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Someday we’ll all look back at this and laugh

posted on April 20th, 2010 by jackson

If you’re reading this blog then there’s a fairly decent chance that you’ve heard about Roger Ebert, his loud and controversial opinion about videogames, and its latest iteration which was posted last Friday. I told myself that I’m above falling into that cyclical argument, but the bait is too tempting for me to resist any longer. In case you actually had a life over the weekend, allow me to catch you up on the crux of his argument: videogames can never be art.

If you find that above statement infuriating and wish to express that rage via typing words in a box on a website, then the recommended course of action is for you to click your way over to Ebert’s blog and do exactly that. Ebert personally reads every single comment that gets posted and delights in watching the comment count tick upwards.

As for myself, I’ll just post my opinions here. I’m hardly offended by Ebert’s statement, mostly just baffled. Baffled that the discussion itself, and baffled by Ebert’s involvement in it. He doesn’t play games, nor does he really seem to have any appreciation for them. For him to suddenly reveal that he has a very strong opinion about them, and that his opinion is that they are not art seems random and out of character. Never mind the fact that whether or not they are considered art is completely irrelevant to why anyone plays games and why games are relevant to our society. Ebert sure seems to be putting a lot of effort into researching and debating an worthless aspect of a field in which he has virtually no experience. Why does he care? What is he trying to prove? Why is he perpetuating this awful topic? Oh, I forgot; his post has almost 2,000 comments now, plus even more thousands of responses across the rest of the internet. That statistic includes this one too. If there’s any reason to continue a discussion, it would be because people respond to it.

Ebert is a very intelligent person and a great writer, and he knows it. Once a upon a time he made an offhanded remark about games not being art which incited enough nerd rage to feed a family in a developing country for a year. If you happen to be a person who lives by producing opinions and the reactions to said opinions then this was obviously a goldmine. Ebert easily constructed a waterproof argument and let the internet do the rest of the work for him. It was the perfect crime. There are thousands and thousands of opinionated gamers on the internet who all perceive Ebert as an authority figure and few of them are capable enough writers to ever reasonably counter his argument. Ebert himself has no personal investment in the discussion at all. So what if other intellectual people disagree (a fact which he hasn’t ignored)? The risk involved in being somehow proven wrong is nil, and the thousands of idiotic responses will always by far outnumber the reasonable ones.

So is he right? Is he wrong? Who cares? The entire debate is inconsequential to anyone. It’s an argument that exists for the sake of being an argument. The entire spectacle is just frustrating for me. The last thing that the idiotic “games are [not] art” debate needed was a celebrity perpetuating it for personal pleasure. The better it dies out and we can all move on to debating things that actually matter, the better. That’s not a priority though for Ebert, nor his thousands and thousands of followers. Is Ebert really the villain here? Every comment we post only validates his authority.

Further reading:

8 Comments

  1. Cunzy1 1 said on April 21, 2010:

    He’s just pissed because he just missed out on being the titular star of Q*bert.

  2. christian said on April 21, 2010:

    Dammit Jackson – we posted the same thing at the same time :)

    I think the fact that Ebert has spent so much time with this topic shows that he IS interested in games – maybe not as art, but as something, at least. But for now, the immaturity of our community, coupled with the quality of our games, prevents him from finding something that he considers worth playing. And I think that, rather than dismissing his reactions, we should try to learn something from them. I love Flower to death, but his questions about the game were fascinating. I’m glad to have heard them, and they provide an interesting perspective for analysis.

    I kind of got at this in my own post, but gamers will explain the use of recycled character models as being due to limitations. Non gamers will see it and wonder why the same person keeps popping up. This simple, perhaps naive observation is one of the most important pieces of advice our hobby can get. It addresses a problem that we have become completely blind to, yet is worth investigating. Instead, gamers will dismiss such a remark.

    Hell, that proves more than anything just how much games are software.

  3. DeeMer said on April 21, 2010:

    Ha! This is how I look at it, and it saves me much frustration from worrying about what others think or worrying about what others worry about.

    Those who make games aren’t artists. They are artisans, like those who make chairs or pots or toys. If it works, it’s great; if it’s pretty, all the better.

  4. jackson said on April 23, 2010:

    haha christian, I even waited a couple of days to post this specifically to ensure I didn’t end up repeating anything anyone else would post about it. I don’t think it can hurt though having two perspectives on the subject though.

    I don’t think it helps anyone to demonize Ebert. He’s an extremely smart and experience writer and he has a lot of good things to say. It might even be useful to be able to see the perspective of games from a person like him. The only real problem I have is his extremely condescending tone and the way he acts dismissive of all of the games he describes in his blog. It seems like he’s more interested in flexing his ego muscle than taking games seriously at all.

  5. christian said on April 23, 2010:

    Jackson, I’m glad you brought up tone, because it is something I’ve struggled with in years of reading things on the internet. Whether or not we agree with someone can depend an awful lot on their tone, and I often have stop and ask myself whether something that riles me up is doing so because it’s wrong, or because I don’t like the tone. If it is the latter, then I have to ask myself whether that tone is coming from the piece, or from my head.

    For example, in his blog post, Ebert describes Braid as having “prose on the level of a wordy fortune cookie”. He just shot down one of the most talked about indie games in recent memory with one sentence. The question we have to ask ourselves, as gamers, is whether he is truly dismissing the game, or whether we’re simply upset at the fact that someone far better read than most of us can see Braid’s purple prose for what it is.

    I think it is important to carefully evaluate sentences like this one. There are aspects of gaming which are making great progress, and others which are considered great, but are actually quite silly and juvenile. Remarks like Ebert’s may not always be accurate, but they force us to engage in the self reflection needed to be sure. And if perspectives like his can help us see when we’re going wrong, and when we’re spinning our wheels, the games will only get better as a result.

    Put it another way – if we replaced video games with Joss Whedon shows, gamers would be the ones writing thesis papers on Buffy, and Ebert would be the college professor shaking his head.

  6. Shota said on May 1, 2010:

    RE: “The entire debate is inconsequential to anyone… The better it dies out and we can all move on to debating things that actually matter.”

    This train of thought bothers me. Why could we not say the same thing about the field of Ontology in philosophy? Or indeed philosophy itself? Usually people who require utilitarian justifications for discourse on any topic are simply too stupid or too undereducated to even consider that human thought on the whole and debate on area specific topics, like say aesthetics or video games, have a profound impact on those fields.

    This is a good debate to be having. One that I hope will shape video game production either actively or reactively. It’s just too bad that most of the people responding to Ebert from our side have not read two books in their lifetimes and therefore bleat nonsense about how Braid contains serious writing. Sure, sure, and Dan Brown is a major American author… “But so many people love Braid and it’s so popular!” So were the Gladiatorial Games in Rome…with plebs.

  7. jay said on May 2, 2010:

    Philosophy already gave us science, it’s outlived its welcome. Philosophy can go die in the corner, circle jerking all over its tweed jacket.

  8. christian said on May 3, 2010:

    Here’s another thought I had – if gaming had worked towards building up more serious, genuine writing and discussion, we’d have all sorts of excellent essays and papers to point to as more and more sociologists begin to examine the appeal of Farmville. We’ve had Harvest Moon around for a long time, and we know why it is popular. Farmville takes that concept and adds the powerful social presence of Facebook. We could have provided some excellent commentary, clarified certain ideas that about gaming that are less familiar to non gamers, and saved a lot of time. But I can’t think of any good articles on Harvest Moon to point to. It’s just one of those games wherein the collective opinion on it is the result of years of casual discussion.

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