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One Pulitzer Prize, two thumbs, and 46 years of writing. It’s easy to distill the late Roger Ebert’s career down to basic math, but you do so at risk of ignoring the incalculable, profound effect he had on popular culture. “Roger was the movies,” Barack Obama said in a recent statement. That’s only scratching the surface.
It’s a shame that, here in the gaming community, his career came to be defined by conflict. Responding to a damning criticism of 2005’s Doom adaptation, Ebert remarked, “As long as there is a great movie unseen or a great book unread, I will continue to be unable to find the time to play video games” — the first shots fired in a battle that would extend over the next eight years. One point would hit us harder than most: “video games can never be art.”
It would be redundant, if not disrespectful, to use this article to debate games as art or even to consider, as some have already done, what he would have made of the industry’s latest darling, Bioshock Infinite. Rather, I’d like to take this opportunity to explore his reach as a critic and to celebrate the influence of a man who was able to spark a wealth of debate in an industry in which — by his own admission — he had limited interest.
You might remember the furor that accompanied Ebert’s initial claims back in 2005. Message boards worldwide exploded with righteous indignation — the first indication that Ebert had struck a vein. He wasn’t the first to doubt the worth of the form, nor was he the first to consider it in an academic space. But he was a respected voice and one that many were fond of. His famous critical eye had now turned on our medium, and suddenly, we were forced to come up with a counter-argument.
“Play Shadow of the Colossus,” we said, challenging him and begging the medium to speak for itself. Instantly, even the most innocuous of gaming forums were ablaze with a single question: “Are games art?” The early 2000s were defined by gaming’s longing for mainstream attention, and now that we had it, we were ill-prepared at best. Ebert, wisely enough, limited his input at first, leaving us to stew in our thoughts.
Incensed, writer Clive Barker and designer Kellee Santiago took to the stage to reclaim video games as an art form and began to talk publicly about our hobby not as an insular community but as a culture reaching out to the world. They proposed that art was semantic and that video games were young and ill-represented. It would provoke a long line of discussions with Ebert — at the end of which he would declare, “I may be wrong … I was a fool for mentioning video games in the first place.”
Many took Ebert’s concession as a mark of honor, heralding it as a long-deserved victory for games. What they failed to realize was that he was on our side all along.
“Why are gamers so intensely concerned, anyway, that games be defined as art?” Ebert once asked, hinting at the deeper implications of his argument. You might recall that comics, like games, once faced a similar question, eventually taking refuge out of shame in a new identifier: the graphic novel. After all, if art is a semantic argument, then all you have to do is change the wording.
Yet as the medium’s ambassador Alan Moore notes, it soon became nothing more than a “marketing term” used “predictably to sell a load of Batman, Spider-Man shit.” It would take years for the medium to catch up to the promise of its new name.
Roger Ebert’s initial line of argument was stubborn — infuriatingly so — but remarkable in the ways that it encouraged us to think twice about gaming. Avoiding the reactionary pitfalls of the comic industry, our focus moved away from meaningless definitions and finger-pointing and toward the possibility that Ebert was right. We were considering his questions as legitimate arguments and phrasing our responses with a clarity previously reserved for little but congratulatory navel-gazing.
As gamers, we were already familiar with the Scooby-Doo, villain-of-the-week structure of discourse, having previously slung words with the likes of Jack Thompson and Joe Lieberman. But in Ebert, we were presented with a villain without a mask, a voice so genuine that it moved us to our core. With a clear respect for the medium, he provided a reasoned external perspective, and in doing so he played a small part in saving us from the black hole of our self-imposed seclusion.
To this very day, the games-as-art debate rages on, now incorporating traditional academic theory to consider subjects as dense as race and gender, informed in part by Ebert’s brief input. “It’s time to move on from any need to be validated by old media enthusiasts,” Santiago realized in response to Ebert’s early argument. “We game developers have so many other issues deserving of our attention.”
Regardless of whether we’re willing to move on, in some small way, the future of gaming has been altered. Ebert initiated a debate that considered video games in a wider context, and he became a reference point — a symbol of the external or “old media” approach to games. Ultimately, whether you agreed with him or not is unimportant. He was the medium’s most necessary critic, reminding us that no creative endeavor is infallible.
“Of what use is freedom of speech to those who fear to offend?” he asked in his 1990’s Home Companion. Luckily for us, Ebert remained fearless to the end.