Are games art? Sure they are. They’re a juvenile art that (like finger-painting) we don’t generally tend to spontaneously think of as art, if we were pressed to name categories. That’s actually our fault as a society and as gamers.
Remember when cinema wasn’t art? You probably don’t, and neither do I, but it was an important phase in cinema.
Of course cinema was art even then. We know that now, but at the time? No. A few people believed that cinema could be art, but they didn’t really get much in the way of funding. It was the juvenile period for cinema – not only in the sense of being young, but in the sorts of content that was funded and created.
Even the attempts that were made early on tended to flop more often than not. Just how to bring art to the cinema screen successfully eluded many. It takes time to figure out how to make a medium work well in support of art, but even more time (perhaps) before we start to accept it. Art is art, even when you screw it up.
The games industry is like the old-time cinema industry. It’s young (a mere 30-something years old), and like the big studios of yesteryear, isn’t really all that interested in paying for something that a game-developer thinks is artistic.
If a publisher could package manure in a box and get it to sell off game store shelves in similar numbers of units, then you’d need a peg on your nose just to walk into the shop. Publishers, like the old time big studios, don’t really care about art. It’s just not important to them, because (as yet) whether the game you buy at the store next is art or not doesn’t really matter to you.
Sales figures don’t seem to be noticeably affected by whether the story is excellent and well told, whether characterizations are deep and meaningful, whether or not it is emotionally moving, by whether the lead character tends to intersect what are supposedly solid objects or by whether it’s just another WW2 shooter.
That didn’t affect your decision to buy, so clearly you’re giving the message that being art doesn’t really matter all that much. Likewise you don’t stampede to the few artistic games any more than audiences of previous generations stampeded to see art in films in their day. Art in games is still very shaky, and uncertain.
As long as we keep treating and selling games as being somehow juvenile, they’re not likely to evolve out of that with any swiftness, just as babying your child well into her twenties is more likely to stunt her emotional growth than not.
Eventually, the elements we associate with art in storytelling will make their way into games and be relatively ubiquitous. We’ll ache when it isn’t there. For now, though, it’s just a matter of waiting out the peep-shows and nickelodeons (albeit with the occasional gem), until something better comes along.
It’s what we’re paying for.