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'But Mum, it's not a mindless game, it's art'

Computer games have gone up a level: they're the subject of a show at the prestigious Smithsonian museum. How did we get from simple blips to sophisticated artistry? Tim Walker finds out

Does the written word encourage forgetfulness? Will novels play havoc with the delicate emotions of impressionable young women? Do the movies make us all into mindless zombies? Are video games art? The last of these questions can now join the rest in the junkyard of cultural history, for the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, DC has just launched its newest exhibition: "The Art of Video Games."

Curated by games developer Chris Melissinos, the show will guide its visitors from Pac Man to Portal 2, via sci-fi classics such as Space Invaders, platform games such as Super Mario Bros, puzzles like Monkey Island, first-person shooters, social games, tablet games, Flower, Farmville, Angry Birds, Gears of War.

The games world enjoys many annual consumer showcases, but rarely a gallery exhibition – let alone one in such a prestigious institution. Yet in spite of its youth, it's already too large a medium to be distilled into a single exhibition: gaming contains as many or more genres and innovations in its half-century history as the movies managed in double that time, and is already the entertainment industry's most profitable sector. In recent years, games writing and graphics have both improved exponentially, and the acting of some performance-captured characters is better than that of certain Hollywood stars. Nowadays, games can move as well as entertain.

The Arvon Writing Foundation recently held its first video games writing course, heavily oversubscribed and part-taught by the novelist Naomi Alderman. Games writer and director Justin Villiers, whose work includes Dead Space: Extraction and Fable 2, says he recently worked on a game with an Oscar-winning animator. "There are film composers working in games, and the actors in my latest game are all film and television faces. There are people coming from everywhere in the arts to work in games now. That means games are richer; they contain influences from graphic novels and serious drama – not just sci-fi movies."

Last week, the "first-person, puzzle platform" game Portal 2 won Game of the Year at the Video Games Baftas, which have taken place annually since 2003. Tom Chatfield, author of Fun Inc: Why Games are the 21st Century's Most Serious Business, says: "Portal 2 has a wonderful, witty script, and I love that in this medium the most commercially successful game of the year is also the most critically acclaimed... In games, excellence is popular: the Mario games sold hundreds of millions of copies, and are also exquisitely crafted works of artistry.

"There comes a moment at which the label of art is applied to something by others," Chatfield goes on, "but art and artistry, as well as craft, have always been involved in making games. Even the very first game, Spacewar! [conceived in 1961], involved a lot of art in the realisation that a machine used for sophisticated calculation could also be used for entertainment."

Video games were once associated almost exclusively with fighting and first-person shooters, but the advent of new technologies – the Nintendo Wii, the iPhone, the internet – has changed all that. Equally, says Villiers, the more traditional areas of the market have changed creatively, too. "We're moving away from post-apocalyptic greyness and genetically-enhanced soldiers. BioShock was a first-person shooter set in a sort of Terry Gilliam, retro-futuristic world." Games even have an avant-garde. Last year, for example, Benedict Cumberbatch lent his voice to The Nightjar, an iPhone/iPad game played using sound alone. Provided you're wearing decent headphones, you can play it with your eyes closed.

Despite its inevitable limitations, Chatfield believes beginners and hardcore gamers will both appreciate the Smithsonian exhibition. "Because the medium is young and not formally categorised, it's really accessible. People will have fun without worrying too deeply about, say, 'post-impressionistic' gaming. When I get to an age where I find myself curating gallery retrospectives of 'early-social' games and 'pre-social' games, and 'pre-tablet' and 'post-tablet' games, something will have been lost as well as gained."