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Gamers fire flaming posts, e-mails...

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Joe Keiser: Why Ebert Was Right

Scanners: blog post: "Gaming: Yes, but is it art?"

“Halo” hath no fury like a gamer scorned. In response to Roger Ebert’s statements in a couple of Answer Man columns about how he considers video games to be less worthy than traditional art forms such as film and literature, torrents of flame mail and forum posts have been fired and cross-fired. (And there were a few agreeable messages, too.) Some samples:

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I find it hard to believe that anyone can complain about a multi-billion dollar business that is overtaking the movie industry. But somehow you found a way. We live in a new age and if you can't find it in you to update your opinion on the industry, then none of your opinions matter because your old style of movies has passed. I haven't seen one good movie in a long time that can compare with the hours and hours that a video game can give out and the genius that goes into these games. Maybe if you went to see how these games are made you can change your mind. But 2 hours in a movie theater or a 300 page book can not match the fun and imagination created by a game like “Halo” or even the adaptations of the “Lord of the Rings” movies into a game. There have been quite a few game to movie adaptations that have been pretty good too, including “Resident Evil,” and “Tomb Raider.” But to get to a point in this rant just give video games a chance and play a new one and actually finish it.

Aaron Harden (age 16)

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I have been playing video games since I can remember. I have a college education and work in the computer field…. The video game business is a multi-billion dollar industry with many well known and reputable learning institutes offering BA degrees in the video game field. You have NO idea what is involved in actually developing a video game. “Final Fantasy VII” and “Castlevania Symphony of the Night” are just a few games that set standards for all future games to come, and with technology evolving, games will continue to offer great story content, amazing cinematic sequences and quality music.

Movies like “Field of Dreams” and “Glory” have a great story line and presentation. Games like “Metal Gear Solid” have a great story line and presentation, and actually allow you to take the role of a character, which in doing so allows the user to become emotionally attached to game content. This is an experience that a movie cannot offer because a movie allows you to watch a role of a character as events unfold, unlike with a game, where you actually take the role of a character and make decisions which determine how the story unfolds. Games like “Metal Gear Solid” display the amazing talent that is equipped by the game's developers which consist from story to game play to graphics and much, much more.

Software developer, Saul Ortiz

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I'm an associate producer at one of the larger game companies and I came upon the article by reading some bloggers' responses. I figured I would write directly to you, however, because I believe you're absolutely right.

My favorite film is Kurosawa's “Ran,” and no -- no video game has come anywhere close. Why not? There is the industry: the game industry is adverse to exploration and experimentation (much more so than movie studios); there is no formal system in place for recognizing and developing upcoming talent; and arguably, games cannot capture real truths of the human condition because nobody over 40 makes them.

Then there are the challenges of the medium: games cannot be didactic, because they offer choice and interactivity. Many games have a "story," but this is either a story set in stone, and nothing you actually do changes it (thus rendering player participation mostly pointless), or it allows you to see one of, say, three different endings, each of which has to be as plausible as the other. I don't think a real solution to this has yet been found.

Which is not to say that I don't think games could eventually grow into their own as a real artistic medium... but no, it has not happened yet.

(Name withheld by request) Los Angeles, CA

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From a posting by Chris Remo at Shacknews.com. Subject: "Ebert on Video Games: They are Inferior":

Ebert's rather crass response seems to suggest a limiting definition of what art can be, as well as an unfamiliarity with the sort of control game designers can in fact have over their audiences. Just as in the other forms Ebert mentions, in games that control can be expressed through narrative means or simply through a crafted experience.

For an example off the top of my head of the former, take the strange yet brutally familiar imagining of America presented in Tim Schafer's "Full Throttle" (PC). Set in what appears to be a post-apocalyptic landscape, the seemingly mundane backdrop of a hostile corporate takeover reaches incredible depth of significance. It becomes a metaphor for the country's slow decline into corporate facelessness and the odd juxtaposition between the freedom allowed by a recreated American frontier with the essential powerlessness of the frontier's inhabitants. You think I'm kidding? Play it again.

For another spur of the moment example in a more non-narrative setting, take Shigeru Miyamoto's "Pikmin" (GCN). Miyamoto didn't set out to necessarily create a quirky character-based real-time strategy title, though that's the form the game took. While working in his garden, he decided to craft a game that would evoke the melancholic and solitary feelings he was experiencing.... The fact that "Pikmin" so effectively communicates the emotions Miyamoto intended to convey is not simply an issue of craftsmanship (though craftsmanship is present in spades with the balanced and engaging gameplay), it speaks to the artistry with which the game was conceived.

It is frustrating to see current mainstream criticism -- and no critics are as synonymous with modern mainstream criticism as Ebert -- maintain deliberately ill-informed opinions about gaming as a medium. Not because gaming needs to be recognized as art, which is an opinion that is hotly contested among many gamers, but because it does such a grave disservice to the people behind the games, who are clearly capable of far more expression through their work than many seem prepared to acknowledge.

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From a posting on a Gucomics.com forum, submitted by a reader:

The question though is: does film really deserve a place beside the great masters of literature?

In my mind, every subsection of entertainment has its masterpieces. Their individual merit is defined by the manner in which they are produced and the obstacles that form of media must overcome. Those individual merits must then be measured against other pieces within that specific genre. It's a tad unfair to gauge their value versus offerings from different branches of entertainment.

Conversely, every genre also has its stinkers. When Mr. Ebert says that film and literature are intrinsically better uses of our time, is he forgetting romance novels, and b-movies? I know I damn sure appreciate the mastery of "Shadow of the Colossus" over the inept stumblings of [insert any Steven Segal movie title]. And to be honest, I'd rather read "Animal Farm" than to play a video game or watch any movie.

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From a column by Joe Keiser at Next Generation, headlined “Why Ebert was Right”:

… I would argue that the issue is based more on the structure of game creation and the overarching belief in genre – that stories currently told in games are not being told for the sake of telling them, and are instead simple tropes that exist as one required piece of an established genre.

It’s important to note that most games, as a result of not actually existing to tell a story, give up some authorial control to the player. This is not structural; this is a choice on the part of the creators to, say, emphasize visceral thrills or strategic thinking. Many movies do this too, though the nature of film forces a greater amount of story upon them….

A storytelling game should give the illusion of control, the idea that you can do anything, while at the same time putting the idea in the player’s mind that they want to do a specific thing. The artful game creator can use the mindset of the player as a tool to make a story progress in an exacting manner. The advantages of telling a story in such a way can be great – many people feel that the interactivity, the mentality of “being there,” can make a story more impactful to them, and I’d go as far to say that this interactivity can help mitigate the tiny structural losses that can occur to player. It can create a close, almost schizophrenic relationship between the player of the game and the protagonist of the story – an extremely interesting relationship that cannot be reproduced in any other medium.

While the results are not up to par at the moment, there is no inherent inferiority here. There are no structural problems, no loss of control. What is there is potential to speak to people who are not spoken to by great drama or great literature – anyone who’s gone to high school knows that there are a great many people like that. Video games are a young medium, and there are people working every day to work out the problems like the one Ebert is concerned with, but to write it off at this point is to not give it a chance.

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Please don't delete this right away, once you read the first paragraph and think, “Aw no, another badly spelled series of base insults.”

Two quotes, and a few lines, that's all. First quote, a really recent one: "I did indeed consider videogames inherently inferior to film and literature. There is a structural reason for that: Videogames by their nature require player choices, which is the opposite of the strategy of serious film and literature, which requires authorial control." --Roger Ebert Second quote, made half a year ago: "It's bemusing why games are always compared to either film or the novel, as if they were the only art-forms worth mentioning. Why aren't games compared to -- say -- dance or architecture, which are equally accepted as art forms and don't operate anything like the silver screen or the printed word?

This form of inferiority complex has always been endemic in any new cultural form. Last year, I finally got around to reading Aristotle's Poetics and was charmed to discover that large sections involve Ari discussing the relative merits between the new-kid Tragedy versus the established form of Epic Verse. He cites other critics who argue that Tragedy, featuring vulgar elements such as singing and creating works of hugely less scale, is a lesser form than the traditional Epic Verse. Aristotle plays it cute, arguing what they've analyzed as weaknesses are in fact strengths, allowing Tragedy to move people in ways Epic Verse simply can't.

I think he missed a trick in his determination to prove one superior to the other, however. Rather than being a competition where one must triumph, the real situation is that Epic Verse succeeds in different things in different ways than does Tragedy. That's all. In other words, things in ancient Greece were exactly as they are now. The new forms are judged according to the standards of the old forms, and found wanting, until someone notes that while the new form may not excel in one area, it far exceeds the old in others." -- Kieron Gillen  (http://www.escapistmagazine.com/issue/1/7 )

Please sir, don't be too focused, and try and look outside your medium. Games might not be so good at being a totally audience-passive thing, but film is not as good at being a cooperative event as games (not just videogames) are. Film might be better at telling a set narrative than sculpture, but film fails totally at being a real, three dimensional, solid, tactile object as sculpture can be. Film might be better at visualizing a world than novels, but fails at allowing the viewer to go inside the character's head as well as prose does. No medium combines space and time as well as sequential art does.

There are merits and limitations to any medium. And art is an abstract concept where no one can totally agree on with anyone else in the same way.

And at the end here, I can't resist this one quote by Douglas Adams:

“Anything that is in the world when you're born is normal and ordinary and is just a natural part of the way the world works. Anything that's invented between when you're fifteen and thirty-five is new and exciting and revolutionary and you can probably get a career in it. Anything invented after you're thirty-five is against the natural order of things.”

Oh, I'll skip the bit about how most movies these days aren't exactly art by anyone's opinion.

Simon van Alphen

(EDITOR’S NOTE: The correspondent couldn’t find the Douglas Adams quote he was looking for and paraphrased it. We found it and substituted the actual quotation.)

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I would suggest you play “ICO” for the Playstation 2, or “Shadow of the Colossus.” You be the one to tell the developers of those games that it is not art. See how they respond to you. Also, do you not waste away time by seeing so many movies? If anyone should talk about wasting time away by doing essentially pointless things, you should be the last to talk. True I am trying not to insult you in any way, but it’s hard not to ignore the fact that your comments are essentially being heard by all gamers out there, roughly 85 percent of North America. Not the best move, sir... Accept that the video game industry is growing, outpacing the movie industry now. Look at “Halo 2,” the game made more in ONE DAY, than any movie has ever made and could ever hope to make in an opening weekend. Take my comments about what is to come, and I surely hope you do not continue to ignore these "wastes of time."

Sean Lacroix

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