I must respectfully disagree with him. The following is an open letter response to his own blog entry. (You may want to read what he has written in the link above, or else much of my response will not make sense.)
I think I understand some of where you are coming from when you say that video games cannot be art, but I also believe that you are mistaken in this regard. I hope that some of what I have to say, as someone who is an avid reader, a film/tv enthusiast, and a video game player and appreciator (as well as potential future independent game entrepreneur), you will at least consider seriously.
1) Part of the confusion that many people are running into with your post is distinguishing between the art form and what is considered to be "great art". Media can be considered an art form without any individual examples to call "great art", but there is no way to call something "great art" if the media is not first an art form.
The argument here is therefore two-fold: first, whether or not the media of video games can be considered an art form, and second, whether or not there are any specific examples of video games that can be considered "great art".
2) Addressing the former argument: can any videogame be considered an art form? You give several reasons why you believe they cannot.
a) You state: "I tend to think of art as usually the creation of one artist. Yet a cathedral is the work of many, and is it not art? One could think of it as countless individual works of art unified by a common purpose. Is not a tribal dance an artwork, yet the collaboration of a community? Yes, but it reflects the work of individual choreographers. Everybody didn't start dancing all at once."
Later, in comments, you give the example of "film director" as the person unifying the purpose of a movie. There is an equivalent of "film director" in videogames as well now: the lead game designer. My significant other is currently going through the process of obtaining a degree in this discipline, so I have gained significant insight recently into this process.
The lead game designer is the creative voice, the one who must unify the graphics and story and gameplay and programming with their overall vision. Although this vision is sometimes distorted by producers, by the reality of the technology available, or the poor quality of other artistic people in the game creation process, this is no different from the creation of a movie. Indeed, similarly to movies, you can sidestep some of these processes and become an independent producer. This is currently a growing movement in game design.
b) You state: "One obvious difference between art and games is that you can win a game. It has rules, points, objectives, and an outcome." (One minor nitpick: if we are defining what a game MUST have to be defined as a game, 'points' does not belong in that list. Points exist in some games as a mechanism for determining the outcome, and therefore fill the role of objectives, but not all games have points.)
So by this definition, a game MUST have rules, it MUST have objectives, and it MUST have an outcome. I assume that by stating this, you are implicitly stating the following: If you take any of these things away, you say, something can no longer be a game. If the media that supports that game mechanism is artistic (e.g. artful chess pieces, or the story in a video game), it is, as a whole, not art because those pieces exist to serve the mechanics of the game.
Though all of this can be argued, I will accept these premises.
What happens, however, when instead of the artistic elements of a game existing to serve or dress up the gameplay (the rules, the objectives, and the outcomes), the gameplay itself helps to serve an artistic vision? If a game designer designs a game as an interactive way to present a story or provoke thought and emotion, and the gameplay mechanics serve that purpose rather than being the "point" of the game, could that not be considered an art form? Video games can have rules, objectives, and outcomes that are means to an end, not an end in and of themselves.
One of the examples that has been pulled out is Braid. Since you have not played the game, and since Santiago (likely out of respect for future players of the game) did not reveal the ending, you have missed WHY exactly the game mechanic of reversing time is relevant.
You say: "You can go back in time and correct your mistakes. In chess, this is known as taking back a move, and negates the whole discipline of the game. Nor am I persuaded that I can learn about my own past by taking back my mistakes in a video game. She also admires a story told between the games levels, which exhibits prose on the level of a wordy fortune cookie."
The gameplay mechanic (from a pure gameplay perspective, and not examining the further purpose it serves) is less about "taking back a move" and more about the implications of being able to take back the move. The game takes that one idea and innovatively plays with it in a way that is engaging and challenging, rather than negating discipline. This is difficult to describe to someone who has not experienced it for themselves, but suffice it to say that it is done very well, which is why the game is so highly critically reviewed.
Looking at the game as a whole, however (which includes the "wordy fortune cookie" prose, the gameplay mechanics, the graphics, the music, and the completion of the story in the last level etc), you realize that the gameplay mechanic of reversing time is itself serving a higher artistic vision. The last level of the game, your character is trying to save the princess from a monster... but when you finally reach her, time reverses and you discover that she is actually running away from you (and was, all along). This last piece of the puzzle creates a much clearer picture and puts everything else into context. There is much left up to interpretation and it invokes both an intellectual and an emotional response in many people, similar to the experience of watching Memento or Donnie Darko.
Thus: an example of a type of game that, as a whole, should be considered an art form (even under your own stated constraints).
3) If we have established that there is a type of game that CAN be considered an art form, we can now try to establish that there are already games that ARE "great art".
The difficulty of this is of course that like beauty, "great art" is in the eye of the beholder. You say on Twitter: "So far, in 1,400+ comments, no gamer has has been so bold as to compare a video game with anything ancients like me consider art." In the comments, you say, "In all these comments, no one has mentioned Shakespeare, Beethoven, Dickens or Picasso. Indeed, hardly any great artists have entered into the discussion. Perhaps it appeared unseemly."
I myself see those artists as having created classics... something that has withstood the test of time because it touches a large-enough audience.
But to me, classics are not necessarily "great art". "Great art", to me, is something that moves me profoundly and makes me contemplate or learn something new about myself or the world.
I have read "Great Expectations." I have read numerous Shakespeare plays (and even performed in a community theater version of one). I have listened to Beethoven, and I have examined paintings of Picasso. None of these have given me the reaction I describe, a reaction that I experience when I see Memento or Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, a reaction I experience when I listen to certain songs by Regina Spektor, a reaction I experience when viewing the sketches of M.C. Escher, a reaction that I experience when I read Ender's Game, 1984 and A Stranger in A Strange Land, and a reaction that I most definitely experienced when playing Bioshock, Portal, and The Longest Journey.
The examples that I gave may not be your cup of tea, and that's fine. You may even argue that since these examples are not widely accepted by the public, that they cannot be considered "great art" (with "great" in this definition referring to the mass, lasting appeal). But you cannot deny that I EXPERIENCED these things as "great art".
If in your opinion "great art" is universal and has to have established lasting power, then it is far, far too early to judge today's games as being either "great art" or not. If in your opinion "great art" is personal, then what you have stated conclusively here is that YOU PERSONALLY will never see video games as "great art", but not that that they cannot be seen as such by individuals or a mass public.
Posted by on Sun, 25 Apr 2010