When Roger Ebert died a few weeks back, one particular tweet stood out among all the condolences in my Twitter feed. I think it was Bitmob’s Dan “Shoe” Hsu who said it, but I can’t remember for sure; at any rate, the tweet lamented the fact that the world of gaming criticism lacks its own Roger Ebert, and it suggested that perhaps this is truly why video games are still not considered “art.” I’ve been wrestling with this argument for a while, and I still can’t definitively say whether I agree with it or not. But hey, I can still talk a bit about what points I’ve been considering.
I’ve always liked to imagine that great art is great art; it can stand on its own, regardless of criticism, and remain “art.” The ideal piece of art would be immune to subjective deconstruction; everyone in their right mind would be able to look at the thing and recognize it as a work of art. Citizen Kane and the Mona Lisa, for example. Of course, the reality is that remaining purely objective is impossible for any human being, and in the end, we’re still the ones bestowing the titles of “art” upon thing we’ve deemed worthy, according to our own rules and biases. It was around this time I was forced to acknowledge that, unfortunately, “art” is far more subjective than I would have ideally admitted, and there wasn’t a damn thing I could do about it.
I began to lend a bit more credence to Shoe’s (?) argument. Say that, as gamers, we’re suddenly vastly interested in whether our industry is taken seriously as an art form. Will we have to ultimately depend on another human being to tell us that this is so? Do we need our own Roger Ebert mega-critic to act as the arbiter of all that is Artful in games? It’s entirely possible this will be the case. Like it or not, something can only achieve “art” status if enough people deem it so, and equal weight is not given to everyone’s opinion. People respected Ebert more than most critics because he was smart, prolific, fastidious in his research, and all above all, he was incredibly persuasive and convincing. I’m not a movie guy by any stretch, but I do have a strong opinion of every movie I’ve seen; I sometimes read reviews (including Ebert’s) to see whether the opinions of the connoisseurs jive with my own. Even if Ebert disagreed with me, I rarely became angry while reading his reviews; if anything, they sometimes forced me to rethink my position entirely. No one likes to admit that their opinions are so malleable, but I respect anyone who can convince me that I could, in fact, be very wrong. For me, it has more to do with the words on the page than the name behind them, but I recognize that for many people, the two are inextricably linked and together can exert a profound influence on people’s supposedly “independent” opinions.
The thing that kills me about the video game world is that there are legions of reviewers but no true critics. I’ve seen very few writers demonstrate the ability to critique a game in the measured, intelligent, and thoughtful way Ebert so often did. Tom Bissell has probably come the closest out of anyone I’ve read, which is a shame, because he’s not even a full-time games writer. I think about the handful of games journalists whose writing I consistently enjoy– Brian Crecente (Polygon), Ben Kuchera (Penny Arcade Report), Owen Good (Kotaku), and John Walker (Rock Paper Shotgun)– and I’m still forced to recognize that not one of them could ever do for the game world what Ebert did for film. That role will have to fall to a better writer and thinker than these four blokes, as decent as they may be.
Aside from possessing a sharp wit and an immense amount of comparative games knowledge, the “Roger Ebert of Games” will also have to be as visible as his namesake. I’m sure there’s some brilliant writer slaving away in the bowels of WordPress and writing incredibly nuanced critiques of Bioshock for ten pageviews a day, but if no one reads his work, does it have the same impact? In this context, of course not. Everyone knew who Ebert was, and most people generally respected his opinion. When he decided to declare that such-and-such-thing is/isn’t art, the world took note. The “Roger Ebert of Video Games” will have to achieve a certain level of fame (hopefully through viral recommendation fed by immense respect) so that his or her pronouncements on “art” can achieve a degree of penetration in mainstream culture. In this day and age, I find it unlikely that any critic of any medium will ever reach the levels of fame Ebert attained, but even a moderate amount of celebrity would probably do. As it stands, do you think any content curators at the New York Times have heard of Leigh Alexander or Jeff Gerstmann? And yet these people are famous in our industry.
I suppose I still haven’t answered the main question here: “Do video games need their own Ebert?” “Can’t we just enjoy great games without having to worry about whether haughty critics consider them art?” Sure we can, but I’d like to see them receive more mainstream recognition as well as some serious critical attention. Perhaps I’m blinded by my love of the medium and the industry that supports it, but I think games are certainly worthy of serious criticism, and I want to make sure the rest of the world knows it, too. Personally, I do wish there was an “Ebert of Video Games,” if only because it would mean that the average person would finally pay some goddamn attention to us (by us, I mean the games bloggers/aspiring games journalists I’ve had the pleasure of interacting with for the past few months). And I’d get to read great, thoughtful articles from said Games-Ebert, too, which I guess is really my ultimate goal: to get smart people to write about video games for my own benefit.