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I’ll admit, I’m loathe to even talk about this, but in the vein of blog-as-therapy, I figure maybe I’ll post my thoughts on it and never spend another waking moment concerning myself with the debate. One can hope, that is.

Clint Hocking posted a number of well thought out rebuttals to Ebert’s assertion that games are not art. And I still find N’Gai Croal’s post downright funny in how well it points out Ebert’s idiocy (admittedly, this is coming from a man who doesn’t think games are a narrative medium).

But is any of this going to change Ebert’s mind? No.

The bigger question – why does anybody give a fuck what Ebert thinks?

Why do we (including myself) get pissed at this? Why do we give someone who has practically no experience with our medium this sort of power over us? To me, it’s the same reason game developers talk about “abdicating authorship” to players – do architects talk about abdicating authorship of their work to the people that walk through their buildings? No! We are just not at the maturity level to able to take confidence in how we express ourselves in the medium. Game developers need to grow – collectively & figuratively – a pair.

So maybe the actual debate enlightens the listeners if not the other side? To me, debating whether games are art is pretty similar to debating whether or not they are narrative – for different definitions of each term, the answer is obvious to everyone involved. For some definitions the answer is obviously yes, and for others the answer is obviously no. So can any ground be made in understanding when we’re just running in semantic circles?

Plus, people calling Ebert an ignorant fat fuck just doesn’t help the debate. Oh wait, nobody called him that.

To anybody with a grasp of either the nature of indirect authorship and/or non linear narrative the answer to both questions is yes (I like the term Umberto Eco used in a book of essays similarly titled – an “Open Work”, art requiring participation of the viewer/user. Although the damn book is still on my dining room table in my pile of “to read” books. Not that I actually have a dining room, but I do have a dining room table. Ah, semantics).

Each debate follows a sort of silly decision making process. Here’s the games are/are not narrative version:

  1. Do you think narrative can be experienced a non-linear format (like a hypertext novel)? If yes, goto #3.
  2. If not, what is a person’s experience reading a great artistic novel in a different chapter order? Did it stop being art? Goto #1.
  3. Can a piece of narrative be expressed in terms of objects and experiences navigating a world instead of direct text (like say, picking up a journal in a game or talking to an NPC)?
  4. If not, is this because you are using the term story instead of narrative? Search and replace, bitch. Then goto #3.
  5. Does your definition of game imply that putting a different narrative context onto a game will not provoke different emotional responses since the rules have not changed? Does whack-a-mole not differ from whack-a-baby? If your answer is no, goto psychological counseling.
  6. Does your definition of game still not include games that tell stories? Pick another damn term for games that tell stories and goto #7.
  7. Games (or whatever term you’ve decided on) can be a narrative medium. QED, goddamnit.

There are more loops along the way to fall into, to be sure, but they all have similar exit branches. The people who get stuck on those loops are going to stay there, because the shit that would get them to the final point (games are narrative and/or art), is also obvious. They choose to ignore it, which means no amount of convincing is going to encourage them to change their minds.

So, it seems to me that, as developers, we can choose from two options:

  • Follow Ebert down this semantic masturbatory rathole.
  • Makes games that are art. Not to prove Ebert wrong, but to express ourselves, as Jon Blow describes very well in a recent interview.

As tempting as the first is, that second one is pretty fucking hard as things like this go – I’m gonna say any time that can be spent doing the second instead of the first, probably time better spent. But what the fuck do I know?

3 Responses to Game as art, narrative, and other semantic masturbation.

  • Well said. For a while, I thought it was good that Roger Ebert was going around saying these sort of things, because it forces some justification of ourselves. I mean, no matter how short-sighted his viewpoint is, it does represent a viewpoint of some and we do need to prepare arguments against it.

    That being said, enough is enough. They’ll come to us eventually.

  • Corvus says:

    My reaction to his first comment was, “Roger, who?”

    …and I moved on. I’m not pissed about his comments because I personally don’t think he’s a very good movie reviewer, much less the sort of intellectual with anything valid to say about media he know nothing about. His reviews of movies are very biased and very much concerned with his mood at the time of viewing, his tastes, etc. When we agree on movies, it’s purely accidental. Just because he’s a nationally recognized figure doesn’t make him worth getting hot and bothered about!

    I’ve read “The Role of the Reader” twice now and Eco’s discussion of the Open Text has greatly influenced my take on games as narrative. I’ve even written a white paper (which is available on my blog) on approaching games as a narrative medium. The paper is under going revision to address some of the concerns/issues people had with the presented model, but the core idea–that games are capable of transmitting stories because the manner in which the audience experiences them makes them stories–will not change.

  • Klaude says:

    Strange topic. The question of narrative, etc, is irrelevant. More apposite is the contrast of production for commercial purpose and creation with artistic intent.

    There are many artifacts – interactive, narrative, automatic, found, authored, transient, etc – that are accepted as art. To even bother arguing on the level of what they are and how they operate is a grossly misleading diversion.

    The common element of the accepted artifacts is that they are represented in the cultural dialogue at some point as ‘art’. Most games are represented as marketable products. At that stage in their life it’s tough to call them art. Later, maybe, and nothing rules out a game being made as an artowrk from the outset.

    Ebert? Who is he, and who cares what he says since he has such a shallow understanding?