[In this summarized academic study, authors Michael Burden and Sean Gouglas discuss Portal's artistic merit and examine its exploration of "what it means to be human within an increasingly algorithmic world."]
For those who love games and value their potential to create deep and personal meaning, the "video games as art" debate seems an unnecessary conversation. And yet, it keeps popping up regularly enough, and will keep popping up while the focus remains on the medium and not on the games themselves. As seen in the debate that shaped previous forms as they began to be considered artworthy, like cinema and photography, the importance of the medium was not a key factor in the deliberations.
In our opinion, what is crucial to the acceptance of games as art is a deep, critical engagement with specific videogames. There is a growing collection of games that proponents can point to as artworthy. Exploring the thematic synthesis of narrative, mechanic, and world within these great games as they relate to the affordances of the medium is more effective than meta discussions about the potential of the media to be art. Don't argue, "Can video games be art?" Choose the best games and discuss them as art. The larger argument of whether the medium can be art will be won simply by inertia when sufficient games are shown to be art through meaningful critical engagement.
Of course, this is already happening. We've tried to contribute (in a new academic paper) by spending 8000 words discussing Portal as art.
Our first step was to acknowledge the existence of the sustained and productive discussion about defining art that exists in popular and academic circles. One crucial aspect in that debate is that the whole point of art is to push boundaries, so there cannot (and should not) be a rigid definition. But that does not mean that attempts are not useful, in particular those that focus on 'cluster' definitions - a set of necessary conditions for the general acceptance of a medium as art. Such clusters include having a manifest aesthetic, acceptance on institutional grounds, and the role of auteurs. A wonderful example of this can be found in Tavinor's application of Gaut's cluster to BioShock.
So what makes Portal art? How does the game's interactivity accentuate the meaning of being trapped in the Aperture Science Computer-Aided Enrichment Center? And what is that message? Portal creatively explores the idea of the machine gone mad, but this is well-trod ground. It served, for example, as the basis for way too many episodes in the original Star Trek television series. Portal also inverts many video game tropes to wonderful effect: the princess rescues herself, the tutorial level is the entire game, the level design takes the limitations of the stage as its strengths requiring no false doors or inaccessible areas (until after Test Chamber 19). However, many games invert tropes, and could hardly be called art.