Come to Think of It, I Don’t Particularly Want to Play on Roger Ebert’s Lawn

I respect Roger Ebert for admitting that his argument about video games was profoundly stupid. There are two major reasons why Ebert’s original argument was invalid. He now freely admits the first and most important one–namely, that he was discussing a medium about which he knew next-to-nothing. “I would never express an opinion on a movie I hadn’t seen,” he says. Amen.

His ignorance of the medium leads him to some truly bizarre conclusions. For example, consider this excerpt from his faux-debate with Clive Barker (who, incidentally, is an expert on video games like a a grizzly bear is an expert on veganism):

Barker: “Let’s invent a world where the player gets to go through every emotional journey available. That is art. Offering that to people is art.”

Ebert: “If you can go through ‘every emotional journey available,’ doesn’t that devalue each and every one of them? Art seeks to lead you to an inevitable conclusion, not a smorgasbord of choices. If next time I have Romeo and Juliet go through the story naked and standing on their hands, would that be way cool, or what?”

The bit about doing Romeo and Juliet naked and upside down–simply put, that is not what games do. It’s more like what movies sometimes do. Interactivity does not allow the player to do whatever he wants. It allows the player to act in a very limited number of ways, within a closed system that is designed to lead him to a certain preconceived conclusion. Sometimes player-action is really no more based in choice than the act of turning a book’s pages: You can either turn the page and see what’s next, or you can put down the book and do something else.

Think of it this way: If you could do anything you wanted in Grand Theft Auto, then the ability to kill prostitutes would not be an ethical issue. Sure, you could kill prostitutes, but you could also drive them to the nearest community college and enroll them at your own expense, and on the way over, you could have a frank discussion with them about class privilege, gender inequality, and safe sex. You cannot discourse with prostitutes in Grand Theft Auto, but you can kill them. The ethical problem in Grand Theft Auto is not that you can do anything, and that given that freedom, lots of people choose to kill prostitutes. The problem is that you can do relatively few things, and one of those few things that you can choose to do is kill prostitutes. The option is there because the designers put it there, and the alternative is absent because the designers didn’t put it there.

Even when games have branching narratives (and many do not), there are rarely more than two or three possible paths. And even the hundred-or-so important decisions in the Mass Effect games do not constitute anything approaching free choice. The experience still has an author.

To use Ebert’s own example, Braid:

You can go back in time and correct your mistakes. In chess, this is known as taking back a move, and negates the whole discipline of the game. Nor am I persuaded that I can learn about my own past by taking back my mistakes in a video game.

If he had played the game, which of course he has not, Ebert would know that Braid is specifically about the impossibility of taking back our mistakes. As the game builds toward its famous final level, time manipulation ceases to be an amusing superpower and becomes instead a tragic distortion of perspective: What if you thought, mistakenly, that you could bend the laws of nature to your will? What sorts of mistakes might you make as a result? You would probably make some pretty horrible ones, as the game intends to show you through an interactive–but fundamentally linear–narrative.

Similarly, what if you thought that video games were a space wherein you could do whatever you want, without limitation or consequence? What important things might you miss? You would probably miss the point entirely, as Barker and Ebert both do.

Reason Number Two:

My error in the first place was to think I could make a convincing argument on purely theoretical grounds. What I was saying is that video games could not in principle be Art.

If you have to reject something on “purely theoretical grounds,” even when that conclusion runs contrary to observation or common sense, then you’re either (a) working with a bad theory, or (b) being a sophist. The point of theory is to systematically explain real objects and actual experiences, not to trap us in snooty technicalities.

A simple example: Around the turn of the 20th Century, the general consensus was that photography and filming were technical operations rather than creative pursuits, and that photographs and films therefore did not count as art. Eventually, that theory was revised–specifically because people began to understand the medium, and the skill required to work in it, and the many subjective choices it involves–and it suddenly seemed silly and pointless to exclude photography and film from aesthetic discourse. The problem was the theory, not the thing being theorized.

“I concluded without a definition [of art] that satisfied me,” Ebert says, ending this discussion about what art is the only way that any discussion about what art is ever ends.

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