Games as Art: Displacement within the Art Gallery
In 1996, the game Super Mario 64 saw players controlling the titular hero as he wandered the halls of Princess Peach’s castle. Paintings on the walls provided the means through which Mario could access the game’s core playable spaces: jump through one and you would find yourself in another world to play in and interact with. It was a clever trick of the developers to reduce the load time of the game’s overworld and compartmentalize level design. It also spoke to a future of sorts; one in which videogames themselves lined gallery walls as artworks rather than static images. Today that prediction is gradually becoming a reality as videogames increasingly become regarded as artworks, finding their way into gallery spaces as well as dedicated exhibitions. What does this mean for videogames, though? How does their nature as interactive entertainment impact the practice of displaying them for public use?
In order to best consider the complications that this issue presents, one must first understand the motivations behind these new display techniques and the growing practice of videogame academia. With the increasing consideration of videogames as cultural artifacts, a greater number of people and institutions have begun to consider the effects of games on human behaviour, its role in society, and more. Most importantly, the people who are making these observations increasingly come from gaming backgrounds, rather than as outsiders looking in at a hobby they don’t personally enjoy. This growing fascination with the higher-minded concepts of videogames is similar to what occurred in film and television studies 50 years ago. This means that, like the new media of the 20th Century, their role as artworks is under increasing scrutiny.
As gamers it is understandable to want our hobby to be accepted as an art form by the general public, by gamers and non-gamers alike. After all, we are able to appreciate the incredible intellectual and emotional intricacies that a well-designed game can demonstrate. If that doesn’t constitute a work of art, then what does? This belief is a common one, and it grows more prevalent the more people identify as gamers. Ultimately, however, the status as artworks that games maintain is one of uncertainty; both because of their constant technological and design evolutions, as well as the fact that there is no consensus on what makes a videogame a work of art in the first place.
Now it would be foolish to try and determine a unified rule set for what constitutes art, especially considering that one of the most discussed art pieces of the 20th Century was essentially a urinal placed on top of a plinth, much to the displeasure of those uninitiated in art history. Nonetheless, there must be some way to determine what makes a videogame unique as an artwork. There has to be some criteria through which we can say, “Yes, that game is a work of art!”
Fundamentally determining what makes a game a work of art is as much about what games are not as well as what they actually are. Suffice it to say, games are not movies, despite the constant comparisons between the two. They also aren’t paintings, sculptures, songs, performance pieces, or any other accepted form of art, though they make use of elements from all of these mediums. They are a new form of expression – a modern medium. One which makes use of modern technology in a way that others don’t. In order to best understand the artistic merit that videogames contain, we need to understand how they do this, as well as accept the ways that they embrace, and defy, aspects of art as we typically understand it.
What sets games apart?
Compared to the most recognizable artistic medium – painting – videogames are considerably unique. Interactive as well as highly scripted, they invite you to play as you want while limiting the actual gameplay to what the game engine allows for. Visuals and audio make up the bulk of the player experience, but the gameplay is the result of meticulously constructed digital codes. Rarely do they have a single author, though the director is often given final credit for a game, yet when we compare other artworks such as paintings those tend to exist as a smaller part of a single artist’s oeuvre. With this in mind it’s little wonder that experts tend to equate the artistic qualities of videogames with those of film rather than painting. The problem is that compared even to films, videogames differ significantly enough that their artistic contributions require special consideration.
On a purely visual level there are similarities between the two, as both require a certain level of aesthetic sophistication. This has always been the most straightforward way of understanding art as well, as most people are raised to believe that higher visual fidelity equals higher quality art. Typically, clear, realistic visuals are easy to comprehend and thus exist as the benchmark for most people’s artistic standards. In terms of videogames and film this translates to a rule that states: if the visuals are beautiful, if they make you feel something, then it is a work of art.
There is nothing wrong with this perspective, just as there’s nothing wrong with preferring naturalism to abstraction in painting or narrative film to experimental film. Art, after all, is subjective, and there is no wrong way to appreciate a work. For many the visuals of a videogame are what constitute the artful component, with the gameplay presenting that of entertainment. For instance, Bioware’s Dragon Age: Inqusition presents players with a vibrantly coloured fantasy world. An interesting design choice on the part of the developers, especially at a time when many action games focus more on gritty and grimy realism, it caught the eye of many players and critics alike, setting it apart from the competition. If a beautifully rendered game world is what you consider to be a work of art, then Inquisition will appeal to you. The problem is that, for those who want to consider a videogame in its entirety as a work of art, the focus on visuals simply won’t be enough.
An excellent example of this problem would be many of Blizzard Activision’s games. Blizzard’s cinematic team has created some truly astounding CG cutscenes and trailers in the company’s long history, many of which could challenge those of a hollywood movie studio in terms of quality. These video components take an enormous amount of time and effort to complete, as well as a high level of creative input. Warcraft III is positively loaded with them, punctuating each chapter of the game with a gorgeous and exciting cutscene. Once the segment is finished however, and the game reminds you that you are there to actually play it and not watch it, one cannot help feel the dissonance. Pre-rendered cutscenes, for all their beauty and dramatic flair, are not gameplay. Even videogames that utilize their own game engine to make their cutscenes, like the aforementioned Dragon Age: Inquisition, still encourage players to sit and watch rather than to play (though there is something to be said about interactive cutscenes). None of this is to say that these cutscenes shouldn’t be considered art; they certainly are. When calling a game a work of art though, one must stop and question whether it is the game itself we are considering or the movies contained within.
Games are combined wholes of many different elements. Video, audio, story, design – they all unite to create a working product. An excellent game cannot stand without some of these working together and working well, and to dissect one element out of the game as proof that it is a work of art, while ignoring the others, simply isn’t a strong enough argument for some. Visuals, as integral to the art experience as they are, are only a piece of the puzzle with videogames. If the art criticism of games is to advance then so must the definition of games as artworks, and if they are to be accepted as their own, unique form of artistic expression then what makes them unique should factor into the equation.
It is likely that gameplay is the answer. As was stated earlier, games are interactive. Highly so. They simply cannot function without some kind of human direction. In this respect they are similar to the happenings and performance art pieces of the late 20th century. Games are unique, however, in that their performances are largely personal. Even multiplayer games adhere to this rule, as your experience, your gameplay choices, are yours and yours alone. This is the most notable difference between videogames and film. A film is linear, scripted and impersonal; it asks only that you watch and listen. A videogame however is much more complex and intimate, demanding that we provide input in order to attain some enjoyment from it.
It is this quality, the gameplay, which truly sets videogames apart from other art forms. It allows a videogame to make a statement about something in a way that other mediums cannot. Experiences like those of the original Bioshock, which twisted our perception of player agency, would have been diminished if not completely lost were the experience translated into a movie. Similarly, Dark Souls and its strangely captivating themes of struggle and futility resonate with players largely because they permeate the entirety of the game, from its story to its gameplay to even its user interface. Especially relevant are non-narrative games, such as SimCity, which presents the experience of building and managing a city in a way that only a videogame can through interaction. It’s these personal experiences, often stretched over long periods of time, which communicate ideas more dynamically than static paintings do or even story driven films.
It may seem obvious but it really is the “gamey” elements of videogames that should be our focus when considering their artistic merit. However, it often is the case that we discount this aspect when discussing games to non-gamers. We shy away from it, fearing that acknowledging that a game is in fact a game somehow reduces its intellectual or cultural value. We fear that we will turn it into a toy, as if that were a bad thing. The truth is that if gameplay is what makes videogames unique compared to other art forms, then that’s what should be embraced. Game design is complex and requires a certain level of vision to be carried out effectively. Though that may not fit everyone’s criteria for artistic value it certainly fits some.
Missing the Point
Evidently some prominent institutions agree that videogames could be considered art, such as the Museum of Modern Art with its Applied Design exhibit – an art establishment that now displays videogames in the same building that houses works by Van Gogh and Picasso. Inviting visitors to play small portions of the game before handing the controller over to the next participant, the MoMA has essentially created a small-scale arcade, with that wonderful level of pretension that only elite art institutions can produce. On the surface this may seem like fantastic news for those looking to increase the cultural and social ranking of videogames. Unfortunately, while on the surface the case of the MoMA may seem like proof that games have been accepted as high art pieces, the truth is that the exhibit leaves much to be desired.
The problem reveals itself partly in the title: Applied Design. The systems of videogames is where the MoMA draws most of it inspirations from, and where they get things only half right. The design that the MoMA dedicates its exhibit to could best be described as anything technologically interesting and interactive. The dimensional twisting elements of Portal for instance, or the voxel cube world of Minecraft. Pac-Man is on display, not so much for its technological marvel but more for the enduring appeal of its gameplay. The Applied Design exhibit assembles a range of videogames that stand out in the history of the industry. Each one a marker for when something great occurred and more people took to gaming as a hobby. This is all wonderful from a business standpoint and easily marketable for the MoMA; “Come see your favourite games in our grand institution! We get it now! They’re works of art after all!” As great as this may seem to gamers though, it mostly misses the point: videogames like Portal and Minecraft simply are not playable in a public setting the same way they are at home, a design element the MoMA overlooks.
A focus purely gameplay, especially from the more unschooled point of view that the MoMA attempts to exploit, ignores the overall experience of the videogame. Portal was designed to be played from start to finish in a linear fashion, ideally by a single player. While it may be possible that someone unfamiliar with the game could jump into the middle of a linear title for ten minutes of play time and enjoy some of its unique mechanics, more likely than not, they will simply walk away confused. Parceling a modern, mainstream videogame like Portal into a short demo simply does not promote an appreciation of the game in any meaningful way, and ignores the actual artistic value that a game like actually has; a value which lies in the entirety of the game experience, from beginning to end.
Portal is more than just a game that featured a new way of traversing three-dimensional environments. It was a story about a prisoner attempting to humour her warden before rebelling and making her escape. It was a practice in isolation and frustration as well as the satisfaction of success. It was an aesthetic journey of sleek, minimalist design and futuristic veneer. Portal was a combination of all these elements and more, none of which can be appreciated in the same span of time it takes to drink a coffee, which is exactly what the MoMA have encouraged.
Applied Design is less a celebration of each displayed game’s entirety and more their individual contributions to the growth of the medium through their unique design elements. It’s a chronological journey through “gaming’s greatest hits.” The good thing is that if that is what you want out of a videogame exhibit then it is a resounding success. This is not meant to be derisive as there is certainly value to this practice, and in fact could be a sign of more things to come. For those who are more interested in the themes that these games explore, however, for the self-evaluation that some games like Bioshock promote, then perhaps a more specific exhibit is necessary. As it stands right now though, there is little appreciation for videogames as anything other than a collection of smaller things – coding, cinematics, audio, design, etc. – rather than as singular wholes.
The attempts of the high art institutions to include videogames in their exhibits should not be without credit. For many of their guests it might expose them to the idea of a videogame operating as a high art concept, something they might not have considered before. But then again, the MoMA has developed a reputation as the foremost institution in regards to contemporary art and with that expectation comes a large number of visitors. It may sound pessimistic but the Applied Design exhibit was made with a particular kind of person in mind. The kind of people who buy memberships at the MoMA and go there on a regular basis: the “Average Joe” of art museum visitors. In other words, not for gamers. The MoMA’s exhibit caters to a more pedestrian level of videogame knowledge. Those of us who immerse ourselves in the medium on a regular basis likely won’t be getting much out of it, as the importance of gameplay innovations and of the titles on display are already firmly entrenched in our minds.
How to Move Forward
How then do we celebrate the artistic merit of videogames in a public setting? If the most well known contemporary art museum in the world cannot create an exhibit to adequately communicate the artful qualities of a videogame then what hope is there for anyone else? How do we appreciate videogames as artworks in large, publicly accessible spaces? The answer, for now, is: why should we try?
Videogames are performative, as was earlier made clear, and also deeply personal. Even multiplayer games. You might be able to appreciate Super Smash Bros: Wii U more with a group of friends, but your experiences is still unique, still your own. Most importantly, it is not limited to a single space where the image might be on display. The original The Starry Night might be in the MoMA but there are millions of copies of Super Smash Bros: Wii U in peoples homes while we speak, each one of which is identical to the other.
Videogames still are not paintings, sculptures or any other traditionally understood art media. They demonstrate their value over time rather than in a single brief experience and they do so at our own pace. Now, more than ever, they are designed with home use in mind, not public display. Any attempt at reversing that paradigm will feel awkward and forced to someone with a more than cursory knowledge of the medium, as it exists today.
And sure, the argument can be made that owning The Starry Night and viewing it at home is a more valuable experience than viewing it in a crowded gallery. Photography and the internet have even facilitated a somewhat similar experience. The issue remains, however, that the gallery space as we typically understand it has evolved to allow for an appreciation of paintings in a crowded setting while it’s treatment of videogames remains lacking. Games are not the only art form to require a space outside of the gallery to function, but nonetheless there is still a desire to see them there. To fit them in like a puzzle piece that might not belong. Videogames do not need gallery spaces to function as artworks and as such the standards by which we judge them as art don’t need to be interchangeable with the other mediums.
The truth is that the appreciation of videogames as an art form has already begun. Websites such as this are proof of that. Games are more numerous and varied than ever before, and even the lines between what constitutes a game and a non-game are becoming blurred. Realistically rendered and action packed games like Dark Souls exist on the Steam marketplace alongside smaller, more modestly budgeted and visually unique games like Mountain. While one certainly has a larger fan base than the other they both generate their fair share of interest as well as stimulating conversation. They are also radically different from one another in nearly every conceivable way. Some might claim that games like Mountain don’t qualify as a proper videogames, and its limited sales could certainly be touted as proof that its appeal is too niche. One could even argue that, in opposition to the mainstream games of today, Mountain actually would be well suited for traditional gallery display. This is a discussion for another day though. For now one should accept that it exists on the market as a game and, at the least, serves as an example of the growing diversity of the medium.
The quandary that we find ourselves in – attempting to appreciate videogames as artworks – is not one that has a single, perfect solution. Because of the subjectivity of art as well as the growing diversity of modern game design and the rise of counterculture videogames (see Dear Esther) there can exist no proper answer. One thing is certain, though: as long as videogames continue to be designed for personal rather than public use they will undoubtedly create a sense of displacement when inserted into traditional art galleries. The growing cultural legitimacy of videogames has instead created a wealth of discussion, especially online where gaming culture and tropes are most easily understood. Perhaps the future will bring change as videogames continue to permeate most aspects of our digital technology. Until then we should be content with the growing discourse surrounding the medium and the fact that, much like other modern art forms, it does not need a gallery space to function as a work of art.
What do you think? Leave a comment.