Fun? Yes, but is it art? This question has been asked countless times since the advent of the term "art", but the stage has arrived to point the question towards video games.
"Maybe 20 years ago they were more of a hobby and not an art form, but that's becoming less of the case," said Vincent Slaven, a 29 year old freelance public relations representative for the games industry.
Film critic Roger Ebert, on the other hand, doesn't think so. As Ebert wrote on his website on November 25, 2005, "I am prepared to believe that video games can be elegant, subtle, sophisticated, challenging and visually wonderful. But I believe the nature of the medium prevents it from moving beyond craftsmanship to the stature of art. To my knowledge, no one in or out of the field has ever been able to cite a game worthy of comparison with the great dramatists, poets, filmmakers, novelists and composers."
"I think it's amazing how far the industry has come over the last 30 years, and not just from a technical or hardware standpoint. Games evoke more emotions and feelings now than they ever did."
Jay Podilchuk, a producer with Dreamcatcher Interactive, sees a changing of the guard when it comes to the comparison with video games and movies.
"The video game industry has gone from an insignificant fad that appeals to technologists and adolescent boys who hang out in smoky arcades, to the living room where it was a money making phenomenon, right to mainstream entertainment where it is becoming bigger than movies and television."
Just because one makes their living in the gaming industry doesn't mean they share Podilchuk and Slaven's positive interpretation of the art of the electronic medium. Ted Brockwood, 37, is the director and owner of Calico Media, a public relations firm for the video game industry. Brockwood feels that while video games are on the way to being art, they haven't quite reached that pedestal yet.
"I would say that they're well on their way, but with only a few exceptions, they really aren't. They are trying to become art, but only a few have really hit it. As a whole genre I don't think video games have pulled it off yet," said Brockwood.
Where games differentiate themselves from other mediums such as film and visual art is in their interactivity with the user. The player will be more engrossed and have a deeper connection because not only do the players control the characters' actions and decisions, but spend a lot more time with them as well. A movie is a two hour investment, a song is three minutes long, and a painting's impact is only as long as the viewer looks at it. Video games on the other hand, can require dozens of hours to complete.
"I think that video games are more engrossing because of the fact that the player has direct input over the events that transpire on the screen. In movies, you can care about the characters but you have no control over what happens to them. In games however, you do," said Slaven.
If the definition of art is based on popularity among the public, one doesn't need to look very far to see the powerful grip video games have on the entertainment industry. The recent release of Microsoft's Halo 3 for the Xbox 360, a game where players play as a cyborg who defends humanity from alien invasion, was blessed with $170 million in launch day sales in the United States alone. Halo 3's first day revenue eclipsed those of other massive pop culture staples such as the theatrical release of Spider-man 3 or the seventh Harry Potter book.
The parallels between film and video games are rather startling. During the first thirty years of cinema, technologies slowly emerged in combination with talented individuals to create something that is seen today as a legitimate art form. These technologies and techniques included colour, sound, superior film stock, coaches for actors, and special effects, all of which helped create such beloved classics like Casablanca and Citizen Kane.
Video games are following a similar path. Who could have imagined that the simple block graphics and bleep-bloop style sound effects of Atari's Pong would eventually evolve into the near photorealistic and fully orchestrated acoustic experiences games are today?
The games industry is getting to the point where it is crossing over into cinema for a mutually beneficial partnership.
"We have professional film directors and writers working on more game projects each year," said Slaven. "I think that eventually games will exceed the entertainment value provided by films, and once the gaming audience becomes wide enough to where the right amount of people are experiencing the artistic experience that games provide, the general consensus on games as an art form will change."
Due to the recent writer's guild strike in Hollywood, many screenwriters are now writing game scripts for income until the strike is settled. Very few video game writers are actually represented in the writer's guild, and these writers fall out of the jurisdiction of the strike. Typically, video game writers write more pages and get paid far less than the average Hollywood screenwriter, but this situation is changing. The Writer's Guild of America introduced an annual award for video game writing in September 2007. This is a major coup for the recognition of video games as a platform for compelling characters and stories saying something of relevance and importance to society.
Social commentary has always been a crucial component of any art medium, including literature, music, and film. Artists have always used their creations to lash out and criticize what they believe to be injustices in their culture. Video games are now beginning to follow this trend as well.
"Look at games like the Metal Gear Solid series, which comment on the changing landscape of modern warfare," said Slaven. "Every great story has a root of truth to it, and I think that a lot of what makes current games and their stories so great is that we can relate to them in our everyday lives and societies."
Still, it is difficult to really explore political ideas and commentary in a medium that is so handcuffed by a ratings system designed to keep violent games out of the hands of minors. Since the video game industry, like any other medium, is a business first and an artistic endeavor second, game content design is usually "secondary to the target rating for the game," according to Podilchuk. "Developers are forced to curb content and the creative process as a whole to fit into a mold or more canned experience that the publisher can then sell to the retailers," said Podilchuk. "As it stands in this industry, game content design is often secondary to the targeted rating for the game."
Podilchuk has a name to submit to Ebert for a comparison to the "great" artists of other mediums such as film: Shigeru Miyamoto of Nintendo, creator of beloved game franchises such as Super Mario Bros., The Legend of Zelda, Donkey Kong, among many others. Miyamoto is a man who "understands what ‘fun' is better than anyone else out there."
These days, some of the most talented game designers in the industry such as John Carmack (Doom, Quake), Cliff Bleszinski (Gears of War, Unreal), Ken Levine (BioShock), Gabe Newell (Half-Life) and Will Wright (SimCity, The Sims) are hailed as visionaries. Within gamer circles, they are mentioned in the same breath as other famous artists like Pablo Picasso and Steven Spielberg.
"Will Wright really seems to understand what makes games universally appealing, and it shows in the accessibility of the games he creates like SimCity and the Sims," said Slaven. "Everybody makes a big deal now about how casual games are making a push and bringing gaming to a broader audience but if you think about it, games like The Sims were bringing in new fans to video games long before the (Nintendo) Wii or DS."
While the graphical output of games has reached near photorealistic levels, there is a consensus among those in the industry that it will take more than pretty pictures and thumping surround sound to push video games into the realm of art. In this regard, Nintendo is leading the way with the motion-sensing Wii and the touch-screen based DS, opening up many possibilities for new types of gameplay. These new input methods are making games simpler for a wider audience, and the essence of art is something that everyone can share and enjoy. The Wii and DS have "kickstarted the trend of simple, accessible fun again," said Brockwood.
"In the last thirty years, developers seem to have been concentrating their efforts towards throwing firepower at games," said Brockwood. "Look, our graphics are fantastic, and now we have ten buttons on our controllers which let you do more. But up until very recently they seem to have lost the element of fun you get when you pull up something like Mario Bros. With (Mario) you only had two buttons and a clumsy directional pad.
"I consider Mario Bros. art. Not because it has the greatest graphics or deepest gameplay, but because everybody understands it, it's a universal. Even my father-in-law who is 65 can get into it. On the other hand, I look at a game like BioShock. It has good art in it, but as a whole product, it is not a piece of art because we will have forgotten BioShock in a year. BioShock is artistic without being everlasting. We will still remember Mario Bros., or even something as basic as Pac-man. Those were the days that the true art was to craft a game with what little you've got."
Since no one has ever been able to come up with a concrete definition of what art actually is, it's impossible to determine in any definite terms whether games are art or not. For Brockwood, "art" is subjective.
"How do you categorize art? To me it's something that sticks with and has an emotional impact. It doesn't have to make you cry or anything, it can simply make you feel really good."
As technology improves, so do the capabilities for telling more compelling stories, more intricate gameplay, and more emotional involvement. With graphics and audio now approaching the photorealistic front, what is the next frontier for the gaming industry?
Podilchuk believes that "Virtual reality, interactive movies and television that will combine aspects of games to increase the level of immersion will probably the next big thing.
"But I think while games will continue to push towards the ability to create photo realistic content, style and fun always trumps realism in my mind. It seems to have worked for Nintendo thus far."
Nintendo doesn't have the market cornered on innovation and fun though. The Guitar Hero series from developer Harmonix uses a plastic guitar controller that replaces buttons with strings. Players must strum a key and push fret buttons on the neck of the guitar in time with on screen cues. Each iteration of the game is available on various consoles and have sold several million copies each, despite inferior graphics to industry heavy hitters like Halo and BioShock. Guitar Hero is in that sweet spot that appeals to both the hardcore and casual audience, and is more about living out a rock star fantasy than learning complicated technical motions.
"So much of the industry is graphics posturing and trying to mimic real life," said Brockwood. "The ironic thing is, there will always be a reality gap. No matter how good it looks, the more you'll start scrutinizing how unrealistic it is. You start noticing the lack of little details. When the graphics power tops off, they'll finally look and say ‘are these games even fun?' People don't want real life in their games, if they did, they would go out their front door and have one."
In the end, it doesn't really matter what the Eberts of the world think about the gaming industry and its artistic merit or lack thereof. Some will argue that video games are already art, some will say that they aren't there yet, and others will say they never will be. The only sure thing in the industry is that developers and publishers will consistently find new and creative ways to push the envelope in both presentation and gameplay.
"The true testament to game design since the beginning is basically the adaptive nature of the industry and the willingness to continually push every aspect of the business."