This is the first part of a series of blogs that aim to contribute yet more internet detritus to everybody's favorite age-old argument: Seriously, are computer games an art form?
Part 1: Games Are Not An Art Form
By now I would guess that most people with a finger on the pulse of the computer/videogame industry have the sense that there is a growing movement for this medium to be regarded as something more than a hollow, trivial pastime. The "Games as Art" debate has certainly been ongoing for some time now, and unfortunately for everyone I feel the burning need to chime in. Part of the argument that games are not, and perhaps never will be, considered a true art form is that the medium has yet to produce any works of timeless relevance, unlike more traditional media like theater, film, and literature. In other words, the experiences provided by games have yet to (and perhaps cannot) achieve the same level of distinction as that produced in traditional media. But if games, as some (including myself) contend, do have the capacity to produce powerful experiences, why have we not yet seen works capable of attaining the status of an enduring classic? Is it possible for a game to be regarded in the same light as a "Casablanca", "Romeo & Juliet", or "To Kill A Mockingbird"? Can a game establish itself as a popular "classic", a widely accepted work of art? And does a game even need to achieve such lofty status in order for the medium as a whole to be considered an art form of its own?
I think to begin exploring these questions, it first would help to establish what I mean by some of these terms -- the most important being what I mean by "art". Of course, attempting to define the term "art" is problematic, to say the least; it means many different things to different people, and one simplistic definition here will assuredly be insufficient in some way. Still, when I speak here of art I am generally alluding to the fine arts, or rather a generous appreciation of what constitutes fine art, to the inclusion of such forms as painting, sculpture, dance, theater, architecture, cinematography, photography, drawing, poetry, and literature (or creative writing). In this respect, I think of art as an aesthetic expression of an individual or group (whether visible, tangible, or abstract) that can be appreciated by others for its beauty, insight, or emotional power. Although Tolstoy's dogmatic definition of art from 1896 leaves a great deal open to debate, he does touch upon what I think are some key components of art: a means of intercourse between man and man, based on the capacity of one man to receive another man's expression of feeling and to experience those feelings himself. There is an appreciation that art stimulates the human senses and mind, by transmitting emotions and/or ideas, and in that respect art is a form of communication between artist and audience.
With this definition of art in hand, an assessment of the body of work that constitutes computer games would, in my mind, conclude that this medium very much has the capacity to be an art form. But as with my contention above, that games have "the capacity to produce powerful experiences," there are two implications here: first, that no game has yet been able to produce a truly powerful experience; and second, that such a compelling work must exist before this form of entertainment is given serious consideration as a true art form.
With respect to the former, it's difficult to submit any examples of games that truly convey some meaningful expression about the human condition that is in the same zip code as some of the classics mentioned above; I think some games have begun to tread in this territory, and from the discussions around the net it would seem that this is a target firmly within many game developers' sights. As for the latter, I suspect the statement will elicit some debate, but I contend that it is the major obstacle to the widespread acceptance of games as a new, true art form. I think many game developers and players would argue that some games -- Jason Rohrer's Passage, for instance -- should already be considered works of art given their characteristics and accomplishments. And perhaps from the perspective of the restricted community of game developers and players, they may be. But until there is a game whose impact and reach is powerful enough to extend beyond this focused (and perhaps biased) group, we'll only continue to have our simple games, thoughtful games, exciting games, and even beautiful games, but nothing widely appreciated by the public at large as "art".
Nevertheless, as stated above I will contend that within the medium of games there is the capacity to generate a work of substantive beauty, insight, or emotional power. I believe it is possible, and that it will happen eventually. But not until two things occur: first, games figure out how to be more about people rather than objects; and second, we develop a deeper and more meaningful understanding of that unique aspect of games that separates them from other traditional forms of entertainment: the role and use of interaction.
Next: Part 2: "Games as Art" = "Games as Storytelling Medium"