Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Games, Art, and Ebert


In terms of movie critics, Roger Ebert is my favorite... so I do wish he would stop embarrassing himself with his strange compulsion to extend his criticism to video games. Really, he hasn't got a leg to stand on. Since he does not and (by his own declaration) will not ever play video games, what credence can he possibly have? It's like a movie critic who never watches movies.

What compels Ebert to keep poking this hornet's nest? Is it a love for attention? He already gets plenty of that. Is it sheer elderly crotchety-ness? Conceivably, though it's a disappointing idea. One of the things I admire about Ebert as a movie critic is that he is almost always willing to take a movie on its own terms. He will critique an action movie on whether or not it is a good action movie, not sneer at it for daring not to be an art film.

If only he would extend the same courtesy to games.

In any case, I like Tycho's statement on the Penny Arcade blog, regardless of the personal barbs directed at Ebert as a person (barbed words are Tycho's stock and trade, after all). Ebert is, of course, arguing in bad faith. He is setting the goalposts wherever he damn well pleases, whimsically defining the terms of the discussion as it suits him, and happily and unrepentantly speaking from a place of ignorance. Here's a good example from Ebert's essay:

One obvious difference between art and games is that you can win a game. It has rules, points, objectives, and an outcome. Santiago might cite a immersive game without points or rules, but I would say then it ceases to be a game and becomes a representation of a story, a novel, a play, dance, a film. Those are things you cannot win; you can only experience them.
Translation: "I'm going to define a video game the way I want to define it, nyah nyah."

There are, as many have pointed out to him, countless games that are not about "winning" or "losing." They are about the experience. You don't play to win, anymore than you "win" by getting to the end of a book you're reading.

An honest discussion is one thing. Ebert is offering nothing of the sort, which is a pity. He's capable of better than that.

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