Art

The First Museum Retrospective for a Video Game Artist Explores Why the Medium Matters

Playing 'Passage' (GIF by the author for Hyperallergic)
Playing ‘Passage’ (GIF by the author for Hyperallergic)

Whether a five-minute walk through one man’s life or a maze that would take two millennia to explore, Jason Rohrer creates meaningful experiences that could only exist as games. The Game Worlds of Jason Rohrer, now open at the Davis Museum at Wellesley College, just west of Boston, celebrates his decade-plus of experience in gaming design with an interactive exhibition.

Installation view of 'The Game Worlds of Jason Rohrer' (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
Playing ‘Inside a Star-filled Sky,’ with Jason Rohrer at left (photo by the author for Hyperallergic) (click to enlarge)

According to the Davis Museum, this is the “first museum retrospective dedicated to the work of a single video game maker.” More interesting than just games being highlighted by an art museum is the way they’re explored here. Patrick Jagoda, assistant professor of English at the University of Chicago, writes in the accompanying catalogue from MIT Press that it’s “not that Rohrer’s video games merely adhere to some transhistorically stable definition of ‘thought’ or ‘art.’ At a historical moment during which digital media have grown increasingly ubiquitous, his works are all the more important for the ways they use participatory and collective elements to reimagine these terms.”

The Game Worlds of Jason Rohrer is very much about gaming mechanics, down to the way they are displayed, with four games presented in large wood-based installations. “Cordial Minuet” (2014) has two dark caves where you use occult-inspired magic squares to bet against an opponent on probabilities with real money; “Diamond Trust of London” (2012) has multiple Nintendo DS consoles arranged on a winding row of blocks for the strategy game on diamond trading and deception; “Primrose” (2009) is projected like a totem on the wall and controlled by an iPad positioned overlooking the gallery; and “Inside a Star-filled Sky” (2011) is embedded in a module of angular wood and reflective surfaces, referencing the play action of the labyrinthine game where you can zoom in and out of enemies and power ups in a nearly infinite world.

Playing 'Inside a Star-filled Sky' (GIF by the author via YouTube)
Playing ‘Inside a Star-filled Sky’ (GIF by the author via YouTube)

The materials of these installations are basic and raw, just wood planks with their connecting screws visible, similar to how Rohrer’s games emphasize the actions of play more than their visuals, which are often pixelated and minimalist. There is a second gallery with individual laptops for playing 11 other games, and some ephemera related to their design. There’s documentation for the post-apocalyptic “A Game for Someone” (2013), which is buried somewhere in the Nevada desert. Rohrer distributed a million GPS coordinates so someone could potentially track it down. Much like his “Chain World” (2011), which exists as a single copy of a game passed from person to person, “A Game for Someone” can only be completed, as it were, through a collaboration between players. The catalogue for the exhibition holds a clue for discovering the game; the pages can fold out into a pixelated satellite map.

Game Worlds
Scene from ‘Gravitation’ (2008) (courtesy Davis Museum, Wellesley College) (click to enlarge)

The California-based Rohrer is arguably best-known for his 2007 “Passage,” acquired by the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in 2012 as part of its initial phase of video game collecting. I remember vividly the first time I played it, where you walk either alone or with a companion through a tunnel of pixelated colors, in five minutes growing old and the world becoming more abstracted until your unavoidable death. The exhibition downplays it, featuring it on the laptops rather than a central installation.

“I wanted to highlight some of his other games that explore gaming mechanics,” curator Michael Maizels explained to Hyperallergic. “I think a game is in a way about its mechanics. I think usually in a museum, how things work at an infrastructural level gets less attention than how things look.”

He cited this as the reason that “Primrose” gets lead billing with a huge projection on the wall. As  a basic puzzler where you fill in alternately colored squares, it’s accessible and evokes a use of game mechanics that can be seen even at a distance.

Installation view of 'The Game Worlds of Jason Rohrer' (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
Installation view of ‘The Game Worlds of Jason Rohrer’ (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
Installation view of 'The Game Worlds of Jason Rohrer' (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
Installation view of ‘The Game Worlds of Jason Rohrer’ (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

In a talk held in conjunction with the exhibition’s opening, Rohrer said he wants to make games that “have some feeling or experience you couldn’t have had in another way.” He gave a short preview of his upcoming 19th game on human civilization where, as his elevator pitch goes, players will go from “arrowheads to iPhones” by living hour-long lives in a universe that has progress and technologies based on the long line of actions before them.

The “are games art?” question seems to be immortal; a New York Times headline for an article on this very show proclaimed “An Exhibition That Proves Video Games Can Be Art.” Yet that overlooks what makes gaming special and important, especially games like Rohrer’s that continue to push the boundaries of not just gaming’s potential, but what we’re willing to engage in. People tend to express themselves with media they grow up with, whether it’s film, music, or visual art, and we’re just now in a time when many creators and their audience grew up with video games as a cultural foundation. He acknowledged in his talk, saying that “these things that I’m making are very fragile and transient,” as they’re linked to hardware that, even though it’s only a decade old, is already increasingly inaccessible with each new operating system. Like Rohrer’s upcoming game that considers the impact of our actions on the future, his work takes both a long and short view of time. These games engage us with our small choices in the present, like “Gravitation” (2008), where you balance between tossing a red ball with your daughter and fueling a digital fire with your creative projects. They also consider a deeper time, like a game entombed in the desert we may never see or maze whose end we can never find.

Installation view of 'The Game Worlds of Jason Rohrer' (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
Documentation for “Cordial Minuet” (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
Installation view of 'The Game Worlds of Jason Rohrer' (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
Installation view of ‘The Game Worlds of Jason Rohrer’ (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

The Game Worlds of Jason Rohrer continues through June 26 at the Davis Museum at Wellesley College (106 Central Street, Wellesley, Massachusetts).

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