Pædophiles, and Videogames

December 22, 2005

Before I begin, I should make it clear that I have the utmost admiration for Roger Ebert’s movie reviews. Even in the rare instances where I completely disagree with him on a film, I can understand his viewpoint since he explains it so clearly. There have been times, too, when I’ve thoroughly enjoyed a movie but been unable to articulate why, only to read his review and have him elucidate my own opinion for me. His crusade against pan & scan home video is also something I approve of wholeheartedly.

That said, here are excerpts from things Ebert has written [reasonably] recently. I’m using one movie review and some Answer Man columns as the basis from which I’m extrapolating what may or may not be his actual point of view, and I hope I’m not misrepresenting him. I’m not writing this out of malice.

Here is the first.

The reason we cannot accept pedophilia as we accept many other sexual practices is that it requires an innocent partner, whose life could be irreparably harmed. We do not have the right to do that. If there is no other way to achieve sexual satisfaction, that is our misfortune, but not an excuse. It is not the pedophile that is evil, but the pedophilia. That is true of all sins and crimes and those tempted to perform them: It is not that we are capable of transgression that condemns us, but that we are willing.

Here is the second.

Yours is the most civil of countless messages I have received after writing that I did indeed consider video games inherently inferior to film and literature. There is a structural reason for that: Video games by their nature require player choices, which is the opposite of the strategy of serious film and literature, which requires authorial control.

I am prepared to believe that video games can be elegant, subtle, sophisticated, challenging and visually wonderful. But I believe the nature of the medium prevents it from moving beyond craftsmanship to the stature of art. To my knowledge, no one in or out of the field has ever been able to cite a game worthy of comparison with the great dramatists, poets, filmmakers, novelists and composers. That a game can aspire to artistic importance as a visual experience, I accept. But for most gamers, video games represent a loss of those precious hours we have available to make ourselves more cultured, civilized and empathetic.

And here’s something in the same vein.

As long as there is a great movie unseen or a great book unread, I will continue to be unable to find the time to play video games.

What I gather from this is that Ebert is much more tolerant and understanding of pædophiles than of videogame players. Pædophilia, by his thinking, is “a deep compulsion, which is probably innate,” and the struggle against it lifts the pædophile to transcendant nobility. Making a film about this topic, then, Reveals Something So True For All Us Sinners, which as any filmmaker knows is a very good way to Make A Real Difference In The World. Or something.

Videogames, on the other hand, are nothing more than a waste of time that might occasionally feature a pretty picture displayed on a screen. And they are incapable, by definition, of ever becoming anything more. Moving pictures on a screen, as we all know, are only capable of artistic merit when the author is in control. Interactivity is the kiss of death when it comes to art, by this logic. (Much more on this later.)

The worst part is that people who play videogames are actively making a choice to become worse people. They have the audacity to use their leisure time on something other than reading Great Works of Literature (or watching Wallace and Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit of course), which is an unforgiveable transgression against society. Videogames, and by extension the players of them, are to be written off as a loss. A sadly avoidable loss, but not a tragic loss because tragedy is an art form.

It is not that we are capable of transgression that condemns us, but that we are willing, and wasting those precious hours we have available to make ourselves more cultured, civilized and empathetic may be the worst transgression of them all. So a child rapist who is honest-to-God sincerely trying to reform (and, let’s say, reads Tolstoy in his spare time) is presumably a better person than a guy who plays a game or two of MLB 2005 to unwind after work.

* * *

After all, it’s not as if Sid Meier’s Colonization is any better at making somebody cultured, civilized, or empathetic than, say, Batman Forever.

* * *

Ebert comes right out and admits that “a game can aspire to artistic importance as a a visual experience“. And yet he refuses to even entertain the notion that a game might conceivably be considered a work of art, apparently because games consist of a layer of interaction in addition to the underlying visual experience that is the foundation of the medium.

I find it very interesting that an artistic visual experience is insufficient to get something qualified as art, especially when film, Ebert’s medium of choice and expertise, is at its most fundamental level literally nothing more than a visual experience. Everything else is gravy.

The difference between “visual experience” and “visual experience + X” is, if I understand Ebert, a loss of direct and complete authorial control. Artistry (or lack thereof) is apparently a by-product of this authorial control, and without authorial control artistry cannot exist.

Tautology: A piece of software is incapable of doing anything other than following its coded instructions.

Corollary: Anything that happens in a videogame is a direct result of the code that went into it.

Videogames and other software are in every sense just as “authored” as are novels, plays, encyclopedias, screenplays, magazines, technical journals, you name it. And the final product is just as “authored” as a feature film or album. The content is there, in short, because it was authored.

What is authorial control anyway? Control over what? The narrative? Surely he can’t be making the claim that art requires a narrative. Film doesn’t require a narrative, and Rodin’s The Thinker certainly doesn’t have one.

There are videogames that would meet this definition anyway. Let’s briefly examine Grim Fandango as an example. The plot of the game is set in stone. Depending on who is playing and how quickly they find solutions to the puzzles, there may be delays or unnecessary repetition of segments, or the end might not be reached, but the same is true for a book. Or a film. In any case, Grim Fandango doesn’t even give the player the option to die—the end user just gets to modify the pacing.

Control over the presentation? George Lucas and THX notwithstanding, filmmakers don’t get to define the immediate physical contexts in which their films are viewed. Hell, they don’t even get to define the shape of the screen the film will be viewed on, judging from how many films “have been modified to fit” my 4:3 TV set. Sculptors, painters, and photographers get even less control in some respects: rooms all look pretty much the same when the lights are out, but the same is absolutely not true for galleries and museums, to say nothing .

Whether or not a composer has indicated a crescendo in some sheet music, and whether or not a conductor is gesticulating to that effect, the final decision on whether or not to play louder rests with each and every individual member of the ensemble. Who is the artist, who is the author, who has control: the one who puts pen to paper, the one who unifies and commands the orchestra, or the one who draws a bow across some violin strings?

If an incompetent projectionist shows a film out of focus, has the filmmaker been robbed of his authorial control? What if a newspaper film critic and his friends are watching a movie, only to halt the playback at every single transition between shots to hold a discussion? What has the author’s control been reduced to in this case, and can that which comes between the interruptions be considered art? How does this sort of pacing issue compare to that of a videogame?

Jean-Joseph Mouret’s “First Suite in D,” which you may know as the Masterpiece Theatre theme, was originally composed for trumpet, kettledrum, violin, and oboe. This means that Mouret specifically intended that those particular instruments should be used for performances of the piece. I have heard it played very well by a small brass ensemble; should the rearrangement be construed as a contravention of authorial intent and a subversion of authorial control?

My neighbor is, among other things, a playwright. He attended a performance of a play of his once, and was truly astounded and impressed. As he told the cast and crew afterwards, he had no idea that his play was capable of evoking the kinds of emotions and responses that it did. The play he saw performed, though it followed his script, was much better than the play he had written, meaning the director and producer as well as the actors had managed to turn the play into something more than it had been originally. Had the author been in “control”, it would never have come about, nor been such a work of art.

In the end, an author yields “control” whenever he puts his product in someone else’s hands. Films are subject to all kinds of whims, including the pause button on a DVD player. Whether some “control” is given up by default (as with a movie or a book) or by design (as with a videogame) is irrelevant, and that’s what’s important.

1 Comment

  • Laurel says:

    I agree with you. This is interesting because Ebert is an expert in a medium that, since its inception, has been denigrated (unfairly, for the most part) as as being constitutionally unable to do what books do, inferior to the novel, pandering to the tastes of the masses, incapable of reaching the status of High Art, stripping the viewer of imagination, and on and on and on. He’s basically replicating the “films are inferior to books” argument with respect to video games, only painting what has traditionally been seen as the strength of the novel — a more independent, less author-controlled reading/viewing experience — as the supposed weakness of this third medium.

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