Given Roger Ebert’s well-publicized opinions about gaming’s (lack of) potential as an art form, some might find it strange to eulogize him in the context of video games. Personally, I think it’s important. While the many accounts of his unrivaled contributions to film are obviously well-deserved, Ebert had far more to offer the world than a couple of thumbs up or down.
Put simply, Roger Ebert best exemplified what it means to be a critic.
I can’t think of a higher compliment. Ebert is one of the writers I’ve aspired to emulate because he proved it was possible to be enthusiastic and critical in the same sentence. He’s the standard against which the rest of us are measured, a writer’s writer next to whom we’re all usually found wanting.
Ebert seemingly effortlessly did what so many writers struggle to accomplish: he elevated the level of discourse in our society. Well-versed in academic film jargon as any NYU professor, he always conveyed his opinions without condescending to a popular audience. He earned the respect of intellectuals and laypeople alike, using his insight to entertain and to foster dialogue rather than censorship.
That’s what I’ve always appreciated about Ebert. He never dismissed anyone out of hand, taking the high road and providing balanced arguments to back up his opinions. He didn’t put people down just because they disagreed with him, nor did he resort to naked insults in an era when bullying is unfortunately used to silence dissenting perspectives on message boards.
Ebert extended that same respect to games. Even though he never quite believed in the artistic merit of video games, he was one of the few members of the old guard who was willing to be persuaded, engaging in a sincere and open-minded debate with fans and journalists alike. Given the generally appalling treatment of games in the mainstream press – I Get This Call Every Day and Pipe Trouble both happened this year – Ebert’s principled dissent was downright refreshing. The fact that he at least listened placed him well ahead of most of his contemporaries.
That’s why, even as a game critic, it’s important to remember Roger Ebert. You don’t have to agree with everything he wrote – I certainly don’t – but we should recognize what he did for our community. He made the game press better because he challenged us to defend our own deeply held beliefs about our medium, and in the process, exposed some truths that the industry still needs to address in order to mature as an art form. Most game journalists never accomplish as much, and that makes his limited contributions all the more valuable now that he’s gone.
Roger Ebert was more than a film buff. He was an influential presence for writers, critics and media enthusiasts of all stripes, and his absence is felt regardless of your interests.
So thank you, Roger Ebert, for everything you gave us throughout your career. You loved movies enough to hold Hollywood accountable, and I can only hope that the game world someday finds a voice as passionate and thoughtful as yours. R.I.P.