I've been thinking a lot lately about Roger Ebert's opinions on video games. For those unfamiliar with the recent debate, Ebert published a post on his blog arguing his stance that video games could not be art. He was, of course, immediately flooded with thousands of Internet Opinions. He has since revisited his earlier assertion, writing:
I was a fool for mentioning video games in the first place. I would never express an opinion on a movie I hadn't seen. Yet I declared as an axiom that video games can never be Art. I still believe this, but I should never have said so. Some opinions are best kept to yourself.
Which is fine - just because I disagree doesn't mean I don't appreciate the argument. And even though Ebert tries to make this his last word on the issue, he seems preoccupied with the topic, unable to let it go. Frustrated, he posted the results of his informal internet poll, Video games 13,823, Huck Finn 8,088. He spends a lot of time using this to speculate not that the system was gamed (horrible pun intended), but that perhaps these are actual results and that literacy in the US is in decline.
My impression is that he is concerned about future generations losing the ability to appreciate an experience they will only be able to get from a written narrative. I'm sympathetic to this view, but I disagree with the cynicism that nothing can or will ever be able to evoke a given idea or experience as well/better than a novel. I'm guessing he doesn't think that either, else he would be undermining his argument for the value of movies.
And maybe that's where the disagreement is. To many my age and younger, movies and video games are equivalent mediums because as far as we're concerned, they've been around for the same amount of time (as long as we've lived). I'm not saying that means those who saw video games appear and evolve cannot "get" them, simply that their impression of video games is going to be different. So to us, it seems silly to condemn video games, while praising film. They are media cousins. And no matter how well-considered such opinions are, they will almost always sound naive to those who take these mediums for granted. No wonder he loses people with his train of thought when he says something like:
...if I'm not willing to play a video game to find that out [if video games can be transcendental], I should say so. I have books to read and movies to see.
In my brain-thinking head I can only think (and I suspect I am not alone): "HOW ARE THEY ANY DIFFERENT?"
I want Ebert to convince me - I read his blog voraciously, nod in agreement with many of his thoughtful arguments and observations (including those about video games). But this argument continues to bother me, not because I think he's right or wrong about video games, but because this is the one thing he treats differently than all his other opinions - instead of just saying "I don't know if video games are art or not", he tells us "I know they aren't, but I shouldn't tell people, because it is too much work to deal with them". If Ebert was anyone else, I wouldn't mind - but because he makes money on his opinions (even his blog) and many people (who shouldn't) parrot those opinions without really considering them, I think he has a higher responsibility than the average person. When you have that kind of audience and power to disseminate ideas among them, I believe you have a duty to inform those ideas, not simply guess or offer an impression without basis. Not "having the time or desire" to educate yourself, even a little, about an opinion you're selling to so many is irresponsible. It's exactly because of uninformed opinions that gamers are stereotyped as childish, thoughtless hooligans.
I don't think we've heard the last from Ebert on this. I do think he's coming around - he recently wrote, in an unrelated post about Inception, and more broadly, the nature of criticism:
...if you say you dislike "The Godfather" or "Shawshank," I can't say you're wrong. The one thing you can never be wrong about is your own opinion. It's when you start giving your reasons that you lay yourself open. Many years ago there was a critic in Chicago who said "The Valachi Papers" was a better film than "The Godfather." "Phil," I told him, "film criticism is a matter of subjective opinion. Only rarely does it stray into objective fact. When you said 'The Valachi Papers' was better than 'The Godfather,' that was an error of objective fact."
I'm hoping this means he's thinking about whether his own views are opinions or facts.
And my take? In brief (because many many others have already tackled the issue so well already), I don't think a *genre* can "be" art. Many movies and most video games have artistic *qualities*, but as a whole, do not feel like "art" to me. I would not call *Super Mario Bros* art. I also would not call *Snakes on a Plane* (love it though I might) "art". I *would* consider both *[Mechanarium](http://machinarium.net/demo/)* and *The Shawshank Redemption* to be art. Of course, I have no visual arts training, so who am I to say this is Truth? I'm not even sure of this myself, since yes, so much of it *is* subjective, and I have a clear bias - I've been trained in literary analysis, so there are tons of things I miss while I'm focusing on the narrative. But more to the point, I don't think something has to be art to be culturally relevant or important. And I don't think something being art makes it inherently "better" than something which isn't.