The video-games-writin' set has an odd set of preoccupations, and many of them hinge on the question of legitimacy. The is-games-art debate, the Citizen Kane o' games question, they're all about the stature of games in the cultural marketplace, where they stand in the artistic pecking order. (Here's a hint: pretty fucking low. It's lonely at the bottom. Hence the contest between video game and comic book enthusiasts, the “Saddest Fight on the Internet.”)
One of the major problems with this discourse is that the are-games-art conversation almost never goes anywhere. I'm not denying that some good work has been done in this line (N'Gai Croal's reply to Roger Ebert is maybe his finest piece), but I've never felt the conversation produces much. As soon as you pose the question the whole issue becomes a definitional wrangle over what art is; one party or another begins lobbing stipulations at the other and a substantive issue becomes a semantical one. Comment threads allover the internet are overstuffed with useless arguments of this very form.
The pervasive error here, which Wittgenstein warned against, is the presumption that there is one or more properties-- authorial intent, emotional depth etc.-- the possession of which unerringly discriminates art from nonart. The Philosophical Investigations (supposing you try to understand it, which I cannot in good conscience recommend), will disabuse you of this misguided idea that there's a criterion to be had when it comes to applying concepts like “art.” There's a wealth of interesting historical and anthropological observations to be made about how we use the concept of art-- what it means for us to treat some portion of our culture the way we treat Pride and Prejudice, say-- but we're not going to unearth a metaphysical truth, an occult rule, that will magically decide the question for us.
Leigh Alexander, in partnership with games-crit mandarin Ian Bogsot, recently launched a salvo in a neighboring dispute, the Citizen Kane o' Games question. Their point is that we should put the whole issue to bed, as the dynamics of cultural legitimacy presupposed by the question are outdated and irrelevant in the new-media landscape. “we think that having a Citizen Kane will prove our artistic legitimacy,” Bogost remarks, “but masterworks are not how artistic legitimacy is proven anymore.” There's a lot of truth to this; the critical discourse on games, like all other cultural discourse, has become more and more fragmented and specialized since the advent of the internet. The scattered condition of our critical polis is ill-suited to king-making. Artistic legitimacy is a social phenomenon, something that we create ourselves-- a fiction, as Bogost says. It's necessarily bound to the forms of media that sustain and disseminate it.
The problem with all this is that we're asking the wrong question. The “are games art?” question is boring. The “will there be a Citizen Kane of games question?” is equally so. While we can make some more-or-less intelligent prognostications about the the new economics of cultural capital in the internet era, even this is a purely speculative.
The interesting question, to me, is what kind of art games are. That is, we should be asking ourselves what kind of formal dynamics and pleasures are inherent in the medium, and be able to identify when these formal capacities are used well. (This is another way of posing the question: how are games fun?)
And this is one area where thinking about what Citizen Kane achieved (rather than what it represents) is genuinely important. The reason that Kane has the kind of cachet it does is because it displayed such a consummate command of the formal capacities of cinema, as a medium. (I think Alexander and Bogost do Kane something of an injustice; the article reads as if its cultural status is an accident of history, and underplay the role of its superb artistry in its achievement of that status) It wrought a novel marriage of form and content by creating a visual language that complimented its thematic preoccupations.
There's a brilliant bit in Michael Chabon's Kavalier and Clay that captures this. They've just come from the movie, and Joe is trying to explain to Sammy that Welles' masterpiece holds the key to their own nascent, illegitimate medium:
It was that Citizen Kane represented, more than any other movie Joe had seen, the total blending of narration and image... Without the witty, potent dialogue and the puzzling shape of the story, the movie would have been merely an American version of the kind of brooding, shadow-filled Ufa-style expressionist stuff that Joe had grown up watching in Prague. Without the brooding shadows and bold adventuring of the camera, it would have been merely a clever movie about a rich bastard. It was much more, than any move really needed to be. In this one crucial regard-- its inextricable braiding of image and narrative-- Citizen Kane was like a comic book
Now, cinema is much more akin to comic books than games. Let's lay this aside. It's this braiding we should be thinking about. We should ask ourselves whether a game can achieve a relevantly similar kind of synthesis.
To tip my hand a bit, I think this would involve exploiting the fact that games are both rules and fiction, form and content. The game creates a certain space of possibilities for the player to inhabit and the fiction invests those choices with meaning. The genius of Bioshock, for instance, was the way that the game's upgrade-mechanics (acquiring ADAM, a scarce and morally hazardous resource) played off against its thematic concerns with the costs of untrammeled self-interest. It lost its way on this point, but Bioshock offers (along with Portal, and maybe Braid) something of genuine use: not a cultural monolith, but an example of what videogame art might look like.