Oh, Roger Ebert. You've inspired such scorn among video game enthusiasts. While your legacy will forever shine brightly across the rest of the critical world, gamers will always frown and scowl at your disparaging comments about games. And with good reason—you said they could never be art, and them's harsh words.
Let me preface my argument by saying that I have an incredible respect for Ebert. As an art history student who has become jaded with the cynicism rampant in art and entertainment criticism, I was consistently convinced by Roger Ebert that genuine joy and respect are often times the most important tools of the critic's hand. Not only did he love his job, he loved film. So it goes without saying that I was deeply saddened by his passing.
Now, that being said, I still disagree with his comments on video games as art, and it may be because my perspective on video games is quite a bit different than his was.
Sam G. sums up Ebert's argument as, "You can win games, therefor they cannot be art." However, I cannot think of the last time I "won" a game that was not explicitly an emulation of a board game or a sport. As Jane McGonigal so wisely pointed out, Tetris is arguably the most popular video game in the world, yet no one has ever won Tetris. In fact, it is impossible to win Tetris because the very concept of the game depends on when you will lose. So, to look at video games as traditional "games" akin to chess or football, you limit your understanding of the medium. In his argument, Ebert seems so focused on the idea that games must be winnable that he constructs a straw-man out of an ignorant conception of what playing a video game is actually like.
This infamous tweet (referring to another critic who played 2011's Dark Souls) shows just how exasperated he was with the very idea of sitting down to play one:
Knowing that Ebert never played any of the video games he was talking about at the time of his writing makes it difficult for me to take his criticism seriously. It would be like writing a review up for a film that was simply described to him. It's a shame, too, because the participation of the player is perhaps the most important element of a game.
Lemme back up a bit. I see games as an important subset of Postmodern art. Postmodernism is the predominant mindset that unifies just about every "progressive" art form being created today. It's born from post-colonialism and free speech, mass media, and subjective truth. In narrative art, it touts the belief that the individual experience is the most profound, and that anyone who claims to know the whole story is only telling it one way. It's a complex, inherently contradictory, and sometimes bewildering philosophy, but its concepts make far more sense in practice than in theory. Video games have the potential to explore subjectivity and reflexivity better than any other medium, and that's because those elements are built into the form.
Subjectivity is, of course, the aspect of an art that is variable, non-objective, pluralistic, or personal. Many games are so wide and open-ended that different players will experience the exact same work in completely different ways. Designers can control this element as well—a game's narrative can be as linear as Halo: Reach or as varied as Heavy Rain. A film is the same every time you see it, as is a book or a painting. A video game is elastic. (Extra Credits examines this aspect of games wonderfully in this video.)
The concept of reflexivity is far more subversive. When a work of art is reflexive, it's—for lack of a better term—self-aware. A common example of this is when a film or a game breaks the fourth wall, such as when the characters in Monty Python and the Holy Grail get arrested at the end of the film, or when Meryl's codec number in Metal Gear Solid is on "the back of the package."
But reflexivity is best exemplified in games where the presence of the player is acknowledged. BioShock tackles the concept of the illusion of free will in a way no other medium can.
(Spoilers for BioShock, of course)
The first BioShock game spends hours convincing the player that their choices give them power, that free will trumps any gun or plasmid you could ever find. The game even offers you moral decisions when confronted with the option of harvesting Little Sisters for their Adam. But when the protagonist Jack discovers that Atlas's nonchalant phrase "would you kindly" is just a trigger word for mind-control, the player suddenly realizes how the game's concept of free will was an illusion. In that moment, the player sees that his or her choices in the game are constrained by the designer, just as our real life decisions are constrained by social class or money. No film or book has ever hammered home a point with such startling intimacy.
A book's story is intact whether you read it or not, but video games are an art that requires that third voice—the player. In true postmodernist fashion, the medium of games elevates its audience from spectator to participant. Without the player, they're just stages with no actors.
So, I suppose, in his own way, Roger Ebert was right; a game cannot be art if he's not willing to play it.