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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Claire Breukel

Claire Breukel is a South Africa-born contemporary art curator and writer. Her interest is in contemporary art that falls outside of conventional modes of exhibition, and often affiliated with “developing”...

23 replies on “A Critical Discussion on the Art of Video Gaming”

        1. Sorry, the internet seems to have lost my reply, I’ll try to recreate. Anyway, I do think your comment was pretty troll-y.

          More generally, it strikes me as very odd to see an artist (such as yourself) being so dismissive of a medium of expression. Obviously not all games (probably not most games) are genius artworks of heartbreaking poignance and provocation, but it seems excessive to reject the entire form, no? It’s a bit like saying “painting is infantilzing” because of children’s finger-painting, for example.

          1. Video games are toys. A lot of hard work and artistry goes into creating them but I personally have a problem with adults playing video games. It seems like a huge waste of time.

          2. Again, though, I feel like you’re making a category error here – video games can be toys, it’s true, but they can be other things too. I think it’s a mistake to ignore games as a medium, which is what you seem to be doing.

          3. You’re right Pippin–video games might be a next step in the interactive arts.

            Best of luck with your work and I look forward to experiencing your art in person someday.

          4. Heh, well I don’t know about next step, but I do look forward to a time when they’re both made more often with a more sophisticated intent, and are accepted more readily by sophisticated people. A slow process, without a doubt, but one I think is taking place.

          5. I think “interactive video art” or a name along those lines might be a better umbrella term for video games as fine art. Because as the medium evolves it will have to offer fine art fans more than just the role playing, sports, and fighting game experience in my opinion.

          6. Yeah, there are some issues of semantics going on for sure. I tend to agree it would be nice to replace “game” with something broader to get away from some of the connotations – though it’d be nice if we could use something without “art” in it. Interactive video could be one. I could my little things “interactives” for a little while, but didn’t like it much.

  1. To me, so many of the questions raised in the art world about video games (and why they are/aren’t more used as a medium) are the type of sexy-theoretical questions that make for good exhibition titles. But they very much often miss some of the more material-realistic aspects of the medium. For instance, coding.

    First, video game production still remains the domaine of highly technically skilled labor (labor so hyper-technical that it makes film editing or any other analogy pale by comparison). Doubly so that most university art programs and art college don’t even have a video game program (USC being the main exception).
    Second, video game design has historically always the domaine of group-production. Even Dwarf Fortress has two people working non-stop (I know Dwarf Fortress is like the Darger of the video game world, but it’s still interesting to note). Usually an indie game has minimum of 3-4 people working just on the code and design with the need for additional people doing music, asset design, concept art, scripts, voicing etc. Art schools are very individualistic by nature and so is our western art history narrative. You don’t get drunk in your studio at 3AM and “knock out a video game for crit the next day.”
    Which leads me to a third physical point about games — they take massive time to develop well. Dwarf Fortress will be in production for decades. Something cool like Flower or Journey takes years to make. That’s a huge commitment in the world of pop-goth-surrealism, post-conceptualism, performance, witch house, etc. I mean, in really practical terms it would suck like hell if your game had been deving for 5 years and was running two months behind schedule and missed your one shot at Documenta.
    Not only that, but how do you display something in a gallery that might take 2-100 hours to fully experience in a gallery or a massive biennial. They say the average museum patron spends like an average of 15 seconds at each work. Completing even a short game would amount to wandering around the Getty and looking at about 500 paintings!

    My ultimate question might be summed up as: In an increasingly hyperactive global art market is it realistic to expect that leigons of artists with sophisticated (and commercially relevant) software & programing skills will band together to use all of their time to produce one single object for multiple years at a time, which will then be put out in an “art world” where there are virtually no monetary possibilities nor even institutional avenues for people to see their work?
    [As an aside: I don’t think these questions are that dissimilar to the questions that faced cinema. After all, even thought art museums show movies and occasionally mount shows on a specific director, we don’t really have “cinema” as a wing of a museum like we do with painting or photography.]

    1. Eron, you definitely know much more about video games than I do, and I think the questions you raise are awesome and interesting. But I have to say, I’m not sure the final one, about whether or not it’s “realistic” to expect these people to do this is necessarily the right one. The art world is becoming increasingly interested in video games—hell, Babycastles curated a special lounge at the Pulse art fair this—and increasingly reaching out to offer opportunities for gamers to either realize projects or display them. It seems unlikely to me that those offers will get turned down. So the question becomes: what next? What’s the takeaway for artists or critics or whomever, and on the other side, for video gamers? It’s interesting, too, because there seems to be a really strong indie world of video games, whereas so much of the art world these days feels like a mass of mainstream.

      1. This video game fetish is just the flavor of the month. Not only does it reflect the dearth of quality art exhibited in the art world but also shows how our institutions subvert educational programming in order to sell tickets.

      2. I don’t really think that the scale of production is the core issue when talking about the idea of producing video games “as art” – it’s perfectly possible to make (smaller) digital games in a far smaller time, certainly no more time than it takes to produce other forms of art. The idea that video game should be equated with AAA mainstream games isn’t a great starting point for thinking about them as an expressive medium in my opinion.

    2. Hello there!

      This is a great new book by Anna Anthropy that echoes what Pippin Bar is saying below here, and should really be prominent and understood about the medium.


      and I personally have got drunk at 3am and produced a game I’m vaguely proud of, with minimal game-programming experience, at least applied to the project. It’s the only way I produce any decent games.


  2. Strange. I can’t seem to reply to your comment, JD Siazon… I’ll paste it here and see if that helps… (my apologies if this ends up reposting multiple times or something).

    Anyway, I do think your comment was pretty troll-y.
    More generally, it strikes me as very odd to see an artist (such as yourself) being so dismissive of a medium of expression. Obviously not all games (probably not most games) are genius artworks of heartbreaking poignance and provocation, but it seems excessive to reject the entire form, no? It’s a bit like saying “painting is infantilzing” because of children’s finger-painting, for example.

  3. Hi all, I wanted to let you know that Disqus has been acting up a little in the last week and a half and forcing me to moderate some comments for unknown reasons. I’ll try to get them up ASAP but I wanted you all to know that they are not being censored — unless they are inappropriate and don’t contribute to the discussion.

  4. Thanks for making us aware of these things, another thing video games are very entertaining and fun giving, people enjoy playing video games whenever they got time. And these types of video games are always awesome and wonderful.

  5. This critical discussion on the art of video gaming sometime might be effective for the gamings. This is really going to be good step hope lead to some incredible change.

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