He starts off with a nice dodge, which is to say games can be art, but not “high art”. What is high art, and who gets to decide what it is? He says nothing of such things. Well, he does say this:
The real question is, do we as their consumers become more or less complex, thoughtful, insightful, witty, empathetic, intelligent, philosophical (and so on) by experiencing them?
This is a vague paraphrasing of a fairly old yet perfectly serviceable take on the definition of art: something that both entertains and enlightens. I can see how someone unfamiliar with games could suppose that games, like comic book movies (other than The Hulk, ahem), only do the former, as I would admit that they very rarely do the latter. But rarely is not the same as never, and there are many examples – Silent Hill, Shadow of Destiny, Ico, Civilization, Final Fantasy VII, Jade Empire, many many more – that indicate games are indeed qualifying for the High Art derby, just like any other medium.
Think even of the upcoming Rock Band, the developers of which indicate that playing the drum parts on hard difficulty setting will be essentially the same thing as actually playing the drums; i.e. here’s a game that can teach you an instrument. If that isn’t enlightening, I don’t know what is.
One of Ebert’s hangups appears to be player control of the game’s outcome, so that in his view, a player wresting control from the artist makes the game less art. This is where Ebert’s lack of experience with games gets in the way of his opinions. If he played games, he would see the difference between something like NHL 2K7, which simulates a sport and allows for an infinite number of outcomes within limited parameters (must involve pucks going into nets), and something like Jade Empire, where the player’s actions will trigger different branches of a storyline that are predetermined by the artist. It’s possible, although much harder, to argue that NHL 93 is art, but it’s fairly easy to point out the similarities between a branching storyline game and a film. Especially a film with alternate endings on its DVD, for example. And that’s all we’d need to do to to defeat this part of Ebert’s argument.
Ideally, though, we could move beyond “games can be like films and thus can be art” arguments, and get into appreciating art games that take advantage of the things that make games unique as a medium. It’s a much more interesting issue. In This Reporter’s Opinion, games are more like architecture than film – or more accurately, sportchitecture (Ebert was onto something with his “they have more in common with sports” remark). But, it’s hard to resist a troll, especially a high-profile one who could do much to help an emerging medium instead of crapping all over it.