In the Sunday Chicago Sun-Times, Roger Ebert once again makes his beliefs known about the ability of games to be artistic. Someone asked about “Silent Hill” director Christophe Gans and his comments in an interview in EGM, and Ebert responded in his Movie Answer Man.
Ebert gave a bad review (1.5 stars) to “Silent Hill”, the latest movie-based-on-a-video-game that everyone will hope to be good but will almost always disappoint. I haven’t seen the movie, nor have I seen “Doom”, another movie that Ebert gave a low rating to. I figured that “Doom” would be a terrible movie adaptation, and I haven’t played any of the “Silent Hill” games so I had no urge to see something that might spoil the game for me. Besides, it would probably be bad as well. Most video game-based movies are. I liked “Super Mario Bros”, even though I was one of a handful of people in the theater, but I wouldn’t claim that it was a good movie by any stretch of the imagination. I was very young and a big fan of the game series, after all.
Anyway, “Silent Hill” got a bad review, and Gans had said that he thinks that video games can be a form of art. I read part of the interview, and the big quote is:
EGM: It certainly doesn’t help our industry when a major critic like Roger Ebert comes out and says that “games are not art”
CG: Fuck him. You know, I will say to this guy that only has to read the critiques against cinema at the beginning of the 20th century. It was seen as a degenerate version of live stage musicals. And this was a time when visionary directors like Griffith were working. That means that Ebert is wrong. It’s simple. Most people who despise a new medium are simply afraid to die, so they express their arrogance and fear like this. He will realize that he is wrong on his deathbed. Human beings are stupid, and we often become assholes when we get old. Each time some new medium appears, I feel that it’s important to respect it, even if it appears primitive or naive at first, simply because some people are finding important things in it. If you have one guy in the world who thinks that Silent Hill or Zelda is a beautiful, poetic work, then that games means something. Art only exists in the eye of the beholder. You know, I saw The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly when I was eight, and I thought it was a masterpiece. And at that time, I felt like I was alone thinking that. But now, it’s commonly accepted as being a classic, so I was right!
I will disagree with the assertation of the question. I think it does help when someone like Ebert says that games aren’t art because it gives us something to focus on. Do I believe games are art or could be art? Yes, and I’m not alone. Now we just need to show how. I don’t expect anyone in movies to point to very early film and claim those were masterpieces of theatre. “Citizen Kane” came out many years after the first motion picture was available. I don’t believe we’ve seen our “Citizen Kane” yet.
That said, I don’t believe that games are intrinsically incapable of being art. Ebert’s argument?
I am willing to agree that a video game could also be a serious work of art. It would become so by avoiding most of the things that make it a game, such as scoring, pointing and shooting, winning and losing, shallow characterizations, and action that is valued above motivation and ethical considerations. Oddly enough, when video games evolve far enough in that direction, they will not only be an art form, they will be the cinema.
Scoring makes a game. Pointing and shooting makes a game. Winning and losing makes a game. Shallow characterizations make a game. Action valued above motivation and ethical considerations makes a game. If you’re amazed, I understand. It was news to me, too.
Are there games that include scoring, shooting, winning and losing? Yes. What about games with stock characters? Action for the sake of action? Check, and check.
But if I remember correctly, there are quite a few movies about winning and losing. There are quite a few movies with terrible characters. There are action flicks that have no reason for a lot of the violence and explosions. We can point to films that have “evolved” past those, so they don’t count anymore, I guess. We could point to games that have evolved as well, but it would be similar to comparing very early film to modern theatrical performances. How would a motion picture about a bunch of people running and spinning around in dresses stack up to “Rent” or “Wicked” or even Shakespeare’s works in terms of artistic value?
Ebert is writing about video games as if he can really talk about them as an authority. To Gans he argues:
As David Bordwell has pointed out, it can take at least 100 hours to complete a video game. Do you really feel you have mastered the mature arts to such an extent that you have that kind of time to burn on a medium you think is primitive and naive?
Not all games are 100 hour marathons, and no one is expecting Ebert to play the games that are. What about the six or eight hour games? Two hours? The twenty minute ones? We can’t expect Ebert to know about them, let alone play them, but I’m sure he’ll still have something to say. After all, they are video games, and apparently all video games are just shallow action flicks.
Most games are just games. Most games are not meant to be artistic in any way. There are motion pictures that have no artistic value, and I’m sure that Ebert would agree. It took some time before movies were treated as anything more than a novelty, and even more time before film critic became a respected position. Video games are still being treated as children’s toys, even though most gamers are over 20 years old. It is hard to have serious discussions with people from other industries when they continue to get their best opinions from “our side” from a 13-year-old gamer who would think that “Super Mario Bros” was a great movie if it came out today.
I don’t care about the people who thought that the Doom movie was the greatest thing ever. I doubt anyone cared what I thought about “Super Mario Bros” when I was younger. I don’t go to the movies to watch video games, and I thought it was incredibly dumb to have a first-person perspective in a movie to try to mimic the game. 11-year-old Joey and 10-year-old Tommy might disagree with me, but who made them authorities on movies? So the headline “Ebert vs the gamers” is supposed to make it seem like there is a huge intellectual debate when in reality it betrays how the game industry is being perceived. It’s just for kids, after all.