Art cred and videogame advocacy

For the first week of March I’ve been invited to be a guest of Empyre, a longstanding mailing list for artists, programmers, and curators of new media art. The theme of the month is “Videogames and Art: Incite/Insight”. I’m re-posting some of my discussion starters here, for the rest of the world. You can read the whole March archive here

Image by Skipmore games

If your filter bubbles include gaming circles you have witnessed the many collective cheers, hoots, and metaphorical stadium waves raising upon every glorious step of the videogame medium toward high-culture acceptance.

The repeated “video games can never be art” claims made by Roger Ebert from 2005 onward forced a multitude of North American game developers, critics and players to confront the mysterious Art Thing, possibly for the first time in their lives. Their honor, their reputation and, most importantly, their favorite pastime was being attacked by a prominent tastemaker.

In the following years, a fierce movement of DIY art criticism emerged within the game industry. Programmers started to google terms like “aesthetics”; game journalists filled their indignant counter-articles with pictures of Duchamp’s Fountain. Every strange, intimate, weird looking game was measured for its potential to defuse Ebert’s argument.
Even hardcore gamers started to cry while playing (and wrote extensively about it) demonstrating they also had feelings. Those little sprites and polygons really mattered to them.

As the narrative goes, from that cycle of shame and pride emerged a new sensibility. While the gaming community matured and developed higher cultural ambitions, the blinded masses of non-gamers and the mainstream press became more and more sympathetic to the popular form.

The recent move by the NEA to include games as possible recipients for grants has been interpreted as a federal seal of approval (although, in the past, the agency funded videogame projects through individual artist grants). The exhibition “The Art of Videogames” at the Smithsonian, shortly followed by the acquisition of 14 game titles by the MoMA, has been saluted as the ultimate institutional validation of the “games are art” truism.

In the midst of the celebrations it wasn’t appropriate to wonder whether or not the Smithsonian show was a populist publicity stunt “generously” supported by Entertainment Software Association. The curatorial process involved an online poll asking netizens to vote for their favorite games – it didn’t make a big difference since only 5 among the 80 chosen titles were actually playable.
And I haven’t heard many commentators reflecting on the fact that the aforementioned MoMA acquisitions were part of the Architecture and Design collection. What does it mean to put Pac-Man right next to swanky furniture? Is the hip and yuppie field of interaction design imperialistically claiming videogames? Are games furniture? Can architecture make you cry (like videogames, of course)?

For those who don’t hang out in certain niche art circles, it doesn’t really matter that artists have been appropriating, hacking, and creating videogames (and videogame culture) for about 20 years now. It doesn’t matter that a myriad of game-themed art exhibitions swept across the digital art world, arguably becoming its most popular sub-genre.
Last night Stephen Colbert cracked a joke about the exotic idea of arcades at the MoMA but we rarely see games presented in relation with computational, interactive, combinatory and digital art, or even with relational aesthetics or performance. All these forms are way more related to games than the kind of art that collects dust inside museums.

These issues did not matter because that exciting, pedantic, fractal, never-ending dispute we call “art” was never the point of this debate. The point was to “elevate” the cultural status of videogames as a whole: as a medium and as an industry.
For gamers it was a retroactive validation of the countless hours they spent moving pixels and polygons around: “We knew we weren’t wasting out time!”
For the industry was a way to snort some of that magic art dust without accepting the responsibilities that come along with a privileged space for cultural experimentation: “We don’t want just weird artsy games in galleries and museums. We want Pac-Man!”

The game industry and the culture surrounding it can be best understood as a traumatized child or an abused pet. Throughout the years videogames have been repeatedly treated as cultural punching bags and convenient scapegoats. The folks personally involved in this field reacted to the long stigmatization by developing a certain brand of groupthink, a perennial persecution complex, and a compulsion to stick together no matter what.

In the past I’ve been accused of damaging the reputation of the industry by making games about controversial issues. Works defying players’ expectations or rejecting clearly defined goals were dismissed as “not games”.
Now games for social change are often mentioned as symptoms of the “maturation” of the form via New Age gurus like Jane McGonigal. Independent/artsy titles are presented next to idiotic shooters to support the launch of the new PlayStation. Imagine the toilet industry using Duchamp to achieve cultural validation (and possibly get art grants and tax breaks in the process).
What did not change between now and then is the tendency to conceptualize the gaming field as an homogeneous space devoid of conflict.

I would love to see a conversation *not* informed by the catch-all attitude of the “Videogames and Art” blah blah of these recent years. If we are talking about games we must learn to qualify the objects in question. Because there are major differences between a commercial product like Pac-Man and a personal and profound game like Cart Life. The lack of critical discourse within the game industry should not influence the way we treat games outside of it.

And while we push arcade cabinets in and out of museums we could also try to complicate the terms of the debate.
Instead of asking ourselves if and how games can be art, maybe we can start to think how art can be more like games: popular, participatory, accessible and yet complex; able to engage people deeply and for more than a fleeting moment; capable of providing richer experiences the more you get intimate with them.

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