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Neil deGrasse Tyson and James Gunn Argue: What's "Good," Video Games?

The E3 Coliseum is living up to its name, as the astrophysicist and film director just had a fight over what makes a good game.
Image courtesy E3 Coliseum/ESA

It's not every day a renowned physicist-TV personality and the director of Guardians of the Galaxy get into an argument about game quality and elitism, but this E3 is bringing out some interesting things.

Going into E3's new "Coliseum" segment—a collection of PAX or GDC-like panels—I was particularly interested in the World Building talk, with Chris Hardwick, Neil deGrasse Tyson, Randy Pitchford, Kiki Wolfkill, and James Gunn—an interesting mix of figures from film, games, and science. However, what began as a discussion of world building and a call made by Tyson for "physics as liberating," quickly ended in an unsatisfying examination of elitism in media criticism.


Towards the end of the panel, Hardwick made a remark concerning the "failure" of the recent The Mummy, questioning people's incentive to blame "Tom Cruise or maybe people don't like classic monsters." To him, the real problem lies with the inability to "just make good movies."

He then gestured towards James Gunn, citing Guardians of the Galaxy as a "good movie," with "good detail and good story." Gunn, flattered, responded "that's the only rule that I can live by, as a filmmaker, is to make it good." The two went on, until Gunn stated, "there are a lot of good movies that don't get seen, and then there's a lot of bad movies which are making over a billion dollars [sic] in a few weeks."

The Mummy image courtesy of Universal

That's when deGrasse spoke up. "How are [they] defining 'bad movie'… because [they] can't apply different rules to movies than [they] do to games." He goes on to say that if a good game is one that "sells well," then how can they (the panelists) all agree that a movie is bad, despite it making a billion dollars? Gunn quickly became defensive, while Harwick chanted "fight, fight, fight" in the background.

Gunn replied, "I never said that. I believe there are good movies and there are bad movies," And that's where things get fuzzy. He said we should "go by the very basic thing, what an audience feels about a movie after they see it," because too often audiences are "tricked into seeing movies." Ok, so, collective opinion. Then he essentially goes for craft, asserting that a "good movie or a bad movie is what [ he] think[s] it is, what [he] enjoy[s], what is well put together and what isn't."

Gunn essentially sidesteps deGrasse Tyson's original question, managing to avoid games altogether.

Hardwick then comes in giving the only remotely relevant answer, saying "there is something that's extra special about a good sticky thing, whether it's a movie or a game," and name-dropped Borderlands, Portal 2, Bioshock Infinite (I know), Halo, much to the audience's applause. "Whatever it is that sticks with you, that extra bit of a quality to that world that you want to inhabit." And so, both deGrasse Tyson and the viewer are left without any real answers.

Which brings up a larger question—what universally accepted standards do we hold film and games to, and should those standards overlap if we want to see both mediums evaluated in the same spaces? Or, should these mediums remain exclusive in the way we evaluate and recognize their achievements?

The panel had an opportunity to take a real stab at that—certainly, the people onstage were more than capable—but the result was disappointingly shallow. Despite deGrasse Tyson's admirable efforts to dig in, the overall result was focused on showboating and showering with compliments, rather than any sort of thoughtful critique. As players and viewers, if the joy in games and films is losing ourselves in the worlds they create for us, don't those worlds deserve the space to constructively communicate between each other?