Roger Ebert, get over yourself

I would like to start, first, by saying that I admire Roger Ebert. He’s been through a lot, and while I agree with his movie reviews only half the time (because I am extremely picky about movies, and would rather go see a good piece of theatre any day), he is normally a well-informed, well-written critic. He puts a lot of thought into what he says about movies and why. Also, I think his review of “North” from way back in 1994 is one of the funniest things I’ve ever read.

And, I know I have focused this blog on theatre, so critiquing his latest blog entry claiming that video games are not art is sort of a departure. But it represents a stodginess that is a serious problem in all arts communities, including theatre. It is the problem of high art vs. low art, or fines arts vs. pop culture. I don’t think they’re different, they inform each other a lot more than our simple categories like to think, and often, as pop culture grows and changes over time, it becomes canonized. A lot of comments have already pointed out that film was not considered art at its birth, and it is still a sensational form in many ways today. Euripides’ The Bacchae and Dante’s Divine Comedy and Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales and even a lot of Shakespeare were at one time not considered art, and they are now a go-to source of inspiration for every art form in the world.

Now, Ebert said way back in 2006 in a panel discussion that he didn’t think video games were art, and that created an internet furor, because lots of us internet geeks are also avid video gamers. He remained silent on the topic until recently because no one had yet exposed him to this TED lecture:

watch?v=K9y6MYDSAww&feature=player_embedded

Ebert says in his article that he enjoyed the lecture and warmed to Kellee immediately. I didn’t. For one thing, her argument, like Ebert’s rebuttal, is poorly structured. She didn’t have a lot of time to get her point across, but I didn’t like the way she did it. I also didn’t like that she used an example of a game her company was developing — it felt too much like a corporate plug. As did about 1/3 of her lecture. The end was a nod to the supposed moral fibre of the older generation, as well, and is also found far too frequently as the basis of censorship arguments. It was just bad.

So of course Ebert’s response to her video was bad, as he didn’t add anything to the discussion: he simply reiterated his early views while criticizing her statements. He also mentioned that he has intentionally ignored pleas for him to play this or that game. So he went in handicapped, without having any first-hand experience with games (other than, apparently, Myst, according to Jim Emerson who is the content manager of RogerEbert.com).

When Ebert reviews movies, he goes to see them. He probably takes extensive notes while he’s there. I think it is unfair of him to make such a blanket statement without having experienced some modern games, and I mean other than videos shown frequently on news broadcasts featuring alarmists claiming violent video games made their children commit suicide or something.

You just can’t review something with any accuracy without experiencing it first. Ebert, you should know this. I say the same thing about critics of rap or burlesque or slam poetry or stand up or anything Syyn Labs is working on. You might have a vague idea of what’s involved, and yes there are different levels of skill in any art form, but go experience it a few times and then tell me what you think. Otherwise, you are speaking with anti-intellectual bias on a subject for which you can’t cite details. Kids fail high school papers for this mistake.

Ebert also does not define what “art” is to him. He picks on Santiago’s concept of art, which she draws from Wikipedia — and I’m sure Roger Ebert knows as well as the rest of us nerds that Wikipedia is, like any other business, constantly trying to strike an acceptable cultural balance. This has been notoriously difficult with their articles on Christianity, Islam, and Scientology. So, Wikipedia’s editors — not us, but the ones who work directly for the organization — are always dumbing things down to cover as broad and unoffensive a range as possible. The definition of “art” is just as contentious as the definition of god. But I think it’s cowardly of Ebert to make such a claim and refuse to define his terms. He throws in the definition accepted by Plato and other notable Greek scholars, and then admits that its no longer a fitting definition of “art” in our modern culture.

I had a long argument with my boyfriend on what I thought art was before I really started thinking this review out. I have very recently come to believe, and claim loudly, that the line between art and entertainment is just not clear-cut. I think the same thing about crafts, as well. There’s good crafters, and bad crafters, and good crafters get to be called artists, and bad crafters are mocked on the internet. But all of these things are intertwined in ways that we simply can’t separate. But! Here’s my definition of art (because I will not be as cowardly as Roger Ebert): “Art is the result of a creative process, engaged in by one or more individuals, created with a specific set of tools, which is intended to communicate the artists’ worldview.” To define my terms, creative process is different for a lot of people, although for me I often find it goes with 1) setting aside specific time to create, and 2) having an AH-HA moment. “Artists” don’t have to be trained professional artists with a bajillion degrees, or even any talent — I’d still lump bad art in with “art” in general. Just because I don’t like it doesn’t mean it doesn’t fit the definition, it just means it was a bad idea executed poorly. “Tools” of course run the gamut of paint brushes, actors, tap shoes, Photoshop, marble, fabric, and make-up, to name a tiny handful. And I say “communicate the artists’ worldview” because I firmly believe — as do Santiago and Ebert — that art is about communicating our experiences through a wide variety of mediums, from interpretive dance and abstract painting (which convey a sense of some emotion the artist was feeling at the time, but nothing specific) to novels and linear, plot-bound movies (which are much more specific in story and how it is executed).

Games do not fall into this definition. Games are about an objective, and winning. So yes, “Pong” is not art. Neither are chess or mah jong, two examples both Santiago and Ebert use. What they both focused on, however, was game play, not the medium on which the game is played. While the extent of my mah jong experience is with the incredibly dumbed-down version sold as a video game in the US (first on a Sega Genesis, now as an installed game on my computer), I have had a chance to see some mah jong tiles in person, at an import and antique store in the International District here in Seattle. They are incredibly beautiful and intricate works of art. Yes, art! They were finely crafted into tiny pieces of ivory, lovingly hand-painted. The same could be said of some customized sets of playing cards — they are masterpieces. And they definitely convey a sense of the artist’s worldview, given how the suicide king might be represented:

Games like War or Go Fish or Pinochle are not art, but the cards you play them with may well be. I would argue that video games are just about there — still games, but the world in which the game is set is often artistic, and lavish, and immersing — so much so that you might find you don’t want to continue with the plot, because you just want to run you character around and explore (this was Roger Ebert’s experience of Myst, to some extent). And, I think many video games are rapidly crossing the line where the game play itself is a tool for the art work, a way of telling the story to an audience.

And yes, lots and lots of modern games have a plot, and in big game producing houses like Bethesda and Valve, there are lots of highly-trained script-writers involved. Ebert, would you like to argue that scripts are not art? Video games employ lots of other artists, from actors to designers to composers AND musicians (let’s not forget the people who actually play the music, Ebert). Video games are conceived and created in a collaborative process that resembles movie-making a great deal. Would the finished product be more artistic if it didn’t involve audience interaction in some way? That would nullify improv and concerts as artistic expressions.

The biggest problem Ebert has seems to stem from the fact that he is a lazy audience member. You wouldn’t assume this, since he’s an active film critic, and has been for decades. To clarify: I am one of many theatre artists who believe that TV and film have made Western audiences lazy. Now, everyone lands somewhere on the spectrum of this, from wanting audiences to stay still and just somehow exert good vibes at their actors, to wanting audience members actively shouting at the stage. A good recent middle ground has seen theatres allowing audience members to text, Twitter, or Facebook while they’re watching the show (“The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later” became famous for this experiment, among other reasons for the show to be famous). We of the live performance arts just want our audiences to show active interest. But we also know that audiences have been trained, through parents, through friends, through disapproving audience members at shows, and, most importantly, through the imposed separation between actor and audience that was started with the concept of the 4th wall, which has culminated in TV and movies. We in the audience are supposed to be like sponges — we absorb, passively, all the information given to us by the production, and filter it out later into scenes we remember, lines of dialogue we quote. But we are not supposed to take a more active interest — cameras tell us where to focus. A very good example of this kind of focus is the scene in “The Matrix Reloaded” where about 10,000 Agent Smiths appear and fight Neo. A lot of them are Hugo Weaving, the actor who played Agent Smith, doing different things in the background to add depth. But, look closer: the editors only put Agent Smith in roughly the radius of your direct vision, but once you go to peripheral vision, they felt they didn’t need to worry about it, so there’s a lot of guys in the background that look nothing like Hugo Weaving, with only a pair of sunglasses and an earpiece to denote who they’re supposed to be! It’s the best part of the movie, I promise.

Anyway, theatre has some of this power, but not much — audiences are going to look around a lot more on a small stage than on a movie screen where someone’s face is 70 feet tall. So films, even moreso than other performance arts, force our attention in certain ways, feed us information in certain ways. Paintings are another good comparison, although we’re not stuck on paintings for a certain span of time.

Video games force you to problem solve, which is the game play aspect. They force you to interact with the plot for the experience to continue. They force you to be actively involved. I think Roger Ebert hates that about them, because that is not how he is used to being entertained. My hypothesis has some confirmation by Jim Emerson at RogerEbert.com: “(Ebert said he’d also been intrigued by Myst, but that he’d wished it had just played itself like a movie rather than as a game where the user was called upon to unlock parts of the riddle in order to move on to the next level of the game.)”.

The point of Myst is such deep immersion in the world that you eventually stumble onto the puzzle. It is not to have the puzzle solved for you. You are not told, as with many video games, how to play the game at the start. You are not stepped through it, although, as with a murder mystery book or movie, certain clues are left for you. I strongly suspect that Roger Ebert hates having to actively take part in the plot, a bit like an actor but not totally, and find things himself, instead of having every bit spelled out for him as he lets the whole of the experience soak in.

I’m not placing a value judgment on this. I don’t like going to concerts, actually. Honestly, I prefer albums, unless the musician is such an amazing live performer with so much charisma, or the point of the music is that it is improvised, that you just can’t experience it the same way. I find these qualities to be rare, especially since I don’t especially enjoy free form jazz. These, however, are personal biases, and I would never, ever say that, because I don’t like going to concerts, music isn’t art. That’s absurd. Roger Ebert’s conclusion is equally absurd, and the person he’s framing his poorly-framed argument against is also a bad debater. Roger Ebert, you can do better than that, especially if you dare to venture out and do some research.

Oh, and one final thing: a big part of the argument in general is that watching people play video games is not that interesting. Well, yes, people pushing buttons on a control, or flinging their Wiimotes back and forth, that’s not terribly interesting. I do, however, really enjoy watching other people play games. I would gladly watch someone play BioShock or Half-Life 2: Episodes 1 and 2 over and over again, because they are so engrossing. And, what about all those incredible people on YouTube playing Dance Dance Revolution, especially this guy who only has one leg? I’d say he’s an artist, using the video game as a tool to create art, wouldn’t you?

So, in conclusion, I agree with Kellee Santiago on one point: we are witnessing the birth of a new story-telling medium. This new medium uses patterns of creative development formed by old mediums, namely theatre and film, but it goes a step further and uses interactive game play as one more tool to tell a story. That Roger Ebert is so stubbornly unwilling to try out a couple of video games and THEN come up with a reasonable conclusion is silly, and bad criticism. I just hate this stance so much: it is a big part of why I hate creationists, and a big reason I can’t stand those people who say they only like one kind of theatre (have you tried any others?!), or people who pass value judgments on something based on some scandalous thing they heard about it. Current Western theatre, like Roger Ebert, is unwilling to go out on a limb and try some new things (like interaction, maybe?!) to see if audiences might respond better. Instead, theatres and theatre artists bemoan the loss of audience members and have no idea why they’re disappearing, and seem more willing to blame it on the cost of tickets in an effort to beg for more funding.

Culture changes, art changes with it. That’s what’s supposed to happen. Change with it, or get off the ride.

3 thoughts on “Roger Ebert, get over yourself

  1. The surprising thing about Ebert is that he’s not a lazy viewer — he’s very actively engaged in the movies he watches, takes piles and piles of notes, is engaged in the filmmaking process, and has worked on movies. I think this is about his need for filmmaking to be special. When he started out, film wasn’t generally considered an art form, in a lot of ways Ebert has really helped the world accept film as an art rather than a spectacle. The irony is that he can’t divorce himself from “protecting film” and see that video games are really similar. He says they’re in their infancy, but in my opinion, they aren’t really. The first video games were made in the late 40s, making the medium some 60 years old. Is that really infancy, because 60 years into filmmaking we’d had Gone with the Wind and Wizard of Oz. And I’d argue video games have followed a remarkably similar path to film.

    Film was essentially first developed in the 1880s (making the sixty year mark 1940). The first 20 years or so was figuring out how the medium worked (1900 for movies; 1970 for video games), the next 20 years was experimenting with delivery mechanisms, length, quality. And I feel like at that point, though there had certainly been artistic pieces before, the mediums both really became art forms that artists wanted to work in, versus being experimental spectacle.

    Over the 1920s and 30s films exploded with the introduction of reliable sound and color, over the 1990s and 2000s video games exploded with 3D and much more complex worlds. Will Myst (1993) one day be compared to the Jazz Singer (1927)? Yes, because I’m doing it right now.

  2. Well, by my definition of “lazy viewer,” everyone is a lazy viewer when it comes to experiencing TV or movies. You have to be, because your interaction with the screen isn’t going to change what happens. I mean, if you stand up in a crowded movie theatre and start freaking out that that girl is going to go into the room with the monster in it, the *audience* will react to you, but the performers won’t … they can’t. So you have to go along with the ride. Now, if you did the same thing in live theatre, the actors would probably drop what they were doing on stage, or at least falter a little bit, before you were thrown out. Which is part of the excitement, and an aspect of live arts that I don’t think theatre is taking advantage of at the moment. Not that I really know how to do that in a way that’s comfortable for a modern audience (because we’re all used to movies and TV), but I still think it needs to be explored.

    Anyway, it wasn’t a slight on him, because I do have respect for his intellect. He just wasn’t using it in this post. And I still think that the level of interaction in video games is part of what peeves him so much about them. You can’t just let the plot wash over you in two hours. If you stop playing the game and sit there for two hours, you’ll be in exactly the same spot. And there’s a ton of games out there with multiple endings now — according to Matt, starting with Chronotrigger, which was a Sega game, I think.

    I wouldn’t say video games are in their infancy, but I do think they’re probably at that point in elementary school where you finally discover fashion and cliques and suddenly you’re aware of how cool or not cool you are, and getting pretty aware of what to do to fix that. If you have the tools.

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