This nest-rattling claim was first made way back in 2005 and has been brought up every now and again ever since, responded to by such names as Tycho & Gabe, Kellee Santiago, my fellow writers at Cracked.com, and many others. The debate has only recently come to my attention, although i've held the Gamer's position for many years now, not even considering the opinions of the general masses, let alone considering them for any length of time.
Many good points are made on both sides. Ebert's big talking point - and the one i have the most difficulty refuting - is that the very interactive nature of a game is in conflict with what his conception of what a piece of art is. This view, i must believe, is generally shared with the non-gaming public; Art is viewed, appreciated, experienced, but not "played". The gamers' usual rebuttal begins with Ebert's admission that he's never seen a video game worth playing. Some simply leave it at that, since it proves his stance, however well thought out, comes from a place of complete ignorance regarding the medium. Many, however, go further into the fray, formulating complex arguments with all the rich design that one would see in the programming of one of their exemplary games. And that is why this fight will never end.
Eventually, all the arguments come down to trying to define what Art is in such a way that their view point falls within its parameters and the other side's doesn't. Obviously, any rhetorical conflict is doomed to idiocy when the parties involved cannot agree upon the definitions which make up the very foundation of any point they might try to make. It seemed Ebert tried to clarify this at least once, in 2007, when he admitted that what he should have said is that, "games could not be high art, as i understand it", but since has become so mired in his single-minded position that the thesis of his most recent article is simply "Video Games Can Never Be Art". This claim is the last nail in the coffin Gamer Good Will.
Let's go a couple steps back and look at why i consider video games to qualify as Art. First off, let me say that i do not believe all games to be Art, just as i don't think all music or movies are Art. Wilco's "Yankee Hotel Foxtrot" is a paramount of modern rock and roll and rewards careful and repeated listens, but i'd get pretty stabby if someone tried to tell me that the new Hannah Montana album is Art. Gus Van Sant's "Elephant", yes. Keenan Wayans' "Scary Movie 2", no. I think its safe to say that all examples do not have to qualify in order to claim that the medium can be considered Art. With that supposition in mind, i formulated my own definition of Art, then talked to my brother (of Good Night, States fame) for his thoughts. His thoughts are thus:
Art is that which is crafted using physical means in an attempt to comment on something metaphysical. Personally, while this definition is rather weighty, i think that very factor is important. Good art should strike you in a way which you cannot precisely define. This point is complimentary to my original thought, namely, that art is anything which is both aesthetically pleasing AND evokes an emotional or visceral response in the perceiver. I'm sure there are as many different views on the concept as there are possible readers of these words.
After our conversation, i found myself unable to reconcile a specific aspect of Steve's definition with my own thoughts. The problem is that my definition leaves out the idea of intentionality. Both my brother and Mr. Ebert agree that Art is created by an artist. This is important.
Very few (if any) games are designed to be works of Art. Hell, not many movies these days are, either, but this does not mean that they are not beautiful.
This is the delineation which i believe is causing such a schism. We, the video game-playing generation, have spent decades sharing a metaphysical experience in the interactive, narrative, sometimes-competitive landscape of a plethora of games, video or otherwise. Be it the sweeping story arc of a beloved Dungeon Master or that one cut scene in Final Fantasy Whatever, we have all be touched by a game we have played in a way that just slightly defies explanation. We have found beauty, and it has changed us.
What makes us such a unified front is that these experiences, while often occurring in the stereotypically dank, isolated caverns of our mother's basement, has been shared by millions of gamers. This effect has cleaved us together, mind and soul, with a bond much akin to that shared by the audience of a momentous event, or the brothers-in-arms of a conflict. We all watched Aeris die. We all dread Water Temples. We all know that the cake is a lie. We all recognize the Konami Code. These experiences make up the shared history of Gamers in a way that is no less meaningful than any other demographic-defining denominator.
And this, dear reader, is why we, the gaming community, are so pissed at Roger Ebert. I think Cracked.com writer Robert Brockway put it very well in the closing paragraph of his defense:
"But why even bother with all of this? Ebert himself wonders: 'Why are gamers so intensely concerned, anyway, that games be defined as art? Bobby Fischer, Michael Jordan and Dick Butkus never said they thought their games were an art form….Why aren’t gamers content to play their games and simply enjoy themselves?' And he’s already answered his own question: 'do we as their consumers become more or less complex, thoughtful, insightful, witty, empathetic, intelligent, philosophical (and so on) by experiencing them?' Anybody who’s ever felt even an inkling of something like that from a game is going to be understandably 'concerned' when you insist that they’re lying."
The aging critic is just lucky he doesn't drop any purples, or there'd be a queue to take a crack at him.