The next artistic explosion?

According to the Entertainment Software Association, 50 percent of Americans over the age of six play computer games, and the industry had $11.4 billion in sales in 2003, more than the film industry. Last year, 63 percent of U.S. parents said they planned to buy a video game.

So will computer games be the breeding grounds for our next artistic renaissance? I’ve yet to see the evidence. Many people are negative on the aesthetic prospects:

Some in the industry, however, are not so sure that games will ever mature. They fear games could be a dead end like comic books – valuable as a social phenomenon, but outside a select few titles like Art Spiegelman’s “Maus,” not worth a great deal of individual study. “I seldom play computer games, because it’s such a depressing experience,” said Chris Crawford, a game designer who is building a program to create interactive stories. “I end up shaking my head in dismay at how stuck the designers are in a rut.”

Here is the full story, including a discussion of how academics are hoping to raise aesthetic standards in the area. Get this:

The field has its own research group (the Digital Games Research Association) and peer-reviewed online critical journal, Game Studies, where one writer, discussing the horror and splatter-fest PlayStation game “Silent Hill,” wrote that it “favors syntagmatic causality over descriptive explication. Its distinct chain of puzzle solving and conditional progression enable it to instigate and maintain pace and tension, and so fuel its unnerving visions of death and possession.”

Imagine if Motown or be-bop jazz had been studied in these terms, in their heydays. If that is our best hope, I am skeptical too.

The best case scenario is that game designers are breeding aesthetic wonders in their highly commercial and competitive environment, and outsiders such as myself simply don’t know it yet. The worst case scenario is that computer games unbundle “fun” and “the aesthetic,” and sell us the former at the expense of the latter. Mozart gives us both beauty and entertainment, but in a world with very low fixed costs, perhaps these two qualities will be sold separately from now on. Perhaps computer games, and books such as The Da Vinci Code, can damage the arts by hindering entertainment from cross-subsidizing beauty.

I’ll bet on the best case scenario, since I think enough people prefer indivisible cultural goods that bundle many different qualities, including aesthetic quality. But I’m still waiting to see the payoff.

Addendum: Here is a review of an < href="http://www.gameforms.com/features/misc/bang/">art exhibit of video games, thanks to Hei Lun Chan for the pointer.