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Passive Vehemence

30 April, 2010 (11:26) | Video Games

Donkey Kong’s Last Supper by Misha.

Roger Ebert is an asshole. His self-aggrandizing appearances at the University of Colorado’s Conference on World Affairs every year cemented this in my mind during my stint there. He’s also, to his credit, a brilliant film reviewer who grasps all the technical qualities of a film in addition to the common draws that appeal to the average viewer.

While my personal beliefs about Ebert are not relevant to the discussion, the latter trait of brilliance as a critic unfortunately does nothing to flavor his close-minded and poorly formed pedantry in regards to video games.

It’s already been several weeks since Ebert published his second argument claiming video games can never be art, a piece that essentially started a veritable flame war with the internet. Everyone from Tom Goldman of the Escapist, an excellent video game webzine, to Robert Brockway of Cracked.com, a website known more for its frivolous time wasters than great writing,  have published impassioned responses defending the medium. Not surprisingly, the best response seems to be from Kellee Santiago, whose TED talk spurred Ebert to attempt to defend his position.

As much as I’d like to defend video games from Ebert’s lackluster and foolhardy attack, there are already too many voices pooling around the issue, spouting venom and rhetoric and poorly formed arguments attempting to define art. No one, however, seems to have notice that Ebert’s article calls into question not only video games as art, but blatantly attacks gaming as a whole.

Nearing the midway point of his article, Ebert attempts to address the game Braid, which might be the best game I’ve played in years:

Her next example is a game named “Braid” (above). This is a game “that explores our own relationship with our past…you encounter enemies and collect puzzle pieces, but there’s one key difference…you can’t die.” You can go back in time and correct your mistakes. In chess, this is known as taking back a move, and negates the whole discipline of the game.

Chess is one of the oldest and most revered games, but it’s hardly the only game out there. Board games which play with temporal veracity and allow players to shift their reality are myriad and plentiful. The classic Axis & Allies, in which players reenact World War II with differing outcomes, relies on changing history to allow every player a chance at winning. After all, who would play Germany if they knew they’d lose every time? Chrononauts, while a much more frivolous and silly pursuit, allows players to change the course of history and watch the outcome shift, the end goal being to restore the time line to match the reality you remember (and were assigned at the start).

But even in games like Chess, the act of taking back a move and replaying from an earlier point is a sign that one is address the game from an academic standpoint. Masters of chess are considered “students of the game.” To be so is a laudable and admirable status available to any and all who are willing to spend the time to study the mechanics. Across the spectrum of games, from the massive war games like Twilight Imperium to the playful Eurogames like Race for the Galaxy, studying the vast swathe of maneuvers and the functionality of game mechanics provides people critical thinking skills and strategic understanding that film, television, music, and the written word have great difficulty, perhaps even impossibility, imparting.

It’s doubtful that Ebert intended to critique not just games, but interaction and action as a whole; that is, however, the end  result. Film is an amazing medium which I love, but even when it does teach a lesson, it’s almost invariably a staunchly rhetorical Hienlienian straw man argument that prevents the audience from even attempting to address their critiques within. The great works of art that Ebert references, from Picasso to Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, are all intended to inspire thought and action, yet they generally only inspire the former, not the latter. Games, albeit in a highly simulated arena, require action.

The far-reaching consequences of Ebert’s critique of video games isn’t restricted to games alone. It attacks the artistic merit of theatre, specifically interactive theatre, improv and much of the postmodern movement in the art world. It lambastes the choose-your-own-adventure books of my childhood and discredits the many attempts at interactive film and television over the years.

In 2005, Ebert explained the basis of his belief by saying, “Video games by their nature require player choices, which is the opposite of the strategy of serious film and literature, which requires authorial control.” This is exactly the reason why interactive media are more effective for conveying a point intelligently and effectively. I can watch the movie Crash over and over and I will still be able to critique it without eliciting a response. Through interactivity, however, the work could attempt to respond, making it a more dynamic and effective means.

In the end, what’s at stake with Ebert’s argument isn’t a definition of art, but a question of the purpose of art. If the purpose is to convey a message or cause thought, then Ebert’s claim is vastly off the mark. If, however, the purpose is provide the audience with a passive and uncontrollable experience, then he may be absolutely correct.

Until making choices is detrimental to the conversation, I will firmly believe that art is intended to move beyond the borders of its frame, be it a literal frame, a screen, or a keyboard.