A couple of weeks ago Warren Spector asked the question, "Where's Gaming's Roger Ebert?" Most people know who Spector is, but if you're too young to remember a world before Pokemon, then a little refresher: Wing Commander, Thief, System Shock, and Ultima. And if THOSE aren't familiar to you then I shudder to imagine what they're not teaching you in history class these days.
I understand Spector's desire for legitimacy. It would be cool if games were treated with the cultural reverence typically given to movies. It would be gratifying if they were celebrated by elites and revered as culturally significant. It would be nice if Time magazine, People magazine, the New Yorker, and USA Today lifted up game designers the way they lift up movie stars and directors. I'd love it if people respected the hobby, even if they didn't participate. I'd love it even more if they joined us. The whole Citizen Kane of Gaming meme is a bit silly, but it does show that we have a hunger to reach people beyond the hobby and get them to admit that games are just as much part of our culture as whatever they're showing at the multiplex.
In response to Spector's piece, my colleague Chris Franklin wrote a piece discussing why journalism itself is having trouble and how difficult it would be for an Ebert-figure to rise in the gaming world. Spector responded in the comments and now what we have is an interesting conversation about what an "Ebert of Videogames" might look like and what he or she might do for the industry.
A lot of gamers dismissed the man because of his view that games weren't - and arguably couldn't be - art. (Which I commented on here.) So a lot of gamers are a little foggy on why Ebert was important or why we would want such a figure in the gaming world. So here it is: Ebert's gift was that he could take that artistic, high-minded view of filmmaking and package it in a way that was fun for normal people. He had the knowledge of a filmmaker, but spoke to the audience on their own level and without condescending to them. It was a gift that made his reviews as much a work of entertainment as a review of entertainment. It wasn't just consumer advice, but a conversation about an experience. I read his reviews all the time - even reviews of indie arthouse films that I would never, ever watch on purpose. I read them because Roger Ebert always had something interesting to say beyond, "This movie is good / bad."
He was never content to accept that movies were just something to go with popcorn. He was an ambassador of arty cinema, making it accessible and attractive to the common viewer. He was always interested in what movies were about, and encouraged others to look at movies more deeply, ask what they mean, and demand they remain true to themselves. He praised movies that had a heart and gently mocked them if they lacked a brain.
We could certainly use some more of that in gaming journalism.
Not that we don't have it already. Plenty of people are trying to do this right now, but their voices are small within the sphere of game criticism and they're basically mute to the world outside our hobby. An Ebert figure - if one existed - would be someone people read whether they played videogames or not.