I've stayed out of this fray until today, when you twittered @ebertchicago My ignorance made blatantly obvious. http://j.mp/9gy0Yy
And I responded, asking if you'd learned anything from the discussion, but that isn't really something you can answer well in twitter.
So, I'm asking for a follow up... have you played or been shown anything that makes you question your stance?
I should note the following:
1) I have a film degree from the 1980s, back when we had to learn to shoot and process actual film, record and synch soundtracks, totally lacked video editing options in a college setting, etc. I spent 5 years learning how to think in film, and I still love the language even though I don't work in the industry. You're one of the reviewers I read regularly, because while we don't always agree you understand the language as well (much like I read Michael Dirda's book reviews even though we have different tastes).
2) I am not now and never will be a video gamer. The very motion of the images in a video game tends to make me nauseous and triggers migraines very easily, often to my dismay. Because I do think that some of them are art. Their stories read like good science fiction, horror, fantasy; like mystery or action films. The design is as beautiful as any good animation or cgi is, the soundtracks and voice acting draw me in, and I want more than anything to be able to play through these works as they should be.
Now, onto my main point, and how I know I want to play some of the games I can't. Since I can't play video games, when a really good game comes out I find myself searching for a friend who's beaten the game and plays it really well to play it through for me. I'll spend time feeding them and pouring drinks and talking with them while watching the gameplay, the cut scenes, the storyline and the interactive artwork on a wide-screen TV. I'll ask questions and if allowed make choices that impact the character of the play (sometimes that works, sometimes it doesn't - it depends on the game). I'll read a good game guide to fill me in on the mechanics I can't understand, and try to learn the language of the gameplay so I can fully appreciate it.
No-one who appreciates art as much I do, as an artist or a critic does would ever go to the trouble of learning this much about a game he/she can't play if there wasn't more to it. Hell, half the time I can't even watch the gameplay head on, or it makes me sick. But I can listen, talk, watch the cut scenes (and the gameplay in peripheral vision), etc for the whole game and I'll do that if the people I trust to feed me things I enjoy recommend a game highly AND the subject and style are of interest. The video game is an interactive artform, in the same way that theatre or dance or performance art is an interactive artform, that film or music or installation art is an interactive artform.
I'd also make the case that works like Wm. Gibson's Agrippa (a book of the dead) (1992) and books, painting/photography/sculpture/fine art in general contains elements that are parts of videogame art. There are stories being told, with beginnings, middles, and ends, that may or may not be playable/viewable in the same form (or any form) ever again, but will be viewed and interpreted differently on the second reading or viewing or when interpreted by another person.
Mapplethorpe's photography, Serrano's Body Fluid series are stunning, creative works of art, confrontational creations that question our worldview in my eyes. In the eyes of the Christian right, they are obscene. The same art/obscenity dichotomy can be seen in who views Michaelangelo's David, or the films The Passion of Christ, Pillowbook, The Cook the Theif, his Wife, her Lover, etc.
Now, I'm not saying that all videogames (or even most of them) are art. Nor am I saying that videogames do not all comprise a level of artistry. But just because you don't enjoy or understand the artform does not negate its value as art. Unless you want to make the argument that all art has to be high art, it is ridiculous to state that no videogame to date is art.
Just as children learn to appreciate art in unusual ways, video games can be art in and of themselves. (I love jazz as an artform because of Tex Avery and the Loony Toons - does that make jazz not art? Would you not consider cartoons themselves art? I adored Matisse's Swimming Pool from age 6 or 7 on, to the point that I spent rainy afternoons at MOMA sitting in a corner of that room reading or thinking or staring at the work and peoples' reactions to it - but because it's simple enough on some level that a child can fall in love with it does that negate it as art?) You just have to learn the language to appreciate the art of videogames fully. But film, visual art, music, performance - those are all made up of language too, and those who do not understand the language will not fully grasp the artwork created using it.
Finally, you asked for some specific comparisons. Because of my unusual limitations, this is tough to do. But of those games I've seen played through all the way, I'd compare:
Bioshock 2 with among other works Munch's The Scream, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Triumph_of_Death, and 20,000 Leagues under the Sea (both the book and the original film).
Halflife 2 for me falls in line with Alien/Aliens, with Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep/Blade Runner, with Giger and Escher.
Elemental Gear is an older game, a gorgeous anime in its own right, and while it's easy to compare with Japanese art and manga, it also reminds me of Dali and Miro - the crisp over-saturated colors combined with elements of simplicity and plainer backgrounds.
I'm certain there are tons of other specific examples an artist who also happens to play videogames could give you. Because I haven't taken an art class since the 80's and film school, and the number of games I get to view is so limited I am not up-to-date on current works in any of the fields.
But, I would close with this: as mentioned above [referenced in another comment] cooking is an art to some and to others chefs are artisans. I'm not sure how to make the distinction between the two. But the same goes for the makers of haute couture, of fine jewelry, of the furniture in the Met. I see all of these thngs as art. Surely costume or set design are artforms, as are animation or graphic novels or multi-media theatre. So why not videogames?
What do you think? I know some of you game, can you make any specific comments that compare a videogame and an artwork? I know this discussion is raging on Ebert's blog (the above is a comment I left but which is not yet approved), but I'm curious what the creative, thoughtful audience my friends are have to say.