Thursday, August 9, 2007

Roger Ebert vs. Video Games: Round II

In case you weren't following, Little Earl's favorite film critic Roger Ebert was forced to take a year off from reviewing movies because he had to undergo throat surgery. It didn't really go that great and even a year later he's apparently still not able to speak, but despite his inability to go back on the TV show he's finally decided just to start posting again on his website anyway. Hey, I haven't watched the show in years, so as far as I'm concerned he's pretty much back. Scratch that. He's not just back; he's more acerbic and argumentative than ever. He's just had throat surgery and he ain't takin' shit from nobody.

Before he underwent surgery, he ignited a geek firestorm by proclaiming that videogames could never be considered "art." The whole gaming community cried foul, but Ebert was undeterred. For some reason he loves arguing about this, and recently he's begun the conversation anew. Apparently novelist/filmmaker Clive Barker gave a speech in response to Ebert's earlier claims, and now Ebert has decided to reply point-for-point on his website. What's happened is that the conversation has quickly devolved from whether or not video games are art as to what exactly constitutes the definition of art. Since I think Ebert hasn't really come up with a consistent or reasonable definition of art, as far as I can tell he's pretty much wasting his time (albeit in a highly entertaining fashion).

But Roger's little philosophical folly has inspired me to formulate a few theories of my own. I myself would now like to propose, if I may, two rough definitions of "art."

Definition #1. A relatively permanent creation that enables the shared expression of human emotion

According to this definition, most video games are not really art. In fact, most video games are designed precisely in such a way as to remove the traces of their creator(s). It would be like calling chess "art." Does the actual game of chess manage to express the emotions of the person/people who created it? If someone could argue that it does, then fine, it's art. See, that's the thing. I don't think it's particularly important. That's why I find Ebert's crusade rather comical. It's an argument he could neither win or lose. What difference does it make whether something is art or not?

Still, my own definition at least makes more sense than Ebert's. I would say movies like Casablanca and Apocalypse Now are art because they express the feelings of the people involved in their creation. It's not one person, true, but it's still the expression of human emotion. In that sense, I would say that some movies are not "art." Blockbuster movies that simply try to "thrill" people or "scare" people are not really art, because they usually leave the emotions of the filmmakers out of the equation. However, I do believe that some blockbuster films can be art. I think it varies from blockbuster to blockbuster. For example, I believe that Star Wars is art. Ebert wants to make a distinction here. He writes:
I treasure escapism in the movies. I tirelessly quote Pauline Kael: The movies are so rarely great art, that if we cannot appreciate great trash, we have no reason to go. I admired "Spiderman II," "Superman," and many of the "Star Wars," Indiana Jones, James Bond and Harry Potter films. The idea, I think, is to value what is good at whatever level you find it. "Spiderman II" is one of the great comic superhero movies but it is not great art.
You know what, dude? I would actually say that Spiderman II is great art, because if you ask me, it expresses human emotion and does it really well. I think Ebert's engaging in some serious doublethink here; he loves these superhero movies as much as anybody. Quit playing your ivory tower games, buddy.

Defintion #2. A creation which helps other humans reflect upon the nature of life and human consciousness

I like this definition because if you wanted to argue that movies weren't really "the shared expression of the filmmaker's own emotions," you could still discriminate between which kind of movies would be art and which kinds of movies would be crap. Antonioni was not necessarily expressing his own personal feelings in L'Avventura, but other people are (hopefully) able use the film as a locus from which they can reflect upon the meaning of their own lives. Video games, almost by their nature, are designed to keep people from having to think about the meaning of their own lives. I think it is possible that someone could create a video game which would serve this function, but I'm not sure how many people would want to play it. In fact, one of the letters Ebert received in response to the debate seems to decribe just one such game:
I know one game that might approach art in itself, even in your definition. It's a strange title called "Shadow of the Colossus". "Shadow" begins the usual way -- a little introductory movie showing the protagonist arriving in some strange place, where a disembodied voice tells him to slay some monsters in order to bring his dead girlfriend back to live. Then the game begins, and the player runs the protagonist around seeking out and then slaying a handful of gigantic monsters. As expected, there are occasional (fewer than usual) movie tidbits interspersed with the action.

Some riders on horesback approach the temple. They are in a hurry. They are worried about the protagonist and what he's up to.

Meanwhile, the players have an odd experience. We start worrying too.

Why are we killing these enormous, unique, almost gentle creatures, who've done us no wrong and don't seem to be harming anyone or anything else? Why are the approaching riders so frantic? What's with the black smoke that escapes when the creatures are killed, and what's with the shadowy black smoke men that appear around the protagonist each time he kills a beast and is re-awakened in the temple? Are we doing something bad?

There is a subtle, but ever-increasing, sense of dread and wrongness. Yet the player is caught up in the action and the challenge of the battles (and spent $40 on the game) and keeps playing. It all leads to an inevitable conclusion that still manages somehow to be a surprise.

The whole game probably has less than 10 minutes of "movie", but without the extended fights (and long spans of travel by horseback across barren, sun-streaked wilderness), those bits of movie wouldn't have the impact they do. The end is puzzling, cathartic, frustrating, and satisfying. People who played it a year ago still talk and argue about it.
See, this actually almost smells like art, because it would force the player think about the meaning of life and shit. It also sounds like some emotion is involved. The bottom line is that I don't think too many people are worried about video games not yet being art, because there isn't really much demand for such a product. When there is, we might start seeing some good stuff. In the meantime, I'll stick to movies and music, thank you very mucho.

Also related: Roger Ebert, Game Reviewer

Some other goodies from the Big E:

Ingmar Bergman: In Memory

Michelangelo Antonioni: In Memory

Movie Answer Man: August 2

Courtesy of Herr Zrbo:

Level Up: N'Gai Croal Vs. Roger Ebert Vs. Clive Barker on Whether Videogames Can Be (High) Art


herr zrbo said...

Now here's something I'm interested in discussing! You are actually behind on the debate, there has been a response by Newsweek's N'gai Croal to Ebert, where N'gai attempts to refute Ebert's argument point-by-point, the same way Ebert did with Clive Barker. You can find that here:

It's all rather a silly debate, but it's fun to read N'gai's response, he really picks apart Ebert's words. Basically in the end the two problems are that Ebert admits himself that he hasn't played many video games (I think he cites Pac-Man which is light-years behind any modern game), so he's not really in a position to debate something he doesn't really know much about.

The second problem that N'gai likes to point out is that practically every argument Ebert makes was made a century ago by people who thought cinema was a terrible artform and wouldn't ever amount to anything. I like this quote:

The great American critic H. L. Mencken could hardly stomach cinema. Testifying in 1927 in such a way that probably proves he'd have hated MTV too, he wrote: "How can one work up any rational interest in a fable that changes its locale and its characters 10 times a minute? Worse this dizzy jumping about is plainly unnecessary; all it shows is the professional incompetence of the gilded pants-pressers, decayed actors and other such half-wits to whom the making of movies seems to be entrusted."

yoggoth said...

The answer is, like movies, some video games are art and some are not. Although some art may not evoke emotion in you, that doesn't mean it can't serve that purpose for others. Video games are just another form of written/visual storytelling, like all art(yes, music is written/visual). The differences between these mediums are exaggerated.

People are attracted by things that are emotionally or intellectually interesting(they're both really the same thing). Art is simply those things that are sufficiently attractive to be recognized by a sizable portion of the public, and without so-called practical material value. The psychological value of that attraction and subsequent social interaction due to differing and similar reactions to that attraction is the value, or purpose if you think that way, of art.

That which falls in the category of art changes over time because of changes in culture. Reactions change. At this point I think the most interesting games actually have crossed the line and qualify as art. The main change has been the growth of the public's exposure to video games. From early on, however, certain video games have reached the complexity level of other art, it's just the social aspect that was lacking.

Herr Zrbo said...

I think the link got cut off, here it is again:

Little Earl said...

Although I agree with N'Gai and Clive and almost everybody else that Ebert's point-by-point refutations are ineffective and hastily-made, I have to say I'm still sympathetic with the basic thrust of his argument. But again, I would use my terms instead of his. Yoggoth, you write that "like movies, some video games are art and some are not." I think you're being generous. For me it's more like "a few video games are art and most are least not yet." The reason I say this is because I don't get the sense that most video games involve the sharing of human emotion, which, as I say, is criteria number one for me if I am going to consider something art and not product. Also, defenders of the "video game as art" camp don't really seem to do a very passionate job of it. N'Gai writes:

"Ebert previously compared games to sports, and some games are like sports, particularly competitive games. But some, like action-adventure games, could be seen as jazz-like, with players improvising (running, jumping hacking and slashing) around a main theme (the game's defined narrative.)"

Come on, that's the best you can do? I mean, here you are, you're the guy that's trying to defend the artistic merit of video games to the whole freaking world, and the best you can do is that "running, jumping, hacking and slashing" COULD BE SEEN as "jazz-like." Lame. It also seems to me that gamers kind of want to earn extra credit "culture" points by claiming that video games are art, without actually involving themselves in something that is seriously productive and beneficial. It's OK that you like to play video games! But don't make it out as something more valuable than it probably is. However, I will concede (unlike Ebert) that maybe there is a magical and inspiring element to game-playing that I have missed. I could see how gamers would resent someone telling them that what they do is not very valuable. But on the other hand, maybe there's the sting of truth in there somewhere.

One last thing. The "early years of cinema" analogy is really quite appropriate here, but in a way N'gai perhaps did not intend. Although most film scholars disagree, I feel that silent cinema has not aged particularly well and that movies as of 1927 were really not very good. I don't think cinema began approaching the complexity of literature until the late 1930s and early 1940s (and didn't really achieve its full potential until the 1960s and 1970s). If I had only followed cinema up to 1927, you bet your sweet ass I would have called it a big fat waste of time. It was early! And so I say that video games are early. Ebert's shutting the door way too soon, but I agree with him that they haven't been too interesting as of yet. Or at least not interesting enough for me to seek in them the same sense of human connection I seek in other artforms.

yoggoth said...

"I think you're being generous. For me it's more like "a few video games are art and most are least not yet." The reason I say this is because I don't get the sense that most video games involve the sharing of human emotion, "

I wasn't trying to exaggerate. Of course I would agree that most video games aren't art, or maybe it's better to say that they aren't worthwhile art. But, you know, most movies aren't worthwhile art either.

'Spiderman'(I or II)'? Nope. Not even close. I'd put those about even with the 'Spiderman' videogame. The worthwhile art was the comic book, a medium that isn't often thought of as art either.

Art changes, and different art works have different qualities. But I still think it's possible to come to some conclusions about what does and does not constitute art. None of Ebert's arguements stand the test of logic or practical experience. If someone wanted to make a videogame where you always arrive at the same ending they could. You know, the vast majority of plot-based games are designed in that way.

Herr Zrbo said...

Here's a new interview with N'gai that touches on what we're talking about here.

Personally I think games can be art, I think it's pretty obvious. Sure some games aren't really art (Madden Football anyone? Shrek the video game?), but there are others that surely are. And when we talk about games-as-art are we talking about the game as a whole? What about different parts of a game, just as film has cinematography, editing, etc., so too do video games.

It's going to sound silly, but I keep thinking of 'Paper Mario and the Thousand Year Door', not only was the art style fantastic, I could load up that game just to stare at some of the different worlds (art direction/ cinematography), but by the end of the game I had a genuine emotional response and actually shed a few tears (yes, I'm admitting a mario game made me cry). Does that qualify as art? If something elicits an emotional response does that make it art? Doesn't that mean if someone is emotionally effected by 'Dady Day Camp' then that film qualifies as art? I'm confusing myself here.

yoggoth said...

Are you saying there is something wrong with crying at the end of Daddy Day Camp???

William said...

Thanks for your valuable contribution!

yoggoth said...

No problem Bill.