Kevin (erf_) wrote,
Kevin
erf_

ebert passes the thumb, part two

Now, about Ebert's actual essay. I read it, and my initial reaction was just as knee-jerk as everyone else's. Kellee Santiago's TEDxUSC talk, while pretty comprehensive in covering all the talking points of the whole "games as art" movement, wasn't particularly suited to convincing someone like Ebert. In fact, the video, titled "Stop the Debate! Video Games Are Art--So What's Next," pretty much takes the position that the debate is over, that video games are unquestionably art (briefly making its case for that position), and the majority of the presentation focuses not on where the medium is but where the medium is going. Ebert looks at the selection of games she points to as a demonstration of the power of the medium--Braid, Waco Resurrection, Flower--and is confused and unimpressed. What's so great about these games, he asks? Folks are always telling him about the power of games to express new and unique experiences, to convey meaningful and powerful narratives, and Santiago elaborates at length about the themes of regret and possibility in Braid. But all Ebert sees is a bunch of sprites jumping around, a shooting gallery--a bunch of silly ludic exercises dressed up in historical misconceptions, misleading definitions, and an ominous amount of marketing and business language. If this is the best video games have to offer the art world, Ebert concludes, then color him unimpressed.

I was tempted to say, as many other gamers already have in the past few days, that Ebert simply doesn't get it. That the avant-garde, by nature, is almost invariably unimpressive except in concept, and that if he had only been given a different sample, one that demonstrates the rich expressiveness of well-established concepts in the art, he would have come away with a different impression. Certainly this is the perspective that Gabe and Tycho seem to be looking at the essay from, when they claim that Ebert is missing the point. How could you play through the first few hours of Fallout 3, seeing through a pair of new eyes the experiences of being born, meeting your first love, being abandoned by your beloved father, being blinded by your first glimpse of sunlight over a gorgeous, sad, dusk-red apocalypse-scape, and not recognize it as art? How could you deny the art in the experience of running from zombies in Half-Life 2's Ravenholm, low on ammo and desperate for safety, as strange sounds and tall shadows loom all around you, when it would be so easily recognizable as art in its obvious inspirations, the short stories of Lovecraft and Poe? It's not a matter of definition--by any and all definitions, these experiences are unmistakably art; they are not entirely new ways of interacting with a medium but ones as familiar as watching a film or wandering through a gallery. From the perspective of a seasoned gamer, Ebert's insistence in his first paragraph that such broadening of his horizons would not change his mind reads like mere codgery stubbornness. In the dialect of my people: lurk moar, n00b.

And I could have just left it at that and gone off and done something productive. But then I remembered something my friend Jon Argaman wrote in his blog once, about a philosophy class he TA'd on the writings of seventeenth century philosopher John Hobbes. Jon was frustrated with the papers his undergrad students wrote, not because they weren't insightful or because they didn't reflect that the students had read the material, but because his students were simply unwilling to engage Hobbes on his own terms and take him seriously. As Hobbes had a lot of ideas that are highly dissonant with contemporary modes of morality and ethics, many students were content to find modern counterpoints to individual elements of Hobbes's theories and dismiss his thinking as dated and bunk, without really following the logic behind how Hobbes reached his conclusions, what in the big-picture sense he was trying to say with them, and why he didn't dismiss his own thinking out of hand. Jon saw in his undergrads a sort of intellectual laziness, an unwillingness to wrestle with difficult or troubling ideas to truly understand where someone from an opposing intellectual position is coming from, risking the possibility that they may be convinced by opinions they would rather not have--which is the only real way to truly engage an opposing viewpoint, rather than taking potshots at straw men positioned around it. So I gave Ebert the benefit of the doubt and read the essay again, trying to see where he was coming from.

It turns out that Ebert's choice of analogies is telling. When we gamers talk about video games, we tend to talk in terms of other video games. It's like Battlefield 2, except! It's Final Fantasy meets Harvest Moon! It's taking the Splinter Cell franchise in an exciting new direction! And when designers talk about video games from an art perspective, they use all these exciting new phrases coined for us by journalism and academia: first-person shooter, ludic system, RPG elements, interactive model, sandbox world, rhetoric of failure. The idea of video games as a self-contained art form, with its own unique model of discourse, is self-perpetuating.

Ebert, presumably not having played all that many video games, looks at video games from an entirely different point of view: as games. Not just in the formal definition of a game, with player enjoyment and a clear objective and obstacles to that objective and whatnot (which he alludes to in his essay), but as games in the same vein as hopscotch or laser tag. He draws comparisons to other games--chess, basketball, mahjongg--which are, unequivocably, as Santiago herself concedes, are not and never will be recognizable as art. He rebuts Santiago's assertion that video games do not fall into that same category since they uniquely fit the definition of art by pointing out that the definition of art she uses--or, indeed, any definition of art he can come up with--is problematic. Games are games, and Ebert is not convinced by Santiago's argument that video games are more than games.

Which, after much thought, struck me. If you have been playing video games for as long as I have--some twenty-odd years and counting--you are accustomed to seeing the phrase "video games" as one word. (In fact, some time ago, I was part of the ill-fated movement to actually conflate that phrase into one word.) Neither truly video nor truly game, video games to me and many others represent something more than the sum of their parts. But when I tried to think of what exactly this something more was, I realized that there really was no "something more." A video game is, fundamentally, a game--like chess, or hopscotch, or basketball--played via video, just as a board game is a game played with a board, and a ball game is a game played with a ball. On the most fundamental level there are no other defining elements. Nothing illustrates this point better than Pong, the first commercial video game--with a simple objective, a pair of player inputs, a video screen, and little else. What differentiates Pong from a game like Hungry Hungry Hippos or Crossfire? The video screen alone. If you ported Pong to a board, or a table--in fact anyone who has played eraser hockey, with pencils as the paddles and a rubber eraser as the puck, has done exactly this--what you have is something almost identical to Pong, yet unmistakably not a video game. For all our breathless talk of interactivity and agency and immersion, and how these allow games to express new experiences no other medium has ever been able to accomplish, all a game needs to have to be a video game is a video screen. It can have a story, it can have gorgeous art and music, it can explore all sorts of narrative possibilities other media can't, but it doesn't have to, and while many of those qualities can be explored by the medium in new and unique ways, the medium can exist without them. A video game is a game played on a video screen. Nothing more, nothing less.

That fact is immediately obvious to Ebert, who is old enough that when he sees the term "video game," he sees it as two words. He has been around long enough that he remembers when that much was obvious. Which is why he is not comparing what he sees in Santiago's talk to Tetris, Space Invaders, and Pong, but to chess, basketball, and mahjongg. He is not showing his age or his dated cultural perspective by comparing video games to non-art games that, to people like me who grew up with video games, seem to fit in a completely different conceptual category. It is not an apples to oranges comparison--he is comparing games to games, and games are games. He is simply arguing that the point has not sufficiently been made that one particular kind of game--which folks tell him is art--is fundamentally, artistically, and creatively different, in some way, from other kinds of games--which virtually everyone would agree aren't.

The troubling part is that Ebert has a point.

Last week I was talking to my friend CR, an experienced designer who has worked on a whole bunch of triple-A titles most gamers have most likely at least heard of, about Jason Rohrer's seminal mortality-themed art game Passage. He was complaining that, despite all the artistic hullaballoo, he didn't really see it as a game. Sure, from a formal standpoint it had rules, player input, an objective, whatnot--but these weren't the point. The ludic elements of the game--what gamers call "gameplay"--were minimal. The message and experience of the game were conveyed by everything other than what made it a game--the art direction, the music, the creative use of a single rule governing player death. While Passage was unmistakably art, and CR was thrilled at the idea of people taking art in this new direction, it really didn't feel like what he does as a game designer. It felt like someone had taken an installation piece and tacked some basic gameplay onto it to allow it to fit the formal definition of a game. Would Passage be any more or less meaningful if it were a mere interactive simulation, with no treasure chests or score bar to shoehorn it into the video game medium? Would its message or the subjective experience it conveys be substantially different if there was no objective, no interactivity (note how impactful the game is on people who simply watch someone else play), no set of rules aside from the one regarding mortality? CR has a professional background in both card and video game design--the creative process in creating each is similar enough that his skill set crosses over; the ludic systems missing or skeletal in Passage are exactly what he does. Indeed, following the design notes of Dungeons and Dragons 4th Edition and comparing them to leaked video game design documents I've read for Fallout 3: Van Buren and other RPGs, one cannot wonder if, at the design and ludic level, at least, there is really any fundamental difference between one kind of game and any other. The only real difference is the equipment on which the games are played.

Does playing a game on a computer, as opposed to a chessboard, really make that much a difference as to whether or not it is art?

Even if the answer is no, let's revisit the subject of games that are unmistakably art, by any definition you choose--as in, a non-gamer, your parents, anyone who isn't Roger Ebert will immediately look at it and recognize it as art. Gabe and Tycho of Penny Arcade bring up as a counterpoint to Ebert's essay the sheer creative spectacle that is the development process for a mainstream video game, summing it up in their punchlineless third panel: "If a hundred artists create art for five years, how could the result not be art?" This point is virtually a truism. Illustrators, musicians, and designers hone their craft for years to become part of this trade. You could hang screen captures and concept art from EA's Dante's Inferno in a gallery to be admired, or auction them off for impressive sums of money, and no one would question that what is being traded is art any more than anyone would question that a similar event with Baroque paintings would be art. You could listen to video game music on an iPod, and perform covers and even entire orchestral concerts with real instruments, and in fact people do--with impressively large turnouts. You could give awards ceremonies for level design, and frame level maps on your wall, and create spheres of creative influence around auteur-celebrities, and name systems after people, and write papers on different movements and methodologies--and people do. Huge games like Metal Gear Solid 4 or Fallout 3 or Gears of War are teeming with art, in various well-established traditional media--if those games, and the experiences they comprise, aren't art, then neither is a Renaissance portrait, or a Johnny Cash rock ballad, or the Monticello building. QED, says Penny Arcade; there is no debate.

But the really worrying part is that none of these elements really have anything to do with the "game" part of a video game. That those dazzling, brilliant showcases of art and music and narrative also have fun and engaging gameplay underneath is beside the point. They aren't the gameplay--and as independent designers have reiterated time and time again, ever since the age of the six-man team ended and the era of the hundred-person studio began, as great as all that stuff is, none of that matters half as much in a game as making the gameplay fun. Strip out all the story, all the gorgeous voice acting, all the dazzling video-card-melting art and haunting tunes of Assassin's Creed 2 and you essentially have a really complicated early DOS game about This Dot and These Other Dots that plays more or less exactly the same, and would probably still be fun to play. Take out just the ludic elements, though, and you don't have a video game anymore. You have, well, a film.

Which is exactly the medium Ebert is an expert on--and may be, to a large extent, why he's not impressed.

(continued part 3)
Tags: art, essays, games, movies
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