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irrational thought

Ken Levine To The Video Game Industry: Grow A Pair

by Phil Kollar on Jul 13, 2010 at 01:44 PM

[This editorial originally appeared in issue 207 of Game Informer and is written by Ken Levine, a founding member of Irrational Games and one of the minds behind BioShock.]

Since Roger Ebert wrote a post a few weeks ago entitled "Video Games Can Never Be Art," the game-o-sphere has been abuzz with a broad range of rebuttals, assents, teeth-gnashing, and spleen venting. Ebert spends several thousand words making it very clear that video games aren't worth his time. Even the developer Ebert name checks in his article (Kellee Santiago from thatgamecompany) gets in on the act. The very first line of her response proclaims "Roger Ebert wrote an article about me."

Now excuse me for asking, Kellee, but you are an accomplished game developer. You are a USC alum. You are feted by your peers and your fans. You are coming off Flower, an impressive release that garnered the attention of the entire industry. You're giving speeches at TED. You're a star. And now you're telling me that a watermark in your career is that Roger frigging Ebert deigned to slow down his chariot long enough to notice you? And not simply notice, but vigorously endeavor to establish that your career, your work, and your passion are essentially beneath his notice.

I read another thoughtful open letter to Mr. Ebert on a prominent gaming blog that, before getting around to effectively saying, "You sir, are a film critic, not a game critic, so piss off!" spends several paragraphs name-dropping great filmmakers, as if to say, "See, Ebert? I know film, so I'm worthy of your respect. Take me seriously!"

Jesus, Mary, and Miyamoto! How insecure are we as an industry that we rush to seek validation not from our own peers, not even from creatives in other fields, but from critics in other fields, to tell us if what we're doing is worthy of notice? Look, I was in high school once. I spent the entire four years trying to match up with what I thought other people thought was cool and worthwhile. And I was miserable because the things I loved were not deemed valuable.

Dungeons and Dragons? Lame!

Video games? Nerdy!

Comic books? Pathetic!

And so I hid my passions. I tried to fit in. I played sports and was terrible at them. I tried to make friends with a collection of people whose only interests in the world amounted to Molly Hatchet records and Marlboro Lights. I tried to make myself a part of things I didn't care about and sought the approval of people who looked down on me.

And I was miserable. The sad truth is that once a new form of media shoots out of the womb, one of the first impulses it seeks to fulfill is validation. Like me! Approve of me! Respect me!

Hey, I get it. I went to Vassar. I like a vigorous round of Socratic wankery as much as the next liberal arts undergrad. But what I can't stand is the insecurity. Are games art? Will they become art? What stage of development are we in as an art form? Are they more akin to George Melies' A Voyage to the Moon or Welles' Citizen Kane? What methodologies should we investigate to make a proper determination between the state of video games, Aristotelian aesthetics, and Robert McKee's definition of good writing?

Here's my answer in three simple steps:

Remove the beret from the top of your head.

Throw said beret out the window.

Light a fire. Into that fire toss your copy of Aristotle's Poetics.

Crack open a two liter of Mountain Dew. Snap into a Slim Jim. Proceed to Xbox Live and shoot your best friend in the head with an M-16.

You're a gaming geek. Be proud of that. You don't need the "by your leave" of Roger Ebert, your loving parents, or the Library of Congress to validate your passion.

The world is changing. I've spent some time around Hollywood people lately, and I've even thought of trying my hand at screenwriting again. (I was a film scribe back in, oh, 1871 or so.) But many studio exec types have told me that their dream is to have some big film director work with me to make a video game.

My response was, "Why on Earth would I want to do that?" The notion is as ridiculous as me calling up an established film director and saying, "Hey pal. I've never directed a film before, but how about I show up on set tomorrow and take you to school?" Do you really want two egos like me and some hotshot film director butting heads over health station recharge rates or jump heights? Honestly, I'd expect that 10 minutes into the first meeting they'd start to look like somebody who realizes they just mistakenly got on the wrong -- and very lengthy -- inter-continental flight.

Consider last E3, when James Cameron spoke at the Ubisoft event. Now, I love James Cameron. He's the man along with George Lucas who really created 90 percent of the methodologies for telling nerdy stories in big budget movies. I constantly name check him and reference his work in story meetings at Irrational. You put him and the Coen brothers in a room, and I'd have trouble deciding which one I'd want to make out with first.

But why was he pitching the Avatar game and not the guy who actually built the d**n thing? Look, if a BioShock movie gets made, I'm sure there might be some people who would be interested in what I have to say about it. But the focus would rightly be on the folks who made the frigging movie.

Why does the rest of the media world put the gaming baby in a corner? Because the game industry has an inferiority complex. We know that the movie, television, book, and even comic book guys look at us like we're some kind of junior varsity version of themselves. "Hey, video games! Aren't they cute? We should make one of them!"

And why do they think of us this way? Because we encourage them to. "The New York Times ran a page 37 story on GDC. Somebody call my parents!" "Roger Ebert said we're not art. Get me my smelling salts!"

Do games owe a debt to popular culture? Absolutely. I can say that I am the biggest media w***e who ever walked this green Earth. But popular culture today is gaming culture. The social networks and forms of interaction of the Internet didn't gestate at some university or film studio. The language of today's youth wasn't created by the Beatles or Public Enemy. The ways people connect to each other through extended networks weren't conceived by some genius at General Electric.

No. All of these things sprang from the nerd-o-scape. They grew up on Usenet and tech blogs. They sprung to life alongside headshots and tea-bagging. They evolved naturally through a group of lonely dorks looking for people who shared their nerdy interests.

We don't owe anything to anybody. The future of entertainment is being envisioned not just by the games industry, but by a confluence of developers and gamers who've interacted on BBSes and the Net since our hobby began. And we're just getting started. Wait until we have had the time to develop that film and television had. We'll either be ruling the world, or we'll be the Eberts, writing dismissive essays about the newest kind of media, which of course will be irrelevant and shallow. That is something that we must not do, because that kind of thinking is the first step on the path to irrelevance.

But today is not that day. Today is our time to realize the power of the medium we all love so much.

To paraphrase the elder Lebowski: The revolution is over, Mr. Ebert. The nerds won.