As I mentioned before, I had the pleasure of having Ted Levine - a photographer, a philosopher, a cultural explorer - as a student in my Game On: Introduction to Game Studies course (CCA, Fall 2010). That semester, Ted examined a series of issues pertaining to the collision and collusion between art and digital games. His investigation culminated in a series of critical pieces. The following essay, "Videogame Art as Anti-Competitive Expression", discusses some key aspects related to the notion of Game Art.(Matteo Bittanti)
One of the artworks discussed by Levine, Miltos Manetas' "Super Mario Sleeping" (1997), is featured in the ITALIANS DO IT BETTER!! exhibition, opening on June 1st 2011 at the Venice Biennale.
Related: Ted Levine's photographic project (2010)
"Videogame Art as Anti-Competitive Expression"
Since inception, video games have allowed human being to play, to play in a computer-mediated environment. One of the first playable computer games, Tennis For Two (1958), was developed at the Brookhaven National Laboratory, and displayed a two-dimensional, side view of a tennis court on a [cathode-ray tube] oscilloscope screen. Although the maker’s intention was to create a more interactive science exhibit, the simple game gave the world a glimpse of the future of interactive gaming. It is important to remember that this was a highly competitive experience. Unsurprisingly, winning became the focal point for games that followed Tennis for Two. Rewarding mechanics were quickly put in place. Game designers have focused on creating a formulaic system of play that features a set of goals the player reaches in order to receive an award. However, I believe that it is in this approach that lies a serious flaw, a flaw that undermined the potential of gaming as artistic expression and as an aesthetic experience – even today, games have remained fixed in their formulaic approach of competition against the system and others for a prize, rather than focusing on the adding to the gamers’ experience of play. On the other hand, Videogame Art nullifies the very notion of competition, subverting the intented uses of gaming. In this context, the video game is intended as a dynamic tool, as a means that allows artists to express themselves in novel forms.
The problem of the gamer today is evident even before the gamer has a controller in his or her hands. In a store, looking for a game to play, or online, looking through reviews, the gamer is blind to the other forms of play that exist outside the competitive mechanics bubble. Shopping for a videogame, for example, means comparing features of one game against another, focusing on which has online multiplayer, various shooting modes, or simply the lowest price. Online, games are indexed by critics’ ratings, either by numbers or grades, yet their mechanics-only approach to reviewing games ultimately ends up perpetuating the features-over-play rationale. As Andy Clarke and Grethe Mitchell wrote in Videogames and Art, "[V]ideogame criticism (whether from a background in ludology or narratiology) has tended to concentrate on the mechanics of the videogame, rather than its aesthetics.” (Videogames and Art, 7) There aren’t as many videogame reviewers focusing on the aesthetic or experience of a game as there are those that focus on game play mechanics.
One of the reasons behind this apparent contradiction is inherent to the act of evaluating the game. Judging something based on such criteria as aesthetics and experience remains an extremely subjective pursuit, whereas features and mechanics are much more quantifiable and empirically measurable. It comes as no surprise that there artistic discussion pertaining to videogames is still relatively underdeveloped. As Clarke and Mitchell adds, “[Videogame art] is not built on one dominant application, programming language, medium, or aesthetic, nor does it consist of a single, homogeneous, community. But this also means that the work is very diverse and cannot therefore be easily or rigidly defined in terms of its themes, technology or techniques” (Videogames and Art, 8). Technology remains a crucial tool for videogame artists, but just as the paint and brush were tools for impressionist painters, it is the artists’ use of these tools that creates the art, and therefore aesthetic.
Beyond the shopping experience and criticism for videogames lies the videogame that the gamer finally selects. Again, the issue of competition over play arises, but here it is intrinsic to the experience itself. Progressing through the videogame from point A to B isn’t a journey – it is a fight. While the player is able to creatively explore the virtual world that the game designers has constructed, the priority of the game moulds the player’s approach to the game as a challenge to develop and perfect his or her abilities to reach the next level. Because the player is rewarded a significant amount of points for moving through the game in the “correct” manner, the player’s interest in winning becomes the ultimate reason to continue. To win means reaching point B; thus, the act of getting to this point is irrelevant. Many games capitalize on this player state – game designers can repeat areas of maps, add extra tasks to do, and thus extend the playing time of the game, a “feature” game critics often focus on in their assessments. World of Warcraft (WoW) is an example of giving the player an itemized award or achievement for repetitive play. After three expansion packs, the developers of WoW have raised the highest level achievable to 85. One WoW player commented on the getting-things-done website, 43 Things, about his experience playing WoW:
[There is] scary similarity to the study of rats pushing a ‘pleasure button’, wired to their nervous system making them feel intense pleasure with every press. They pushed it 5000 times an hour, stopping only when they fell asleep, forgoing sex, food and water.
Thank God (I mean it) that breathing is involuntary. My experience with WOW became like that after a month, it stopped being about the exploration/socialising/achieving etc and became about getting my ‘fix’ of pleasure, throughout the day I’d get intense hits of pleasure/dopamine even when not playing, and an intense urge to get back to it.
…Any tips on how to play without getting addicted?
WoW is only one of many games that capitalize on its players’ devotion of time, effort, and a monthly subscription as a crucial component of financial success. After reaching the highest level of the game, the player graduates into forming a hoard and embarking on quests, with the ultimate goal of competing for rewards like items to collect and avatar customizations.
With other videogames, as the player follows along the designed path to beating the game, he or she ultimately ends up at the end of it, when the plot is concluded and the his or her achievements are tallied up in points. One instance of this is SuperMario, which concludes each level by adding up the value for collected coins with the time left on the clock. This final screen displays an arbitrary number, an intangible reward for the player’s time and effort. In other words, points, leveling up, and besting competition all perpetuate the videogame history of restraining the player along a pre-set path, and providing arbitrary achievements as an excuse for the lack of freedom.
The approach to the creation and experience of art, on the other hand, is the exact opposite. Art is fundamentally built upon the expression of free thought and criticism – all of which call into question the methods of society, politics, religion, and human behavior. In addition, the forms art has taken have evolved over the years due in part by the developments of technologies into which artists can tap. For centuries, art has taken the form of singular, rare objects that aim to tap into the community’s establishment of aura as a value system for pieces. Works such as the Venus of Willendorf dating back to prehistoric times; through the famous Renaissance pieces such as the Mona Lisa by Leonardo da Vinci; all the way to Modernism with works by George Seurat and Henri Matisse demonstrated a continuing theme of the creation of a material object as the piece of art.
After the postmodern turn, artists began to rethink their role and function. Appropriation and recontextualizating became two of the key strategies to make meaning. Andy Warhol was at the forefront of this revolution, a "main player" for appropriation-as-creation. From simplified screen prints of soup cans and clippings from newspapers to Hollywood stars like Marilyn Monroe, Warhol translated elements of everyday American consumer culture into a statement in regard to excess and value. Since then, further developments have been made in the translation of consumer goods into artistic expressions due to the development of new technologies like videogame systems.
While artistic expression and videogame technology have seen substantial advancements in the last few decades, so has the artist’s ability to use games themselves as a tool for personal expression. A new vocabulary has developed out of videogames, awaiting artists to tap into several areas of video games: from iconography, cartography and mapping, to abstraction and performance art. More importantly, it is in this form of expression that artists are indirectly going against the idealized use of a videogame; while videogames focus on mechanics and the achievements waiting for the player at point B, videogame art deals entirely with the journey from point A as the tool for expression.
The following section of this essay explores different examples of videogame art, with a focus on two particular approaches: creating a work of art from the game, as a tool for the artist’s expression; and a piece created as self-referential expression, in which the artist exposes an element of a videogame as the foundation of a conceptual expression. In both cases, the artists’ work will be examined based on how they use videogames as a tool enables personal expression that exists outside the idea of a “game.”
Marque Cornblatt, Grand Theft Auto IV Crime Free Law-Abider, 2008
Marque Cornblatt’s 2008 performance piece, Grand Theft Auto IV Crime Free Law-Abider, initially appears to be a casual document of gameplay, lacking any narration or text (other than a link to his website) by Cornblatt. Yet as the title hints, Cornblatt’s performance takes Grand Theft Auto IV (GTA) to its functional extremes: instead of playing the game by breaking into cars or houses, stealing cars and shooting people, as the game was intended to enable, Cornblatt’s acts are strictly non-violent. In essence, his gameplay mimics the acts any person would make in reality, rather than in a virtual game space. In an interview with Mathias Jansson for GameScenes, Cornblatt is introduced as one who explores, “‘hyper-mediated identity’, i.e. the borderline between virtual and real identity, the grey area between being and performing in tangible and online spaces.”
Cornblatt exploits the idea of the sandbox game as a stage for conceptual performance. While other artists go into the code of games and extract variables and rendering systems, Cornblatt uses GTA as his tool, and nothing more. In doing so, his work translates into an art piece just as Duchamp’s 1917 work Fountain did – taking an everyday object, easy to take for granted, and repurposing it into something new, against its intended purpose. If the developers of GTA watched Cornblatt’s performance piece, it is likely they would say his acts were designed to be possible in the game. Indeed, the grand city Cornblatt explores in his car continues to function normally for the entirety of his performance. Yet several cues in Cornblatt’s documentation video on YouTube suggest the game mechanics are actively trying to get Cornblatt to become more aggressive in his driving and ultimately abandon his morality to relieve himself of the city’s aggressive attitude against him. Numerous cars swerve in front of him, pedestrians intentionally walk into traffic, and in several instances, men and women off-screen shout curses in the direction of Cornblatt, including, “Gotta move, gotta move, GOTTA MOVE!” and “Fuck you very much!” Cornblatt’s subversion of GTA’s mechanics, which consists almost entirely of competitive and violent gameplay, offers two paths of reflection. The first is that by almost letting the game play itself, it is easy to notice the effort it makes to mould the player into its own definition of such, which is an extremely violent role. Enacting the defining characteristics of this ideal player yields achievement rewards. Second is the fact that by simply abandoning this violent morality, the game play becomes an artistic rebellion, against both the mechanics of the virtual game, as well as the perpetuation of the idea that violence is completely ethical in the virtual space. Whether the act of non-violence in a virtual space has an effect on the game designers or players in any way is less essential than the fact that Cornblatt is able to express his moral position easily through a performance piece.
Miltos Manetas, Super Mario Sleeping, 1997
The next piece is Miltos Manetas’ SuperMario Sleeping (1997). Like Cornblatt’s performance, the video is extremely inviting for the viewer in its simplicity. It consists of a screen capture short film of Manetas’ experience letting Mario become inactive on his own. The beginning of the video documents the only control Manetas exerts over Mario, which consists of leading Mario up a small grassy green hill near a small tree and some butterflies. After only a few seconds of Manetas’ inactive controlling, Mario sits down and immediately begins to sleep. His head sinks down and he begins to quietly snore; after a few more minutes, Mario repositions himself to lie down on the grass. Much like Cornblatt’s performance piece, …Sleeping is a documentation of a conceptual performance. Just as Cornblatt’s nonviolence reveals the game designers’ attention to environmental behavior influence, Manetas’ inaction reveals what the game designers of SuperMario had in mind for how Mario would act when inactive. However, unlike Cornblatt’s performance, there is nothing in SuperMario that urges Manetas to follow the game in its functional form.
Nevertheless, the performative aspect of this piece constitutes only half of how it translates into an artwork – Manetas was also mindful of the game he was using and how it would affect the viewer’s examination of the character sleeping. Manetas utilizes another form of expression: appropriation. Mario is one of many long-living characters found in videogames, but Mario in particular is one of the few that has continued to translate from one technology (two-dimensional 8-bit games) to the next (3D graphics on a home console) and live on, to the point in which he alone could represent Nintendo as a brand identity. It is evident that Manetas had considered this when he chose to present this piece in his 1997 exhibition at ICA London. Mario’s appearance and acts defines his character, but his designers made him extremely simple, leaving only two defining characteristics that make him unique: his Italian accent, and his over-saturated plumbing uniform. Other than these two things, Mario is a simple generic male character found in hundreds of other games. He is a placeholder for the player, designed to stay out of the way of the player’s control unless he has something funny to comment on, or in Manetas’ case, when he is left inactive for a short period of time.
In addition, the act of sleeping by this iconographic character presents a smorgasbord of signifiers pointing towards what Manetas is ultimately expressing. Mario is not only a placeholder for the player – he is a placeholder for several other key elements of modern society. One possible route would be that the piece expresses a criticism against modern consumer lifestyle. Mario isn’t just sleeping because he feels tired – he’s lazy, and his extended sleep symbolizes the excess of unproductiveness present in the modern world today. At the same time, however, another route could be that Mario is breaking down, exhausted by his long history as a game character – he isn’t excited about what will come up for him as he continues his adventure and thus, instead of urging the player to continue, surrenders himself to sleep. No more, Mario says. This leads to last route, one featuring more of a self-reflective message. With the complete inactivity of Mario (except for his deep breathing), the viewer is left to wonder what Mario is dreaming about, as he lies in on a dreamy grassy hill with butterflies flying around him. Could it be that the virtual space he explores is simply a dream in itself?
Any of these routes express a position that could not be traced back to the game designers’ intentions, but rather Manetas’ exploitation of the simply designed actions and expressions given to Mario shows how easy it is for Manetas to express a Warhol-like criticism of the game’s character and modern society through the easily accessible iconography associated with Mario.
Billy Rennekamp, Clover, 2009
The final videogame artwork also includes iconographic appropriation, but extends outside of the arena of the videogame screen capture. The piece, Clover (2009) by Billy Rennekamp combines performance, iconographic appropriation, and original production while remaining simple in visual aesthetic. The video is a 6-second loop documenting an infinite journey through highway ramps I-265 to I-71 to I-265 to I-71. As a performance, the act is a simple interaction with the web application Google Maps via Street View, which presents a 360° view from a camera that was mounted on top of a Google Street View car. Found at the bottom right corner is one of the few interface elements that aid in explaining the trip – its is a small bird’s eye view representation of the highways Rennekamp is traversing, with a small person acting as a pin, and an arrow extending out of the person pointing in the direction of travel.
While existing as a simple series of screenshots of the Google Street View map, the main highway view (similar to a passenger’s view) and the bird’s eye representation combined as a video stream become loaded iconographic signifiers. The main view, always pointing forward at the horizon, is almost the exact same view found in racing games like EA’s Need For Speed racing series. Set on a sparsely populated highway, the quick movement through space also references the experience of video games, especially more recent city streets-based driving games that often feature to-scale replicas of real city streets. The bottom right-hand corner element, on the other hand, references another game, less focused on racing. Its extremely simplified, constantly updated bird’s eye representation of the physical location align functionally and aesthetically with games like GTA, and within this piece, aid in bringing the viewer context as to where the driving performances taking place. Lastly, because the piece is based in reality and not in a videogame, but is presented as one, the piece juxtaposes the cartographic elements of game space and physical space. The infinite fast-paced loops from one ramp to the next draws a parallel with many games that feature level maps that loop. For instance, the original 1997 game, Sonic The Hedgehog 1, featured a level in which Sonic slips down a water slide ramp that, unless the player moves Sonic out of position, continues to loop infinitely. The irony behind this piece is in the conflict between the intended purpose of Google Maps versus the intended functionality behind racing games and Grand Theft Auto. GTA and racing games both were created as a mode of escapism, in which the player may circumvent laws enforced by the government – and physics – to try to beat the game. Rennekamp’s piece, on the other hand, is a testament to pure realism.
These three examples show that artistic expression is entirely possible with videogames. And with the advancement of technology, expressing oneself through the gaming space will only become easier. Even today, artists are able to easily tap into various arenas of visual culture thanks to videogames, like aesthetics, mechanics, iconography, and performance.
As easy as it is to create with games, there are a few flaws that at the moment keep game art from being entirely understood. In response to the short video pieces produced by Manetas in other performative videogame artists, Alex Stockburger writes, “in order to properly decode these videos and understand the humor they are transporting, people have to have played the games themselves. The ironic humor is triggered by evoking specific situations in games and thus addressing the gaming community as an audience. This process leads to a somewhat problematic situation: at present only a small proportion of the art audience is familiar with computer games” (Videogames and Art, 30). Such is the case with all appropriated art. If a viewer of Warhol’s 1967 Marilyn piece didn’t know who Marilyn Monroe was, he or she would not be able to grasp at the concept Warhol was getting at. When (not if) videogames become a part of popular culture as significantly as politics or movies, expression through videogames will reach a much larger audience, a function that was crucial to Warhol with his appropriations.
Nevertheless, videogame art continues to act against the behavior present in videogames; and even though it is an indirect act, the presence of videogame art carries an underlying protest to the function of games. Discussing the function of art in reference to videogames, Ernest W. Adams writes in his essay, Will Computer Games Ever be a Legitimate Art Form?, “All these characteristics of art – expressing ideas, making you feel things, not being formulaic and so on – outweigh considerations of utility. Art is not about being useful. And to some extent, they outweigh considerations of salability as well. … A key point about art is this: It is not about what the customer wants to buy. It is about what you have to say” (Videogames and Art, 260). With its ease for artists and viewers alike to understand, videogame art is developing the ability to make change in the world just as artworks in classic mediums have done in the past.
Of course, it is ultimately the journey, not the “point B” destination, that will be most interesting for its development as a form of art.
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