Editorial – Roger Ebert and Video Games

The passing of film critic and journalist Roger Ebert is not just a huge loss for the film community, but for all of us. His intelligence and insight stretched far beyond his specialization of cinema. And speaking for myself as a video game enthusiast, he was important for my medium of choice as well.

His infamous comments about how video games were incapable of being art “as a matter of principle” unfortunately defined him as an antagonist to many in the gaming community. But what they accomplished was to shine a bright light on the topic, and perhaps caused some of us to think about it just a little bit harder. That was a good thing.

Of course, with the good came the bad. When I first noticed his comments and the impending debate, I was enthusiastic. I thought, “here’s a chance for the gaming community to stand up and really make a case for the possibilities of this incredible medium.” Unfortunately, the vile, immature, and often naïve backlash against Ebert was not only hugely disappointing, but downright embarrassing. Perhaps it was just a sign that it wasn’t only the medium that was young, but the community around it also still had a lot of growing up to do.

I don’t think it had anything to do with anyone needing affirmation of the artistic possibilities of video games. Rather, someone of Ebert’s intelligence and stature acknowledging games as an art form would have lent a lot of credibility to a medium struggling through its own adolescence to find some respect from the outside world. Perhaps it’s just as well he didn’t, since, as the reaction suggests, the community still wasn’t ready.

And when I refer to the “community,” I mean all parts of it: fans, journalists and those working in the industry. No one seemed to have a good reply. It ranged from childish threats and name calling, to weak “art is subjective” arguments that didn’t amount to anything more than new age fluff. Even people that I considered intelligent and articulate completely fumbled in their responses. The whole fiasco was one big fail. Was I expecting too much? I hope I wasn’t. But the most intelligent people at the time were probably those that kept their thoughts to themselves.

It led to me writing a college research paper in which I attempted to create the kind of argument I had wanted to see. Looking back on it, even it wasn’t that good, but I think I was on the right track. I’ve done a lot more thinking on it since then, and it’s taken me in some really interesting directions. Still, I find myself disappointed in most of the rhetoric I see on the subject because it doesn’t really seem to have gone anywhere. Most people are still stuck in their dismissive and “new age fluff” modes.

The good news is, it probably doesn’t matter a whole lot at this point. The relevancy of video games is taking care of itself.

As for Ebert, there should not be any grudges held against him. He took a bold and definitive stance, and he made good points for it. If I had any issues, it would be that he was being a bit dismissive, himself, and it would’ve been nice if his intellectual curiosity had stretched just a little bit into the realm of video games, but even then, I can’t blame him. He devoted his life to cinema, so his hands were full enough as it was.

I enjoyed Ebert’s writing immensely. Not just his movie reviews, where he effectively articulated his thoughts on great movies and entertainingly ripped apart bad ones, but also his blog posts, where he wrote about everything from politics and religion to how much he loved his wife. They were influential to me, and I’m definitely going to miss reading them.

For the rest of us, I guess we’ll just have to make our own insights.

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