The debate has been over for a while now. Videogames are art.
I knew it was over not when the National Endowment for the Arts added grants for games, or even when the US Supreme Court ruled that videogames are protected speech. I knew it was over because of a newspaper clipping my grandmother sent me.
It was from a column called "The Arty Semite," and it discussed the then-upcoming Biblically-inspired game El Shaddai: Ascension of the Metatron. (Full post here.) It didn't make the argument that talking about heavy stuff like the Bible sure is artistic. It didn't claim that this represented a step forward in the expressive significance of videogames. It just said hey, here's an interesting upcoming game. In a column about the arts.
In other words, my grandmother sent me a newspaper clipping that took it for granted that games are art. That's how I knew.
Why was this debate so long-lived and vitriolic? "Are videogames art?" seems like such a straightforward question. The problem is that it's really two very different questions. The first is, "Is the medium of videogames capable of artistic expression?"
This is the more useful question, and also the simpler one. It's a matter of definition - if your definition of art precludes interaction (as did Roger Ebert's) then videogames can't be art. Period. It's not a judgment on videogames, or an insult, or anything remotely offensive - it's just the logical implication of the terms involved. It's just what the words mean.
My answer to this first question is: "Yes, duh, of course the medium of videogames is capable of artistic expression. Games can be beautiful, they can impart emotion, they can convey messages. What more do you want?"
The second question is, "Have any videogames yet been made that can be considered profound works of great art?"