For some strange reason, the stars aligned on the weekend and several news sites produced responses to Ebert’s recent column “Games vs. Art: Ebert vs. Barker” in which he replies to some of Clive Barker’s claims on video games as an art form. There was of course the obligatory response from the gaping advertisement-feeding maw of Kotaku, who (for once) provided an intelligible response; unfortunately the response came from a talented film critic who seems to have never played a video game in his life. Joystiq, Ragnar Tornquist (creator of The Longest Journey and Dreamfall), and a slough of other news sites provided their own commentaries on Ebert’s volley. Most notably, however, came much more informed responses from Arthouse Games and Mentisworks, who had already spent time discussing the subject over the past year. The question I’m left with here, however, is why does this all seem to matter so much?
While I’ve never found Ebert’s film reviews to be filled with much else than pop-opinionism, his feature-length commentary on the Dark City DVD gave me a sense of respect for a film buff who obviously pays great attention to detail and knows his history. So in the film world, I’ve always taken his views seriously.
But then, why does Ebert always seem to plant a burr in the ass of video game fanatics? Is it because, as a respected american film critic, his voice automatically carries some degree of authority in the game industry? Is this just another opportunity for gamers to stamp their feet defiantly and show mom and dad that they aren’t little kids anymore? Or perhaps, Ebert really does pick at a sore spot, and our defensive reactions come from a fear that our sacred cattle are headed to the great abattoir in the sky? Whatever the reasons, it is obvious to me that Ebert’s opinions should not be raised so prominently in the consciousness of the modern gaming press. While the man is a respected film critic, nowhere does he cite (or claim!) any experience with videogames, nor does he show any knowledge of game history. Do you ask your electrician for medical advice? Your family doctor for carpentry tips?
But, you might claim that at least Ebert has provoked the press to formulate some sort of unified response on the subject – and we might gain some respect as gamers in sheer numbers. While this is possible, it certainly has not been the case so far. In almost all cases, game writers made the classic mistake of defending their territory on their opponent’s turf! Instead of exposing/articulating the inherently novel nature of video games as a mode of expression with its own rules and relevances, writers try to defend games in terms of their counterparts in film, paintings and books! Imagine a poet that defends the quality of her poetry by claiming that it’s just as good as watching Rashomon? Senseless. The current ‘art vs. games’ debate will not give us a profound sense for why games are in their own league of artistic expression.
So, what might a more fruitful discussion of art and games look like? This is where real writers and artists must plead their cases, and forego their own opinions in pursuit of deeper truths.
“… When someone reviews Moby Dick or Kramer vs. Kramer, they don’t spend most of their time explaining the details of the plot (or at least they don’t if they’re interesting). The meaning of most art is usually found within abstractions. So the problem is not that video games don’t have interesting narratives; the problem is that it’s hard to decide what it is about video games that is interesting.” – Chuck Klosterman, “The Lester Bangs of Video Games”
This is where writers (artists! critics! historians!) must exhaust themselves analyzing games and demonstrating a game’s aesthetic values in terms of norms and relevances not directly determined by traditional art forms. This is where, as I previously mentioned, Mentisworks’ analysis of Okami and Arthouse Games’ analysis of Paradroid are painting the paths necessary for a movement in game criticism that goes beyond opinion or simple enjoyment. This is where we get the seats of our pants dirty, and delve into the deeper strata of A Boy and His Blob, Ico, or Shadow of the Colossus – and show why anyone (even non-gamers!) should be moved by these works of art.
If we really want to prove that Ebert doesn’t know his ass from a hole on the moon, it won’t be accomplished by debating Warhol and Kurosawa with him – it will be done by putting our own house in order.