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A Critical Discussion on the Art of Video Gaming

Pippin Barr, "The Artist Is Present"
Pippin Barr, “The Artist Is Present” game screen shot (image courtesy moma.org, click to enlarge)

It’s a sunny Friday morning in midtown Manhattan, and at the education building of the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), the second day of the conference “Critical Play — The Game as an Art Form” begins its debates. I’m no video gaming expert, but with 50 other physical attendees and many more over live stream, I vow to learn how video games can be better understood within an art context, as they’ve been the new art frontier for some time. Why are they less recognized in the art world than, say, video art? The obvious and overwhelming plus to video games are their interactive capabilities. How does this quality relate to artistic and exhibition practice? And the big question for museums: how can it be effectively assimilated, or creatively reappropriated, to engage audiences?

The day begins with a discussion about the role of video games in our society, culture and politics. James Paul Gee kicks off by introducing Plato’s criticism of painting and writing: both were frustrating, the philosopher said, because they couldn’t “talk back.” Gee suggests that Plato would have liked the interaction of video games, adding that, “Video games are art in that conversation is art.” Gee’s ambition to afford video gaming the same credibility as literature is outlined on his website, where he offers this rather radical assertion:

Books are a powerful technology. They can lead to aggression and violence (witness the Bible, the Koran, and the Turner Diaries in the wrong hands). Nazi Germany was a highly literate society. Games, so far, do not have this much power, but some day they may.

James Paul Gee showing Spore
James Paul Gee showing how players use theory to build their game in the video game Spore (all conference photos by the author for Hyperallergic; click to enlarge)

There is, however, a strong point to his argument that, unlike books, video gaming’s strengths are in its immersive, discovery-oriented interaction and its possibility for collaboration. Video games like Spore encourage players to understand the statistical underpinnings of the game design in order to improve their play. This type of game changes the role of the player from passive consumer to active producer by successfully merging science (game theory) with art (game design). A curator from the the Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art asks Gee what role the art museum plays in regards this infinite video game space. For time being, the question remains unanswered.

Instead, the topic turns to violence, and for a moment it seems like the conference may fall into the abyss of video game bashing. Instead, Christopher Robbins gives a talk titled “The Play of Punishment in the Culture of Cruelty,” which intelligently discusses the way the latent conditioning of societal role-plays perpetuated by video games are often affiliated with the agenda of “Big Brother.” Robbins highlights the close relationship between the U.S. Department of Defense and video gaming. Given that video games are a $7 billion dollar industry, it seems curious that the U.S. Army uses venture capital to fund video games in the real world. Games such as Ghost Recon: Future Soldier are used to increase interest in the army and even recruit new soldiers.

Robbins asks four important questions:

  • Who frames social problems posed in games?
  • Who produces materials, and in whose interest?
  • Under what conditions does play take shape?
  • How are the attitudes of community translated through games?
Still from Ghost Recon: Future Soldier
Still from Ghost Recon: Future Soldier (image via kotaku.com)

Interdisciplinary artist and writer Coco Fusco begins her presentation with the disclaimer that it is impossible to gauge the relationship between video games and violence. Her stance is one of a parent concerned for her child’s well-being. Building off of Robbins’s talk, she attempts to give an overview of both the positives and negatives of social and cultural paradigms portrayed in video games. Some interesting facts and figures emerge: By the age of 18, the typical American child has seen 40,000 murders on screen. A random and isolated statistic, no doubt, but quite harrowing.

In addition, 80% of video games are based on the action of killing. Despite this, the American Psychological Association states, “Psychological research confirms that violent video games can increase children’s aggression but that parents moderate the negative effects.” Fusco responds to this with a pointed reality check, explaining that parents, especially from lower income groups, are too busy working to be able to monitor their children’s use of video games.

Next comes “From Hello World! to Hello Nails! Videogames and Design,” moderated by MoMA Senior Curator Paola Antonelli. This discussion looks at the aesthetics and design of video games, from the cosmic to the banal — and finally engages video games as artworks. Artist Scott Snibbe’s mildly interesting presentation references his own work, including “Boundary Functions” (1998), which uses the presence of physical bodies to create a kind of projected visual game; it feels dated.

However, this is succeeded by MoMA Curatorial Assistant Kate Carmody, who offers an upbeat discussion of Area/Code’s “Conqwest” (2003–05) and “Crossroads” (2006) [pictured in the video above], both “video games” that are played in real time. The latter, in true Pac-man style, has participants run away from virtual characters through the streets of the West Village, tracking their progress on their mobile phones. The game is simultaneously ephemeral and real, requiring physical immersion and player improvisation. The conversation finally begins to address the interactive potential of the medium in art.

Conference video games
Online video games for conference-goers to play

Carrying through on this in the break, conference attendees are invited to play a series of games around the education wing. These include online computer games, iPad games and physical interaction games set up by artists in classrooms, including a series of actions mapped out by artist Pedro Reyes that playfully border on performance.

The final respondent panel offers a fiery and poignant discussion. Three of the four panelists offer provocative ideas:

Final respondent panel
The final respondent panel (click to enlarge)

Kevin Slavin, independent consultant:

Video gaming allows one to step outside of consequences or conventions of taboo. In this way, play allows us to interrogate what we desire to enact and opens a space to think about these systems of interactions.

Erica Gangsei, manager of interpretive media at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art:

Appropriating games into a fine art context can be very interesting, as artwork can subvert a game by refusing to use its mechanics or adhere to its specified goals.

Daphne Dragona, independent new media curator:

The difference between the museum and the video game is a sense of place. The museum is embodied by the aura and sacredness of objects, versus a video game that challenges borders and breaks rules.

Kevin Slavin again:

Exhibition infrastructures are designed around the eye, which is only one part of a multi-sensory experience of a video game.

I leave the conference hall feeling like the potential to use video gaming “for good” is a no-brainer. Why are museums reticent to use it in education and exhibition practices if it makes the audience experience that much more interactive and engaging? And why are artists less prone to working in this medium when video itself has been successfully integrated into mainstream creative practice? Is it because video gaming is considered, in the words of panelist Kevin Slavin, a “low form of culture”?

A tweet on the MoMA “Critical Play” website two days prior to the conference preempts this less optimistic view of video games becoming a valid artistic medium:

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