This is Lanchester's theme: his article about games is entitled Is It Art? "It seems clear to me that by the time my children are adults," he writes, "video gaming will be a medium whose importance and cultural ubiquity are at least as great as that of film or television. Whether it will be an artistic medium of equivalent importance is less clear... The next decade or so is going to see the world of video games convulsed by battles between the moneymen and the artists; if the good guys win, or win enough of the time, we’re going to have a whole new art form."
Now, this fits into this week's Click Opera themes rather neatly: Wednesday's brief history of moral panics measured the vitality of media by how much they were getting blamed for corrupting youth, and concluded that the kind of censorship debates happening in other media at their peaks in past decades are happening in computer games now, making the medium "hot and dangerous".
The thing I brought back from my 1993 Japan trip that most influenced my future work wasn't a record or a film but a video game, a CD-ROM by artist Kuniyoshi Kaneko called Alice. It was basically just a house that you walked around, featuring paintings by Kaneko, Nino Rota-esque music, and puzzles you had to complete to shrink or grow, but I found the atmosphere fascinating. I especially liked the attic room, an interactive replica of Kaneko's studio, where you could leaf through 1940s copies of Vogue. Later, I'd become immersed in games like Parappa, Myst, Doom, Bugdom, Animal Crossing (over Hisae's shoulder). Our Wii will basically be for tennis and keeping fit until the February Euro-release of Fatal Frame 4.
Fatal Frame (also known as Zero: Tsukihami no Kamen, and subtitled for this fourth edition Mask of the Lunar Eclipse) is an atmospheric horror game in which you have to photograph ghosts in a haunted mansion on Rougetsu Island. Anne Laplantine and Xavier used to play the PlayStation version when I was round at their place, and I loved the Ringu-like atmosphere of the dark house. The Japanese website is pretty compelling stuff in its own right -- clicking around randomly in a foreign language only adds to the pleasurable disorientation, and the music sounds like Sakamoto's collaborations with Carsten Nicolai.
I find it wonderful that Fatal Frame is a game about taking photographs in beautiful, atmospheric surroundings, rather than shooting stuff or driving a car, but so far it's the exception rather than the rule. John Lanchester hits the nail on the head in his LRB piece when he raises what he calls "the c-word" -- creativity. It's creativity that will turn computer games into a real art form. Too many are still tasks-oriented rat-runs (press the button, get the reward) or Darwinian struggles in which the options are to kill or be killed. Personally, I'd like to see interesting purposelessness define games more in the future: liberation from the Pavlovian task-reward-level-up structure. Are computer games already an art form? I don't think so. Do they need to be? I think they do.
While we wait for the games themselves to get more creative, we can inject our own creativity into them. When my nephew Robbie was staying in Berlin this autumn -- and Robbie would rather make games at Rockstar than be a rock star -- he introduced me to the genre of machinima, "a sort of machine cinema made by sticking new dialogue over computer game scenarios". Lanchester cites the increasing capital costs of making new games as a barrier to their becoming artworks, but machinima is a cheap open architecture for creative content, a back door to user input. For now it's a hack, but it needn't always be.
Games are also meshing with social networking software, becoming more like places, or communities like Second Life. But a community isn't a work of art: for art you need the tightly-controlled vision of one or two highly original, driven independent producers. Now that computer games are bringing in more income than films and music combined, there's sure to be a rush of talented, ambitious and original people into the medium (along with the moral panics that help make their names). Full art status for games may be lurking just around the next cobwebbed corner.