In life, Roger Ebert’s relationship with the world of gaming was famously ambivalent. Starting around 2005, Ebert began his half-decade-long public insistence that video games could never achieve the status of art, per se. The response of the gaming world was complex: combative, sarcastic, dismissive, indignant, reflective, self-conscious, grudgingly appreciative. Before the conversation itself became tedious (and before Ebert basically recanted), the film critic’s provocation inspired thousands and thousands of words, nearly as many emotions, and an original thought or two as well.
In death, Roger Ebert’s relationship with the world of gaming was anything but ambivalent:
So it’s worth asking: Why did the community that Ebert antagonized for so many years mark his death with nearly universal praise and a surprisingly personal sense of loss?
First, this is class on the part of some of the really big voices in gaming. There have been predictably ugly thoughts expressed in the bowels of social media, but the right people have said the right things. Part of this response has to do with Ebert himself, who, as an avalanche of testimony has made clear, was an unalloyed mensch, a man who never argued cynically. And part of it has to do with the growing consensus that Ebert had, or developed, an ulterior motive during the course of the debate, which was to push the conversation about games, and games themselves, forward. Is that giving him too much credit? I’m not sure.
I don’t think the response has anything to do with the substance of the debate itself, which was of dubious worth, reflecting both Ebert’s tendency to abuse his bully pulpit and the game enthusiast tendency to protest too much. Assuming it was a valid debate assumes far too much, chiefly that Roger Ebert’s status as a respected mainstream movie critic made him a trustworthy arbiter of artistic worth, that Roger Ebert knew enough about games to make sweeping claims about them, and, frankly, that many or even a few of the game-as-art champions possessed the wit or the cultural erudition necessary to engage Ebert on his territory. I mean, this wasn’t exactly Foucault versus Chomsky, part two. It was a bunch of anonymous dorks versus a really famous, funny one.
I’ve been surprised to read on Twitter the number of game writers who have named Ebert as their favorite writer, or an important source of inspiration. I understand the latter much better than the former. Let’s not forget that while this generation of gamer makers and writers were plopped in front of the television, Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert were in their prime, having perfected their inimitable brand of buddy-buddy bellicosity. Arguing with Ebert about games must have felt on some level like a chance to sit in Siskel’s chair, a validation by association. I think there is the sense that Ebert, despite being skeptical about gaming, was actually more or a less a gamer who was born too early. And the more I think about it, the more it feels like his criticism — on TV, not in print — had a real hand in shaping the way we evaluate games, and not just the endless, basically good-natured bickering. The up or the down, the sense that an entertainment must be, above all, recommended or not. That’s his legacy, too, and it’s indisputably part of the way we talk about games.