Jammin' with Jill: Where Roger Ebert went wrong

[Editor’s Note: I’m pleased to introduce my new co-editor Jillian Pullara, who will be covering games for this and the next iteration of MovieMakeout.com. And just what do I have planned? Answers, in a week or so. – TL]

I don’t think you need me to reiterate the things that Chicago Sun-Times movie critic Roger Ebert said about how video games aren’t art, nor do I need to validate Jerry Holkins and Mike Krahulik from Penny Arcade’s responses both in news post and comics form.

In fact, you don’t need me for anything, but I’m still going to opine… because I can. Because I’m a gamer, and because I’m an art enthusiast. And because I respect Mr. Ebert as an intelligent man who gives insightful reviews of movies, even if I disagree with them.

First, Roger Ebert’s opinion is not wrong. It is ill-informed, and a bit closed-minded, but it is not wrong.

To me, there are two discussions going on here, both of which refer to Mr. Ebert’s ill-informed opinion. One is understanding who gamers are, and what video games are, and the other is defining what exactly art is.

Mr. Ebert has a limited understanding of who we gamers are, and what it is we get out of video games. There are completionists, and those whose idea of enjoying a game is to beat it as quickly as possible. But there are others of us whose enjoyment in a video game comes from experiencing the game itself. Because the goal of “beat the game” is assumed, the goal is no longer “win” but “experience.”

Which is no different than going to the theater to enjoy a play or a musical, or seeing a movie just to go see a movie. The difference between all other artistic mediums, and a video games, is that the video game demands you take an active role, whereas, for the most part, all the other mediums ask of you is to be there and just look at it (or listen).

This is not meant to sound as though I’m berating the other forms of art, as there is certainly nothing wrong with going to an art gallery and just taking in a painting that catches your eye. All I’m really saying is that the interaction between player and game is one of the most important things to consider when talking about games as art. It is a point that I think Mr. Ebert misses. We can’t judge a video game by watching someone play it, because then it’s just another computer-animated movie. When someone reviews a video game, they had to sit down and play that game. And when it comes time for us to judge it, we have to play it as well, or else our opinions on it aren’t valid.

Take, for example, the PC game known as Portal. It would be hard to see what the inherent satisfaction is in the game if all we did was watch some guy solve puzzles. When we solve the puzzles ourselves, we feel accomplished, but unlike other games where you can just solve puzzle after puzzle and the goal is to just solve puzzles, the goal in Portal is to experience the world through the puzzles presented. It is the architecture of a level, how the characters are written, and human curiosity that keeps us moving forward to the end.

To put it in terms a movie reviewer can understand: when we play a game, we want a fulfilling narrative. We want the world we’re presented with to be engrossing, the characters to be captivating, and the ending to satisfy us in some way. The only difference is that instead of watching the main character make these decisions that will lead to happy ever after, devastation or “…to be continued”, we are forced to make those decisions.

And these decisions can affect us deeply.

Which brings me to the second point of discussion: “What is art?”

This is something I take issue with because Mr. Ebert seems to assume that his definition of art should be everyone’s definition of art, and yet he still admits that it all comes down to taste. I think it would be fair to say that he may never agree that video games can be art (which I think is something that could be remedied if he were to play through Bioshock), but that doesn’t mean that society will never see video games as art.

Mike Krahulik used the example of Jackson Pollack, and it’s certainly apt. There are still people who just don’t “get it,” and that’s their right. If they don’t think it’s art, then it’s not art. For other people, they see a masterful use of colors that says something more than “paint splatters.” To them, it’s art. And they’re also right.

Not having a definition of  “art” that everyone agrees with, I’ll use my own which will probably change the day after this is published:

“Art is something that is created with the hope to inspire, and moves a person emotionally, but is non-violent.”

And if anyone wants to argue with that, then you don’t agree with my definition, which is OK.

Citizen Kane is, without a doubt, a great movie. It is definitely a work of art. And the important thing is that we all remember our reaction we were first presented with this movie. As an example, I was playtesting Lord of the Rings Online when I heard the words “Rosebud” from the TV. Three hours later, I knew for myself why Citizen Kane was repeatedly listed as the best movie of all time.

Final Fantasy VII—while maybe not the best video game of all time as there is not one definitive list—is certainly cited as many fans’ favorite. By today’s standards, it is not pretty. The translation seems sloppy (as does the localization), and it can be confusing. But it’s compelling to new players, and draws people in. When the pivotal moment came at the end of disc one, I was shocked; by itself, it has become an Internet meme.

It’s a moment that stuck with me, and I’ve come realize the importance of the moment that cements something into your consciousness. Because it’s not the one moment, but it’s all the moments that lead up to it, that make that one moment stand out. In the case of Final Fantasy VII, it was the construction of the story and the characters, and its presentation; from the first moment to the last, we were compelled forward, not by the desire to beat a game, but by the desire to know the story. I’m not sure how that’s much different than Citizen Kane.

While I don’t think FFVII is the first video game to have such a powerful moment, it is probably the best example I can give of the moment people who were not gamers realized that a video game can be more than just winning: a video game can be about creating something that is greater than the sum of its parts. A video game can tell as epic a story as Homer ever told, can be as beautifully directed as any movie Spielberg ever touched, and be as gratifying to hear as anything Beethoven ever penned. (By the way, a video game directed by Spielberg, with a score by Beethoven, about The Odyssey? I’d be completely okay with it). All of that, and it can put you in the driver’s seat.

Not every video game is art, no one can make that case. But not every movie is art, not every book, or every painting. Companies and corporations in all of the entertainment industries are guilty of only really caring about profit. If you’re running a company and you don’t care about making money, you won’t be running a company for very long. As such, a company will want to produce as much as it can.

At the same time, however, every entertainment industry has its individual gems; some movie or ballet or piece of performance art that catches your eye, or sticks in your head… something that makes the experience special to you.

And there is no good reason to exclude video games from that phenomenon.

Posted on April 22, 2010 at 06:20 by Jillian Pullara · Permalink
In: Columns, Opinions/Editorials, Video Games · Tagged with: , , , ,

5 Responses

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  1. Written by arkonbey
    on 2010-04-22 at 14:43

    I think what Ebert was getting at is that video games had the potential to be art, but hadn't achieved it yet.

    Art, however, is always in the eye of the viewer. I've had discussions about the Artistic (note the capital 'A') merits of photography, film and sequential art. Beware any critic who says something is not Art. Also beware the artist who claims their work is Art.

    This was a well-written post, but I always hate post like these. These kind of thoughts are better suited to discussions over Guinnesses than comments…

  2. Written by Zeeblee
    on 2010-04-23 at 03:31

    I would also argue that narrative isn't required for something to be art. I've noticed that many have said video games can be art because they can form just as good of a narrative as a movie, but there are cases of artistic games without story (I consider the game Flow to be artistic), and movies with no cohesive storyline that are considered art (no example comes jumping at me at the moment).

    I think the most important thing to take from your post and the whole discussion is that art is in the eye of the beholder, and no one person can definitively say whether something is or is not art.

  3. Written by MO--
    on 2010-04-23 at 21:37

    Good piece. Just one short correction: It's Jackson Pollock, not Pollack.

  4. Written by Damoel
    on 2010-04-23 at 22:02

    I'd have an easier time agreeing with that sentiment about Ebert's argument if the title he used hadn't been “Video Games Can Never Be Art.” That doesn't leave a lot of room for them to grow.

  5. Written by Dr. Halpinstein
    on 2010-04-26 at 20:24

    well I think the fact that the games industry is kicking the movie industries ass is a factor in this. He is an old man who is used to being heard and now he is getting ignored, so out comes the controversy. He's the same old man who said rock'n'roll wasn't music, that moving pictures were a fad, that photography could replace painting, the gramophone was a toy for the rich.

    Ignore him and he will shut up, give him exposure and he'll say it again and louder.

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