The first video game system was developed in the 1940s. Since then, the popularity of the medium has increased tremendously to mold the American zeitgeist. Painting and sculpture have been around for centuries and are accepted as art by both the upper echelons of society and the hoi polloi, but proponents of newer media like photography and film have struggled to prove their crafts worthy of receiving the art title.
The most recent debate concerns itself with whether video games may be considered art. A number of notable museums have held exhibitions focused around video games, and even the National Endowment for the Arts expanded their grants to make some video game developers eligible for government funding.
Finding a Definition
The question of whether video games are art is built upon the epistemologically problematic notion that there exists a universal definition of art that all can agree on. Modern and contemporary art has dealt and continues to deal with the issue of proving its own artistic merit to the layperson used to seeing “art” and “beauty” as mutually congruous. Paintings of still lives and conceptual installations are both artistic creations, depending on the viewer and the intention of the artist, though different skill sets are involved in the creation of both.
Many questions arise when judging video games as art. Is a rudimentary video game merely a game, while a more intricate and multilayered game is a work of art? Can a work be a game and a work of art simultaneously? When someone plays a video game on their couch at home, is this an art event, or is it only an art event if that individual plays the game in a gallery?
Even the concept of a game poses philosophical problems. Ludwig Wittgenstein addressed the problem of defining a “game” as involving rules, play, and competition. He also proposed that making moves in language can be compared to making moves in a game, due to the family resemblances between words. Can everything be a game? Or can anything be art (as Duchamp made us initially consider)? It may be the case that its completely dependent upon context.
“Modernist artists have made works with cars, chairs, shoes, books, toys and even air,” said Michael Samyn, a game designer, to Discovery News. “So we shouldn’t doubt that an artist can make a work of art with video games. The crucial thing to keep in mind, however, is that a baker is not an artist. A bread only becomes a work of art when an artist has used it for this purpose.”
Museums have certainly participated in the notion of expanding video games as a new artistic medium. American Art Museum will hold The Art of Video Games from March 16, 2012 to September 30, 2012, an exhibition exploring the forty-year history of the video game medium. This particular exhibit will highlight the visual nature of the games, as well as the storyline for the game and the technology used to create it. Videotopia premiered as a traveling exhibit in 1996, showcasing early video games and popular classics like Galaga. Two Smithsonian affiliated institutions, The Institute of Texan Cultures in San Antonio, Texas, and the Mary Brogan Museum of Art and Science in Tallahassee, FL, have hosted Videotopia within the last nine years.
Other related exhibits have included 1999’s Cracking the Maze at San Jose State University, Breaking and Entering at the Pace Wildenstein Gallery in 2006, and Pro Tools by Cory Arcangel at the Whitney Museum. “New-media art is still very far from being fully integrated into the art world,” says Christiane Paul, a curator who oversaw the Arcangel show. “But within that segment of art, I would say that game art has fared the best.” Of Arcangel’s use of the archaic technology, the New Yorker wrote, “Arcangel finds abject beauty in the way that modern technology is doomed to obsolescence.”
It is easy to point out when newer video games have taken advantage of improving technology and have mastered graphics to such an extent that the resulting product is eerily realistic or sublimely beautiful. The use of obsolete technologies is one of the aspects of video game art that I personally find the most appealing. I admire Jeremy Mayer’s work, for example. Mayer makes intricate assemblage sculptures made up of typewriter parts. This type of art creates interesting tensions between the old, the new, and the shades of gray in between. The art is like a proverbial Phoenix rising from the ashes of anachronistic media. This in and of itself is notable and opens the door for numerous interpretations, Proustian memories, and nostalgia.
Unconventional Video Game Art
Taking advantage of outdated technological systems and vintage games appears to be a popular trend among artists using video games and their imagery in novel ways. The International Teletext Art Festival is scheduled for March 8, 2012. (http://www.fixc.fi/itaf/.) Teletext is a nearly obsolete broadcast-based television information retrieval service developed in the UK in the 1970s.
One artist participating in the festival emphasized discarded and forgotten video game imagery in his work. “I wandered through all these games that I always wanted to play as a kid and at the same time I was studying painting, minoring in philosophy and I just finished taking a mythology class so I started picking up on parallels,” said Ashley Anderson, an artist living in Atlanta, Georgia. “My art uses the imagery of video games but that’s where its relationship with video games largely ceases. It really just boils down to a basic attraction to the style of the imagery.”
Anderson is not much of a video gamer himself and prefers using the aesthetics of video games as “ways of talking about how we see things or how things are presented for us, and to see them in the world around us through the prism of what I find in video games.” He points to Roy Lichtenstein as an influence—particularly how the artist’s iconic comic book imagery covers a lot of simultaneous ideas. “This is definitely how I feel about pixilation because it draws the line between abstraction and representation.”
This tension between abstraction and representation is one element of the avant-garde art that began with Impressionism. Reflecting back on the use of older technologies and lost games, “It seems that once the technology isn’t used and we don’t need it anymore it becomes art,” said Jason Kofke, a friend of Anderson’s.
New types of playable video games are also shaking up traditional narrative structures. An example of this stream of consciousness niche is [rootings], a collection of games with no level-based progression involved, only a series of looped, Sisyphean tasks. “The work becomes a blend between research, process, and performance. Like André Breton and other critic/makers, I celebrate lapses in time, perhaps because in the very act of making creative work one loses oneself to time utterly,” writes [rootings] creator Mary Flanagan, who also works as a professor of film and new media at Dartmouth College.
Participatory Nature of Video Games
Participatory art has a culturally diverse list of adherents, including contemporary artists like Lee Bul and Rivane Neuenschwander, the Action Art of the 1960s, including Fluxus, Happenings, and Viennese Actionism, and the Neo-Concrete movement of the 1950s. Framed in a specific context, a group of individuals playing a video game, with or without an end point in mind, could be considered a participatory art event. By the same token, smart mobs and flash mobs can be classified in the same way. These events are organized and performed according to plan, just as in Process Art.
The focus in this, just as in much of Modern art, is highlighting the nature of “doing.” This means emphasizing the idea and technique rather than the finished product—the journey, rather than the destination, if you will. “There is no threshold,” said Klaus Biesenbach, PS1 director and MoMA chief curator-at-large to ArtNews. “People don’t feel like they have to step back. It’s a very direct engagement of the viewer. In fact, the viewer becomes a participant/author.”
Much of the air time devoted to video games goes toward the more violent or sexually charged games like Grand Theft Auto or RapeLay, the kinds of games that cause moral panic among suburban mothers and spawn numerous surveys and psychological studies. These types of games aren’t the end all and be all of the video game world; intriguing options do exist (even for non-gamers, like myself.) Rez is notable because of the synesthesia-like effects produced during game play. Anderson’s suggestions include Shinobi, Katamari Damacy, Killer 7, and No More Heroes. Whether all of these games are works of art or not, I won’t pass judgment; it’s better to leave the experience up to the viewer—art typically works better that way.