As a former film student, I have a soft spot for Roger Ebert, along with anyone who takes film as seriously as I once did and occasionally aspire to do so. It doesn't usually serve a constructive purpose to attempt a serious discussion of Transformers as film, and so I usually let it go.
Joystiq has reported that on Friday, April 16th, Roger Ebert reflected on his storied statement that "Video games can never be art." He was recommended to view the following TED presentation by Kellee Santiago, by way of revisiting this statement.
Roger Ebert's reply was perfectly reasonable, to the point where I find myself in agreement with him. However, I still found myself driven to provide a response as these sorts of opportunities to engage with one of the finest critics of our time are not to be passed over lightly.
So, reprinted from Mr. Ebert's blog, my response:
"Mr. Ebert –
I have a BA in Broadcasting and Film from Boston University, and a MA in New Media from Emerson College. I have been an avid gamer for 32 years. I currently build and teach online courses at Simmons College in Boston, MA. I give you my credentials to establish that I have approached the digital realm from the perspectives of critical theorist, enthusiast, and educator.
I am saddened that this opportunity to re-engage you on the subject of video games as art was spent on a response to Kellee Santiago’s TED presentation. I am aware that Kellee is a member of an indie game development studio which was hailed as a "breakthrough developer" in 2008, but I have never heard of her, nor can I find any games she has worked on which I have heard of. With all due respect to Kellee, she is not an appropriate representative for any debates with you per whether video games are, or are not, art.
That duty should fall to the major figures of the gaming world, people like Shigeru Miyamoto, Sid Meier, or John Carmack, video game developers whose work, like that of the greatest artists, have stood the test of time as some of the finest work ever produced in their medium. Those men are also very unlikely to engage in this debate with you because they are too busy making games. Therefore, the gaming world is automatically at a severe handicap when engaging with you in this discussion.
Understand, please, that some of the vehement reactions you have received in regards to your comment “Video games can never be art” come in no small part due to the knowledge that you don’t play games. Part of what defines a game is interactivity, therefore one who does not play video games is at a severe disadvantage in making any attempts to truly understand them, if such a thing is even possible; and therefore any judgments as to the artistic quality of video games issued by one who does not play them can strike some people as galling.
I personally feel that it is the job of our community to engage you with the very best of what video gaming has to offer, to pique your interest in the hopes of inspiring you to pick up a controller and cross the vital threshold of interactivity, which would make you truly conversant and may inform your opinion as to the artistic merit of video games.
From the perspective of an experienced video game player as well as someone versed in critical theory, as good as her intentions are Kellee Santiago does a horrible job of selecting games to hold up to you as “art.” It is an uphill battle to begin with, because there is already an acknowledged lack of critical language around gaming. It doesn’t help when the samples held up to you would pass no litmus test of exceptionally-high quality by those of us who do attempt to opine on the merit of video games on a regular basis.
It is worth noting that Shigeru Miyamoto stated outright at this year’s BAFTA awards that he never said video games are art. The conversation strikes me personally as a fool’s errand if our goal is to seek a definitive answer. There is no definition of art we can all agree upon – how, therefore, are we to hold anything up to the question of whether it is or is not art and expect an answer which is devoid of subjectivity? Especially if that potential art form is still in its infancy due to the historical limitations of the technology upon which it depends?
I beg you, if you ever should desire to look into this topic again, please – find a hardcore gamer who also has a basis in critical theory and ask for their recommendation as to which games you might find some interest in. I would personally point you at Heavy Rain for the PlayStation 3. While it is the work of a fairly new game developer, it does stand testament to the maturation video gaming has undergone over its four decades and may shed a different light on your thinking.
Thank you for your time, sir, and for your thoughts on this matter."
I won't say that I necessarily want video games to be recognized as art. I personally don't care, to be honest. I will enjoy playing and writing about them no matter which way that debate may go; but in my mind, even having the debate legitimizes video games as something other than the refuge of the geek, and that is a worthy goal in my mind.