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Roger Ebert and Video Games: A Sign of the Times

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I have a huge amount of respect for Roger Ebert. Many people have a hard time understanding why he has become rich stating his opinion. They don’t understand how educated that opinion is. At least, we should expect his opinion to be educated. In a recent response to reader mail (third letter down), he’s drawn the eye of many gamers by failing to give due respect to the medium.

As such, any hard words sent his way might actually be appropriate. He likely didn’t realize what he did when he stated his side in the manner he did. There’s something deeper in his words though. It’s a sign of how non-gamers view the industry and the games themselves, and this is also the likely reason politicians, parental groups, and various other “protect the children” types are relentlessly attacking them. His most off the mark comment is his first towards the games:

Video games by their nature require player choices, which is the opposite of the strategy of serious film and literature, which requires authorial control.

“Choices” is not the right word. Sure, the player may have the choice to turn left or right, or maybe decide which enemy to shoot first. However, for the majority of games, the player is led down a linear path. For instance, door A doesn’t open without the blue key. The player then needs to backtrack to find the needed item. Assuming there’s a story progression moment there, everyone who plays this game will end up with the same scene, regardless of how they got there. The story always stays on the same path, even if the game itself allows for variations.

Besides, how is something not an art form just because there’s a choice? Could the decision of a film director change the way the story flows? Could a novel writer write something in one way, while another author different? I agree that’s not a 100% true comparison, but by Ebert’s definition, the various King Kong films are not art because the directors inserted their own vision into them.

Each of the three Kong films (’33, ’76, ’05) are wildly different, arguably more varied than a video game player taking his or her own path through a game, but always keeping the same story. Kong is always shot down from a tall building. Players fight the final boss to complete the game. The only difference is how they arrived at that conclusion. Ebert continues:

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.

Simply because no one has doesn’t mean it can’t happen (and “professional” gaming journalism doesn’t make this easy). The medium is still young comparatively to film and written literature. It takes time. School children didn’t study Shakespeare when he was alive and writing. That intelligent debate and research into the minds of the creators will happen. Just because it hasn’t yet doesn’t mean it won’t. To discredit them on that note is being nearsighted.

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’s final statement is the one that will draw ire from gamers. Given that Ebert’s favorite medium includes works like Deuce Bigalow Male Gigolo, White Chicks, Rambo 3, and Plan 9 From Outer Space, who’s really wasting time when we could make ourselves “more cultured, civilized and empathetic?” Everyone. Film is art. Books, novels, and various other literatures are art. Video games are art. They also have one thing in common:

They’re entertainment.

How anyone can criticize one medium for being a waste of time and not another is hypocritical and ignorant. It’s all meant to pass the time or kill a few hours until we move onto something else. Video games are no less capable of that than films. In some cases, the newest entry into the entertainment realm offers an even better experience, given that we experience what someone else has created instead of being a bystander. There’s a huge difference there, and in most cases, that should raise them ABOVE movies and books.

There’s still a place for them all, and none of these mediums are going anywhere soon. Ebert’s comments are nothing more than a close-minded viewpoint from someone who almost seems to be on the defensive. Maybe he’s even a little scared about what’s happening to the film industry as video games slowly overtake them. No matter his reasons, games are here, they’re still maturing, and they’ll make their way into mainstream art status soon enough.

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About Matt Paprocki

Matt Paprocki has critiqued home media and video games for 13 years and is the reviews editor for Pulp365.com. His current passion project is the technically minded DoBlu.com. You can read Matt's body of work via his personal WordPress blog, and follow him on Twitter @Matt_Paprocki.
  • http://www.breakingwindows.com Ken Edwards

    Let me think, all of two seconds here… Ico, Shadow of the Colossus, We Love Katamari. No, no art there, none at all. Of course those are the most obvious in Gaming. What about Metal Gear Solid? Mario? I could keep going here. Most recently, Condemned.

    But no matter how “worthy” we think one game is over another, they are all art. Some people have a hard time wrapping their head around the concept that code can be art. This might be something Ebert is stumbling on.

    His quote about “authorial control” is priceless. So by what he says, nothing that is interactive can be art? I know quite a lot of interactive artists who would have a problem with that statement, and these people are not even gamers.

    “To my knowledge, no one in or out of the field has ever been able to cite a game worthy of comparison” How about Metal Gear Solid, Mario, Pong for crying out loud. Every year the gaming industry hands out Game of the Year awards. If that is not citing a game as being worthy I do not know what is. I again look to last year. Metal Gear Solid 3, that was not art?

    “But for most gamers, video games represent a loss of those precious hours we have available to make ourselves more cultured, civilized and empathetic.” This really shows his ignorance. He has never given a game a chance, at least not in this generation (Xbox, PS2, GameCube, PSP, DS, etc. Asking him to try an Xbox 360 might be a stretch right now). Oh and lets all forget that games can be educational.

    I don’t know about you, but I get a lot more enjoyment out of playing Knights of the Old Republic then watching Star Wars Episode I, II, and III – back-to-back-to-back.

    How much entertainment do you get out of a book, or a movie. I think those would be classified under finite. The book is over, lets read it again! No, I do not think so. Games do not have these limits (in general). After the game is over you may need to finish it again to pick up things that you missed, or God forbid, because it was so fun you want to experience it again. Now we have online gaming too. When the single player side of Halo 2 is done, there are loads of game types to frag people on Xbox Live.

    It is sad that someone so educated can look so ignorant, arrogant, and simply close minded. Not qualities of someone who writes his opinions for a living.

    Matt, I hope you send this op-ed to Ebert. Please include my comments here. His respect just went down a few notches in my mind.

  • http://www.templestark.com Temple Stark

    The piece said nothng about why games ARE art.

    ????

    And ballroom dancing is or isn’t a sport?

    Also you’re making a pretty bold assumption yourself (unless it’s in Ebert’s piece and I missed it) – that he’s not played video games.

    >>But for most gamers, video games represent a loss of those precious hours we have available to make ourselves more cultured, civilized and empathetic.

    Are you saying his statement there is wrong just because you are a gaming “junkie?”

    Saying that, Ebert’s reply was very incomplete and left me wondering what the hell he meant.

    Lastly your vision as those who read books as a “bystander” (as if imaignation did not exist is most definitely misguided. Perhaps you could explain, clarify or retreat from that statement?

  • http://www.dorksandlosers.com Tan The Man

    “The medium is still young comparatively to film and written literature. It takes time. School children didn’t study Shakespeare when he was alive and writing.”

    Very good point.

    Although I’d really agree with Ebert if the game he’s thinking of is Grand Theft Auto. That game and its sequels give a little too much creative control over the game; although, there are storylines that the gamer can choose to follow.

  • http://selfaudit.blogspot.com Aaman

    Games are software, and until the Singularity, all software is only as good as experiencing a simulacra of realism. You can only follow arcs of intent within the game that pre-exist. Thus, it is hard to call them art.

    The landscape of the game, like a film or a painting, on the other hand, is open to interpretation and layering of meaning. This is artistic, but the art is in the player’s mind.

    Thus, games in and of themselves are not art, but a player’s artistic sensibilities may be induced by playing a game.

    Of course, the same reasoning could be applied to other forms of creativity.

  • Aaman

    To be more precise, is the game art, or is the gamer’s game art?

  • http://www.booklinker.blogspot.com Dean

    Ebert’s wrong.

    Certainly the interactive experience that games offer varies wildly, dependent on the type of game, the content, the game experience etc. I’ve played games that encompassed a wide range of genres and I can tell you that frankly the plotlines and progression of any number of games I’ve played have matched or exceeded the plots and experience of many films.

    I’ll pick two older games off my shelf right now – the Myth Series by Bungie – great plot, wonderful voice acting and terrific design. Thief 2 – arguably a better plot and developed character then most of the movies you’ll see. is it art – Damn straight it is.

    Ebert is wrong. He is not familiar with the medium and his exposure to the medium seems to be from watching bad movie adaptations of video games.

    Within games, the experience is meant to mimic reality, to provoke specific emotions, thoughts and reactions around the experience. If that’s not art, then you’d better exclude every creative endeavor on the planet, including film, paintings, writing, poetry, music…

    Ebert is wrong.

  • http://www.booklinker.blogspot.com dean

    One last comment: Ebert’s criticising the game medium for requiring “player choices, which is the opposite of the strategy of serious film and literature, which requires authorial control” is akin to criticising another form of art for not adhering to his standards – slamming oil paintings for their terrible static images (well, they don’t move – obviously they can’t be art like a film can be) or music for not having a visual element.

    Ebert is so utterly full of shit on this one that I can’t even begin to express my disgust.

  • http://www.breakingwindows.com Matt Paprocki

    The piece said nothng about why games ARE art.

    There shouldn’t need to be one. The explanation has been made a few times already in this thread. They’re creation is hardly different than a major special effects film, and you’re not questioning qhy I didn’t include a reason for films as art. The only difference? You control instead of watching. It’s not a radical difference like some have made it out to be.

    Also you’re making a pretty bold assumption yourself (unless it’s in Ebert’s piece and I missed it) – that he’s not played video games.

    He’s said it a few times. I remember his recent Doom review was something like “I never played the game and never will.” That’s one of many.


    Lastly your vision as those who read books as a “bystander” (as if imaignation did not exist) is most definitely misguided.

    Maybe bystander wasn’t the totally correct term. It’s the one that seems to fit though. Nonetheless, you are a bystander while reading a book. You’re being taken for a ride while the author provides the description. In all actuality, that’s quite a bit like a video game. You get a description of a location in a book, the character walks through it. You have the vision of the scene in your head, likely totally different than what the author had in theirs.

    The game creator has a vision and makes it visual. However, you have the choice to walk down the street in any manner. Yet, you’re still experiencing the same story.


    Although I’d really agree with Ebert if the game he’s thinking of is Grand Theft Auto. That game and its sequels give a little too much creative control over the game; although, there are storylines that the gamer can choose to follow.

    I would agree. Not all films are high art, and neither are all games, and neither are books. Art is in the eyes… aw, you know where that lines headed. To think of NO video games as art, well, that’s just stuborness.

    To be more precise, is the game art, or is the gamer’s game art?

    That’s like saying the Bible isn’t because everyone sees it differently. I don’t want to get into a debate about the Bible and if it’s art (way off topic), but just go along with me here for the sake of example.

    You have hate groups that claim the Bible tells them everyone but themselves is wrong. Others believe it tells them not to use birth control. It’s open to interpatation. I fail to see how it’s any different than someone playing a video game and marching right through in their own way. They’re getting the same words/graphics, yet take it/play it two different ways.

    It’s not just the Bible though. I’m only singling it out because it’s early and it was the easiest example. You could toss any book into the same situation. Take Shakespeare. Everyone thinks he was going for something different than the next person. It’s considered high art. Same situation applies.

  • http://www.markiscranky.org Mark Saleski

    Nonetheless, you are a bystander while reading a book. You’re being taken for a ride while the author provides the description.

    totally disagree. when you read, you take yourself for the ride. the text provides a sort of template, your brain fills in the rest of descriptions.

    there’s a lot of research out there showing that video games are actually far more passive activities than reading.

  • http://www.modernpeapod.com Zach

    I find Ebert’s comments particularly interesting in light of the early reception to cinema itself…the cultural elite didn’t think it was art back then, either. Then again, cinema didn’t win respect as an art form until it acquired a certain amount of pretension to be viewed as such, and a desire to mimic “high art” forms like the stage and the novel – something which, with self-consciously “cinematic” games like Metal Gear Solid and the Final Fantasy series, we’re beginning to see more and more. Personally, I think the days when video games will be seen as anything less than an art form unto themselves are numbered. It’s just too bad it costs so much to keep up with them – that’s going to be a major obstacle in accessibility to non-“gamers,” myself included.

  • http://www.breakingwindows.com Matt Paprocki

    totally disagree. when you read, you take yourself for the ride. the text provides a sort of template, your brain fills in the rest of descriptions.

    It’s no different than a video game then. Lets look at this example:

    “The man enters a dark room as the tunderstorm rages outside.”

    If you read that, you know most likely something bad is going to happen. That’s how the set up works. You picture the room, maybe a little lightning in the background. It’s an eerie situation.

    In the video game version of that book, you still enter into that same room, thunderstorm still outside. The difference is you are that guy the book refers to, and a single step could mean a death for the character. That’s stressful, and if you’ve ever experienced something like that, you should be able to relate.

    However, in the book, it just reads “The man takes a step forward when an axe slashes at him from the left.” You do nothing. You’re passively involved as an observer, not a participant.

    That’s the difference between books and gaming, and I’m not saying one is better than the other in this case. There’s no reason for one to be looked down upon when they can provide the same experience, just in different manners.

    I find Ebert’s comments particularly interesting in light of the early reception to cinema itself

    My exact thought when I first read it. I’m very interested to see if someone goes back and looks deeply at Donkey Kong. And yes, I mean that. Some people go over the top with deeper meanings and such. It would be entertaining.

  • http://www.markiscranky.org Mark Saleski

    You do nothing. You’re passively involved as an observer, not a participant.

    again, i would submit that this is not that case. when reading you are actively engaging your imagination to paint a picture in your head of the scene as it unfolds. you bring the sum total of your experience to this.

    that’s why when you reread a book it is different every time.

  • http://www.mondoirlando.com Aaron, Duke De Mondo

    Matt, i couldn’t agree more. god alone knows what Ebert was thinking, are there really pop-culture commentators out there (which he is, more or less) who DON’T realise by now that games are art? for sure, not all of it is GOOD art, but art, regardless.

    One quibble with your article, though. that slander of Plan 9. if EVER a film were worthy of gallery walls, thats one right there.

    “You stupid humans! STUPID!”

  • http://www.suddennothing.net LegendaryMonkey

    Zach makes an excellent point here in the comments, and Matt, your mention of lowbrow comedy strikes a chord as well.

    Some video games, certainly, can’t be labeled as deep or meaningful, but then, neither can many movies and yet they are still considered art, if a lower form. Some video games, however, are a little more deep than that. Hell, you may write off Resident Evil (the whole series) as cheap zombie fare, but underneath is a story about research and capitalism and the perils of not knowing where to draw the line.

    In fact, many horror games in particular I find far more engaging than I do horror films. Fatal Frame II, for example, was the best damned horror movie I’ve ever played, and Resident Evil 4 made me shriek in a way no horror movie’s made me shriek since the age of 12.

    The Final Fantasy franchise boasts some of the best storytelling (though not voice acting, at least, in English) of any video games I’ve played, and the good ones are comparable to anime, in my opinion… and anime is most certainly art.

    Finally, as a writer, I too disagree with Ebert on the issue of control when it comes to books and movies. If you want to speak in a literal sense, not all do — many movies and books are open-ended, allowing the watcher/reader to assign their own decision to final events. But out of the realm of the literal… some of the best books I’ve ever read have left many things undescribed, or imbued with emotion rather than a physical scene, and thus film adaptations of such can be jarring or strange to readers because none of it looks like they wanted it to be. How does that dictate authorial control? If true authorial control (jesus, what IS that, anyway?) existed, I doubt that situation would ever occur… much less be common.

  • http://alienboysworld.blogspot.com Christopher Rose

    Comment #14 was chosen as Comment of the Day for Wednesday 7th December. Congratulations!

  • http://www.suddennothing.net Alisha Karabinus

    You’ve GOT to be kidding me.

    Really? I’m all sorta of happy, if you’re not. :)

  • http://alienboysworld.blogspot.com Christopher Rose

    I’m as sincere as I am modest!

  • http://dumpsterbust.blogspot.com/ Eric Berlin

    This story has been chose as a Blogcritics Editor’s Pick for the week, congrats!

    You’ve honored yourself up the right to select your favorite story over the next week for the new column, which will be published on Wednesdays or thereabouts. In any event, please feel free to nominate your fave piece under this week’s column. The time frame will always run between Wednesday (today in this week’s case) and next Tuesday night.

    Thanks and congrats again ~ EB

  • [MR]Chip

    First, they painted on walls. Then canvas. Then they made photos. And then came cinema. Now we have games. The times, they are a-changin’.

  • http://hubpages.com/hub/Onlive Jodie

    Roger Ebert does give fantastic reviews, I always check them out before seeing the newest flick.