The basic question of “Are games art?” shouldn’t be that big of a deal, after all the answer to that question doesn’t affect the medium in any way, shape or form. Game designers, developers, indie people, etc will all keep doing what they’re doing regardless of the official definitions for the words “art” and “game”. So why should we care if games are art or not?
Maybe we shouldn’t, since the discussion around the issue is more than probably going nowhere, but most of us do because the implications of saying “games are not art” is what bothers us. It implies that games cannot be anything but mindless entertainment, that they can’t carry a message of their own without relying entirely on other media to do the job. It implies that there’s nowhere to go, nothing to explore, that there’s no advancement possible with this medium and there’s nothing of real value that can come out of it (granted I’m exagerating a little here, but I tend to do that to make my point clear). Sure, we can make our games all pretty, sure, we can make our dialogue sequences Oscar-worthy, but we’ll never be able to disassociate from other media if we want to achieve something meaningful.
That’s our problem. We don’t care if games are considered art or not, we just care about the possibilities this medium has to offer, we look at it and become wide-eyed by the sheer vastness of the unexplored territory it has. Saying that it isn’t art is taking that perception and running it through the mud like it was nothing important.
But let’s take a step back for a second. Let’s take the question in itself for what it is: “Are games art?” could be translated to “Do mechanics comunicate meaning in and off themselves?” since that’s what art is supposed to be about as far as I know: to comunicate a message, an emotion, an idea through a medium. And that second question I can answer with a resounding “YES”. Granted, mechanics need context in order to gain the power to communicate something, or in other words, in order to be art. Some might question if this context is all the message the player captures, and that’s true most of the time since typical game design revolves around making the mechanics fun and then attaching a story to them as if it were something you can just add to it and then pretend that it all makes sense/tries to express something profound.
But that doesn’t mean that there aren’t any games that fuse together mechanics and context (gameplay and story, if you will) well enough to be considered better than the sum of it’s parts. Passage, Braid and The Marriage are the first games that come to mind when thinking about mechanics interwoven with the context, one feeding off of the other in a simbiotic dance that welcomes player input and makes the whole experience a story told by the designer and the player in equal parts.
Having something to say is the most important quality of anything considered “art”. But that’s not enough, that’s never enough. In order to be considered art, in my opinion, this message needs to explore at least to some degree the posibilities that the medium provides. You can make an entire movie out of text, just scroll it down the screen for two hours and you’re set. Would that be art? Well, if it’s trying to say something that is only possible in that format, then yes, but if the text itself is all there is to it, then why not just publish it as a book? Wouldn’t that be better? Sure, the experience would be somewhat different, but if the text really didn’t exploit the format then of course you can just cut and paste the text into a book. Maybe the final product will be even better for it.
But the problem with the mayority of the games out there is that they divide mechanics and context as if they can’t relate to each other. And this, in my experience leads to further divide context and gameplay on the part of the player: They either like the “story”, or the “gameplay”, but never both. They’re playing just to get to the next cutscene (any Final Fantasy game of the last decade) or they’re completely disregarding the context of their actions (any Mario game).
Final Fantasy 7 had something to say about nature, society and the bond between a mother and a son… but does that make it a great case for games as art? Well, like I already said, no. Because all of these themes are communicated exclusively through cutscenes and dialogue. The mechanics of that game have absolutely NOTHING to do with what it has to say, and therefore could have been translated into a film, for example, and loose nothing in the process. (It might seem that I’m contradicting myself, but in Hotel Dusk the mechanics are there to reinforce character ownership, and that’s something that FF7 doesn’t have to the same degree).
Anyway, I think that’s all I have to say about the subject for the moment. Some parts of this post were lifted from the comments I made here, please go there and take a look, it’s an interesting post (and blog if I may add).