ARE VIDEOGAMES ART?
Is the sea made of bananas?
A more pertinent question, of course, might be "Why do we care whether videogames are accepted as art or not?" If you enjoy playing games, why do you need some kind of intellectual, cultural approval to justify the fact? But hey, we're not a politician, so let's answer the question that's actually being asked.
It should be obvious to anyone with the remotest understanding of either that not only are videogames not art, they fundamentally can't be art. The nature of videogames and the nature of art, in the proper sense of the word, are at odds with each other on the most basic level. Art is the vision of an artist. It's a precise and defined work, whose meaning can be open to interpretation by the viewer, but whose content is always the same. In such a way, the different reactions of different people to the same piece of art tell us things about who we are, both individually and collectively. If a concept as broad as "art" can be said to have a single purpose, it's surely that.
Figure 1: some art.
If you were to show one person a picture of Van Gogh's "Sunflowers", and sit another one down in front of a screening of Simon West's "Con Air", you wouldn't expect to be able to draw any very useful conclusions from their respective reactions. And yet that's exactly what we do when we posit the notion of a videogame being art, because no two people will play a game in the same way, and therefore will not be basing their reactions on the same source material. Much of the essence of art lies precisely in its non-interactivity - the fact that the viewer is compelled to see the piece as its creator intended. But videogames are like handing out boxes of crayons at the entrance of a gallery. If you can control the art, then you're influencing it, when the point is that it's supposed to influence you.
Some games have tried to tap into this notion, of course. The likes of Black And White, or Deus Ex, or Fable, present the player with choices (often of a "moral" nature) which affect the direction of the game. It might be argued, then, that playing these games forces the player to confront aspects of their own nature, and therefore serves the same purpose as art. The argument falls down, however, by virtue of the fact that you can play a game over again. In reality, we make decisions and then have to live with the outcome, with no possibility of ever knowing what would have happened if we'd made a different choice. The results are what make us the people we become.
But in a videogame, not only is it possible to find out the results of every choice, it's all but inevitable. Given that every alternative outcome has been coded into the game, every location drawn and mapped, every incident depicted, it's (understandably) inconceivable to most players not to play the game until they've seen them all. The safety net provided by being able to play the game again therefore renders the decisions meaningless, because we're not in any way bound by the consequences of our actions.
Figure 2: a videogame.
And in a nutshell, it's that simple. The only possible way to make videogames become art would be to ensure that players could only play them once. But even then, since the notion of overcoming obstacles through learning in order to reach a set goal is a - in fact, the - absolute core mechanic of videogaming, not being able to go back and do something in a different way if you don't like the result is anathema to the whole concept. If you play Deus Ex in a particular way, get to the end and have no method of determining what would have happened if you'd made different choices, what have you learned about yourself? Nothing. You're just the Diceman, passively surrendering your destiny to random fate. (The same applies even if you subsequently compare your experience to someone who made different choices. It's just a complex and expensive way of playing Snakes And Ladders.) But if you can go back and explore the alternative routes, then your decisions had no consequences and therefore no meaning. And surely, if there's a single common purpose to art in all its many and varied forms, it's that it should have meaning.
"Meaning", of course, is a rather fluid term. When Constable painted "The Haywain" (Fig.1 above), maybe he didn't intend the viewer to think anything in particular about it. Maybe he was just taking a nice picture, but couldn't be bothered hanging around any longer waiting for someone to invent the camera. Maybe "The Haywain" isn't art any more than Deus Ex is, or Pac-Man. The point is, we don't know. If we arrive at the "wrong" conclusion about "The Haywain", we don't get shot in the head by a sniper or eaten by a monster, removing all uncertainty about the issue. The necessity for videogames to eventually arrive at a specified end identifying whether we did them properly or not is, ultimately, what undermines any possibility of their being "art".
Games are entertaining and fun. So is going to the pub and having a game of pool. But nobody's ever tried suggesting that playing pool and drinking lager is art. Not all films are art, nor are all books or all songs or all poems. But no games are, or ever will be, or ever can be. It's just not in their nature. We should stop fretting and agonising about it, for the same reason we don't worry about the fact that you can't play football with a fridge.