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Monday, April 19, 2010

The Real Problem With Ebert's Argument: Pinball

Ebert is at it again, responding to a TED speech by Kellee Santiago and declaring that games can never be art. The first problem with his argument is that he doesn't quite understand what modern games are:

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.

So, a quick etymology here. Ebert spends a lot of time talking about chess and other rule-based games as if they were the grandparents of video games (and I think this misleads him into thinking that Santiago is wrong that is is a very nascent medium) - but video games are actually derived more from pinball than chess. Short, short version: bowling games begat billiards, billiards begat bagatelle, bagatelle begat pinball, pinball begat video games (just ask Midway Games).

And somewhere around the time that bagatelle became a word, Ebert's argument crumbles apart. Because as a game, you can never "win" at pinball, and pinball doesn't have rules in the normal sense of a game. You have rules like "you get a certain number of balls" and "sometimes you get more balls to play" and "you earn points" - but all of those are defined by the machine and not by any clearly established rulebook of pinball.

If you're playing a pinball machine - you're playing pinball. Simple as that. You don't need rules to agree with another entity that it is a valid game of pinball, you just need the machine.

And in this way, games were art way before Ebert came along. Interactive art is an established medium of art going all the way back to the 1920's - and the concept is basically the same. Installed machines which provide a viewer with a responsive environment.

After much ado, Ebert returns to what is completely a straw man argument:

The three games she chooses as examples do not raise my hopes for a video game that will deserve my attention long enough to play it. They are, I regret to say, pathetic. I repeat: "No one in or out of the field has ever been able to cite a game worthy of comparison with the great poets, filmmakers, novelists and poets."

When was the last time someone tried to compare Faulkner to Spielberg? Or Homer to Faulkner? Or Da Vinci to Frank Capra?

In other words - who decided on this nonsense as a determination of what is art? Clearly the answer is Ebert, because it is a neat conundrum he can use to insist on how right he is - even if it doesn't make any sense. Did someone have to compare a great novelist to a great poet before novels were considered a form of art? Did someone need to watch Birth Of A Nation and be able to connect it to something in a museum before movies were considered art?

Ebert has essentially nominated himself as Pope and until video games can perform at least a couple good miracles, they may be men of the cloth but totally not saints.

Consider this recent work by Blast Theory, an interactive art collective in England:

Flypad is a site specific work for the Public Gallery in West Bromwich, using augmented reality to create a thrilling, collaborative experience that combines game play with interaction, joyful goofing about with a visceral sense of the blur between real and virtual space.

The work has 11 terminals arranged around the central atrium of the gallery. Each is equipped with a monitor, a motorised pan-tilt camera and a footpad interface in the floor.

Visitors create avatars which they're able to fly around the atrium using the the footpad. The camera tracks their position as they fly; crashing into other avatars, learning new moves and collaborating together to attain perfect grace.
By holding on to other avatars, visitors can stay in the air for longer, mutating with the avatars they hold on to. As the game progresses, visitors become hybridised: from a group of individual and separate bodies emerges a social body in which everyone’s form and identity is partly moulded by those around them.
-- Blast Theory: FLYPAD

Blast Theory has created award winning games, most notably Can You See Me Now?, which won the 2003 Prix Ars Electronica for Interactive Art. Flypad is currently on display in THEpUBLIC in England. Blast Theory even refers to Can You See Me Now? as a game specifically. Flypad is similar, structurally to pinball - you are playing with a responsive environment.

The biggest difference between the two is that you don't really score points. Then again, Can You See Me Now is almost more of a presentation than installation - so it also crosses over into performance art.

By Ebert's standards, what Blast Theory is doing can either be a) art or b) a game. It cannot be both because video games can never be art.

Maybe someone should call them, the art awards and the museums they've worked with and let them know. Clearly the guy who gave Martin Lawrence's latest movie three and a half stars knows more than they do...

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