Art: “Art is the product or process of deliberately arranging symbolic elements in a way that influences and affects one or more of the senses, emotions, and intellect.” – As defined on Wikipedia.
Had I been the first person asked “Do you think games are art?” I’d have nipped this entire debate in the butt. Art is subjective in that it affects everyone differently. There are those who, when they look at a respected artist's work, they gasp. They’re taken back as whatever work they’re gazing upon affects their senses, emotions, etc. If I look at a Van Gogh or Pablo Picasso painting and feel nothing, does that mean it isn’t art? Absolutely not. For someone to look at what I consider to be art and shrug it off as child’s play, or an ugly form of entertainment is naïve and hurtful.
Try and convince a developer that their product isn’t art. How can anyone think that thousands of man hours spent on skyboxes, textures, animations, and gameplay direction is anything less? That would be equivalent to me arguing Trevor Nunn’s Cats the Musical isn’t art. Theatre is very much an art, and Cats is one of the best shows to ever grace the stage (in my subjective opinion). Having said that, theatre elicits no emotions and does nothing for my senses.
For something to be considered art, it doesn’t necessarily mean it needs to have some deep philosophical meaning, as Roger Ebert would have us think. I understand where he is coming from, and that line of thinking works well for film, poetry, and story telling in general. However, when it comes to video games, things work a little different. I’ll concede that the industry is still in its infancy; we are only just starting to emerge from our “violence is awesome” childhood and blossoming into the “You know, we don’t always have to kill things to tell a story” years. We're moving from GTA to Flower, slowly, but were making that transition.
As I was saying, to say games aren’t art because you can draw no philosophical meaning or life lesson from them isn’t fair. I’ve had hundreds of moments where I’m in awe at what I’m seeing on-screen, be it a beautiful skybox or a well directed cut-scene. As I don’t have the same appreciation for Picasso, I can only assume it’s how an art dealer/collector feels when they look at his work. Regardless, who’s to say video games aren’t capable of eliciting comparable emotions to those felt by other people when viewing paintings, reading poetry, or watching a great film?
When it comes down to it, the debate for games as art is fruitless. A lot of people are going to have different opinions and definitions for what art really is. Why one camp feels the need to attack the other is beyond me. Passionate, hardcore gamers feel the need to convince the world that what we do is justified and should be taken as seriously as other forms of media. For the life of me, I can’t understand why we care. I’m certainly not seeking approval for what I’m doing. I love video games, I love the feelings they elicit, and I most certainly love the interaction. It’s a medium that offers things no other form of entertainment can. Perhaps there are some who feel we are squandering our gift of interaction on murder simulators and nonsensical things. I can’t say I disagree, but I certainly wouldn’t have it any other way.