I'm not sure exactly when it started – perhaps during the 16-bit generation, when the Genesis vs. Super Nintendo wars were going on – but the graphics debate unfortunately continues to this day.
And to be perfectly honest, I'm not sure why. Those who claim graphics are meaningless are just plain stupid. I mean, that's beyond naive. The very true saying, "a picture is worth a thousand words," is quite relevant in a form of entertainment that relies on moving images that we view on a screen. I'm the biggest defender of old-school classics in existence and yet, I'm not about to say developers could better depict emotion with a sprite and a little heart over its head. That's just plain asinine.
But it seems even gamers of today aren't willing to admit that graphics play a significant role, and I think it's because they don't want to come across as superficial. It's the same reason certain people try to tell us that "looks don't matter." Yeah, well, they do; it's called chemistry, biology, nature; I'm sorry, it exists. Cruel truth, just accept it. As for games, it doesn't make you a "graphics whore" to say that you appreciate a fantastic visual presentation, nor does it make you ignorant to say that you – shock of shocks – like games to look good .
Sure, subjectivity always plays a role, and we could go twelve rounds on an Uncharted vs. Crysis debate, but the bottom line is that what we see is a major part of our entertainment. Regardless of your personal preferences, there's no doubt that better graphics work to bring this industry to another level, especially in regards to the aforementioned emotion and sensitivity. It's about seeing the quirk of a pair of lips, a narrowing of the eyes, or a particular gesture that adds weight and meaning to a scene. These days, that's becoming more and more critical.
At the same time, as this remains an interactive medium, nobody can say graphics are more important than gameplay. That's just illogical. In truth, I'm not even sure why this is such a complicated or hot-button topic; I see this as being awfully cut and dry. Not much to argue about here.