no qualms saying that Die Hard is an incredible film, without the “action film” disclaimer. They know that there’s a lot that goes into a good film than just how much it makes us “think”. I’m not sure if we’re at that point yet with games, and until we get there, we still have a lot of work to do.

For now, we’re just acting like typical humans.  Greedy, lazy, hypocritical. No where near the realms of “higher art”.  And it’s sad to see that, because it doesn’t merely make it harder to prove ourselves.  It also affects the quality of our games.  We don’t accommodate outside ideas, and we’re afraid to establish the tone of discussion on our own, instead content to talk about only what the “industry” considers fair game.   Heavy Rain is a game that gives you control over pulling out a pair of sunglasses. On the other hand, Monster Hunter is a game that tries to give control to tasks that other online RPGs tend to automate.  One of these is advancing game design.  The other we call art.  I’m not even saying we have to tell someone like David Cage to shove it.  But why does our hobby find it so difficult to say something as simple as “You didn’t get it right this time.  Here’s how to improve”.  Why can’t we be comfortable with the idea that the games that revel in simple “gameyness” are things we should be proud of?  What’s wrong with having a middle ground?

Do we really care about the advancement of gaming?  Do we really care about its status as art? Or do we just care about the state of video games as granfalloon?  At the rate we’re going, Ebert’s eventually going to retract his statement, upon realizing that games are, in fact, a spectacular source of comedy.

8 Comments

  1. Max said on April 24, 2010:

    I couldn’t agree more. There is no question in my mind that games ARE not art. Whether they COULD, sometime in the distant future, become art, is a separate question, but for right now, Ebert is unequivocally correct, and our time is better spent making better games (or encouraging the industry to do so) than engaging in theoretical arguments about what could be.

  2. Alex said on April 26, 2010:

    Hi, excellent article. I was unaware of Ebert’s anti-gaming stance until now. As a gamer and a film student though, it seems very very simple to me – this is ultimately a semantic debate. High-art, art and entertainment are constantly being thrown around to represent different things – what was vulgar last era (ballet) is now high art because we no longer understand the cultural cues that made it vulgar originally.

    What struck me most when reading the various responses to this attack on gaming is the birth of films themselves – yes, now films are a respected art form but when they first came out it was considered universally true that films are incapable of fulfilling the same function as poems or novels or paintings (not to go on a tangent, but which it now does occasionally more elegantly). Also, comparing games to films is ridiculous – interactivity is the basis of difference between games, and TIME is what makes a film not a painting. I guess the most productive argument would be to assert that games are DISTINCT. The “Art, Entertainment, High Art” debate is all semantics.

    I’m not defending either side – I think Ebert on some level is speaking from a position of ignorance, and gamers are responding too viscerally to what is essentially an irrelevant (but more articulate) comment.

  3. christian said on April 26, 2010:

    Alex, that is a great way of looking at the debate all around.

    I think it was Ebert (it was certainly someone) who once tried to say that one of the problems with this debate is that games are made up of several things we might consider art. They have music, scripts, cutscenes, etc, and these have the potential to be very well done and worth examination.

    When you put them all together, into something that is interactive, the situation gets a bit muddled. Final Fantasy, for existence, is such that your choices in the interactive portions of the games have very little, if any influence over the non interactive parts. The fact that a scene that was meant to be powerful and artistic can get screwed up by running into invisible walls, triggering a bug, or simply getting a game over throws a wrench into the gears.

    And so this brings up another question entirely – if the current industry model wasn’t so obsessed with tightly scripted games meant to replicate summer blockbusters, would this debate be any different? I wonder if gamers are so offended because their hobby isn’t as good as Hollywood is at something that gaming has decades less experience doing. Or maybe the problem is even simpler, that they don’t understand that something like Metal Gear Solid 4 is closer to the summer blockbusters than it is to the Oscar bait, and that a good way to make a quality product is to embrace this revelation.

  4. Alex said on April 26, 2010:

    Yes! Exactly what I was getting at. My thesis regarding games’ artistic potential has always been that in a way they’re anti-narrative – Yes the actual, literal narrative is set in stone but in a lot of games there are different approaches to accomplishing the goals standing in the way of narrative progression.

    Your last comment about MGS4 is well taken – the industry is run at the moment on a certain style that tries very hard to ape Hollywood. I would argue in some cases it succeeds, but ultimately its a matter of identity crisis; no one wants to admit that there is cross-pollination.

    What would be best in legitimating Games as a valid medium (if not Art, High Art or whatever) would be to focus on what it does that is unique. Layers of appreciation are highly subjective – my friend found Zenoclash an overwrought, clunky action game while I found it succinct and engrossing.

  5. christian said on April 26, 2010:

    To take all of this a bit further – since games are made up of many different elements and mediums, they tend to take bits and pieces of the way those industries work, without ever mimicking one completely.

    For example, AAA releases will now feature celebrity voices, director tie ins, etc. Hell, Dark Void, a not particularly good game, has a soundtrack penned by the composer for Battlestar Galactica. We get quite a lot of their talent, and from an income perspective, games do as well or better.

    In Japan, games have aped anime for as long as they’ve been around, but these days, it has been proposed that the drop in quality of most anime is due to so many talented animators and artists working on games.

    Meanwhile, the old Hollywood model of “fund the artsy experiments with the income from the mainstream hits” is practically nonexistent in gaming. Instead, the actual business of gaming is arguably closer in structure to the music industry, in which you need a big label/publisher to reach the mainstream, but you sign much of your life away to them for that aid. Meanwhile, it’s actually possible to make an independent game/record on your own, but not only is the exposure tough to get, but the indie folks in both mediums often risk putting out a crummy product by trying to hard to be quirky for the sake of it, while actively being averse to the practices followed by the big budget releases.

    And finally, there’s the fact that at the end of the day, games are still a form of software, and the software industry is entirely different, though it does have an impact on the way games are made. Whenever I see any sort of discussion on games from a “creative VS monetary” standpoint, the author usually picks ONE of these industries, and tries to shoehorn gaming into an identical model. It will never work out that way.

  6. Alex said on April 26, 2010:

    That’s an excellent point – I suppose I was conveniently ignoring the financial aspect. At the end of the day, video games simply haven’t been around long enough to accumulate a rich history. It remains to be seen what comes of the recent increase in the amount of indie games for sale through digital distribution.

    PS. Halo was a good example of a cultural product that is well executed.

  7. christian said on April 26, 2010:

    I don’t think you were ignoring it Alex – your comment just made me think of the business models and how they might relate to this topic.

  8. shota said on April 29, 2010:

    For Ebert quality across media is king. Waiting for Godot, is as good and valuable as Laurence of Arabia, which is as valuable as Ode on a Grecian Urn, which is as valuable as the Starry Night or the Pieta. For him, video games do not exist in the same category, or at the very least no video game exists (yet) that can compare. For me he is right. (Even though I beleve video games have the potential to eventually be art.)

    If a great metaphorical pyre was burning and all of the the above pieces of art were burning in it, along with a copy of (insert your favorite game: mine is Baldur’s Gate 2) I am not sure what order I would pull them out in but I am absolutely cetrain that the video game would be the last thing I’d grab.

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