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….

4 Comments Showing 50 most recent
  1. unholy

    “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.”

    “We let him do it”?

    Wow. How generous. Now that Madison-Wisconsin validated video games as a legitimate field of study, can you even begin to imagine what will happen? The floodgates will open! People everywhere can start taking on game-related dissertations now! Conferences will be organized! Books will be published!

    Oh, wait… Isn’t that already happening…?

  2. unholy

    “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.”

    “We let him do it”?

    Wow. How generous.

    Now that Madison-Wisconsin has validated video games as an acceptable field of study, can you even begin to imagine what is going to happen? The floodgates will open! People everywhere will be free to take on game-related dissertations! Conferences will be organized! Books will be published!

    Oh, wait… Isn’t it already happening…?

  3. Paul Herzberg

    And you could re-bed the Augean stables with that straw man “up to 100 hours”. OK some games can take up that if you want to do every last bit of it, but surely 10-20 hours is standard? I think KOTOR took me 40 hours and seemed intent on telling every damn type of story in the process (is it 32? And all the subtypes). Beyond Good and Evil and Prince of Persia were probably both about 8-10 hours and felt just a little short but they didn’t outstay their welcome. I’ve seen 90 minute movies I couldn’t say that of (not necessarily the art ones, although art movies have a seemingly infinite capacity to bore me silly if I’m not in exactly the right mood for them, I mean, I love Citizen Kane, but sometimes I just want to watch the Rock blow stuff up).

    I think though, as you were getting at, the art of games is not the art of movies. BG&E is quite an artful game, but it’s not the story per se, but the control and the effortless way it seems to cross genres without you noticing to much or without completely changing the rules when it does (they do change, though). The actual story and the cinematics are fairly hoary in truth, but there’s something in the design of it that keeps you coming back.

  4. meredith

    I agree with everything you’re saying, but I think your last point about John Carmack might not be the best way to argue this. Some filmmakers are synonymous with technical innovation (like Orson Wells and the ever-icky D.W. Griffith. A newer guy might be Robert Rodriguez.). You could even say that the first Matrix movie at least appeared to change the laws of physics (and yeah, I realize their debt to Hong Kong film).
    I stopped listening to Ebert when he picked Roeper, perhaps the most stupid and sexist person on the planet, as his new partner. Lately, Roeper has been whining about the new Dove campaign that has non-stick figure women in it, saying he doesn’t want to see “chunky women” on billboards. But that’s a totally different topic.