The Time Roger Ebert Dismissed Video Games and What Happened Next

An argument about art that went beyond the silver screen


Thumbs up for video games!

Acknowledgment of Roger Ebert's passing today isn't reserved to film buffs. His death is being noted by the video game press, thanks to some comments by the movie critic that inspired defensiveness among gamers but also introspection within the industry.

Ebert famously (among gamers anyway) declared "Video games can never be art," subsequently explaining and defending his position in a blog post at the Chicago Sun-Times in 2010. He grappled with the always elusive definition of art and what has become these days an elusive definition of what constitutes a "game." He concluded:

Why are gamers so intensely concerned, anyway, that games be defined as art? Bobby Fischer, Michael Jordan and Dick Butkus never said they thought their games were an art form. Nor did Shi Hua Chen, winner of the $500,000 World Series of Mah Jong in 2009. Why aren't gamers content to play their games and simply enjoy themselves? They have my blessing, not that they care.

Do they require validation? In defending their gaming against parents, spouses, children, partners, co-workers or other critics, do they want to be able to look up from the screen and explain, "I'm studying a great form of art?" Then let them say it, if it makes them happy.

His attitude didn't resolve the debate. That one blog post garnered nearly 5,000 comments. A couple months later he addressed the matter again, admitting that it was unfair of him to judge a medium in part because he personally was not interested in engaging in it. He preferred books and movies. He didn't want to play video games.

And yet, despite his lack of interest in the medium, the medium was still very interested in his thoughts. Ebert's comments inspired a session at the annual Game Developers Conference in 2011. "Are video games art?" and "Can video games be art?" are topics endlessly debated among gaming enthusiasts and creators.

Ebert ultimately, accidentally, symbolized the engagement gap between Baby Boomers and younger generations in the role of video games in culture. It's a fascinating rift because, really, Baby Boomers invented video games. But very few early video games ever aspired to anything as fancy as being "art." Until the development of the adventure game genre they hardly even had what could be called a story.

Ebert could be excused for his ignorance of what has come since then in much the same way as a young millennial could be oblivious to the role of Motown on the development of the popular music we still listen to today. The expansion of video games from a hobby to a subculture to simply part of our culture — like every other form of entertainment — happened through Generation X and is now being passed along to subsequent generations. Baby Boomers just weren't culturally connected to it. Ebert couldn't include video games as art because video games didn't include him and thus it inspires no connection. It's nobody's fault. Definitions of art are not timeless and rigid. Ebert himself acknowledged it and struggled to come up with a definition that would explain why video games should be omitted, but not other artistic endeavors, like music.

What's happening now is that the children who grew up on video games are now the ones running the industry and have a cultural interest in creating a lasting legacy. Ebert's observations were a challenge to them, whether he realized it or not. Generation X is defined in part by video games. Games have as much meaning to many of them as rock music and Motown did for Baby Boomers. The defensiveness and insistence of gamers and the gaming industry about elevating this culture into an art form may well be subconsciously based on the knowledge that games are what Gen. X will be primarily remembered for years down the line.