An Entirely Earnest Request to Roger Ebert

So Roger Ebert has said once again, in his patented get-off-my-lawn rhetorical register, that video games are not and can never be art. First of all, let me say that I honestly believe discussions over the definition of art to be, by their very nature, a complete waste of time.

As Ebert himself points out, the whole matter is one of self-importance rather than anything empirical or useful: “Why are gamers so intensely concerned, anyway, that games be defined as art?” he asks.

Do they require validation? In defending their gaming against parents, spouses, children, partners, co-workers or other critics, do they want to be able to look up from the screen and explain, “I’m studying a great form of art?” Then let them say it, if it makes them happy.

Likewise, if cinephiles wish to preserve a privileged space for their favored medium–cinema is better than television, celluloid is better than digital video, anything is better than video games–then let them go ahead and do so, if it makes them happy. I will not waste your time, or mine, by trying to wrestle with that ghettoizing impulse, or by rehashing my (readily available) argument as to why it simply does not matter whether such-and-such a thing is Art or not.

Instead, I would like to challenge Roger Ebert on a considerably more practical matter. Mr. Ebert, if you’re going to call Braid “pathetic,” as you do in the article that I have quoted above, then it really is quite essential that you actually play the fucking game.

To put it another way: I am not particularly fond of David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive. You, Roger Ebert, are. That’s fine. I’m sure that we could have an interesting discussion about our differences of opinion–but that discussion would only be possible because you and I have both seen the film.

It would be absurd for me to say that I didn’t like Mulholland Drive (let alone to say that the film is “pathetic”) if that opinion were based solely on hearing someone talk about it, or on viewing a few stills from it, rather than sitting down with the work and giving it a shot. Watching Kellee Santiago’s TED talk does not qualify you to form an opinion on Braid, any more than reading your review of Mullholland Drive would, in and of itself, qualify me to disagree with that review.

To be clear: I am not claiming that Braid is a perfect or unassailable work of art. The game is excellent, but it falls down in places (and interestingly enough, when it does fall down, it does so in a markedly David Lynch sort of way; Jonathan Blow, the game’s designer, has cited Mullholland Drive as an influence, and a little of Lynch’s petulant opacity shows through in Braid’s less successful moments). What I am arguing is simply that, until you actually experience Braid–not as the subject of a lecture, or as an aggregate of YouTube videos, but as a game, which is what it is–your qualitative claims about the game will be cranky, incendiary gibberish rather than criticism. (And here I’ve taken the bait. I’ve done what is referred to, in certain corners of the Internet, as feeding the troll).

If you seriously want to be part of the discourse on video games, then play some. Braid is about five hours long. You’ve spent far, far more time than that watching and writing about movies that you strongly disliked.

If you cannot be bothered to play any video games, then the topic at hand is one of which you are wholly ignorant. Casually dismissing an entire medium based on a small number of examples would be ridiculous enough–but when you haven’t even spent any time with those few examples, you’re just embarrassing yourself. Either form a valid, well-founded opinion, or proclaim your indifference and walk away.

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