Over the last few years there as been a rash of debates and discussions sparked by a statement made by film critic Roger Ebert. To put a longer statement succinctly, Mr. Ebert said and has since maintained that video games are not and cannot be art. Now Mr. Ebert is a writer that I have long respected and enjoyed so I felt compelled to consider his claims seriously.
I think the root of these debates lie in the inherent subjectivity and malleability of what defines art. Personally I define art as anything created with the intent to express an idea or emotion but I have heard many other definitions. By this definition I am forced to concede that many games are not art but simply fall under the category of entertainment (such a situation is true of all forms of media). While even these games are not without their artistic aspects they were not intended to be art. Other games, however, were intended as art (i.e. they were made with the intention of conveying certain ideas or emotions).
Simply looking at my own archive of game related articles reminds me of a slew of games that I have found emotionally compelling and profound. Shadow of the Colossus, Silent Hill 2, Persona 4, Okami, and Metal Gear Solid 3. These are not only games that I found affecting but I could also clearly see that they were made with the intent to convey certain ideas and emotions.
All of that being said I think I can identify one barrier that prevents many from recognizing video games as an art form. Appreciation of video games requires a certain level of induction.
Roger Ebert has often said that he received a flood of messages responding to his comments suggesting he try playing this or that game. It is simply speculation on my part but I imagine that if Mr. Ebert were to indulge them it would not have the desired result. That is because games (by requiring player input) have a barrier to entry not present in film or music. In other words, they require you to learn them. This fact leads me to believe that my own generation might have a leg up when it comes to understanding the medium. I myself have been experiencing video games most of my life. Beginning with Super Mario Bros. and Duck Hunt at a young age I watched this fledgling media grow up right along side me. Thus when I pick up a controller I am bringing two decades of context and an understanding of the “language” of games that would be foreign to someone who had only seen video games from a distance or for the first time.
This is why the whole debate about video games as art is largely subjective and possibly irresolvable in the present day. I believe games to be art because I know of my own experiences with them. I do my best to explain these experiences to others but unless the audience has their own first-hand experience much will be lost in the translation.