Editor's note: Check out Adam's interesting examination of Roger Ebert's recent online-poll experiment that compares video games to Huckleberry Finn. Personally, I would like to take a second to point out that a poll conducted online — via Twitter and weblog — seems likely to have a bias toward new media. -James
Roger Ebert has thrust himself into the center of the "games as art" debate once again. Back in April, he insisted in his blog that video games could never achieve such a lofty station. He has since apologized — largely due to the fact that he hasn't played any modern titles. Unfortunately, it seems that he cannot remain quiet on the matter. He recently took a ridiculous poll of his Twitter followers/blog readers. It read:
Which of these would you value more?1. A great video game2. Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
Given the choice, 63.1% of the people polled value "a great video game" over 36.9% who favor "Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain."
Ebert created the poll because one of his readers posited that Mark Twain might be a game designer if he were alive today. The reader put forth this notion because Mark Twain spent more than a year of his life designing a game, which delayed the completion of Huckleberry Finn. Ebert brushes off Twain's game as "procrastination' and indicates that the book was Twain's art, while the game was a mere distraction. Although Ebert quickly claims that the poll isn't intended to exhume the games-as-art argument, he does so anyway by failing to see that Twain's game might very well have been his art.
I don't find it so hard to believe that if Mark Twain were alive today, he would choose to use a different format to reach his audience. Maybe he would choose Ebert's favored medium, or maybe he would choose to be a game designer. I don't see Mark Twain's excitement, wit, and artistry as very far removed from the Tim Schafers and Ken Levines of our present day. I'd love to get Mark Twain and Will Wright in the same room. Wouldn't you?
I think the difference is that Twain — as a direct result of being an architect of modern American literature — was working in a medium that had been refined over centuries. Although humanity has been playing games of one kind or another for a very long time, the hybrid that is narrative gaming is a brand-new medium.
Ebert's blog hints that his poll foretells the downfall of American literacy because more people value a great video game than they do Huck Finn. I want to say that Ebert is right; no video game better than the novel The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn exists. Whoops! He got us there. But Ebert seems to imply that Twain's work creates intelligent Americans and video games create fools. He would never say the same thing about film. (My guess is that more Americans watch movies than read novels.)
Personally, I think everyone who "voted video game" is wrong, but I don't think the same could be said when comparing Huckleberry Finn to a great film. Should Huckleberry Finn be more highly valued than The Godfather? What about The Graduate or Citizen Kane? Things get get hazy when you're talking about a medium that's had a hundred-year run at this whole "art" thing.
Imagine what sorts of games the modern greats of today would make if they were born a hundred years from now. At the speed we're moving, it won't be that long before we're making game experiences that rival the emotional and intellectual highs of Twain's magnum opus. Ebert's poll asks if a great video game has more value than Huckleberry Finn. I say "no"…with a qualified "not yet."