A couple of things keep coming up in the discussion about Ebert and Brian Moriarty’s defense of him, which let me take one at a time.
1) “I don’t see what’s great about Moriarty’s argument. Why is it better than Ebert’s original statement?”
Moriarty offered a much more coherent argument about why, exactly, choice might be a problematic thing to have in a game. Of course, coherent doesn’t mean “right” or even “compelling,” but I am sick to death of the argument that a choice-based work entails the absence of the artist and therefore the absence of meaning and artfulness. That is obviously nonsense, and if it’s not clear why, try Home or Photopia or Rameses or The McDonalds Game or Judith or Don’t Look Back or Passage or The Path or Treasures of a Slaver’s Kingdom or any of a gazillion other works that convey meaning in the gap between what the player wants and what the player is allowed to choose.
Moriarty’s defense did not rely on this argument, but looked at some other possibilities that do hang together intellectually, even if in the end I don’t agree.
2) “Why do we care what Ebert says?”
I mostly don’t, but he’s got immense cultural clout. When he says things that dismiss games as a cultural product, that enables others to do so comfortably without further investigation. This isn’t the end of the world, but it’s unfortunate.
3) “Why do we care whether games are art? Is it even worth arguing about this?”
Maybe not, but in Ebert’s argument and in many other people’s, “games aren’t art” is shorthand for saying that games don’t and can’t convey anything important, can’t meaningfully enrich the lives of players, can’t be a valid mode of expression for game designers. Ebert himself makes this explicit.
But possibly the secondary argument (“what is art? are games that thing?”) is just obscuring the original question, and we can and should go back to that. Can games say things that matter? To me this is an obvious yes. But once we embrace this seriously, maybe we can have more conversations about what they’re saying and how. There’s not enough game criticism of this kind and I would like to see more of it.