Saturday, July 15, 2006

I Art Video Games: Nostalgia vs. Cinemania

I've been thinking a lot lately about how video games are reinterpreted as art by its consumers. Henry Jenkins has been threading a wonderful discussion on his blog (here's a great starting point) about video games as a form of artistic expression and the state of video game criticism, and argues that the medium of video games won't get its Lester Bangs or Pauline Kael equivalent until those steeped in its culture are old enough to pick up the gauntlet:

I have written and commented a fair amount about games through the years and I always feel vaguely inadequate in doing so because I know there's a 16 year old out there who can tell me why level 35 of this particular game was more interesting than level 12 and can offer a pretty good explanation why. And sooner or later, writers like me are going to be displaced by kids who were born with a joystick in their hands and who think games are not only art but are the highest form of art on the planet. And I will be a very happy man.
The last couple of years have seen a creative explosion in art dealing with classic video games of the 1980s and early '90s. A few examples:

Spaceinvader's "Rubikscubism" (a 2005 exhibition) [via Boing-Boing]:

A Super Mario made of Post-It Notes (2005) [ditto]:

Street art provides fertile ground, too; the image at top is a "Crate Tetris" installation created in Melbourne, Australia. [Wooster Collective]

Boing-Boing blogged about Janek Simon's Carpet Invaders, then posted a correction stating this was "only" a design for a carpet, not an actual woven rug. What they may still be missing is that it appears to be a video game mod projected on the floor, which I would vote is far more interesting than even an actual rug.

What's better, a clever interactive installation or a static, Buy Me Now art object? Simon should sell the needed hardware or software for the game - I'd gladly clear a space for this virtual rug. Why not a tabletop version, too? We could shoot at printed flowers from a Hungry Man dinner... Of course, the rug has the "Orientalist" overtone that Simon was going for - which is what makes this piece such a great remixing of first-generation video games. As he writes in his description of the installation:
From its beginnings this classic game dealt with political problems. The initial human figures where swiftly transformed into pixilated, triangular shaped, medusa-like, skull-headed extraterrestrials, so as to hide the body counts and bloody scores. ...

Conflict areas always meet inside the 2-dimensional space of military maps and game layouts. Janek Simon unites the old geometric designs of Caucasian and Armenian carpets with the low-resolution abstractness of the Space Invaders. The collector carpet furnishing the ethnic-design, world-cuisine magazine becomes a new shopping item for the homecoming marines and the kid back home. It is the Oriental rug for your portable arcade mosque.
Surely we can find some metaphor to justify a kitchen-table edition... PacMan chewing on obesity in America, anyone?

What these throwbacks remind me of more than anything is how much video games have changed since that first "golden era." How are today's games differences reflected in the art they inspire? The following projects might give us a few hints:

Recursive Instruments' "Recursions" is a series of woodblock prints that bring scenes from the massive multiplayer online roleplaying game (MMPORG) Second Life into the physical world, only to return those to the virtual world to display them in a gallery show in Second Life itself [via|link]. The phenomenon of virtual art galleries is worth blogging on in its own right, but this particular incarnation is a wonderfully nuanced one.

More typically, though, artists are expressing themselves by taking advantage of the cinematic quality of new games; the freedom of action allows for films can be scripted, cast, and shot all in the confines of a gaming platform. One popular example is "An Unfair War," the recently-released short film that criticizes the war in Iraq. We are working in baby steps here as far as technique goes - the story's simplicity adds to its power, but a video comprised primarily of shots of a man typing on a computer does not raise many hopes for the creative flexibility of the medium.

As with any nascent medium, those who take advantage of it will have to invent conventions and techniques as they go along. Early filmgoers would not have understood the rapid shifts in point of view that are a standard idiom of contemporary films; someone had to invent the technique, and then audiences had to learn it as a part of the language. Video game filming will undoubtedly evolve to explore its own strengths, which (also like film) will be further propelled by advances in the technology available to artists working in the medium.

But if most contemporary art that deals with video games seems fixated on the 1980s, that is probably because those are the games the artists know from their own discovery of them. Those games are dinosaurs to kids now, and by have none of the nostalgia value among younger gamers. In fact, the genre of art that renders the mesmerizingly simple pixelation of early video games is destined for a narrowly defined art audience - those of us whose first joystick was an Atari 2600's (or, for those of us with well-meaning parents like my own, a Texas Instruments Home Computer) or an original NES joypad.

Following Jenkins' lead, I'd posit that the potential of the new and developing medium can't be judged by its current practitioners. Just as we may need to wait for today's young game-players to join the ranks of established critics before we see the medium's Pauline Kael, we probably will have to wait until today's middle- and high-school students decide to become professional visual artists before will find anyone who can truly tell us what MMORPGs are really all about. These kids are just waking up to the creative palette their elders have invented for them, and the virtual auteurs of tomorrow are now busy making cultural remixes like the goofy World of Warcraft version of Othello:

As of 12:38 CST today, 2,630 videos relating to video games have been uploaded to YouTube today - balletic expressions of gameplay, choreographed music videos, scripted theatrical productions, and footage of kids sitting around in front of their Xbox. Will they be using tools like this to make art in their 20s and 30s, or will they be drawn into the culture of game creation itself - i.e., that this "transliteration" we're seeing of classic arcade games is a vestige of the older gaming generation's emphasis on physical objects? Parents, do you know where your children are? Teachers, are you helping your students see the creative potential in new media?

1 comment:

Joshua said...

I hate to be the one to make the embarrassing claim that homestar runner is art, but you've got to check out the games at

They're all satires. I have played every one.

Usually video games make me feel that I have wasted my time. These, however, made me feel that I have wasted my time, but am glad to have done so.