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Last year, Americans bought over 215 million computer and video games. That’s more than two games per household. The video game industry made almost as much money from gross domestic income as Hollywood.

So are video games a massive drain on our income, time and energy? A new form of “cultural pollution,” as one U.S. senator described them? The “nightmare before Christmas,” in the words of another? Are games teaching our children to kill, as countless op-ed pieces have warned?

No. Computer games are art-a popular art, an emerging art, a largely unrecognized art, but art nevertheless.

Over the past 25 years, games have progressed from the primitive two-paddles-and-a-ball Pong to the sophistication of Final Fantasy, a participatory story with cinema-quality graphics that unfolds over nearly 100 hours of play. The computer game has been a killer app for the home PC, increasing consumer demand for vivid graphics, rapid processing, greater memory and better sound. The release this fall of the Sony Playstation 2, coupled with the announcement of next-generation consoles by Nintendo and Microsoft, signals a dramatic increase in the resources available to game designers.

Games increasingly influence contemporary cinema, helping to define the frenetic pace and model the multi-directional plotting of Run Lola Run, providing the role-playing metaphor for Being John Malkovich and encouraging a fascination with the slippery line between reality and digital illusion in The Matrix. At high schools and colleges across the country, students discuss games with the same passions with which earlier generations debated the merits of the New American Cinema. Media studies programs report a growing number of their students want to be game designers rather than filmmakers.

The time has come to take games seriously as an important new popular art shaping the aesthetic sensibility of the 21st century. I will admit that discussing the art of video games conjures up comic images: tuxedo-clad and jewel-bedecked patrons admiring the latest Streetfighter, middle-aged academics pontificating on the impact of Cubism on Tetris, bleeps and zaps disrupting our silent contemplation at the Guggenheim. Such images tell us more about our contemporary notion of art-as arid and stuffy, as the property of an educated and economic elite, as cut off from everyday experience- than they tell us about games.

New York’s Whitney Museum found itself at the center of controversy about digital art when it recently included Web artists in its prestigious biannual show. Critics didn’t believe the computer could adequately express the human spirit. But they’re misguided. The computer is simply a tool, one that offers artists new resources and opportunities for reaching the public; it is human creativity that makes art. Still, one can only imagine how the critics would have responded to the idea that something as playful, unpretentious and widely popular as a computer game might be considered art.


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