I've gotten e-mails asking me for my opinion of Ebert's trolling, but, as much as I respect the guy, he makes it clear in his writings that he is totally uninformed about the art form/activity that he is writing about, and he has no intention of becoming otherwise. That he would call out computer games without, so far as I can tell, actually playing any is kind of stunning. I don't know what he's thinking. He never seemed like a flamebait kind of guy. But, unless he ever shows any interest in learning about the field, there's no point in engaging him in any way.
But this is another of those times when I think Tycho at Penny Arcade summed it up with uncharacteristic clarity, brevity, and conclusiveness.
"He cannot rob you, retroactively, of wholly valid experiences; he cannot transform them into worthless things."
I have occasionally obtained from computer games the mental and emotional stimulation that I get from quality works of art. Because of that, for me, there is no argument about whether video games are art. They have been art to me, and you can't tap two blue mana and counterspell my experiences.
I have had that engaged, moved, elated feeling when playing Shadow of the Colossus. And Planescape: Torment. And Dragon Age: Origins. And Portal. And Grand Theft Auto IV. (Don't laugh.) And Bioshock, a little.
But, while that is not an exhaustive list, it is pretty close to one. I've been playing computer games for over thirty years, and I can easily count on my fingers the number of successfully truly artistic moments I have seen in games. Have you noticed that rebuttals to Ebert always name the same handful of games? I mean, sure, most game have stories, but they're so flimsy and perfunctory and two-dimensional that even gamers can't seriously defend them as art. Even a bad story is art, I guess, so then all games are sort of art, I guess, but that's a pretty thin gruel. We should be shooting for a better argument then, "Yes. They are art. Crappy, terrible, crappy art, undeserving of the attention of thinking people."
And that is why criticisms about games not being art have such sting. The simple truth is that, for the most part, the people who make them have absolutely no interest in engaging the players in more than a very limited number of ways? The game industry is great at making adrenaline surges and not much else, and the incredible potential the medium has is pretty much entirely wasted.
I try really hard in my games to create stories and characters that really grab the imagination, as much as my limited budgets allow. For some people, I succeed. Enough to keep me in business, anyway. But it's lonely work, and I am grateful that people like Roger Ebert are jabbing at us and suggesting that maybe we could do more.
I'll write more on this topic and God of War 3 once I've played it a bit more. There are still a few Gods left that I haven't brutally slaughtered.