Video games have made an artistic quantum leap since Mario was dodging barrels on his way to bashing Donkey Kong in the early 1980s. The narrative complexity and aesthetics of some of today's games have drawn the attention of institutions ranging from the Tate Britain in London to the Museum of Modern Art in New York. But as a debate heats up as to whether or not video games are a legitimate art form, thoughtful video game criticism is still for the most part as far from sight as a kid down in his parents' basement playing Grand Theft Auto.
Intelligent video game criticism? Many people might dismiss the notion entirely, especially people who still see games as the mindless entertainment of children. But beneath the blasting guns and exploding bombs, there are huge reserves of meaning and cultural importance waiting to be uncovered and explained, says Tom Bissell, author of the new book Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter.
And though Bissell would be the first to admit that many games are simply mindless entertainment, he says we shouldn't allow that to shut down any discussion of the medium's artistic legitimacy.
"There are certain games and certain game designers that really seek to provide a vehicle for the player to have a transformative emotional experience, and I think if any game is working under that model, I don't think there's any real debate about whether or not that would qualify as art," says Bissell.
Of course, not everyone agrees, including Roger Ebert. In a post on his blog in April, the famed film critic took issue with the idea of games qualifying as art.
"Let me just say that no video gamer now living will survive long enough to experience the medium as an art form," he wrote. Unlike art, Ebert continued, you can win a game, which has "rules, points, objectives, and an outcome."
That may be true, but it is also true that games have stories, characters and themes. And for Bissell, an avid gamer who teaches fiction writing at Portland State University, it is how those things are experienced, within those rules and the quest for points, that creates the potential for art.
"Some games are made by people who are interested in commenting on the person who's going through that experience," he says. "They're interested in transforming or expanding that person's mind in a way, to do something beyond just making them think, 'Oh, that was cool' or 'That was awesome.'"
He points to the gorgeous aesthetics of Flower, the narrative possibilities open to players of Mass Effect and the satire of American culture found in Grand Theft Auto IV as viable examples of this sort of expression.
With annual industry sales figures ranging anywhere from $20-billion to $42-billion, which dwarfs Hollywood's revenues, there's no doubt games are the dominant form of entertainment today.
And professional artists have begun to use the technology of gaming as a medium. Among them is 20-something Mark Essen, who has drawn plenty of attention for his games that employ Atari-like aesthetics but frustrating, unpredictable logic. He had a slot in a major retrospective at the New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York last year.
But in order for commercial games to receive widespread acceptance as art, there needs to emerge a body of video game criticism that delves deeper than game reviews that simply inform readers whether games are fun to play, Bissell says.
"Games are really on the brink of taking their place amongst other unquestioned story-telling mediums," he says.
A stronger body of criticism will also help elevate the quality of games, says Greg Costikyan, a New York-based independent games designer.
"Establishing a culture of criticism, I think, will ultimately [help us]wind up with better games," he says. "Not only because a more mature, aesthetically educated audience will demand better quality material, but also because designers themselves will be more aware of what they're doing."
Like Costikyan, many gamers are waiting for their Pauline Kael, the kind of critic who could take what most other people regard as "low" entertainment and show why it is an artistic achievement worthy of our attention.
Much of that work is currently being done at universities in Canada and around the world.
"Certainly, in the academy, what you're sort of seeing is literary analysis and performance analysis and film analysis being used to unpack or understand the appeal of games," says Emma Westecott, an assistant professor of games studies at the Ontario College of Art and Design.
Several galleries have helped open the gates to a discussion of video game's status as art, Westecott says. In March, the Tate Britain hosted an event called Late at Tate Britain: Game Play. The event included a talk on the relationship between design, narrative and game play in modern games. In February, the Museum of Modern Art, in New York, included video game consoles and controllers in an exhibit called Design and the Elastic Mind.
Yet as video games are slowly being held up alongside other artistic mediums, critical appraisal of games faces its own unique challenges.
One main hurdle is developing a critical framework for a medium that is different for each person. We can all sit down and watch the same movie or read the same book, but the same video game can be experienced in drastically different ways depending on choices a player makes. Imagine trying to critically discuss a movie if its ending was different in every viewing.
"With games, you do different things, so the game means something different to you," says Jamin Brophy-Warren, a writer and the CEO of Kill Screen, a U.S.-based magazine about games that launched in March and compares itself to Wired, Rolling Stone and The Believer. ""We are still walking through a common language to discuss games."
The absence of that common language feeds the debate about the artistic merits of video games. Judge games according to the criteria of other art forms, whether film or painting, and games inevitably will be seen as inferior.
Given the nature of the medium, games criticism will likely evolve to reflect the personal experiences of gamers, says Brophy-Warren, a former arts and entertainment reporter at the Wall Street Journal. That approach nicely sidesteps the issue of whether or not games qualify as art, he adds.
And with the cultural respectability of games on the rise, we should expect to see more games criticism, he says.
"As people feel more empowered to write about video games because it's part of their cultural diet, that will definitely expand the reach and sophistication of writing about games."
Fostering a culture of games criticism doesn't depend on settling the question of whether or not games are art, Bissell says. That question "puts the onus on the medium, which is wrong. To me, the question is: Can the video game medium provide an artist with a viable means of expression? And that's a totally different question, and a much easier question to say yes to."