Obscure Gamer – Ebert and Art

Film critic Roger Ebert has once again caused controversy by stating that videogames can never be art and the gaming community has responded. From a Penny Arcade comic to long forum debates, there are many different views. Here’s mine.

The first problem I have with the article is his assertion that “no video gamer now living will survive long enough to experience the medium as an art form.” As a medium, gaming is developing rapidly – in 30 years we have gone from Frogger to GTA IV – and given the speed at which cinema changed from silent slapstick to Citizen Kane, it is hard not to see gaming doing the same. The other point is that there are artistic and expressive games available now, although Ebert dismisses one of them – the beautiful and haunting Flower on PS3 – in his original piece. To a list of artistic games I would add Ico and Shadow of the Colossus, and as a moving, expressive piece then it is hard to ignore Heavy Rain.

The second is the distinction between a game and a piece of art. There is artistry in games, from every pixel and texture to the creation of entire worlds. But above all else games can create an atmosphere and provoke a response. I am currently playing Dead Space and there are moments of genuine suspense, followed by the terror of the enemy attacks. It has a greater effect on me than the passive experience of watching a horror movie, something that Ebert himself would no doubt try to find merit in.

And in passing, I would say that gaming is a lot like cinema in some ways. There are summer blockbusters, there are big budget action titles (the recent Uncharted 2 springs to mind, cinematic clichés and all), charming indie nuggets that get lost in the mainstream, titles aimed at the family launched in time for Christmas, remakes and reboots and so on. But above all else, gaming is a form of escapism, just as movies are for many people.

The article by Ebert was in part written as a response to a lecture by game designer Kellee Santiago, which used footage of Flower, Braid and Waco Resurrection. And so Ebert did not actually PLAY the games, but felt “The three games she chooses as examples do not raise my hopes for a video game that will deserve my attention long enough to play it. They are, I regret to say, pathetic. I repeat: “No one in or out of the field has ever been able to cite a game worthy of comparison with the great poets, filmmakers, novelists and poets.” Santiago has now posted her response, and understandably points out his misconceptions. http://kotaku.com/5520437/my-response-to-roger-ebert-video-game-skeptic

So we have two sweeping statements from Ebert – videogames can never be art, and can never be worthy of comparison to great art. This is what prompts my anger, that he has not actually experienced the games before giving his summary judgement. Waco Resurrection is, at the end of the day, less about being a game and more about provoking a response in the player – to the events surrounding David Koresh, and how they affected our culture. (Another attempt to provoke debate and thought, the game based on the Columbine massacre, was similarly misunderstood by the wider world.) And in many ways, art is about provoking a response in the viewer.

Roger Ebert is not going to change his view on gaming without playing games, and it seems unlikely he will pick up a pad any time soon. But then, I am not going to sit down and watch Citizen Kane or any of the worthy films that Ebert would convince me represent cinema at its best. At least he acknowledges that not all cinema is art. For most of the current generation of gamers, Star Wars will always rank as a better film than a black & white epic about a tycoon. They spent school playtime running around as Luke Skywalker with his lightsabre, then went home to shoot AT-ATs on their Atari VCS. They wanted to be in the film, to be part of the story – and the game let them do that.

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