“Maybe we just have to do it and stop apologising for it,” Ian Bogost said at the opening night of the Art History Of Games symposium. The event, co-hosted by the Savannah College for Art and Design and Georgia Tech between February 4 and 6, was intended to trace the co-evolution of games and art. The centerpiece of the event was the presentation of three games in Atlanta’s Kai Lin Gallery by Jason Rohrer, Tale Of Tales, and the duo of Eric Zimmerman and architect Nathalie Pozzi. The only instructions were: “It has to be a game and it has to be art”.
The joining of ‘art’ and ‘game’ in a single sentence has often been the cause of debate and consternation. Before anyone can rightfully conclude whether or not games are art, John Sharp, Celia Pearce, Jay David Bolter, and Brian Schrank took the stage to trace their historical connection. From Roman frescoes to Rococo painting, they said, art has represented games as tests of manly skill to opportunities for flirting roleplay free of social consternation.
They went on to explain that in the early 20th Century the Dadaists applied a sense of play to art itself, putting urinal in a museum and reading nonsense under the guise of poetry at Cabaret Voltaire. This informed the experimental work of the Fluxus movement of the 60’s and 70’s with an explicit focus on interaction. Works like Yoko Ono’s Cut Piece and Robert Rauschenberg’s Open Score, show interaction becoming a major tool in modern art.
The first work of self-described video game art, they said, arrived in 1983 with Bernie DeKoven’s Alien Garden for the Atari 2600. In the 90s there was an explosion of game art produced as game modifications, including Velvet-Strike, which replaced bullets for graffiti in Counter-Strike, Sod by Jodi.org, which stripped all the art out of a Quake level leaving only geometric abstractions, and Mary Flanagan’s Domestic, which uses the Unreal Engine to conflate the traumas of memory with escape from a house on fire.
With this history as pretext, the game designers were given the stage to match academic theory with individual works. Jason Rohrer’s game, Sleep is Death, takes aim at the idea of games as storytelling, to which so many modern commercial games are bound. The game is a networked experience for two players, one of whom is in a room acting as a “player,” while the other serves as a kind of storyteller able to add objects and trigger events in the room. The play becomes a narrative negotiation between the two players.
Rohrer’s game embodied one of the pervasive questions of the conference. If the expressive power of games lie in their mechanics, does the artistry lie in the performance of the player using those mechanics or the game itself? Henry Lowood, a curator at Stanford University, brought this point into focus when he showed a draft of the original 13 rules of basketball from the 19th Century and compared it with an image of Michael Jordan dunking. Does the creator of the ruleset deserve credit for the improvised beauty of Jordan’s play within those rules?
If games cannot be appreciated without the element of player performance, then how can they be preserved and presented as art in traditional museums? How do you curate a mutable performance? If art is about “viewing” and games are about “doing,” is there really a place for play in the museum’s white box?
Sixteen Tons, the work of Gamelab head Eric Zimmerman and architect Nathalie Pozzi, offered a response with the game presented as large interactive art installation. A board game played on a four-by-four grid with four pairs of knee-high metal pieces, the players’ goal is for both their colored pieces to move to adjacent spots on the board, but they aren’t allowed to move their own pieces. Instead players are forced to persuade their opponents to move their piece using a provided sum of money.
The game is presented with heavy architectural elements, including a big circular barrier separating the play space from the rest of the gallery, invoking Johann Huizinga’s ‘magic circle’. The game purposefully vulgarises the museum, conflating aesthetic beauty with industrial metal and color and demanding the exchange of cash in the reverent air of the gallery.
Tale Of Tales pressed in the opposite direction, laying out their philosophy in four simple declarations in bright yellow capital letters: “GAMES ARE NOT ART,” “ART IS DEAD,” “VIDEO GAMES ARE NOT GAMES,” and ending with “MAKE LOVE NOT GAMES”. To wit, its Vanitas iPhone/iPod Touch app presents players with a wooden box containing a single object that changes each time you open it. The items, like a playing card or a flower, can be manipulated and eventually respond to being handled, wrinkling, bending, and slowly decaying. There are no rules, backstory, goal nor plot. Change is the only reward.
This provocation points to another obstacle for both art and games, as neither has yet been defined to any general consensus. History provides a relatively clear understanding of what art has been, but that does not help to define what it will become in the future. “Even after sixteen years in the games industry I have a hard time articulating the feel of a game,” Harvey Smith, lead designer of Deus Ex and now working on an unannounced project at Arkane Austin, noted in the closing panel discussion.
Frank Lantz, founder of Area/Code and designer of Big Urban Game and Pac-Manhattan, entreated players to embrace the “wild strangeness of games”. The most pervasive problem in the gaming world is the attempt to squeeze games into the old lenses of generations past. He compared Nabokov’s romance with butterfly collection to that of Pokémon collection, not as a literal parallel but an attempt to re-emphasise our appreciation of games in terms of the experience they give players. “I’m less interested in what Nabokov brought to lepidoptery and more interested in what lepidoptery brought to Nabokov,” Lantz explained.
Likewise, the most interesting questions for art and games arise not from identifying their dissimilarities but by appreciating how long and intertwined their histories have been. In their own times, art and games have brought untamed discoveries and provocations to their audiences. To trap either in the rigid scaffolding of the past is to strip the life from both. Better to let each pursue its own way forward, and without apology.