It's been quite a while since renowned film critic Roger Ebert last shared his thoughts on video games. His opinion that games are not and cannot be art doesn't sit well with gamers, many who have taken it upon themselves to properly "educate" him on the subject.
I think you are being just a tad bit harsh on the man. No, scratch that -- you are acting like brats. Show a little respect, will you please?
How ridiculous is it that you ask for the man's thoughts on a subject that you damn well know he's not familiar with and then hound him because you didn't like his answer? It's not like he decided one day to condemn the entire pastime. Someone years ago assumed that with his encyclopedic knowledge of cinema lore he might have some insight into the rising interactive medium that has been compared to film on more than one occasion. He was merely answering fan mail.
Gamers must reeeeeally want the support of such an influential figure in the entertainment world. You want his support so badly that you will spam his inbox and blogs' comments with scathing degradations and grade-school rants until you wear him down. I mean, there are people actually trying to have list wars -- LIST WARS -- with Roger Ebert! When has that ever been an effective tactic?
If only the man would play the games, then he'll understand, right? It's easy for gamers to forget that games are not an immediately accessible medium like film and literature. Other than the ability to register images and words, movies and books don't require any extra skills in order to be consumed. Video games, on the other hand, require users to be well-versed in electronic "language," that is, a rhythm and familiarity that comes with play over an extended period. Aside from possibly Myst, I doubt that Ebert's gaming experience extends beyond a single quarter on a Donkey Kong cabinet. Expecting him play the games you demand of him without succumbing to frustration, regardless of how easy we find them, is beyond foolish.
So if he can't acquire first-hand knowledge of gaming, why doesn't he just keep his mouth shut? Because you people keep opening yours! You are the ones so bent on changing his tune. He could have ignored the subject entirely, but that would be rude to all the people asking for feedback. Ebert is a true professional and wants to be as fair to his fans as he can. If he were a dishonorable hack with a political agenda, he would simply cherry-pick the most caustic comments and then use that material to damn all gamers as barbaric miscreants. Give the man props for seeking out polite and well-constructed counterpoints such as Ms. Santiago's presentation.
As often as Ebert returns to this subject, I figure he would love to be persuaded by a thoroughly convincing argument. Unfortunately, he wasn't sold on the three games Santiago highlighted as proof that games can be and already are art. It has nothing to do with stubbornness and everything to do with her failure to state compelling reasons. She described Braid as a tool to help the players reflect upon their own real-world mistakes, but how does that in any way inspire a non-gamer to play that over, say, reading Chicken Soup for the Soul? How does illustrating the critical and financial impact of these games in any way address the art debate?
Roger Ebert is an extremely busy man who does not see the point in dedicating the amount of time needed to play games "properly." What kind of art, he figures, demands a set of skills that limits the number of people who can benefit from it? If you cannot effectively describe to a non-gamer how a game is a form of artistic expression without ultimately resorting to "well, you just don't get it," maybe there is a kernel of truth in Ebert's words.
Regardless of his opinions, Ebert doesn't discourage gamers from enjoying games however they see fit. Really, why should his thoughts affect your pleasure? He only offered his musings because he keeps getting pestered about it. And so he asks, "Why are gamers so intensely concerned, anyway, that games be defined as art?"
I'm mulling it over, trying to imagine how gamers would benefit from the mainstream acknowledgement of games as an art form. None of us were concerned about artistic merit back in our preteen years. What I think tends to happen is you hit that age -- about 20, 25, or 30 -- where your minor in-game accomplishments start to seem childish and nonessential. Then there's that gnawing at the back of your head, the fear that one day you'll look back and realize you wasted the best years of your life on a mindless hobby with nothing to show for it. Before that happens, you need to somehow validate your hobby to the world, make the people understand that you are engaging your body and soul by playing these games.
Can there really be any other reason than that? Games can't just be "entertaining," no. They have to offer some greater wisdom, serve some higher purpose. But let me ask this -- has it occurred to anyone that something can be meaningful and elicit emotional response without being art? It's like the boy whose life changed after dad took him to his first ball game. Doesn't mean baseball is art, does it? You get so hung up on this three-letter word, as if games are going to get any better once the medium is "validated" in the eyes of educators, political pundits, and disapproving parents the world over. Why should it matter what it's classified as?
But don't take my word for it! If anyone could give a straight answer on the "games as art" debate, it would be the "artists" who made those games possible. And not just any games! The best in their class!
Upon winning the British Academy of Film and Television Arts fellowship award, Nintendo wonder child Shigeru Miyamoto said this in his acceptance speech:
"It's a great honor that my name might be listed as a fellowship member along with such a great director as Hitchcock. I have never said that video games [are] an art."
Miyamoto has helped to shape some of gaming's greatest icons like Mario and Link, but he's been more focused on bringing joy to players than producing art. As we've seen with Wii Music, sometimes he doesn't even make games!
Speaking of not making games, Sim City-creator Will Wright dropped this nugget while at the Toy Fair in New York City:
"I always thought of Sim City as a digital toy. Most people call it a game, but, really, the rules structure is much looser than a real game. You can't really win or lose in Sim City or The Sims. You can try for certain goal states and maybe achieve them or not. But I think my games have always been more like toys than games."
Will Wright considers himself in the toy business! Even if you managed to form a convincing argument for why his simulation software is art, it wouldn't make a case for video games by his own admission. In fact, Ebert said as much in his blog:
"One obvious difference between art and games is that you can win a game. It has rules, points, objectives, and an outcome. Santiago might cite an immersive game without points or rules, but I would say then it ceases to be a game and becomes a representation of a story, a novel, a play, dance, a film. Those are things you cannot win; you can only experience them."
In the past decade, the face of the "games as art" movement has been the one-two punch of Ico and Shadow of the Colossus. During a GDC '09 panel, Team Ico designer Fumito Ueda said this in response to that honor:
"My team and I are making a game which is close to art -- that's what people say. Personally I don't think that way. We're making a game to entertain people. Sometimes my personality and my team's might be reflected on the game, and it might look like art, but it is a game to entertain people. That kind of feedback is welcome but it's not what I'm trying to achieve."
Here are three men whose landmark games have had tremendous influence on the shape and direction of this industry, yet not a one would consider what they do "art." If these powerful figures care so little for such a nonessential title, why should the rest of us care?
Please, take Roger Ebert's advice and enjoy your games for what they are. You'll most likely never convince him that games can be art, but maybe that's the lesson we should learn. Drop the circular debate and just play some damn games. Also, stop giving the man crap. I think he knows what's up.