Roger Ebert is entitled to his opinions, and as a trusted movie reviewer for 43 years he probably has more legitimacy in the opinion department than most. I've agreed with many of his calls, including his frequent defence of science fiction films and comedies that other reviewers simply don't get. I do think Dark City was the best movie of 1998.
But Roger Ebert's long-running battle with the gaming industry, when he suggested that video games could never qualify as art, has clearly touched a nerve among gamers, and I find myself in the camp that believes Ebert is wrong about this. Spectacularly wrong. So wrong in fact that Ebert will be infamous for it, better remembered in a few generations for being wrong than for a lifetime of critical work - an example of how backward people were once upon a time.
His name will stand beside those who proclaimed that the world was flat, that the sun revolves around the earth, that "there is a world market for maybe five computers" (attributed to IBM chair Thomas Watson in 1943), that "guitar music is on the way out" (Decca Recording, in a letter rejecting The Beatles in 1962) and other famously wrong predictions. In 100 years of history students will study the impact of games on society, the rise of the art form, the contributions of game designers like Peter Molyneux (Fable), Hideo Kojima (Metal Gear), Sid Meier (Civilization), Shigeru Miyamoto (Mario, Donkey Kong, Zelda), Will Wright (Sims) and others.
There is nothing about video games that should disqualify them as art, however you choose to define the term. Video games are a combination of creative expression and skill, they are original, and they can provoke and inspire emotions. They have something to say about the world and the human condition, even as the art form is continually evolving and branching out into different genres and platforms.
Some might disqualify games because they are commercial enterprises, but since that doesn't disqualify movies - Ebert's milieu - or television, or music, or dance or any other art that you can purchase, or purchase a ticket to see, then it shouldn't disqualify games. And Ebert's argument that 'other games aren't considered art so why should video games' also falls flat. While it's true that playing chess well may not make you an artist, it's more enjoyable to play the game with hand-carved quartz pieces on a marble board that could be legitimately considered art.
There's a reason that people collect classic pinball machines and arcade games, why people stockpile classic consoles and games that are so obsolete by today's computing standards that it's scary. Art is always in the eye of the beholder, and good games are appreciated as much for their aesthetic qualities as for how enjoyable they are to play. The reverse proof is also true, which is that age doesn't necessarily improve games - a bad game in 1978 is still a bad game in 2010. That's the difference between art hanging in the Louvre and art airbrushed on the side of motorhomes.
Here are a few examples of games I consider to be legitimate art.
Myst - This exploration, time travel and puzzle game was both beautiful and epic with incredible graphics for the times, appropriately moody music and sound effects, top-notch writing and a plot that was breathtaking in scope. It changed games and computing, spurred the move from floppies to CD-ROMS and was one of the first games to prompt critics to wonder whether video games could be art.
MDK 1 and 2 - Both games revolutionized video game storytelling, combining humour with so many strange graphical elements that it never felt repetitive.
Shadow of the Colossus - Sony produced three great games for the Playstation 2; Ico, Okami and Shadow of the Colossus, all three of which were ground-breaking visually in different ways. But Shadow is one of those games you think about a lot afterwards and you felt guilty whenever you succeeded in bringing down one of the immense colossus gods.
Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas - Any game in the GTA series can be legitimately called art, but the one game that truly stuck out for me was San Andreas. The world was massive, the skies beautiful and well-rendered, you could swim under the water, explore huge forests and deserts and do things just for the fun of it - skydive off towers, fly planes and jet packs, drive around in motorcycles looking for objects to jump over. The morality questions are always compelling and there are no good guys or bad guys in the story. You do what you want.
Bioshock - This is a game chock full of literary references (Ayn Rand especially), told in a classic art deco style that was wholly new for the genre. The visual impact was spectacular, the bad guys were chilling and the plot was better than anything Hollywood has come up with in a long time.
That's just the tip of the iceberg. I could probably fill a space five times this long with examples of games I consider to be art. Send your examples to email@example.com.