25 April 2010

Comparing video games to films - 1/4

You can read the first, second, third and fourth parts of this article.

Roger Ebert

In November 2005, Roger Ebert, a movie critique, wrote: 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. several reations of video games websites followed.

During a conference in late June 2007, Clive Barker, an English artist criticized Ebert's position of 2005. Ebert answered to Barker in July 2007. More reactions of video games websites and journalists followed.

Some days ago, in a response to a TED talk by Kellee Santiago, Ebert defended his point again: Video games can never be art. Very very many reactions followed on video games news websites and blogs (see also this google search). [Certainly off-topic, but worthy of interest: these different reaction magnitudes (2005 < 2007 << 2010) show how much video games communities have sprouted in the last few years.]

Citizen Kane

According to Keith Boesky, the "Citizen Kane of games" buzz started when Trip Hawkins first ran EA ads asking whether a computer can make you cry. This morphed into the question of when we would see the "Citizen Kane" of games. I could not find any source confirming that the actual source of the buzz was Trip Hawkins or EA. No date either. Anyway, Citizen Kane has been mentioned regularly since 2004.

  • January 2004: Shayne Guiliano, a video game industry member, first mentioned Citizen Kane in a response to Ernest Adams about the visual impacts of video games.It is a misconception to say that visuals are not an excellent way of illustrating the internal states on mind. This problem was first solved in the film "Citizen Kane".
  • October 2006: John Gaeta, a visual effects designer mentioned the Citizen Kane of gaming.
  • March 2005: Warren Spector wondered how the video game industry could implement better stories: Citizen Kane was not a particularly successful movie… but RKO was willing to take a chance. We need to get to that point.

In February 2009, Boesky wrote that the "Citizen Kane of games" idea is poisoning young developers' minds. In April 2009, the topic was discussed between Bogost and Alexander, and some game critique reactions followed. Guillermo del Toro said in May 2009: In the next 10 years, there will be an earthshaking Citizen Kane of games.

In October 2009, Michael Thomsen, an IGN video game expert, mentioned during an ABC podcast that Citizen Kane has been hailed by film critics for decades as one of the best movies in history. And if Kane had a symbiotic partner in the world of video games, it would be the Metroid Prime trilogy. Eric Swain, a game critique, objected: Saying that this movie revolutionized the populous into thinking films were important, saying that before it they weren’t thought of as art and afterwards they were, well there’s no other way to put it, it is a lie. It is an artificial pinpoint created by its almost universal placement on top 10 lists and because of it has had its own mythos inflated beyond the reality of the film. Others have also reacted.

Nowadays, many critics, game journalists and developers use the reference recurrently.

Stating the problem

Given their very different histories, how can these two media/domains/arts be compared? (this is not a rhetorical question!) Clive Barker said in June 2007 that video games is a medium that’s barely 2 decades old, and he (Ebert) is saying oh, there’s no 'War And Peace' yet – of course there isn’t! When asked by Alexander about Why Raising 'Kane' Won't Help Games' Legitimacy, Bogost explained: It's a red herring, because we think that having a Citizen Kane will prove our artistic legitimacy, but masterworks are not how artistic legitimacy is proven anymore. This series of posts (kind of) aims at contributing to Bogost's point in comparing the early history of films and games.

While I am not a film expert/critique and I do not know anything about film theory, I can read wikipedia: the first movie was realized in the late 1880s. Judging from the content, it was more a technological proof of concept than anything art-related. I give a short history of cinema as an art, focusing arbitrarily on (vampire/zombie) gothic horror movies. Focusing on a particular genre makes it shorter and easier to analyze unknown materials, and I guess the same conclusions apply for other film genres as well (eg epic, adventure or Westerns).

Read the second part.

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