'Emotion Engine'? I Don't Think So.

Why can't these game wizards be satisfied with their ingenuity, their $7 billion (and rising) in sales, their capture of a huge chunk of youth around the world? Why must they claim that what they are doing is "art"? And should anyone care whether this emerging medium is art or not? The point is, the game designers care. They lust after the title of Artist. You might think these cutting-edge, post-post-everything guys would scorn such an ancient calling. Not so; you don't hear them boasting, "We've gone beyond art. Art is moldy old stuff for moldy old people." No, they need art, because, being very intelligent, they know that art is crucial, that human beings and art have had a--what's that buzzword?--synergistic relationship from the beginning, from the prehistoric cave paintings to Homer to Shakespeare to Mozart to Tolstoy to Charlie Chaplin to Picasso to Robert Frost to Louis Armstrong to Balanchine to Fred Astaire. Phil Harrison, vice president of research and development for PlayStation, foresees "a game designer in the future who can have thesocial impact of a great movie director, author or musician." Game masters like Harrison know all about the history of art, which is the history of humankind's ceaseless attempts to grasp and express the meaning of the world and their own nature.

That's a pretty highfalutin statement, but if you want to be in the art business, you have to falute pretty high. As digital games have increased in technical power, their creators have been swept into a kind of euphoria. Sony research director Dominic Mallinson says that games are moving away from basic "stimulus and response" toward "creativity and performance." He talks of "cognitive modeling," which can produce intelligent dinosaurs, and "particle rendering," which can simulate things like smoke and tornadoes. He foresees games' reaching such technical sophistication that they could "create a script on the fly." But even Mallinson admits that a game "never can do it the way a human being can do it." And it's human beings who create art, not the polygons and Bezier curves of digital technology.

Games can be fun and rewarding in many ways, but they can't transmit the emotional complexity that is the root of art. Even the most advanced games lack the shimmering web of nuances that makes human life different from mechanical process. Interestingly, movies can transmit the sense of this nuanced complexity where games cannot. Moviemakers don't have to simulate human beings; they are right there, to be recorded and orchestrated. The digitally created medieval Japanese warriors in Kessen (one of the first titles made for PlayStation 2) have none of the breathing presence, the epic gallantry, of the knights in Akira Kurosawa's 1985 film "Ran." The top-heavy titillation of Tomb Raider's Lara Croft falls flat next to the face of Sharon Stone, smiling with challenging sensuality at some haplessly macho male in "Basic Instinct." Any player who's moved to tumescence by digibimbo Lara is in big trouble.

Games have their own importance in cultural history. In his book "Homo Ludens"--Man the Game-Player--the Dutch sociologist Johan Huizinga writes that play predated religion and culture; play "creates order." On the other hand, he says that "solitary play" is of little consequence, "sharpening the mental faculties very one-sidedly without enriching the soul in any way." The millions sitting at their consoles and computers would no doubt have made Huizinga one depressed Dutchman, even if they were interacting with others sitting at their consoles from Munich to Mandalay.

The question of whether computer games are art is part of the larger debate about the effect of the accelerating interaction between humans and machines. "Our goal is to come up with an algorithmic definition of creativity," wrote artificial-intelligence researchers Roger Schank and Christopher Owens, insisting that the artist merely has "a certain set of cognitive skills" that computers will inevitably acquire. Another AI man, Raymond Kurzweil, awaits the coming of "artificial people... lifesize three-dimensional images with sufficiently high resolution... to be indistinguishable from real people."

But behind such techno-magic lies a banality of vision and style. Computer games create a world of manipulative mechanics, without the catharsis and revelation of real art. The scary thing is the seductiveness of this world, especially for young people, for whom it is natural to be citizens of a culture of games. This is a new breed, perhaps even a new evolutionary event in the species. Sitting at their joysticks, they await the coming of Phil Harrison's envisioned savior, someone who can shatter the Pavlovian world of stimulus and response, and create a genuine new art from those patterned puppets on a world of screens.