Tycho and Gabe seem a tad peevish that Roger Ebert has dissed video games as art — he says video games can never be art, which may be a bit excessive. Still, I read Ebert’s explanation, Penny Arcade’s cranky dismissal, and a
I think video games can contain pieces of art — artists participate in their creation, after all — but art isn’t the intent, the performance is. A basketball game is not art, no matter how well somebody plays; it’s as physical as a dance performance, and the participants are just as skilled and often just as amazing, but dance can be art while the game is simply sport. Not to dismiss it entirely, which is not what Ebert does at all, but to point out that they are different things.
Art is a kind of distillation and representation of human experience, filtered through the minds of its creators. A great painting or poem is something that represents an idea or emotion, communicated through the skill of an artist, to make you see through his or her eyes for a moment. Computer games just don’t do that. No team sits down to script out a video game with the intent of creating a tone poem in interactive visual displays that will make the player appreciate the play of sunlight on a lake, for instance. It’s all about balance and game play and keeping the action going and providing a means to win or lose, and most of all, it’s about giving the player control in the game environment. No one wants to play a game that’s on rails and simply leads you to the conclusion the author wants. In that sense, a good game hands the player a toolbox to work within the game environment — it is to art as providing a studio and a set of pigments and a collection of brushes.
Video games will become art when replaying the performance becomes something we find interesting, when the execution of those tools generates something splendid and lasting. It just doesn’t now, though. If you want to see something really boring, watch someone else playing a video game. Then imagine recording that game, and wanting to go back and watch the replay again sometime. That’s where games fail as art, which is not to say they can’t succeed as something comparable to a sport — we may want to explore the rules of a game at length, and repeatedly, and we may enjoy getting better at it. But no matter how well or how long you play a game, it’s never going to be something you can display in your home as a representation of an experience.