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Blogged Out: The Rituals Of Roger Ebert
Blogged Out: The Rituals Of Roger Ebert
December 2, 2005 | By Jim Rossignol

December 2, 2005 | By Jim Rossignol
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More: Columns



Welcome to 'Blogged Out', the news report that looks at the world of developer blogging and the conversations being had with the community at large. This week we look at the Rituals of Alea and Ebert's hypothesis.

The Rolling Dice

The excellent game theory blog Only A Game has been posting regular and stimulating essays for a while now, but one that most recently caught my attention was this one about 'The Rituals of Alea', or the element of randomness in modern games. The gambler's way of doing things, it seems, is a little unpopular amongst contemporary game designers. 'Alea' is here used to designate the 'game of chance', or the most basic form of our art, the roll of dice, in contrast with 'agon' or the games of competition.

The author explains: "Game designer bias against alea can be seen in numerous forms: Sid Meier's "a game is series of interesting choices" which effectively denies games of pure chance status as games; the typical game designer's excessive love of games of pure ludic agon (chess in particular, and turn based strategy games in general); Raph Koster's attempt to shoehorn chance into his Theory of Fun by considering it "learning about probability"; or even my own attempt to factor alea out of tabletop RPGs. It seems that games designers in general terms just don't want to connect with this extremely popular form of play."

The majority of games are, of course, designed to let us win. Artificial intelligence must not best us, while fate must not always lead us inevitably to failure. But perhaps the reason for Alea's popularity amongst gamblers is not that chance leads to fairness, but that the risk of losing money is simply more thrilling than the risk of losing the small amounts of time invested by gamers in the more controlled scenarios of the video game.

Empathetic Noises

Elsewhere this week the blogs have echoed with the sounds of angry typing as veteran US film critic Roger Ebert continued bothering gamers with his attacks on the medium. He explains: "I believe books and films are better mediums, and better uses of my time. But how can I say that when I admit I am unfamiliar with video games? Because I have recently seen classic films by Fassbinder, Ozu, Herzog, Scorsese and Kurosawa, and have recently read novels by Dickens, Cormac McCarthy, Bellow, Nabokov and Hugo, and if there were video games in the same league, someone somewhere who was familiar with the best work in all three mediums would have made a convincing argument in their defense."

Ebert's argument is fallacious because I could reply "I've seen those films, read those books and have played games by Spector, Wright, Kaido and Ueda." But that's not really the point he's making. Instead it's one about whether games are available to "make ourselves more cultured, civilized and empathetic." It's something of a shame that these arguments are always conducted on the terms of those who defend book or films over games, because games usually aren't trying to be a comedy of manners or stark social metaphor. Their purpose is one of puzzling phenomenologies and unusual problem solving.

My own argument in the importance of games stems from a belief that the best way to approach becoming more civilised or empathetic is to gather a broad range of experiences, be they aesthetic, ethical, physical or social, literary or cinematic. The man who sits reading books is going to have his wider vocabulary limited in a way different from, although analogous to, the man who sits and plays games all day. Each of these men has developed a different set of tools for dealing with life. Ebert would be helpless when faced with a serious discussion of games, but I wonder how many of my videogaming colleagues would be genuinely helpless when faced with a serious discussion of film...

The other argument, of course, is about the complexity of games. Books can be written by anyone who has mastered written language. Films can be made by anyone who can use a camera. Games however can only be made by those who have mastered programming, digital art and all the fabrication necessary to create interactive systems on exponentially complex machines.

Perhaps the genius required to turn that into games of Ebert's 'league' is simply not yet available to us. But does that lessen the medium? Or prove that because its potentiality is so vast and forbidding, and a mere forty years old, it stands on the brink of dwarfing all that has gone before it? The newness of games and this sea of potential, if nothing else, makes them valuable (if not crucial) to human experience.

In any case, there's been plenty of other discussion regarding this, especially over at ShackNews, where Chris Remo comments: "It is frustrating to see current mainstream criticism--and no critics are as synonymous with modern mainstream criticism as Ebert--maintain deliberately ill-informed opinions about gaming as a medium. Not because gaming needs to be recognized as art, which is an opinion that is hotly contested among many gamers, but because it does such a grave disservice to the people behind the games, who are clearly capable of far more expression through their work than many seem prepared to acknowledge."

[Jim Rossignol is a freelance journalist based in the UK his game journalism has appeared in PC Gamer UK, Edge and The London Times.]


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