Just a few days ago, legendary film critic Roger Ebert posted an essay on the Chicago Sun-Times blog, in response to a TED talk on games as art by Kellee Santiago, asserting his opinion that video games not only are not art, but never, ever will be. The reaction of the gaming community was swift, brutal, and utterly predictable. Over 2000 comments have appeared on the article in the past four days, Twitter is exploding with responses, forums are amok with rage or mocking derision. Memorably, Penny Arcade did both an atypically no-punchline comic and a newspost calling the essay "reeking ejaculate" and Ebert a "wrteched, ancient warlock," while also expressing apathy about the issue and framing the whole "games as art" discourse as a non-debate with "nothing to discuss." Already the twitofaceomyblogosphere is framing Ebert as an irrelevant, backward-thinking old codger whose expertise on a previous generation's artistic medium of choice gives his opinion on video games no weight. There's been so much knee-jerk going around that a non-gamer watching the vitriol from afar might think that we had declared some kind of Internet-wide World Epilepsy Day.
What the gaming community forgets--or, in the case of people aged me and younger, may simply be too young to have ever known--is who Roger Ebert really is. Folks who grew up in the '80s remember him as the guy from the TV show Siskel and Ebert At The Movies, one half of the most esteemed movie-critic team in America, who invented the thumbs-up/thumbs-down system and were both feared and renowned for their brutal honesty. Folks my age simply remember him as some old movie snob with cancer who was parodied in Saturday morning cartoons and whose name is plastered across the top of every movie poster ever. Ebert is, to us, the Hollywood critical establishment--an ancient and no longer relevant member of a dying institution, a refugee from the slowly obsolescing kingdom of Print Media.
Ebert himself would probably find this characterization amusing. For Ebert's entire career as a movie critic owes itself to Ebert not being part of the establishment, not being educated in the ways of film snobbery, and, quite frankly, not being at all familiar with the very sort of reactionary cultural ossification that the gaming community so vehemently accuses him of. Forty years ago, before Siskel and Ebert At The Movies, Roger Ebert was not Roger Ebert, esteemed and powerful film critic whose opinion is supremely influential on the creative direction Hollywood, but some random journalist for the Chicago Sun-Times who liked to hang out with his buddy Gene and snark about terrible films. While Ebert had significant writing experience, and had written film reviews before (and even collaborated on a couple B-movie screenplays), he had never gone to film school, had gotten his degree in journalism instead of English or art history or comparative literature, and enjoyed popular movies instead of art films. Film crews reportedly cringed when the first episode of At The Movies was filmed, because Siskel and Ebert were both so unphotogenic, so rambly and colloquial in their discussion style, and so absolutely, unprofessionally blunt in their opinions on the films the producers had pulled so many strings to get review screenings of. The two of them were, in the eyes of more established critics, utter cretins. And that's exactly what made them so popular. They didn't compare every film to some 1950s Italian neorealist Oscar-bait art film that only cinema scholars would have seen, or deconstruct the newest Arnold Schwarzenegger flick in terms of movements, acting styles, artistic merit, or historical significance. They were unafraid to say, on live television, to the faces of their sponsors and all the corporate interests backing them, "The explosions were great, the girl wasn't hot enough, the male lead can't act his way out of a paper bag. Good popcorn flick, bad date movie." And, on rare occasions--Ebert became infamous for saying this--even going as far as to say, in plain language, "Your movie sucks."
It was this frankness, bizarrely, that contributed so much to the elevation of popular cinema, "low art," to an established art form. Far from being mere critics, Siskel and Ebert gently nudged a still-burgeoning art medium, only fifty or sixty years old at the time (depending on how narrow your definition of "cinema" is), into the popular consciousness as something with cultural legitimacy. So, far from being irrelevant, Ebert's opinion on what makes a new medium count as art is one to be taken seriously, even if it is mired in what members of my generation and the next might consider a dated cultural perspective.
Watching Gabe and Tycho deride Ebert for not keeping up with the times, if anything, demonstrates the irony of the process by which the emergence of new art forms comes full circle. For Gabe and Tycho are the contemporary Siskel and Ebert--there's even a gangly awkward one and a snarky, short bald one. That's not an equivalence, it's an identity. Gabe and Tycho were just two random guys with a webcomic until they managed to turn dedication, integrity, and exceptionally good taste into a career, transforming them from a pair of nobodies with an unmarketable talent into two of the most respected voices in the industry. And watching them call out their predecessor for just "not getting it" and being part of a dying establishment is, if nothing else, an act of passing the torch.
(continued part two)