Category: Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert apologizes to the “kids”

As was the case the last time Roger Ebert wrote about videogames, the gaming websites are all talking about his latest post about gaming. He writes:

I was a fool for mentioning video games in the first place. I would never express an opinion on a movie I hadn’t seen. Yet I declared as an axiom that video games can never be Art. I still believe this, but I should never have said so. Some opinions are best kept to yourself.

Well that’s fine. I’m glad he saw the light at least a little bit. However, I have the same problem with this “apology” as I did with his last post about videogames. Let’s look at the title for his post: “Okay, kids, play on my lawn.” Just like the last post he is still implying that videogame players are children. Sure, in this case, he is using the old cliche about old people and responding to people who wrote that he only dislikes videogames because he is old. However, it is still the second post in a row that he has made a connection between videogame players and children.

One step forward. Two steps back.

On Art and Violence

Now that the semester is winding down I’ve got a bit of time to blog (and write my last couple dissertation chapters and then revise all of them and write the intro and conclusion chapters…). A couple things have happened (and are in the process of happening) that have the gaming world buzzing: Roger Ebert wrote about videogames again and the Supreme Court is taking up the case of California’s law forbidding the sale of videogames to minors.

Regarding Ebert, he ends by asking, “Why are gamers so intensely concerned, anyway, that games be defined as art?” which echoes my own call for all of us to stop caring about “art.” Tons and tons of people have tried to convince him he’s wrong — so many in fact that I don’t even want to bother hunting down links to some of the stories that do it. I’m not interested in arguing with him because I don’t really care if he thinks games are art or not.

However, it is very disconcerting that he seems to think that he can judge games by looking at screenshots. Would he write a review of a film based on the text on the back of the dvd box? That’s pretty ignorant to think that he can judge games in that manner.

Unfortunately, this is just the top of the iceberg because look at the picture at the top of his post. Now I have no idea if he picked that picture or not. I would say that he probably didn’t but he did pick the rest of the pictures in the post so perhaps he did. Regardless, the picture didn’t just appear by itself. Someone chose that picture. What is in that picture? A kid. So someone whether it was Ebert of just some random web guy, wanted to pick a picture of a gamer and they picked a kid — once again perpetuating the stereotype that games are for kids and in this instance also seemingly indicating that games are in and of themselves childish. Wow. That’s pretty sad.

OK, now onto the Supreme Court…

I’m pretty confident that the Supreme Court will say this law is unconstitutional not only because lower courts have consistently ruled that laws regulating videogame sales are unconstitutional but also because of the recent Supreme Court decision declaring a law banning animal cruelty videos unconstitutional.

Today the Diane Rehm Show had a segment on the Supreme Court taking on the Videogame law regulating videogame sales and had Leland Yee, the California politician behind the bill, Craig Anderson, the guy who has never met a form of media that didn’t cause aggression, and a couple other people I don’t remember. Now, I’ve previously criticized Anderson’s vague use of the term “aggression” so I was pleasantly surprised that Diane Rehm’s first question to him was “what is the difference between agression and violence?” Anderson initially tried to avoid answering the question but then Rehm re-asked the question and Anderson admitted that while violence is generally understood as an extreme form of aggression, it is very rare for aggression to actually turn into violence. I think that it really key because in that statement Anderson (who also in this CNN video says that videogame-caused “aggression” isn’t really any worse than film or television-causes “aggression” ) says that videogames don’t really make kids violent.

If the most well known person who thinks videogames cause aggression doesn’t think they make you violent then that makes the case that they are so bad that we need laws against selling them much harder to prove.

Personally, I look forward to the SCOTUS shutting down these kinds of laws once and for all.

…well that and Jack Thompson getting involved and saying some crazy things…

Roger Ebert Appeals to Authority…

Since the last time Roger Ebert told us we were wasting our time playing videogames, his website has posted a couple pages of letters from gamers. Most of them tend to fall in the “but game X has a lot of text and cut scenes!”

Well, Ebert’s Answer Man column appeared this morning with people still playing the same game and Ebert still using the same logic:

Q. Thank you for jump-starting a discussion about the relative artistic and critical merit of video games as compared to film and books. I do take issue when you argue that video games can never have the merit of a great film or novel. You say: “There is a structural reason for that: Video games by their nature require player choices, which is the opposite of the strategy of serious film and literature, which requires authorial control.”
Where you see a flaw, I see promise. Arguing that games are inherently inferior because books and movies are better at telling stories and leading us through an author-driven experience is begging the question. It’s like saying that photography is better than painting because photos make more accurate visual records.
The invention of photography sparked a crisis in the world of painting: “Why should we paint if pictures can do it better?” But then painters figured out that there were lots of other things that they could do, that cameras can’t. Now we see an enormous explosion of creativity in the world of painting. And another different explosion in the world of photography.
We agree that games are inherently different from films and books. I believe they are at their worst when they try to mimic films and books, and at their best when they exploit this difference to create experiences that films, books, and all the other art forms cannot. No one criticizes sculpture for failing to tell a story as well as a good movie.
Many people would agree with you that there aren’t yet any games that rival the best films or books that you care to list. Game makers are only just beginning to understand that games are not films/books with action sequences. I think that you’ll see that the more we work that out, the more we will find ways of creating meaningful artistic works that are unlike anything anyone’s seen before.
Tim Maly, designer, Capybara Games, Toronto

A. If or when that happens, I hope I will approach it with an open mind. This debate has taken on a life of its own. In countless e-mails and on a dozen message boards, I’ve found that most of the professionals involved in video games are intelligent and thoughtful people like yourself. A large number of the video game players, alas, tell me “you suck” or inform me that I am too old. At 63, I prefer such synonyms as “wise” and “experienced.”
Today I received a message from Professor David Bordwell (retired) of the University of Wisconsin at Madison, who is generally thought of as the leading scholarly writer on film; the textbooks he has written by himself and with Kristin Thompson are used in a majority of the world’s film classrooms. What he said was intriguing on a practical level:

“The last dissertation I’m directing is on video games as they compare to film. The guy is bright, so we let him do it. But he brought his games and game platform to my house to give me some experience on this medium. I lasted through 15 minutes of ‘Simpson’s Road Rage,’ largely because my coordination is so poor. Even if I got good on the controls, what keeps me away is the level of commitment. The idea of spending hours at this boggles my mind.
“My student told me that the most sophisticated games require up to 100 hours to master. In 100 hours we can watch two Bollywood films or 50-plus Hollywood/ foreign features or 80 B-films or 750 Warner Bros. cartoons. Depending on how fast you read, in the same interval you can probably finish reading 20-30 books. Not to mention 25-35 operas or 100-120 symphonies. And that’s just for one game! On the basis of my very limited experience, and given my tastes (a big part of the issue here), the problem with video games is that they’re too much like life — too much commitment for thin and often frustrating results.”

So now we are down to quoting from someone who has spent their live devoted to studying film to say that film is better than videogames. Wow, a retired films scholar saying film is better than another medium, who saw that coming? Maybe I should ask the pope which religion is best? Moreover, he gets advice from Bordwell? While I’m sure that Bordwell has an open mind, it is just that…. zzzzzzz. Oh I’m sorry, I dozed off. Funny how that happens whenever I start thinking about Bordwell… OK, ok, that might be a bit harsh and a cheap joke (but not too far from the truth…)

But really, how much weight are we supposed to put behind the opinion of one films scholar. If one film scholar is that important, I can go call up Jim Naremore and get some quotes form him. I don’t’ think I need to since when I took a class form him I wrote about videogames and we talked for about half an hour about them and he seemed really interested in them. Not once did he tell me how foolish I was for taking all this time playing games when I could be reading Dickens….

Of course the whole “it takes a lot of time to get into videogames” is total hogwash. Recently, IU had a Godard film festival (crappy flash and sound a tthat link) that was put on by our department and I went to an hour long talk. Wow, obviously I haven’t spent enough time studying film to understand that crap. They showed some clips and if I had to sit through an entire Godard film I think I would spoon my eyes out. Clearly there is some sort of literacy there that takes hours and hours to learn. I find it ironic for Bordwell to say he doesn’t have time to play a videogame when he presumably has time to sit through things like I saw at that colloquiuum…

All I really have to say is that if we are going to start appealing to famous scholars to defend our taste, then people need to go read what should be the starting point on taste: Bourdieu’s book, Distinction. Appealing to elitists by claiming that your favorite thing has similarities to their favorite elite medium ain’t going to cut it. Elitists like elitism. Nothing we downtrodden masses have to say is going to change their minds. Moreover, claiming that *someday* *maybe* videogames will be as film-like as film or that we will have our own Shakespeare, is just lame.

When are films going to be as exhilarating as videogames? When will film produce their John Carmack? I mean, really, all these film guys do is pick up a camera and pull the trigger. Carmack reinvents the equipment we use to make a videogame every single time he makes a game. Let me know why a filmmaker develops his or her own camera, lighting, actors, physics, and lets the viewer star in it. Then film might be as inherently good as videogames….

Roger Ebert Gives Videogames Thumbs Down.

Over at Shacknews, there is a post titled, “Ebert on Video Games: They are Inferior” which basically talks about Ebert dissing videogames without even playing them. In his review of the Doom movie, Ebert writes:

The movie has been “inspired by” the famous video game. No, I haven’t played it, and I never will…

Wow, nice open mind you have there, Roger.
In his Answer Man column, the debate over the relative merits of videogames has continued with readers writing in attempting to defend videogames, and Ebert basically saying that he doesn’t know anything about them, but because he doesn’t know anything about them, that must mean they suck.
The October 30, 2005 Answer Man column begins with this Q and A:

Q. If “Doom” were just another action thriller, then I would have to say you were too generous by giving it one star. The movie frankly deserves zero stars. But is not just a movie. “Doom” was to games what “Rashomon” was to movies. It invented a way of showing something that had never been done before — what you call the “point-of-view shot looking forward over the barrel of a large weapon.”

“Doom” the movie is a tribute to this seminal event. This movie isn’t about clever camera angles, witty dialogue or subtle directorial touches. “Doom” has no pretensions, aspirations or delusions about what it is about. You aren’t supposed to wonder about the origins of mankind as you walk out of the theater. “Doom” the movie is “Doom” the game brought to the screen without messing around too much with the original. “Doom” works as a tribute because it fails so utterly as a movie. There is a reason so many video game-based movies suck: They are fundamentally different forms of representation. Thus by being faithful to the game, the movie pisses off the critic and pleases the gamer.

Vikram Keskar, Kirksville, Mo.

A. With friends like you, what does “Doom” need with critics? Surveys indeed show that more than half the movie’s opening-weekend viewers had played the game. I suppose they got what they were expecting. I am a believer in the value-added concept of filmmaking, in which a movie supplies something that a video game does not. Seen as a moviegoing experience, this was not a good one. There are specialist sites on the Web devoted to video games, and they review movies on their terms. I review them on mine. As long as there is a great movie unseen or a great book unread, I will continue to be unable to find the time to play video games.

Darn those “specialist sites on the Web” and their reviews of movies…
The critique of videogames continues in the November 13, 2005 Answer Man column:

Q. I’ve been a gamer since I was very young, and I haven’t been satisfied with most of the movies based on video games, with the exception of the first “Mortal Kombat” and “Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within.” These were successful as films because they did not try to be a tribute to the game, but films in their own right.

I have not seen “Doom,” but don’t plan to, nor do I think that it’s fair to say that it pleases all gamers. Some of us appreciate film, too. That said, I was surprised at your denial of video games as a worthwhile use of your time. Are you implying that books and film are better mediums, or just better uses of your time?

Films and books have their scabs, as do games, but there are beautiful examples of video games out there — see “Shadow of the Colossus,” “Rez” or the forthcoming “PeaceMaker.”

Josh Fishburn, Denver

A. I believe books and films are better mediums, and better uses of my time. But how can I say that when I admit I am unfamiliar with video games? Because I have recently seen classic films by Fassbinder, Ozu, Herzog, Scorsese and Kurosawa, and have recently read novels by Dickens, Cormac McCarthy, Bellow, Nabokov and Hugo, and if there were video games in the same league, someone somewhere who was familiar with the best work in all three mediums would have made a convincing argument in their defense.

That’s good thinkering there Roger. It is nice to know that Roger Ebert is omniscient and knows what everyone everywhere has done…
Although in the same column, he defends Dark City, a film I found to be incredibly silly and lame, so what does he know?
Not content to let the issue go, the November 27, 2005 Answer Man column contains yet another Q and A:

Q. I was saddened to read that you consider video games an inherently inferior medium to film and literature, despite your admitted lack of familiarity with the great works of the medium. This strikes me as especially perplexing, given how receptive you have been in the past to other oft-maligned media such as comic books and animation. Was not film itself once a new field of art? Did it not also take decades for its academic respectability to be recognized?

There are already countless serious studies on game theory and criticism available, including Mark S. Meadows’ Pause & Effect: The Art of Interactive Narrative, Nick Montfort’s Twisty Little Passages: An Approach to Interactive Fiction, Noah Wardrip-Fruin and Pat Harrigan’s First Person: New Media as Story, Performance, and Game, and Mark J.P. Wolf’s The Medium of the Video Game, to name a few.

I hold out hope that you will take the time to broaden your experience with games beyond the trashy, artless “adaptations” that pollute our movie theaters, and let you discover the true wonder of this emerging medium, just as you have so passionately helped me to appreciate the greatness of many wonderful films.

Andrew Davis, St. Cloud, Minn.

A. Yours is the most civil of countless messages I have received after writing that I did indeed consider video games inherently inferior to film and literature. There is a structural reason for that: Video games by their nature require player choices, which is the opposite of the strategy of serious film and literature, which requires authorial control.

I am prepared to believe that video games can be elegant, subtle, sophisticated, challenging and visually wonderful. But I believe the nature of the medium prevents it from moving beyond craftsmanship to the stature of art. 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. That a game can aspire to artistic importance as a visual experience, I accept. But for most gamers, video games represent a loss of those precious hours we have available to make ourselves more cultured, civilized and empathetic.

Well, there we go, “videogames represent a loss of those precious hours we have available to make ourselves more cultures, civilized and empathetic.” Even though the letter writer lists a couple of books I have no love for, Roger ignores them and says that he doesn’t know of anyone who has cited a game “worthy” of his high level.

You know, I”m not fan of “art” because I’ve read Bourdieu and hate the smell of elitism in the morning. However, Roger Ebert goes beyond mere Auteur theory and venturing into pure elitism land. Of course, I tend to get feisty when I think people are being elitist. So it isn’t his denying the artistry of videogames that I dislike, it is his pure illogical snobbery about it. Of course, this is why I am opposed to people getting into the art thing. Some people just don’t get it and no matter how much we try, then never will. Pointing out cinematic games isn’t going to do it. As I said in my comment over at shacknews, “art” is just as meaningful a term as “beautiful.” We each have our own notions of what is or isn’t beautiful and we can argue about that definition without ever coming to a satisfying definition.

I hope that gamers will let this go and not go after Ebert. He’s never going to change his mind and we don’t need someone else taking Thompson’s side. Let Roger read his literature and watch his cinema. A friend of the devil may be a friend of mine, but someone who doesn’t like Doom is no friend of mine.