Ebert on Video Games: They are Inferior

Noted Chicago Sun-Times film critic Roger Ebert has a few things to say about video games. In a recent edition of his Answer Man column, a reader brought up Ebert's Doom review, in which it was implied that the reviewer had little desire to acquaint himself with the film's source material. Ebert's response was to claim that "books and films are better mediums, and better uses of my time." His justification for this is that he has recently read and seen great works by luminaries of those two forms, and despite an unfamiliarity with games has not seen a convincing argument as to there being games that can live up to the output of Nabokov, Hugo, Scorsese, Kurosawa, and so on. In Sunday's Answer Man column, a different reader wrote in regarding that response, citing various treatises on the artistic and theoretical properties of games. Ebert's response was simultaneously more generous and more limiting than his previous one.
Yours is the most civil of countless messages I have received after writing that I did indeed consider video games inherently inferior to film and literature. There is a structural reason for that: Video games by their nature require player choices, which is the opposite of the strategy of serious film and literature, which requires authorial control.

I am prepared to believe that video games can be elegant, subtle, sophisticated, challenging and visually wonderful. But I believe the nature of the medium prevents it from moving beyond craftsmanship to the stature of art. To my knowledge, no one in or out of the field has ever been able to cite a game worthy of comparison with the great dramatists, poets, filmmakers, novelists and composers.

He goes on to imply that time spend playing video games is wasted time that would be better spent with film or literature. Of course, as he previously stated, his knowledge regarding games is rather uninformed, and it's hard to believe he would keep up with the sort of journalistic or literary venues that would argue such claims well, since they obviously tend to deal with video games. Ebert's rather crass response seems to suggest a limiting definition of what art can be, as well as an unfamiliarity with the sort of control game designers can in fact have over their audiences. Just as in the other forms Ebert mentions, in games that control can be expressed through narrative means or simply through a crafted experience.

For an example off the top of my head of the former, take the strange yet brutally familiar imagining of America presented in Tim Schafer's Full Throttle (PC). Set in what appears to be a post-apocalyptic landscape, the seemingly mundane backdrop of a hostile corporate takeover reaches incredible depth of significance. It becomes a metaphor for the country's slow decline into corporate facelessness and the odd juxtaposition between the freedom allowed by a recreated American frontier with the essential powerlessness of the frontier's inhabitants. You think I'm kidding? Play it again.

For another spur of the moment example in a more non-narrative setting, take Shigeru Miyamoto's Pikmin (GCN). Miyamoto didn't set out to necessarily create a quirky character-based real-time strategy title, though that's the form the game took. While working in his garden, he decided to craft a game that would evoke the melancholic and solitary feelings he was experiencing. Anybody who has become engrossed in Pikmin can surely attest to those qualities shining through to an almost startling degree. It's all the more surprising given the typically Miyamoto-esque brightly colored and exaggerated presentation, as the game has less of the carefree nature inherent to, say, a Mario title. The fact that Pikmin so effectively communicates the emotions Miyamoto intended to convey is not simply an issue of craftsmanship (though craftsmanship is present in spades with the balanced and engaging gameplay), it speaks to the artistry with which the game was conceived.

It is frustrating to see current mainstream criticism--and no critics are as synonymous with modern mainstream criticism as Ebert--maintain deliberately ill-informed opinions about gaming as a medium. Not because gaming needs to be recognized as art, which is an opinion that is hotly contested among many gamers, but because it does such a grave disservice to the people behind the games, who are clearly capable of far more expression through their work than many seem prepared to acknowledge.