Roger Ebert has a fine piece on the subject, part retraction, part withholding of judgment. I think he is right, but does not give good reasons. Partly, he still speaks with the same grammar of 'experience' that the proponents of video games employ. Partly, as he makes abundantly clear, he probably does not care to think the subject through completely at his age; a true critic, he knows intuitively what is art, and does not really see the need to explain it. Here are some of my thoughts on the subject.
I. The pleasure of games is libidinous, erotic: games function because of our desire to win and to have more. The pleasure we derive from the things normally considered art (music, drama, sculpture, poetry, etc.) is not derived from desire; we desire the pleasure, but the pleasure itself does not lie in the desiring. The basic aesthetic parameter of a game is determined by our desire to win it, or, in the case of something like World of Warcraft, to possess more and more of it. It is very plainly an erotic aesthetic; the pleasure derives from the state of desire, and often diminishes when there is no more to desire: hence the complaint with games that are too short. Yet the pleasure we derive from art is pleasure in the presence of the beautiful. When Mozart gives us a development section like that in the 40th Symphony’s first movement, it functions for the audience (those experiencing it) because they are able to hear the beauty of it; a person with no taste, but definition, will get nothing from Mozart. A game of Halo, on the other hand, functions well when the players (those experiencing it) want to win; if they aren’t trying to win, it becomes a joke. In fact, when players aren’t playing to win, the effect can often be similar to that of absurdist and avant-garde art, in which the artist is not trying to be beautiful. The pleasure we take from games is more like the pleasure we take in debating politics or being hopelessly in love than it is like the pleasure we take in a painting of Titian’s or a play by Shakespeare. One should also note that this erotic pleasure is also the principle artlessness of many contemporary manifestations of the traditional arts, such as mystery novels (or any “page-turner”). Catharsis is not unrelated to consummation, and anything, mystery novel, game, or unrequited love, whose pleasure derives from a sustained desire and diminishes with the attainment of that desire, is something of an altogether different sort than tragedy or marriage, in which the pleasure derives from consummation, achievement, and wholeness.
II. The presence of other arts in the game does not make the game art. Because a game like Grand Theft Auto contains a narrative which some find appealing, or because any number of games present the eye with striking images, does not make the games art. Take, for example, an edition of Paradise Lost with the Gustave Dore illustrations. We would say the book Paradise Lost is a work of art, and we would say the illustrations by Dore are works of art (and that their whole, as a set of illustrations, is a work of art), we would say that the edition of Milton was a fine book. But we would not call Paradise Lost a fine book because it contained (in this instance) illustrations by Gustave Dore. We would probably rather have a Paradise Lost with Gustave Dore illustrations than the standard Penguin paperback—but then again, we would sometimes derive greater pleasure form Milton by having the notes in the Penguin than the illustrations of Dore. Likewise, one enjoys chess when played with plastic pieces, but more when played with fine ivory pieces; yet chess is not a good game because of the fine ivory pieces.
III. Games believe in free will, art believes in fate. This is perhaps the only really good point Ebert makes, that there is something about the inevitability of art that gives it its power. This is of course related to the types of pleasures they give us, as discussed above, but it is also the key element in their ability to teach about life. A game has great difficulty teaching about life because there is no stability to it. If I set out to teach that 2+2=4, but it turns out than my students can learn just as easily from my lesson that 2+4=2, they will learn very little math. Now a game may teach practical lessons (a math game for children, for example, would not let you go on to the next level without showing that you know that 2+2=4 and not 2+4=2) but they cannot teach moral, spiritual, or philosophical lessons, because games teach on the basis of “this works,” not on the basis of “this is fitting.” I may learn some military strategy through playing Starcraft, but I would not learn how to inspire loyalty in my soldiers, or for that matter how to take prisoners or treat them in a civilized manner, although these things are just as important, if not more important, to the proper and fitting conduct of war. Yet if I read the Iliad or the Aeneid I will learn about all these things. I can also learn form them how to lose my wife or husband; can something that teaches you how to win possibly offer anything like the ghost of Creusa or Hector and Andromache upon the walls of Troy?
IV. Video Games do not establish the identity of a cultural elite. Before Romantic theorists of art (and their Renaissance predecessors), things like painting and sculpture, music, and poetry were not generally grouped together. Painting and sculpture were the realm of artisans, music was a branch of mathematics, and poetry was merely a special form of writing. All of these, however, were joined together in their functions of expressing the beautiful and in establishing both elite culture and the elevation of that elite over the rest of the populace. The way people speak and the sorts of things they read is still a good indication of class, and literature is an implementation of this. Likewise think of common people attending High Mass in a Gothic Cathedral, circa, let us say, 1450. The beauty of the architecture, stained-glass windows, paintings and sculptures all around them, as well as the singing of the cathedral choir serve to emphasize that they are in the presence of something much more important and powerful than they. Games are inescapably democratic on a number of levels. Most important, however, is the fact that the enjoyment of a game depends on equality. Games are unfair and unenjoyable if one player simply much better than all the others, and single-player games which are either too easy or too hard are equally bad games. Games (and this of course applies beyond videogames) employ handicaps and difficulty levels to enable players of different skill levels to compete together enjoyably. The relation to democratic endeavors such as the welfare state and affirmative action is almost too obvious; capitalism is, after all, a wagering game. There is no sense in which the people attending that High Mass needed to be balanced equally before they could enjoy the beauty of the music and the architecture; some would get much more than others, many would get nothing at all, but all would be experiencing the art. The fact that an ignorant peasant cannot understand the Latin, or really get the symbolism of the cathedral’s architectural design would not prevent the educated man from taking his pleasure in those things. But if we sit down to play Madden Football and you beat me 72-0, I doubt either one of us will take much pleasure. Likewise, an educated man’s ability to enjoy art sets him apart and above the vulgar and tasteless masses, but a pimpled teenager’s superior skill at Video Games rather notoriously gets him nowhere in life.