A giant in the journalism and entertainment criticism died recently. On April 4, Roger Ebert died. Now, you’re probably wondering why this might tie to gaming, especially since he has had some less than favorable opinions regarding games. But even with the opinions that he brought up, we have admit something. He has been part of that cornerstone of cultural engagement and discussion for decades. As a critic, he served as an authoritative start – not an end – to discussions regarding the merits of different works or technologies regardless of his level of support. He gave a lot of inspiration to the method of a lot of different critics within film, television or even games. He was also called for some of his comments by game developers (see the TED Talk further down). Even in my case, even though I had called him out on at least one occasion for his views, observation of his style helped me in finding my voice when I started taking my writing seriously.
He and Gene Siskel’s method and lives have led to a multitude of lessons that we all follow through with whether we know it or not. I thought I would share some of the ones that I learned through observation with you all.
The first and most obvious is this. Art is important. It doesn’t matter what medium it is. It could be film, literature, games, paintings, etc. Sure, they focused on film, but again medium does not matter. Art deserves to be examined and discussed seriously. The reason is that art, or at least good art, acts as a reflection of the culture and times that it’s made in. If we can find what the art is responding to, we can evaluate ways to fix social problems and do better. This is actually something that I ended up writing about on some level in a recent article on getting more mature game discussions happening. While they didn’t consistently and openly talk about that, you could see that the importance of art was somewhere in the arguments they would either get into because of how passionate they got.
The next is that well reasoned and open discussion is important. It doesn’t matter about what medium or genre is used. If you look at everything that can be talked about, especially within a narrative medium, it all ties to something else. This is especially true when you look at the fact, with stories, what you see isn’t the only thing that you get. This is something that J.J. Abrams has worked into at least one lecture and all of his storytelling work (see below). For example, Super-8 might be seem to about a group of friends trying to make a movie or about a trapped alien trying to find his way home, but it’s actually about is a kid and his father trying to deal with the loss of a loved one. For gaming examples, the original Resident Evil might be about trying to survive and contain a virus outbreak at a laboratory, but it’s actually about is the problem of when corporations get enough power that law and morality doesn’t apply to them anymore. To find these meanings, we have to look for them. But we also have to talk about things with other people and find new perspectives to view from and test our readings against. Critics only start the conversation. They might direct the conversation or suggest readings, but they are not the end.
That’s the perfect time to move on to the next lesson. It’s always good to consider other perspectives. Let’s face it. We never get the full picture the first time or any time if we’re only viewing from our perspective. We have our view, our interpretation, sometimes that ends up like the parable of the blind monks touching different parts of an elephant and trying to identify it solely on what they were touching. Different perspectives and focusing on different aspects leads to different understandings and deeper – possibly new – appreciation of a story or a document. It’s why, for a gaming example, the argument of the Grand Theft Auto series being a crime simulator can easily shift to being an argument that the series is a scathing commentary on American society. A new perspective ends up opening up texts to their full context.
One of the other things that I learned from him is that if you’re going to be passionate about something, at least try to contribute in more ways than just criticizing works within an artform. After all, aside from being a brilliant film critic, he was also a screenwriter, at least for four movies from 1970-1980. He lived a life of passion for his craft and his medium of choice to varying results, even after his bouts with cancer stole his ability to speak (see below). This passion and non-stop creativity for decades is a lesson that everyone should learn. We don’t to be as prolific as he was, but we do have to make our work (critical and artistic) interesting. We have to make it matter. We have to show why it matters to us, while also showing why it might matter to others. In my case, I took his example in the same direction by try to create rather than just criticize.
Roger, whether you knew it or not, you helped shape the voices of at least one generation of critics. I can only hope that we live up to the legacy and standards that you built up. Rest in peace. You’ll be missed.