A random stranger approached me at the coffee shop last week, inquiring how long I’ve had my laptop. After the first few minutes of the exchange, mostly touching on older Macs vs. newer Macs (a topic on which I’m about as much of an expert as a dung beetle), it became very apparent that the gentleman didn’t really want to chat about Macs so much as tell me how I could use mine more efficiently. For about a half an hour, I was lectured on everything from the corruption of the mainstream media (apparently corporations and FOX News have ruined that, plus baseball and apple pie) to whether or not the written language is a kind of code (apparently I was completely mistaken in thinking that arbitrary symbols grouped together to represent sound-images that vary from language to language and must be learned, as opposed to internalized naturally, can be referred to as such). I was rather proud of myself for keeping cool throughout the lecture. Then the gentleman began to lecture me on the subject of movies and screenwriting.
As it happens, I wrote a screenplay for my master’s thesis. Prior to that, I’d written at least a dozen scripts in various genres. I’ve read many books on the subject and I developed my skill at the craft for many years. Also, as it happens, I know a bit about movies. I’ve read many books on the subject and I’ve developed my skill at writing about the craft for many years. I make no claim to being an expert, but I’m usually a dab hand at making conversation on the topic, and I reckon that I wouldn’t embarrass myself in the company of most amateur scholars.
Forgive my chest-thumping; I’m still a bit sore at having been treated as an idiot by a mid-forties pedant who seemed to think that taking a few film courses at a no-name college in California made him a sage of cinema. Wounded pride pricks the ego like a needle pricks a boil. The man claimed that the term “Modern” in cinema is defined by the American films of the Seventies, such as The Parallax View, Three Days of the Condor, and The Conversation, and everything after that is “Postmodern.” He also claimed that independent films are no longer being made. (Although he qualified that by stipulating that by “made” he means “distributed,” and by “distributed,” he means “screened in a mainstream theater.”) When I said that no book or critic I’d ever read had presented such ideas in such a way, he said, “Then you need to educate yourself.”
I promise that there’s a point to this anecdote.
Over the past few years, Roger Ebert has stirred up a few controversies. This isn’t terribly surprising. He’s easily the most famous film critic in North America, or at least in these United States; sooner or later, he’s bound to say something with which people take issue. As the most prominent film critic in this cultural sphere, what he says carries a certain cachet. So when he says that video games cannot be art, it makes headlines.
The back-and-forth between Ebert and gamers has been voluminous and sort of infuriating. Ebert has the power to be incredibly generous, insightful, and persuasive in his film writing. I admire many, many things that he’s written and done. That’s why it was bizarre to me (though not entirely unexpected) to watch him stake out and defend a patently untenable position. He doesn’t play video games. Never has. Claims to know virtually nothing about them. Vows never to spend time playing them in the future. Didn’t bother to define what he meant by “art.” In response to this, gamers and other intelligent consumers of entertainment media collectively said, “WTF, dude?”
Literally hundreds of other people have already deconstructed and destroyed Ebert’s arguments against the artistic merits of video games. (In a future post, I hope to comment more in-depth on gaming myself, but that’s for later.) Having lost a debate he never had a prayer of winning (let alone truly engaging on any meaningful level), Ebert resorted to the last refuge of the pseud: “I still think I’m right, but I admit that I never should have said anything.” I paraphrase, but that’s the gist.
Some folks seem to have taken this as a sort of retraction. It’s not. It’s like saying, “I regret getting caught with my pants down, but I don’t regret pissing into the wind.” Instead of admitting that he’s just wrong, Ebert is admitting that he’d have been better off not getting caught being wrong. It’s not an apology in any sense of the word: neither a mea culpa nor a more nuanced consideration of his original position. It’s the sort of thing that should be beneath a professional of his experience and reputation. In short, it’s embarrassing, and gamers have every right to be angry with him.
The only question left is why they care what Ebert says. Rich Stanton made the case that gamers desire validation, and they don’t like it when mainstream culture (in the guise of a famous film critic in this particular case) devalues what they love. There’s some merit to this. Don’t we all seek validation on some level for the interests that drive us and inform our self-identities? I don’t think this kind of neediness is endemic to gamers, so much as it’s endemic to the human race. In the case of gamers, yes, it so happens that what they love is something looked down upon by most people. A fellow who says he plays video games for twenty hours a week is not treated the same way as a fellow who says he watches ESPN for twenty hours a week. But the fellow who watches ESPN probably has the same (or similar) emotional needs as the fellow who games. This doesn’t explain why they care what Roger Ebert has to say on the subject.
As I said earlier, Ebert is the face of film culture in America. Among those who give any weight at all to “what the critics say,” Ebert is probably the go-to guy. The next time the ESPN-watching sports fanatic wants to disparage his buddy who prefers to play Mario Kart all afternoon, he’ll point out that even Roger Ebert thinks games are stupid. The next time parents want to have an excuse not to buy their kid the new console (even if they can afford it, and even if the kid is a good student, etc.), they’ll just say that even Roger Ebert doesn’t think they’re that good for you. It almost doesn’t matter precisely what Ebert said or what his arguments were. He gave video games a big Thumbs Down, and that’s what the people who don’t know any better are going to remember.
Besides being a weekly critic who told his readers how good he thought the new releases were, Roger Ebert has been a film educator. A statesman, if you will. One of his long-term projects as a film writer has been to inform his readers and viewers about the craft and art of cinema, as well as the plusses and minuses of various individual films. That’s why his Great Movies series has been so popular and why people from around the country send him letters. They know him as a guy with specialized knowledge that he’s willing and eager to share. His opinion doesn’t matter just because he happens to be famous. He’s famous, in larger part, because he has devoted a huge part of his professional life to outreach and education. Taking a harsh stance on video games therefore isn’t just misinformed and stupid, it’s irresponsible: it makes him a bad teacher.
Now, it’s reasonable yet to object: “But people don’t have to read him or listen to what he says. He’s just one guy. It’s their choice whether or not they want to learn from him.” That’s true. But it’s also a big reason why gamers cared so much. If Ebert were just another local critic or Internet blogger who woke up one day and decided that he was going to tick off as many gamers as he could, then it wouldn’t really matter. Because of his status, and because there are a lot of people who are no more informed than he is on the subject of video games who give weight to what he says, it does matter. Gamers can afford to ignore Ebert for their own sake, but just as Ebert devoted his life to elevating the cultural consciousness on the art of cinema, there are a lot of gamers out there who devote their lives to elevating the cultural consciousness on the art of video games. None of them, however, has the cultural cachet that Ebert currently does. I think a lot of them directed so much vitriol at him because it was the only way to have their voices be heard by the same people they’re trying to reach.
There would have been just as much controversy had a cultural critic with a lot more expertise on the subject offered a similar viewpoint, but it would’ve had a much different tenor. If Ebert himself knew a bit more about video games, the conversation would’ve had a much different trajectory. Rather than being a “controversy,” the whole thing might have more closely resembled a dialogue or a debate. All told, I’m not sure how fruitful the whole conflagration has been, since, when all is said and done, the only thing that was accomplished was that everyone now knows that Ebert doesn’t respect video games and that video gamers are a bit touchy about games being disrespected.
My anecdote at the beginning of his post is meant to illustrate something that I think lies at the heart of this whole kerfuffle. It’s not that gamers are overly touchy or that Ebert overstated his case. Ebert is like the gentleman at the coffee shop; he randomly sidled up to the gamers’ table and started haranguing them about a topic on which he was poorly informed and they are relative experts.
I do realize that the whole thing began with Ebert specifically being asked about video games. It would have been more responsible (as he belatedly acknowledged) of him not to offer any opinion at all. And I do realize that nobody has been forced to read his thoughts on the matter. Again, though, Roger Ebert is Roger Ebert, Whose Opinion Matters For Some Reason, as opposed to random Internet blogger like yours truly. Whether anybody is forced to read his opinions is a moot point; through the alchemical mysteries of pop culture, his opinions must be reckoned with regardless. As someone with cultural clout and as a self-appointed educator, he really should have known better than to wade into a discussion he was ill-equipped to handle. Yet even when he acknowledged that he shouldn’t have waded into the debate, he refused to admit that he was so far out of his depth that his opinion was completely worthless. That bespeaks a kind of arrogance that matches the impression I had of the gentleman in the coffee shop.
The worse part of it is that he cannot be reasoned with, engaged in a genuine debate, or induced to reconsider his insipid opinions. The worst part of it is that he cannot simply be ignored. The gaming community’s response to Ebert is fully justified, and it boils down, in the end, to a very simple reason: nobody likes a pedant who patronizes you on a subject about which he knows bupkis. There’s a word for that. A word that is frequently misused, overused, and bandied about without justification. Here, it is perfectly apt. That word is “pretentious,” and with this video game debacle, Roger Ebert has fully earned it. ☕