In developed economies, design is valued highly. Designers receive attractive remuneration and are celebrated in glossy trade publications. Video-game designers, however, get treated as a cultural blight. According to a recent white paper by the International Game Developers Association, they even face significant quality-of-life issues, working long hours but with poor job security. Designers of video games simply aren’t as dear to the managerial class as the wunderkind who created their flimsy prefab furnishings, the engineer who devised their plasma screen and the entertainment executive behind the reality TV fare they watch.
This lack of respect becomes more serious when given force of law. In 2000, St Louis County in Missouri, USA, passed an ordinance limiting the sale of video games involving ‘excessive violence’. In the ensuing lawsuit, District Judge Stephen Limbaugh ruled that games do not enjoy First Amendment protection. He handed down his judgement based on, among other things, a nonexistent title called The Resident of Evil Creek (he probably meant Resident Evil). The decision was overturned by the Court of Appeals but Limbaugh’s slapdash and dismissive jurisprudence speaks volumes in itself.
Similar problems confront designers here. Notably, Australia lacks an R 18+ rating for games, a category applied to other media forms where adults make their own decisions about challenging material. So what makes the gaming industry different? It’s true that early games – with their bright swatches of primary colour, blocky figures and ice-cream-vendor melodies – generated the impression (often pejorative) that gaming was solely for children. The association with immaturity has stuck, not helped by the industry’s often cloddish approach to politics, sexuality, race and gender. Even those whom our illustrious ex-prime minister once referred to as practitioners of ‘the postmodernism’ – those academics who have introduced so many maligned forms into the curriculum – shuffle their feet when it comes to video games.
Nonetheless, the gaming industry is both commercially successful and technically innovative. Many important developments in visual culture have been pioneered in the industry – particularly interface design, but also industrial design, mobile electronics and computer-aided design. Significant elements of social media and microblogging follow in gaming’s trail. Indeed, graphical user interfaces mean the entire cohort of the world’s knowledge workers collectively play a very useful video game, manipulating imaginary ‘files’ on ‘desktops’ that are nothing of the sort. In this light, the relative absence of game design within the wider discussions of contemporary art and design seems remarkably remiss.
For fine art practitioners, commercial games seem less akin to aesthetic objects than to mainstream entertainments like cinema. Small solace from that quarter, though: film critic Roger Ebert argues that games cannot be artistically meaningful because they give agency to players at the expense of authors and creators. The ramifications of this reasoning – that navigable and exploratory works are inherently aesthetically deficient – would no doubt surprise a fair few architects, sculptors and installation artists. But, by the same token, the idea that interactivity alone makes games a radical new art form blithely ignores the fact that ‘interactive’ artworks are not new at all.
In other words, the relations between art, design and video games remain contested territory. Nobody, barring perhaps Marcel Duchamp, can snap their fingers and decide once and for all whether games are art. Rather, it seems that, as with cinema in the past, the potential of the form awaits institutions, critical dialogue and aesthetic maturity adequate to it.
Yet artists are not known for waiting on such niceties. Although fine art practice and commercial game design may seem worlds apart, there are myriad contacts – not only due to genre-defying work in either field but also because both artists and game designers constantly renegotiate their own limits. The role of art in game production, the visual styles and aesthetics of gaming, and the uptake of the same by artists and designers all spur discussion. Seriously evaluating game culture offers a snapshot of a form at the vanguard of visual culture’s ongoing transformations.
TIME INVADERS – MINIMALISM, RETROGAMING
The glamour of new gadgetry, in which the gaming industry invests so much, is based on a breathless celebration of how much technology can do. One of the interesting things about gaming, however, is how little it actually needs. Minimalism has worked wonders. The earliest games are proof positive – perhaps none more so than Tomohiro Nishikado’s Space Invaders.
Gazing into the eyes (if eyes they are) of a Space Invader is a sobering experience, almost more like looking at architecture than a character. These bizarre entities possess less inner life than any gorgon or chimera. They exist solely to appear from nowhere and, ultimately, vanish into the nowhen of a particular machine’s ‘High Score’. The Space Invader’s impassive gaze makes visible what today’s techniques of virtual naturalism and realism are at great pains to dissemble: the strangeness of ludic space and time.
Rough though it may seem, the Space Invader proved charismatic enough to charm the coins out of a million wallets: the game’s appearance in Japanese arcades precipitated a nationwide shortage of the hundred-yen denomination. In the US, a cocktail version of Space Invaders was released for installation in bars, allowing people to chat each other up over an evening’s intergalactic conflict. Martin Amis’ Invasion of the Space Invaders: An Addict’s Guide to Battle Tactics, Big Scores and the Best Machines provided a fascinating measure of the game’s profile. The book discusses a plethora of specific titles as well as gaming culture in general, all the while playing with various metaphors of invasion, of the colonisation of varieties of spaces. The introduction, penned by Steven Spielberg, emphasises the point:
The aliens have landed, and the world can never be the same again … I speak as one who knows. I have actually exceeded 500 000 at Missile Command … the Invaders, far from confining their activities to public places and consenting adults, have established themselves in our homes in various shapes and forms, to the extent that there’s really nowhere left to go to avoid them.
Well – that’s if you really want to. I don’t want to be accused of collaboration, but some of them are really quite friendly when you get to know them …
The Space Invader belongs with a small cadre of characters who stand as icons of gaming itself. Other members include Shigeru Miyamoto’s Mario (originally named Jumpman) and Pac-Man who, whatever we may make of creator Toru Iwatani’s central thesis that a game about eating would appeal to women, remains the world’s most famous yellow circle. All these figures are notable for simple designs and a concomitant purity of purpose. Jumpman jumps; the Invader invades; Pac-Man eats.
Why then, given the formidable budgets of modern gaming titles and the capacities of the technologies they use, do such characters remain instantly recognisable representatives of gaming as a whole? There is more going on here than an accident of history.
VIRTUAL REALISM, HYPER-REALISM
A certain minimalism or austerity exists even at the heart of games that trumpet their graphical realism. The first-person shooter (FPS) genre identifies the player’s gaze with his or her game double (often called an ‘avatar’). FPS games pursue verisimilitude and naturalism with tremendous technical skill, presenting impressively detailed environments and characters. The development, within a mere three decades, from the Space Invader sprite to the 3D polygon model makes the pace of change in other visual forms seem positively glacial.
Such realism is, however, necessarily selective. Half-Life 2, a highly regarded example of the genre, assumes (as do many such games) that the player’s avatar can run backwards or from side to side at the pace of a forward sprint while carrying hundreds of rounds of ammunition and more firearms than a golfer has clubs. The game simulates, above all, proprioception, with a focus on doing rather than feeling. The body is invisible apart from the hand that pulls the trigger, and realism serves to maximise the intensity of conflict while minimising factors that impede it. The forward impetus is emphasised by level design that gives the impression of wide space for manoeuvre but is actually more like a tunnel.
Virtual realism is one part desire for each measure of objectivity. This is why ‘reality’ is such a moving target in gaming culture. Doom 3 was hotly anticipated because of its introduction of real-time light-and-shade algorithms, even though nobody had previously missed their absence. The real illusion, then – the dazzling technical flourish – is the experience as a uniform and coherent virtual reality (what art historian Julian Stallabrass has described as an ‘inhuman glacis’) even though it is actually composed of peaks and troughs, shocks and lulls, protension and apprehension, movement and stasis: the Space Invader’s artless chiaroscuro.
Contrary to predictions of a reality disturbingly indistinguishable from everyday experience, gaming’s worlds continue to be built on the coordination of difference. The designers of the realist shooting game Gears of War found it necessary to blur backgrounds in order to help players judge distance – a simulation of cinematic depth of field rather than unaided vision. Massively multiplayer online games such as World of Warcraft and Second Life engross thousands of players at any one time but by complex systems of coordination, narrative and linked nodes rather than a seamless cyberpunk-style naturalism – something demonstrated by the facility with which gamers ignore glitches and errors, and gleefully take advantage of cheats and loopholes.
This aesthetic of jaggedly variable intensity also underwrites the camp element so apparent in many video-game character designs. Susan Sontag famously notes camp’s relish for the marked emphasis or attenuation of sexual characteristics. The highly sexualised rendition of Lara Croft’s anatomy, the musclebound physique of the typical space marine lead: the caricatured central figures of game design are often anything but photo-realist, and it can be quite intriguing to guide avatars designed in a Looney Tunes delirium around environments governed by the sober perspective of a Brunelleschi.
One of the greatest thrills of stimulation is staving off overstimulation. Realism bursts into hyper-realism, precision into excess. Game characters, beneath the increasingly plausible integrity of their skins, are traversed by fault lines of potential force along which they are ready to rupture, crumple or vaporise. Special programs – ‘ragdoll physics’ – simulate the arc and flop of a perforated body. If the interiority of literary characters showcases a complex mental life, the interiority of game characters represents a strange tug-of-war with human physicality. Games are fascinated with figures of transformation and motion: scientists, wizards, captains and elite sportspeople. There’s more than a little of Rabelais, of the Grand Guignol, about these obligingly explodable forms.
But if the tortures of the Devil represent the inevitability of judgement, part of the contemporary wish-fulfilment of the video game centres on reversible bodily trauma. If you get shot, collect a med-pack; if you die, simply reload the game. Medical specificities of sufficient complexity for a thousand ER episodes are abstracted into a health gauge depleted and refilled like a gas tank. Energy without entropy: the ultimate technophilia.
In any case, in response to all this manhandling, gaming’s avatars wreak their own revenge. They have, after all, kept millions chained to their seats for decades, subjecting leisure time to the same stress as the working day. These days, there are plenty of slackers who clock in more hours in front of a computer than the most conscientious employee.
GAME MODS/ART GAMES
In 2002, the denizens of Times Square in New York witnessed a tonsured Japanese man navigating the crowd, his monkish attire contrasting with the elaborate contraption covering his eyes and extending behind his head. He was Takehito Etani, who had turned the square into his own third-person adventure game by adopting a viewpoint from just above his own body. The seeming self-alienation was, however, for a higher purpose, with Etani dubbing his device a ‘Spiritual Prosthetic’, a mystic third eye. This was art repurposing commercial technology, even endowing it with spirituality.
Perhaps, though, the alienation was not for Etani’s sake. He wasn’t aiming to become a twenty-first-century anchorite: the performance took place in an iconic public locale, after all. This strange figure affected the usually unflappable New York citizenry as if a spirit had descended among them or a madman had entered the marketplace. Unlike Poe’s man in the crowd, however, Etani was in perfect control – it was everyone else who seemed lost. The Space Invader had landed.
The organising contradiction of the video game – its search for flawless immersion through a fragmented and fragmenting form – has provided considerable purchase for artistic critique. Artists have picked at the constructed nature of the game aesthetic, shown how swiftly gaming’s formal properties have calcified into patterns of repetition (gaming is more prone to sequel-itis than any other form), exposed ideologies of violence, and taken advantage of glitches and absurdities. More expansive engagements (such as Etani’s) with gaming and its possibilities have celebrated virtuosity, lampooned moral panics, and adopted design principles for pedagogical and political projects.
Multiplayer video games, with their social focus, make natural sites for performance art, including interventions that exploit or frustrate prevailing channels of control and communication. Artist Joseph DeLappe, for example, took advantage of the in-game chat feature of shooter games to perform the poetry of Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon. Later, under the username dead-in-Iraq, DeLappe recited, during games of America’s Army, the details of each American life lost in armed service during the Iraq war to date. Velvet Strike, a project instigated by Anne-Marie Schleiner, enabled players to spray anti-war propaganda during matches of the terrorism-themed Counter-Strike. In both cases, the pacifistic performances generally culminated in swift death at the hands of irate players.
Another practice involves modifying existing game software to create an ‘art mod’. This has been important for artists, since creating mods demands less time, organisation and finance than the construction of a whole new game. In the Australian art mod Escape from Woomera, for instance, Half-Life was transformed so that players were placed inside the detention centre and tasked with finding a way out. Now something of a period piece, Escape from Woomera generated controversy both because of its overtly political subject matter and because it drew funding from the Australia Council for the Arts.
In another instance, American artist Brody Condon managed to subvert the subversion of Velvet Strike. Instead of a confronting anti-war message, Condon created images of terrorists and counter-terrorists in flagrante delicto – which, as it happened, didn’t go down any better with the virtual combatants than pacifist sentiments.
Much of Condon’s work focuses on themes of violence and religion. He created a mod called Waco Resurrection in which players take on the role of David Koresh endowed with video-game versions of the powers Koresh really claimed to possess. A recent Condon installation, Judgment Modification, portrays video-game characters in arrangements reminiscent of Hans Memling’s The Last Judgement. The balloon-like figures reflect the odd ways in which contemporary society receives religious ideas. For Condon, however, this is a mod of Memling’s work. Compared to the photographic staging of the cinematic in Cindy Sherman’s Untitled Film Still series, a sort of capture based on an affinity, Judgment Modification seems at once interactive and remote. The piece is as much about the difficulty Memling would have approaching Condon as about the reverse.
Whether Condon is correct in thinking the modding aesthetic differs in some essential manner from postmodern pastiche will only be determined by further developments. Nonetheless, the representational agility of computer technology does seem to allow distinct artistic effects. Matteo Bittanti’s James Ballard Plays Burnout could, for instance, be said to mod the novel Crash, demonstrating how close the orgiastic road trauma of Ballard’s novel is to that of the video game. Similarly, Pac Mondrian by artist collective Prize Budget for Boys allows players to munch their way through various levels inspired by Broadway Boogie Woogie. Rather than utilising ironic quotation to show up insufficiencies and lacunae in the canon, these works seem keener to seize on the energies contained therein and to redeploy them in contemporary virtual space, whether in a critical or laudatory mode.
There is a sense that gaming, through mobile devices and proliferating interfaces, is catching up with everyday life – a time invasion, not least due to the increasing prevalence of screens and interfaces in all areas of life. Indeed, most of the behaviour we witness in social media is, essentially, gaming behaviour: interaction through an apparatus in short, staccato segments rather than long, sustained dialogues. This increasing intersection of virtuality with everyday spaces has been registered by artists in the creation of site-specific installations and sculptures. Condon’s sculpture of a low-polygon model of game designer John Carmack humorously points to how easily realism becomes dated. Likewise, Jean Bedez subjects gallery-goers to an eerie roomful of massed, staring pocket monsters, an experience no doubt familiar to any parent who has struggled to remember which of the bewildering variety of Pokémon games their child wanted.
Brisbane-based artist Antoinette J Citizen caused an internet sensation with Landscape, an installation which papered the walls of a room with a level from Super Mario Bros 3. The expanded pixels assumed the heft of masonry, whether depicting trees or clouds – and yet the human forms that enter the space acquire an evanescence reminiscent of animated characters, their leaps, crouches, kicks, gestures gleefully unfettered. The landscape genre, always so remote, here takes on a new and unprecedented proximity.
Gaming lies somewhere between Citizen’s landscape and Etani’s Spiritual Prosthetic: it is an ongoing renovation of temporal and spatial experience. As the form matures, perhaps there is an imperative for artists to involve themselves, to chart technological, physiological and political opportunities and limitations – to be willing, like Spielberg, to collaborate with the Space Invaders.
Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.
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