Roger Ebert and Video Games: A Sign of the Times

I have a huge amount of respect for Roger Ebert. Many people have a hard time understanding why he has become rich stating his opinion. They don't understand how educated that opinion is. At least, we should expect his opinion to be educated. In a recent response to reader mail (third letter down), he's drawn the eye of many gamers by failing to give due respect to the medium.

As such, any hard words sent his way might actually be appropriate. He likely didn't realize what he did when he stated his side in the manner he did. There's something deeper in his words though. It's a sign of how non-gamers view the industry and the games themselves, and this is also the likely reason politicians, parental groups, and various other "protect the children" types are relentlessly attacking them. His most off the mark comment is his first towards the games:

Video games by their nature require player choices, which is the opposite of the strategy of serious film and literature, which requires authorial control.

"Choices" is not the right word. Sure, the player may have the choice to turn left or right, or maybe decide which enemy to shoot first. However, for the majority of games, the player is led down a linear path. For instance, door A doesn't open without the blue key. The player then needs to backtrack to find the needed item. Assuming there's a story progression moment there, everyone who plays this game will end up with the same scene, regardless of how they got there. The story always stays on the same path, even if the game itself allows for variations.

Besides, how is something not an art form just because there's a choice? Could the decision of a film director change the way the story flows? Could a novel writer write something in one way, while another author different? I agree that's not a 100% true comparison, but by Ebert's definition, the various King Kong films are not art because the directors inserted their own vision into them.

Each of the three Kong films ('33, '76, '05) are wildly different, arguably more varied than a video game player taking his or her own path through a game, but always keeping the same story. Kong is always shot down from a tall building. Players fight the final boss to complete the game. The only difference is how they arrived at that conclusion. Ebert continues:

To my knowledge, no one in or out of the field has ever been able to cite a game worthy of comparison with the great dramatists, poets, filmmakers, novelists and composers.

Simply because no one has doesn't mean it can't happen (and "professional" gaming journalism doesn't make this easy). The medium is still young comparatively to film and written literature. It takes time. School children didn't study Shakespeare when he was alive and writing. That intelligent debate and research into the minds of the creators will happen. Just because it hasn't yet doesn't mean it won't. To discredit them on that note is being nearsighted.

But for most gamers, video games represent a loss of those precious hours we have available to make ourselves more cultured, civilized and empathetic.

Ebert's final statement is the one that will draw ire from gamers. Given that Ebert's favorite medium includes works like Deuce Bigalow Male Gigolo, White Chicks, Rambo 3, and Plan 9 From Outer Space, who's really wasting time when we could make ourselves "more cultured, civilized and empathetic?" Everyone. Film is art. Books, novels, and various other literatures are art. Video games are art. They also have one thing in common:

They're entertainment.

How anyone can criticize one medium for being a waste of time and not another is hypocritical and ignorant. It's all meant to pass the time or kill a few hours until we move onto something else. Video games are no less capable of that than films. In some cases, the newest entry into the entertainment realm offers an even better experience, given that we experience what someone else has created instead of being a bystander. There's a huge difference there, and in most cases, that should raise them ABOVE movies and books.

There's still a place for them all, and none of these mediums are going anywhere soon. Ebert's comments are nothing more than a close-minded viewpoint from someone who almost seems to be on the defensive. Maybe he's even a little scared about what's happening to the film industry as video games slowly overtake them. No matter his reasons, games are here, they're still maturing, and they'll make their way into mainstream art status soon enough.

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