I was reading on Roger Ebert's blog about his views on video games and I decided to send this response. Ebert is somewhat notorious for his views, so I'm not sure what his reply will be like (if there is one at all), but it could be an interesting debate.
What do you guys think? Are they art, or not?
Dear Mr. Ebert,
I really enjoy your movie reviews and I've found I agree with you in most of your opinions. However, I'd like to challenge your idea that video games can't be art. I will agree with you that most of the video games made today aren't art, but that isn't because they're stuck with a non-linear narrative to present to the player; it's because they're trying to make a linear narrative in the first place (and a mostly clichéd narrative, at that, but that's another argument).
Video games are still a rather new form of expression, and because of that they're trying to adopt conventions from other media, notably board games, film, and, yes, sports (I liked that comparison). However, if you dump the idea that art has anything to do with telling a story specifically, then video games have a lot of potential in terms of presenting a holistic emotional experience. Telling stories is one art form, yes, (and arguably a part of video games) but music is also an art form in its own right, and its "narrative" is entirely different from storytelling. I'm not entirely sure what your view of art is in general, but I've come to believe art can be defined as a form of communication that we can use to share experiences and ideas. There are many ways to do this, but I think video games may actually hold the greatest potential for this.
Consider someone is making a game about WWII. This person could write a story and drive game play mechanics around it, sure, but it wouldn't work entirely because it would be mechanical and the player would feel more like they were just in an interactive movie. In this way many of today's games fail to be a better form of expression than film or books because they are trying to balance two opposites. Games are experienced, and part of what makes them such a good platform for art is the direct involvement with and connection to the player. If the game in my example focused more on the experience of being in a war than the story that comes out of such an experience, it will be more successful.
However, this doesn't mean games shouldn't pursue a narrative at all; that's definitely an important aspect. It's just that in a game the narrative should serve to support the experience rather than try to be the experience itself. This is opposite in film, where the experience is derived from the emotional arks of the story and all of the acting and set design and filming and effects are aimed at supporting this narrative. Great game play comes from putting the player into an emotional state and keeping them there with active involvement; the environment itself becomes the expression. In this way it can be much more direct.
Another point I'd like to make is that I believe part of your argument comes from a misconception as to how much control the player really has over the outcomes of a game. I've been making games for the last four years as a flash developer, and most of what I've learned about game play mechanics in doing this is how little control the player actually wants. A video game is a lot more like a trick that the developer is playing on the player. The player believes that they are part of a changing world that is actually rather static in its conception. I think this is a defining characteristic that makes video games such a unique form of expression. The developer isn't giving up control of the medium to the player; they are involving the player directly in the emotional narrative as it unfolds, and the richer that connection is (the more the player feels a part of the game itself), the better a game tends to be.
One of the main reasons I'm writing to you with this is because, as an experienced movie critic, I feel you are one of the few people in the art world these days with any amount of intellectual integrity. I'm currently in my last year of art college (for painting, mainly) and I'm still trying to grasp the current state of painting and fine art in general. I've found solace in the fact that at least the more mainstream and commercial art forms still have a sense of craftsmanship and self-respect, and I'm hoping that by presenting my ideas you might be more willing to consider and recognize the potential of video games as an art form.
Thanks for taking the time to read this,