Understanding Ebert

I’ve wrestled with this for a while.

The Scenario:

Roger Ebert said video games can’t be art. Folks disagreed.

He then posed the question, “Which would you value more, Huckleberry Finn or a good video game?”

This prompted me to try to find other equivalent questions. Which would you value more?

The presidency of James K. Polk or a squirt gun fight with some old friends from college?

Miles Davis or roller coasters?

Ode to Joy or trampolines?

Bulfinch’s Mythology or sledding on a snow day?

An Associate’s Degree in Art Theory or making out with your best friend’s sister on a hayride?

A “live via satellite” lecture and Q&A by Professor Stephen W. Hawking or a water slide?

It seemed ludicrous to me.

The idea some espouse is that Ebert can’t have an opinion on video games because he’s never played them. I agreed with them.

Later, he said that he never shouldn’t have brought it up:


Then, at the moment my daughter jumped on my stomach to wake me up this morning, I had an epiphany:

Ebert hates 3D movies. Read the reasons by the man himself:


The sentiment is basically this:

In order to enjoy a movie, you need to be able to lose yourself in it. 3D breaks you from the illusion.

I happen to agree with many of his statements. When I saw “How to Train Your Dragon,” I was sitting there watching when I was suddenly struck with a thought:

“This actually doesn’t look half bad. I don’t know if I agree with Ebert that the 3D is too distracting.”

I then realized that while I was thinking that I missed an entire conversation. Now granted, that may have just been the ADHD talking, but still I get it.

I also never appreciate paying more for a movie where my daughter, who doesn’t like wearing the glasses, gets bored and wants to leave halfway through.

Still, I don’t hate 3D movies. I view them a lot like vegetarian meat substitutes. I like them fine, as long as I experience them as what they are, rather than trying to to think of them as actually meat. Watching a 3D movie is its own experience, akin to watching a 2D movie, but requiring a different type of appreciation. This brings us to video games.

One tactic that proponents of video-games-as-art have used reads a bit like this:

1) Some movies are now done solely with computer graphics, just like video games.

2) Some video games have characters and story arcs, just like movies.

3) Video games are, therefore, actually movies you play.

4) Since Roger Ebert likes movies, if he were to actually play a video game, he would like them.

My problem understanding this issue is that I was focused on Ebert’s response to this, where he said something like interaction disqualifies something from being art.

“What about the characters?” I thought. “The story arcs? I think they might be right. Video games ARE a type of movie. It’s just that he lacks the skills needed to immerse himself in the video game to fully evaluate it. He’d be too hung up on the controls and “game” element to experience the game the way a gamer would. He’s just wrong.”

But is he?

This morning, I realized that to understand why Ebert doesn’t need to play a video game to know he wouldn’t like the experience.

Let’s say the “video games are movies you play” proponents are right.

Let’s further say that someone presents Ebert with the perfect video-game-as-movie. The voice acting is top-notch, the writing is amazing, the visuals stunning, and the sound design phenomenal.

He is treated to an amazing opening scene. It’s tremendous, amazing, it makes him weep.

Then his character is reduce to a remote-controlled figure on the screen, which he must maneuver through the beautiful artificial world until he gets his next, “just like a movie” experience. It would throw him violently out of the previous experience. He’d absolutely hate it. If you’re touting the cinematic similarities between video games and movies, the similarity ends when it’s time to control your character.

“But,” you may protest, “He’s a novice. If he were skilled at video games, the navigation would be less of a distraction.”

Here’s where it hit me. Roger Ebert can see, and he still feels that 3D is a distraction to watching a movie. There’s no real learning curve to watching a 3D movie. You keep your glasses on and look at the screen.

Roger Ebert has all the skills he needs to lose himself into a 3D movie as well as the rest of us, and is adamant that the distraction of it ruins the movie for him.

I don’t think he’d need to get skilled at video games to decide that “playing” a movie wouldn’t be his cup of tea. I don’t even think he needs to get skilled at them to decide they don’t fit his criteria for art.

The argument about whether his criteria is “correct” or if any criteria can be is one that requires a better philosopher than I can be on a Monday morning.


About paulgude

Paul Gude writes small books, makes stupid music, draws silly pictures, and does weird things on stage.
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2 Responses to Understanding Ebert

  1. SDC says:

    There’s an argument in an article in n+1 about that saying art is supposed to free you of your worries and desires. Kind of a Zen thing. However, video games immerse you in desires and self-interest. It’s some character’s desires/drives, but still…

    I wish I could remember the great philosopher who defined art that way. Friggin’ Monday morning.

  2. John Hughes says:

    This is a great analysis. I can’t help but think that what Ebert is saying about video games, someone else, long ago, said about fledgling cinema, and many have said about comic books and pulp fiction and other forms of “pop” culture, or the strange – and some have said sexist – differentiations that have been made between sculpture (“Art”) and pottery (“craft”). These distinctions seem quite arbitrary, and it makes me sad to see Ebert defending a gatekeeping position on what qualifies as art.

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