Editor's note: The whole games-as-Art discussion is on a perpetual low boil at Bitmob, so we haven't gone out of our way to cover the latest Ebert-inspired dust up. But Dennis offers an interesting perspective…. -Demian
Calling Ebert an "old-media enthusiast" is a bit harsh and rather dismissive. Upon reading Ebert's response to her presentation, I thought perhaps that he was just out of touch with the reality of 21st-century, digital life, but my wife was quick to remind me that Ebert uses social media extensively. He's actually intensely in touch with digital means of communication and digital media, probably because they're the most accessible forms of communication available to him since he lost his voice due to cancer. He is not "an old guy" who is behind the times.
He just doesn't play video games.
The problem is that Santiago didn't make a very good argument for why games are art. What I am reading from her post on Kotaku is that the TED presentations aren't meant to be academic arguments, but rather exercises to engage an audience. This would certainly put Jane McGonigal's Saving the World through Game Design TED presentation in a more comprehensible light, considering her evaluation of the behavior of World of Warcraft players couldn't have been less correct. If she was seeking to engage an audience that didn't know WoW from a hole in the wall, that makes sense. If she was seeking to speak to gamer psychology, however, I think she missed the mark.
I had never heard of TED prior to McGonigal's speech. I work in academia, so I can appreciate what TED does — but this is the second TED talk I've seen wherein the speaker hoped to address gaming as a social or cultural force, and I have found both presentations lacking to the point where I wish TED would stop representing me as a gamer.
If Santiago was going to directly call out Ebert, perhaps it was worth her while to consider that he might actually pay attention, and that she was going to take an opportunity to engage with one of the foremost critics of our generation on my behalf, and the behalf of everyone who loves video games. Some of them might not care what Ebert thinks, but I see value in engaging "old-media enthusiasts," because I can only see positive benefits to improving the legitimacy of gaming in mainstream media.
Editor Brian Crecente posted an article on Kotaku yesterday wherein he referenced a Library of Congress effort to define the ten most important video games of all time. Perhaps if Santiago was going to call out Ebert, it would have made sense for her to source examples from this list? If even just a few of those ten games are truly are as important as the Library of Congress claims, perhaps any "art" identifiable in the medium would show up there? [Editor's note: Well, Sensible World of Soccer (1994) is on that list. A classic, I hear, but I'm not sure that would've won Ebert over.]
Instead, she held up three very lackluster examples of video games compared to the body of work which existed for her to choose from; and when Ebert rightfully deconstructed her argument and exposed its weaknesses, she dismissed him with the implication that he is simply old and behind the times.
If Ebert hasn't played enough video games to have a learned opinion, wouldn't the response be to try and hold up one sterling example of the best video games have to offer, in the hopes of engaging him with that content so that he might give the medium a try? Wouldn't Heavy Rain have been a perfect entry point to this discussion, considering its roots in the old media of which Ebert is such a devotee, and the fact that it has been such a critical success? As a game designer, Santiago should be well aware of Peter Molyneux's comments about this title.
I realize that convincing Ebert to try a video game wasn't the intent of her TEDxUSC presentation. But please, don't call him out by name for the sake of making a headline with a presentation — and if you do step up and outline an argument on behalf of our medium which may have widespread repercussions in the mainstream media, make it the best argument you can.
These opportunities don't come around every day.