After reading everything Roger Ebert said this past week, my first thought was that he’d finally lost his mind, but then I realized something very important: he’s 67. People in their 60’s say things that are…well, just nuts, at least to younger people. Anyone remember George Will’s 700-plus word diatribe on denim? Heck my own mom regularly says things the baffle me, like how she thinks that military service should be a requirement for president, since their title is “commander-in-chief.” It's easy to see why Eskimo's used to send them off on ice floats.
But back to Roger Ebert…
First, there was his once-star review for the movie Kick-Ass. I don’t have a problem with his rating. In fact, I’m almost relieved that my tastes in movies differ from that of a 67 year-old man. But halfway through his review he says the following:
“The movie's rated R, which means in this case that it's doubly attractive to anyone under 17. I'm not too worried about 16-year-olds here. I'm thinking of 6-year-olds.”
I don’t think teenagers—or the public in general—care what a movie is rated. I’ve never heard anyone say, “Yeah, Dark Knight was good, but it would have been so much better as an R-rated movie.” or “Dude, you have to see 300. It’s rated R!” To be fair, people did say that Alien vs. Predator would have been better if it had been rated R, but then Requiem came out and proved otherwise.
And why exactly is Roger Ebert worried about six-year-olds? Granted, the film looks like a Quentin Tarantino episode of Yo Gabba Gabba (My name is Nathaniel! I like to pop caps!), but unless ads for this film are running during episodes of Dora the Explorer I’m pretty sure it won’t be on any child’s radar.
Later in the week, he wrote another piece for the Sun-Times called “Video games can never be art,” which was essentially a rebuttal of a talk given by game designer Kellee Santiago. Again, we have to consider the source: a man who comes from a generation whose idea of fun was spinning a hoop around your waist. That said, I would think that a film critic, of all people, would know better than to criticize something without actually experiencing it first hand.
And it’s very obvious that Roger Ebert hasn’t played a modern video game, if he’s ever played one at all. Not that I expect him to, but at least I took the time to read his articles before I wrote this. Would it kill him to at least watch someone play Uncharted 2 for a couple of hours? For Crissake, the guy's sat through every Rob Schneider movie. Could he give Nolan North a tenth of that respect before saying things like...
“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.”
The way I read this, Ebert states what he thinks a game is. He then states what Santiago (someone with experience in the field, mind you) would say a game is, but then says that her definition of a game is wrong because it doesn’t fit his definition.
To his credit, Ebert does actually raise a good point, one that underlines the major hurdle most have with viewing games as art: the word game itself. We need some new terminology so we can differentiate Heavy Rain from Rock Band. That’s how it is in Ebert’s area of expertise. The word film is usually reserved for movies that are widely accepted as art. For example, Edward Scissorhands is a film, while Edward Penishands is a porno.
As for his implication that you can’t “win” a piece of art, I would argue that the pleasure I experienced at the end of Uncharted or Mass Effect was on par with what I felt after watching an Indiana Jones or Star Wars movie. Likewise, when I watch a bad movie or hear a bad piece of music (or spend way too much time on a Saturday night writing crap like this), I most certainly felt like I’ve lost something: precious moments of my life.
Later on, he notes that Santiago presented the game Flower as part of her evidence that games can, in fact, be art. Most people who have actually played Flower would agree. Here’s how Ebert responded:
“Nothing she shows from this game seemed of more than decorative interest on the level of a greeting card. Is the game scored? She doesn't say. Do you win if you're the first to find the balance between the urban and the natural? Can you control the flower? Does the game know what the ideal balance is?”
Jesus, Roger, that’s a lot of questions. How about you play it and find out for yourself. Pretend it's a Pixar short if that helps. It would certainly give more credence to your opinion, and might make you sound like less of an old coot. Maybe.