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Roger Ebert: Hero of Videogame Discourse?

In this post, I discuss how Roger Ebert's recent claims that videogames are not art have caused an upturn in academic gaming discussion of how games are and can be art and how this can affect the way gamers and professionals can view typical content.

Obviously, many of you are familiar with Roger Ebert's assertion that videogames "can never be art." (found here)   Instead of rebutting his statements or offering my own outlook on why games are art (there have already been plenty of arguments doing that), I would like to offer another perspective on his article:  

By saying that our medium can never be art, Roger Ebert dropped a bomb on the game industry, and it may be the best thing that ever happened to us.  

"BLASPHEMY!", you are no doubt screaming now (possibly "SHENANIGANS!")  Are you holding your fist high in the air?  Well put it down and hear me out for a second...

In a recent conversation with videogame video blogger/lecturer Daniel Floyd (whose INCREDIBLY thought provoking videos can be found here) I commented that in trying to put down the medium, Ebert has ironically begun one of the largest discussions of not only IF games are art, but also HOW they are art.  I believe this comes at a very opportune time for an industry where gritty, brown, bloom lit first person shooters make up the majority of major releases in the same way platformers featuring rodents with "attitude" (trying to be the next Sonic) dominated the 90's.  

While Mr. Ebert as made the argument that games are not art before, a large shift has since happened in academia regarding the critical discourse of games.  Ebert made his original argument in 2004, when one could walk to the game design section of any book store and find mostly programming manuals and 3D modeling guides.  Fast forward to today, where the best game design literature discusses games in terms of art, their potential for persuasive rhetoricliterature, and even in the way they shape our outlook on reality.  What this means for the industry is that we are now much more prepared to intelligently affirm our place in artistic media than we were the first time Ebert made his feelings known.  

However, much this discussion of games as an artistic and persuasive new medium has until now been in the realm of academia, bloggers, and independent studios, while the industry (of course with many notable exceptions) has been making and reporting on the styles of games that make money, as a money making industry is apt to do.  The effect of Ebert's article is significant in that it has challenged us to look at our medium with in a much more intellectual light.  

Many were outraged by Ebert's statements, but few thought of it as anything but a simple outrage.  In order for the professionals in large companies to step outside the business of making entertainment and enter the intellectual discussion of games, the dam dividing the industry from academics who discuss games as art must be broken, forcing us to look hard at the games we are making and really consider the games that fall outside the "industry standard."  

Businesswoman holding back a breaking dam 

Okay so let's say we can get industry professionals, academics, journalists, and bloggers on board with the bold new discussion, but what about the masses of people that play our games?  Many of them actually don't know the debate over games as art exists, much less that games can be artistic.

 As Ebert said in his article, "Why aren't gamers content to play their games and simply enjoy themselves?"  The sad truth is, for many gamers he's mostly correct, they don't know that game designers are striving to find new ways to stretch their art, much less that some have "crossed the boundary of artistic expression" as Kellee Santiago has stated.  Let's take Braid for example.  When it came out, it was hailed as a piece of high gaming art, yet if I ask many of my students, they have neither played nor heard of it, same with Ico, Shadow of the Colossus, or any number of thought provoking games.

 While some of these games have certainly made their share of money, many gamers are more interested in the typical console fare than the games that really break the mold, or simply are not capable of understanding what is so different or important about them.  Braid, Ico, and the like are also the precious few game art experiences that have achieved popular attention.  I challenge you to ask any gamer if they have ever played September 12th or Waco Resurrection and they will look at you like you have lobsters crawling out of your ears.  

Screenshot of September 12th 

For the uninitiated, September 12th is a persuasive game from that turns argument against American involvement in the Middle East into a procedural discussion.  Players control a targeting reticule that launches missiles at terrorists.  The terrorists, however, are placed among civilian characters.  When the player launches a missile, they inevitably hit the civilians, causing the witnesses to become new terrorists.  The game is, by design, unwinnable and as such makes a powerful argument.  

Likewise, Waco Resurrection is a game by Eddo Stern, Peter Brinson, Brody Condon, Michael Wilson, Mark Allen, and Jessica Hutchins that allows players to explore the events of the 1993 Waco, Texas standoff by assuming the role (and physical appearance via a microphone enhanced mask) of David Koresh and has players engage in the clashing views of the parties involved.  These examples, which have been discussed by game design theorists as works of topical art, show how games can be a more thought-provoking medium, but are largely ignored by the majority of the gaming public.  

This is where gaming media and educators can help.  When teaching or discussing gaming, it becomes increasingly important to discuss not only the popular industry games and give our typical reviews and previews, but also to discuss them in terms of the new critical discourse of our industry.  

Can reviews of the upcoming Halo: Reach discuss how the narrative in the game presents war?  Does it paint it in a positive or negative light?  How will the core mechanics of Mario Galaxy 2 express the joy of movement through interaction with a short mustachioed plumber?  In my own game development classes, I have been challenging my students with the same questions.  Not only that, but I expose them to games like September 12th, Waco Resurrection, and others that continue to push our industry forward.  

Personally, I also find myself reconsidering many of the popular games I have played in my own spare time.  Apart from the titles such as Metroid Prime, which ABC and IGN's Mike Thomsen has argued is our industry's Citizen Kane, I have even begun to look at over-the-top violent titles (the kind parents groups have been screaming about since we've all been young) as art indicative of contemporary society.   

One example:  why are there so many zombie games out now?  Have you ever thought about that?  While zombies have certainly been a part of the gaming landscape for decades (I'm looking at you Castlevania) they are even more pervasive in today's popular media.  According to CNN's Doug Gross, zombies are a metaphorical device used in popular media to reflect society's biggest fears and insecurities.  Today, our economic woes have been channeled into movies, books, and video games about mowing down legions of undead, much how we wish to avoid becoming wage-slave, at-work "zombies."  


Left 4 Dead 2 Hoarde
 Likewise, I can also recall an offhand comment by actor Greg Proops in the game MadWorld for the Nintendo Wii that made me think hard about the current economic crisis and the state of our mental health as a society.  MadWorld is a game by Platinum Games in which players take on the role of Jack, a rogue for hire that has found himself in a giant gladiatorial gameshow where everyone in a blocked off area of a city must fight to be the last one standing.  
The game features Sin-City style graphics and over-the-top graphic violence to the point where people I know have felt remorse for having fun with the game.  During one of the boss fights, Mr. Proops, doing voice work as one of the game's two color commentators, makes a comment to the effect of, "boy people sure become bloodthirsty monsters during these hard economic times."  At that point I jumped a bit; not from the fact that I was having difficulty in the fight, but from the revelation of the statement the game had just made.  The ultra-violent comic book world of the game suddenly became a real extension of our own, bringing to light how insane the world had become.  
Myself being loosely employed at the time (I was doing in-house contract work for an architecture firm - effectively being an employee but not receiving a full salary or any benefits), I had to think about how I had found myself climbing over people in any way I could to get a job, only to be taken advantage of by the people who had finally offered me something that vaguely resembled employment.  It was as though I myself had a sign post shoved in my ocular cavity, much light the countless digital thugs I was steamrolling through in the game.  
This taking of contemporary cultural issues and expressing them through play and games is not new, it is actually fairly common throughout history.  Many classic games that are considered high culture, such as Chess or Go, were created in societies where generals needed simulations of military strategies to practice with (Go was actually considered a martial art.)  Likewise, African American slave children in the South would often counteract their harsh, oppressive environment by playing cooperative music and working games; competition would have only deepened the surrounding tension.  While this knowledge has occasionally been of great importance to historians and sociologists, it has only recently become important information for those in the gaming industry as a way of highlighting the importance of games in human culture.  
Obviously the discussions on games as art have just begun.  There are many gamers who are still content to just play their games, and there always will be.  That's okay.  Games are supposed to be fun.  There are, however, game designers and players who will continue to strive for more, and that is where our industry will really evolve.  A good friend of mine once commented that, "There two types of people who play videogames:  game players, who recreationally play things like Madden, Halo, or casual games; and gamers, who play multiple games on multiple systems, exploring the medium."
 I countered by arguing that there can be a third type of videogame player:  the enlightened gamer.  This gamer is the one that participates in the medium but understands it on a deeper level, able to discuss it as one discusses literature and film, eager to read books that cite Metal Gear Solid as one would cite Hamlet.  This is also the gamer that will be able to place games in their proper cultural context and discuss how they become indicative of the society that made them.  
How do we help videogame players become these types of gamers?  Through education, better discussion of games in popular media outlets, exposure to the blogs and news sites where the intellectual discussions occur, and yes, making more intellectually stimulating games that transcend the medium to become works of art.  
So let me be the first to give  Roger Ebert "Two Thumbs Up" for his critique of us as an industry and giving us the drive to develop our art and prove him wrong.  


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