Roger Ebert (still) says no. But they might be, eventually. But not in any of our lifetimes. Now, this is a medium that has gone from Space Invaders to LittleBigPlanet in 30 years. When I first started playing video games, it would slow down if there were too many items on the screen. I've gone from games where the story only appears on the side of the arcade cabinet to games with real-time cutscenes and fully integrated stories. I don't feel comfortable predicting the future of gaming.
The reaction to this is (still) a mixture of outrage and dismissal. Why? Why does it matter to me whether or not video games are art? Why does it matter to me whether or not Roger Ebert says so?
To deal with those questions in reverse order: Roger Ebert is a very good movie critic. He is insightful, writes very well, and I believe he's right more often than he's wrong. I'm sure we disagree on some things - I say that Up is the best movie ever made. He'd probably go with one of those "safe" picks like 2001 or Citizen Kane.
He knows about art. I'm less certain that he knows about video games; he seems to have played around ten of them. I'm not certain that I could speak definitively about movies after seeing ten, even if they were the ten best movies of all time. A genre either builds on or subverts expectations created by previous works in the genre. I'm also of the opinion that, perhaps, he has played the wrong ten.
On the other hand, this totally reminds me of when I tried to convince my English teacher that Pink Floyd lyrics were too poetry*. I forget how that one ended: either they weren't poetry for reasons I couldn't understand or, less likely, that they were poetry but not relevant to the course curriculum. To me, art has always been something defined by other people. Something that is declared "worthy of attention" for reasons I either don't understand or don't agree with, the implication being that the other things I devote my attention to are less worthy. I suppose I'm overreacting a bit. I work in webcomics, which get even less respect than newspaper comics, which get even less respect than comic books, which don't get much respect at all.
Why does it matter if games are art or not?
Well, there I was thinking that maybe I should stop listening to the hippy-dippy nonsense** I usually listen to and get some real music. I went to the library, took out some John Coltrane albums, and listened.
Three albums later, I realized that I didn't enjoy a minute of it, and couldn't tell brilliant free jazz apart from random noise. I tried. I wanted to wear a beret and tell people that I really dug jazz***. It was art, as defined by the relevant art-defining authorities. It meant absolutely nothing to me.
So I went back home, put on a Monkees album, and never looked back. I'm sure people think that if I listened to the right jazz albums, I'd get it. It's not that I don't care for art. I don't care about art. When I tried to put all the good songs on my playlist, it was impossible. When I tried to put the songs I liked, it was easy.
Now, Ebert cites wikipedia's definition of art. For various reasons****, I do not feel that it is an appropriate resource to define so nebulous. I cite my own work - art is what gets assigned to precocious tenth-graders so they can misunderstand it. By that definition, video games are not art. Tenth graders will find and understand video games without help.
By that definition, pre-calculus is also art. This was not my intention, but is tolerable and does not invalidate the definition. Pythagoras would say that it strengthens it*****.
Also, my uncle John would, when he was teaching Computers, would send students to my website in the hopes that they might learn something from it. Hopefully they did, but I won't speculate as to what. This means that Unlike Minerva is also art. Does that invalidate my definition? Of course not. Or not very much, I hope.
Are videogames art? Is art necessarily great? Ebert says no (because if there the player influences the game, that lessens the statement made by the artist. If the player does not influence the game, it is not a game), and yes, to these questions. I say yes (because subjective interpretation is all we've got; how you perceive any art is influenced by your perspective; games can merely make that explicit.), no (because that would mean that it's my fault for not liking Coltrane [or any other designated artist], rather than me making a valid decision to reject a work whose difficulty exceeds its reward).
Do videogames have to be art? Not to be enjoyable, they don't have to be. I think that Super Smash Bros. Melee is a well-crafted fighting game, but I'm not sure it communicates anything beyond "Damn, this is awesome". But I think some of them - Grim Fandango for instance - definitely are art.
So, where am I going with this? Every time Ebert does this, people list a variety of games that are art - Ico, Planetfall, Mother 3, and a number of other games I haven't played. So I'm going to play them. I'm going to make a list of the games that are, for artistic or other reasons, essential and, for as long as it takes, play through them. Maybe they are art. Maybe they aren't. But
I want you to help me make that list. Not the good games. Not, perhaps, the great games. The masterpieces. Games that it would be an injustice if nobody got to play them again.
*: Phil Ochs lyrics? Totally poetry. If I had "Tape from California", I would've won that argument. Take that, My-tenth-grade-English-teacher-whose-nam
**: I'm not just saying that Pink Floyd is hippy-dippy nonsense. It's just that that genre was seriously over-represented in my music collection at the time. Still is. But I like it, and I try not to give anyone guff if they like things different.
But seriously, listen to "It Would Be So Nice" and tell me the label doesn't fit.
***: Not all the time. Just once. Maybe for Halloween. But I wanted to be able to talk the talk if someone called me on it. The Soft Machine, Volume 2 is precisely as free as I care for my jazz to be. I can't predict it, but I understand it. It makes sense to me. It is, as they say over at Writing Excuses, "surprising but inevitable"
****: I don't believe the people moderating wikipedia are any more entitled to define art than I am. Possibly less so. Too lazy to provide proper links here. I mean, I have five footnotes.
*****: Yes, here I am putting a reference to Pythagoras and Ancient Greek mathematical mysticism in an essay about rejecting cultural shibboleths. I think even putting the word "shibboleth" in here invalidates my argument a little. I'd say something about being large and containing multitudes, but that'd just ruin it.