Roger Ebert vs. Video Games

What would you think if your middle school student spent their summer in art, appreciating the work of famous masters, chatting online with other enthusiasts, and maybe even creating their own work? If your child is a gamer, that’s probably what they’re doing. But the question of whether video games really are art has been debated for decades.

As the media scholar Felan Parker writes, one of the most prominent debates on the subject in 2005 was triggered by film critic Roger Ebert. In the fall of that year, Ebert wrote a one-star review of the video game-based film sinking, including what has been read as the original game’s dismissal. While few gamers were impressed with the film, some wrote to complain that he didn’t know what he was talking about when it came to the game. In a subsequent column, Ebert doubled.

“As long as there is a great movie unwatched or a great book unread,” he wrote, “I will continue to find no time to play video games.”

Parker writes that gaming media took up the question of whether video games were art, and Ebert’s views became a starting point for years of conversation on the subject. Many game defenders described similarities between games and more traditional artistic works, including their ability to evoke emotion or present a compelling narrative. People making this argument often emphasized the obviously “artistic” games and even suggested that the form must “move on” from mere fun to become something more serious. On the other hand, some populist arguments have been advanced, positing that entertaining, commercial games are a more vibrant art form than those with high culture aspirations.

The debates have tended to view video games in relation to films or novels, often focusing on the supposed importance of a single artist’s vision. Ebert argued that the players’ ability to make decisions “is the opposite of the strategy of serious film and literature, which requires the author’s control”. In contrast, some of his opponents pointed to outstanding writers from game makers with their own distinct visions, such as Nintendo’s Shigeru Miyamoto, creator of the Mario and legend of zelda Franchise.

Still other critics approached the question from a very different direction, Parker explains, pointing out that not all art uses narrative or excludes the audience from playing a role in the creative process. Some suggested skipping the comparisons to films and books and instead considering artistic traditions such as improvised performance, oral storytelling, or architecture.

After years of forays into the debate, Ebert unexpectedly withdrew from the fight in 2010 with a post titled “Okay, Kids, Play on My Lawn.”

“I would never give an opinion on a movie I haven’t seen,” he wrote. “Nonetheless, I have stated as an axiom that video games can never be art. I still believe that, but I should never have said it. Some opinions are best kept to yourself.”

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By: Felan Parker

Kinojournal, Vol. 57, No. 3 (Spring 2018), pp. 77–100

University of Texas Press on behalf of the Society for Cinema & Media Studies