In mid-April, you may recall that Roger Ebert inspired the wrath of the entire Internet by writing that video games could never be art. There were some major problems with the process by which he arrived at that conclusion, not least because he hasn’t actually played a video game made in the past decade: As Geekosystem’s Susana Polo wrote at the time, “watching some gameplay footage and having someone explain the game’s basic concept to you is not a substitute for the experience of playing the game. I’m pretty sure Roger Ebert would never pass judgment on a song or a painting if he had only heard someone describe it; and he would never review a movie based on reading a few pages of the novelization. I wish he could have the same attitude towards games.”
Maybe because he wanted to put the video game fracas behind him as we enter a new month, maybe just to extend a small and qualifier-laden olive branch, Ebert has written another long blog post clarifying his position on video games. He doesn’t exactly recant or apologize for his previous post: he still believes that video games can’t be “Art,” but he says that it was a mistake to say so in the first place in the way that he did, without firsthand experience of modern gaming.
In my actual experience, I have played “Cosmology of Kyoto,” which I enormously enjoyed, and “Myst,” for which I lacked the patience. Both games are from the infancy of the form. I’d played no others because–well, because I didn’t want to. I particularly didn’t want to play one right now, this moment, on demand.
My error in the first place was to think I could make a convincing argument on purely theoretical grounds. What I was saying is that video games could not in principle be Art. That was a foolish position to take, particularly as it seemed to apply to the entire unseen future of games. This was pointed out to me maybe hundreds of times. How could I disagree? It is quite possible a game could someday be great Art.
So, in Ebert’s reckoning, no existent video games are art, but he now concedes it possible that one could become one. That’s progress. Interestingly, he notes that the current game most nominated to him as “an unassailable masterpiece” has been Shadow of the Colossus.
Ebert may not be playing Shadow or any video game anytime soon, and he may hold firm to the position that video games aren’t art; in some respects, that’s better than if he had done a full 180 after the vehemence with which he stated his initial position. But it took guts and a dash of pugnacity to go back, defend the ground he held dear, and admit the flaws in his argument; even though we still disagree with Ebert’s conclusion, we’re glad he gave us another look at how he came to it.
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