Video-game designers who would like their work to be regarded as art have just won support from an unlikely source: London's theatre world. From today to Sunday, the theatre company Punchdrunk will be teaming up with Sony PlayStation for …And Darkness Descended, an immersive experience based on the game Resistance 3, in which participants must complete tasks to survive, and decide whether to cooperate with others or leave them behind.
It follows similar participatory plays from the company, such as It Felt Like a Kiss, in which a group of viewers is split up as they walk down corridors, until each is alone, pursued by a terrifying figure with a chainsaw. The new piece will be even more interactive, though, with participants feeling more like gamers than an audience as they navigate the Resistance Universe, an alternative version of the 1950s in which 90 per cent of the world's population are either dead or enslaved by space aliens.
The project comes at a time when gaming is being accepted in highbrow circles as never before. The same weekend, the London Philharmonic will be performing music from video games at the Southbank Centre's Royal Festival Hall, including tunes from Elder Scrolls, Super Mario and Angry Birds.
At the Edinburgh Festival last month, the arts venue The Forest hosted a game designed by the poet Ross Sutherland in which players were offered a canto of poetry and had to search surrounding streets to find a key to unlock the next level. And in the US, the Smithsonian American Art Museum is gearing up to launch The Art of Video Games in the spring, a huge exhibition looking both at the aesthetics within games and at the games themselves as art.
"Art is constantly evolving, as is the language we use to talk about it," the Smithsonian curator Georgina Goodlander told the technology blog Boing Boing. "I think we've only just started to explore how video games can and should be incorporated." She added that while video games today might be "less refined" than other types of media, that was due to the short length of time they'd been around. Given time, she said, "video games will become one of the most powerful storytelling mediums we have ever experienced".
The American Supreme Court seems to agree. In June, the court ruled that video games deserved the same constitutional protection as books, plays and visual art, in a ruling about the sale of violent games in California. But not everyone feels the same way: last year, the critic Roger Ebert fuelled the debate when he argued that video games could never be considered art.
"You can win a game," he wrote in a subsequent article clarifying his position. "It has rules, points, objectives, and an outcome." Novels, plays, dance recitals, films, on the other hand, he said, were things "you cannot win; you can only experience them".
Setting aside the point that, as the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein pointed out, games are impossible things to define, and there are games without rules (children playing house), without an outcome (Second Life) and without a winner (patience), Ebert is still on shaky ground.
Presumably he'd consider Punchdrunk, which has won theatre prizes including a Critics Circle award, to be a creator of art - but …And Darkness Descended has winners, rules and an outcome. Does that disqualify it?
"Art", like "game", is another notoriously tricky word. Whereas the standard definition used to be couched in terms of aesthetic experience or inherent beauty, others describe art as something that fills a social function: art is what is displayed in galleries, debated in the art sections of newspapers, taught at art schools and sold for dizzying sums at auction. Its role is not only to make money but to create social currency: talking about art makes us feel part of a cultural elite.
While this theory may seem cynical (and circular), it makes sense of Ebert's remarks. The journalist refuses to term video games art, we could argue, because video games aren't the sort of thing clever, upper-class people engage with or discuss.
Except now they are. Look at Cory Arcangel, whose hacked versions of bowling games have been on show at the Barbican in London and at the Whitney in New York. What's considered art changes all the time, and perhaps Ebert just can't keep up.
And just as video games can be held up as art, theatre practitioners such as Punchdrunk can incorporate games into their drama without being any less imaginative. Let's hope Georgina Goodlander is right, and the Picasso of virtual shoot em ups is out there now, honing his or her craft.