Pretension +1 Art Can Never Be Videogames

By Gus Mastrapa in Pretension +1
Friday, April 23, 2010 at 12:37 am

I was mired deeply in the sweaty, drunken, douchey clusterfuck that was Coachella last weekend when Roger Ebert expertly trolled every gamer on the planet. I was sitting in the dirt, trying to stay cool and failing to remain cheerful at the prospect of two more days of rock festival nightmare. I slid my Android shut and shook my head, understanding perhaps a little where Ebert was coming from.

I'm too fucking old to deal with shit like Coachella any more. I'll take my rock shows small and tidy, thanks. It's not like I'm an old fogie yet. I'm pushing 40 but I can still hang at a black metal show. What I can't deal with are the philistines -- the brainless, tasteless jerks who swarm around big entertainment like flies on a melted Slurpee. 

I can't imagine what it must be like to be a dude like Ebert, approaching the end of your days to see the dominant artform of your time -- one you've devoted your entire life to studying and extolling -- begin to decline.

But that's the truth of the matter. Movies are yesterday's news. For a long time they were the most vibrant, thrilling creative thing happening. Now, they're just barely hanging in there -- trying to gussy themselves up with the cheap, gaudy lipstick of 3-D. 

As long as I can remember I was enamored with movies. Star Wars defined my childhood. The anarchy of Evil Dead II steered my sensibilities as I got older. I discovered Film Threat and laserdiscs and Janus Films and Video Watchdog and educated myself as best a young, middle-class Floridian could do in the days before the Internet. I spent twenty years of my life voraciously consuming movies, memorizing filmographies and exploring the cinemas of foreign countries.

But that's all over now. Sure, I still stream the occasional Criterion flick on Netflix. And I keep tabs on directors I dig, waiting anxiously for the movies to come out in New York and L.A, then come out on some format that can actually be consumed and with subtitles I can understand. But the thrill is mostly gone. Because there's always a young gun. And videogames, as we all know, have a thing for firearms.

Remember when the novel was the dominant American art form? Of course you don't, because all that shit was written before we were born. It's stuff they shove down your throats in school and sell printed on pulp at Barnes and Noble endcaps for $2.99. 

If you ever do happen to read one of those book things you'll find they're quite good. Books can be terribly immersing despite being all black and white and papery. And even though the people who tried to get you to read them are mostly stodgy assholes with all the wrong opinions about the literature they're beating you over the brain with books, it turns out, are a treasure trove of amazing, life-changing art. 

But all the art in the world -- poetry, painting, sculpture, song, film and every other lofty, transcendent creative endeavor -- can never be videogames. Because all those things belong to the past. They belong to our parents and our ancestors. They may speak universal truths, but they speak them in language that sounds just a tiny bit tinny to modern ears. 

Videogames, though, they're ours. That's why Ebert can't hang with them. He's a videogame illiterate, an Old Dog much too set in his ways to ever learn how to play an FPS, or crawl a dungeon or build a Sim City. That's a shame. 

Because he's got to spend the rest of his life wondering what the fuck is wrong with the rest of us. Why aren't we enamored with the art of the past like his, obviously smarter and more cultured, generation was? Why are we so happy to sit with vacant stares and thumb controllers all day when flagging artists like Martin Scorsese or whatever foreign fancy-pants the Academy will nominate but not award this year flog the dying horse of cinema? 

Those are questions Ebert will never know the answer to. And that's a bummer. Because what this debate is all about, really, is our desire to share our love for videogames with the rest of the world.

Those of use who love this silly stuff just want others to fell the thrill of discovery, the satisfaction of a win, the senses of fear and wonder and boredom and delicious tedium that videogames can instill. We want non-gamers to get that games aren't just games -- they're an amalgam of a half-dozen different modern forms of communication leveraged to create magic, to transport and tell stories and to stimulate the mind, heart and guts. 

Games are games. They're puzzles. They're interactive plots that we steer, contribute to and mold. They're sandboxes and playhouses, chess with improv, war games mashed with dinner theater and hero cycles with endless do-overs. Playing games isn't just diversion or consumption or play. It's living in rough draft.

None of the art that Ebert puts on his teetering pedestal does all those things for me in quite the same way. All that stuff is art. And I'm not going to argue with Ebert -- it can be glorious. But no art truly demands my involvement like videogames do.

That's why, Roger, you've got three-thousand comments on your blog and just as many half-assed essays refuting your position. We don't want your approval. We want you to feel what we feel. 

If you can't find the time to pick up a joystick and open yourself to videogames in the few years you have left on this earth it's your loss.

We'll miss you when you're gone, Mr. Ebert. But we will, just like humanity always has, keep moving on. And videogames are gonna come with us. They're gonna grow, mature and develop in ways we never imagined. 

Movies, they'll probably be around too, still chugging away. But they'll be doing their thing, over there, mostly ignored, in their own dusty corner of the museum with the rest of the art.

Pretension +1 is a weekly videogame column by Gus Mastrapa that occupies a permanent spot on the games as art bandwagon.

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