Art History of Games Recap
Two weeks ago, the Georgia Institute of Technology Digital Media program co-hosted the Art History of Games symposium with SCAD-Atlanta. The event opened with a panel by its three co-coordinators, Michael Nitsche and Ian Bogost of Tech and John Sharp of SCAD. They began with a number of provocative questions about where the art of games might come from: is it found in their visual elements, in their virtual worlds, in the creative exploitation of technology, in their design and programming, or in the activity of their players?
John Romero, famous for his work at id Software on early FPS games such as Doom and Quake, delivered a reflective opening keynote on some of the pioneers of digital games. He reminded us about the amount of work lost over time from Mozart’s oeuvre, cautioning the game industry to remember vital contributions from the many designers and programmers who have already begun to fade from popular memory. Later in the conference, he explained his thought process during the transition from false to true 3D engines. Another attending industry designer, Richard Lemarchand of Naughty Dog, inquired in a hushed voice, “Did you have any idea what your work would mean to us now?”
In their lectures, Celia Pearce and John Sharp both covered the representation of games throughout art history proper. Sharp focused on famous paintings that captured games as they were played by aristocrats. He highlighted the importance of swinging and guessing games in the sexual lives of young Europeans, contrasting this with the academic place of Go in Japan. Pearce primarily discussed how the Dada and Fluxus movements produced games alongside their experiments in performance and readymades. She also ran through a short history of independent game developers who strive to make art, asserting that “if you make something, and you call it art, then it’s art.” Marcel Duchamp factored heavily in both discussions, becoming something of a “patron saint” of the symposium
Digital Media PhD candidate Brian Schrank and his graduate advisor, Professor Jay Bolter, presented a model for the avant-garde in games, distinguishing between the formal and the political avant-garde in art history. The formal avant-garde questions the assumptions of mainstream art, while the political avant-garde confronts the place of art in society. Schrank holds the mods of Jodi, an art collective known for deconstructing famous games until they are unrecognizable, as the ideal of formal avant-garde games that manipulate the player’s flow state. The political avant-garde in gaming is represented by virtual world griefers and alternate-reality games, which call into question the magic circle that divides the “real” world from the games we play.
Jesper Juul of the NYU Game Center discussed competing efforts to arrive at the essence of games, dividing thinkers and designers across a spectrum between “purity” and (for lack of a better word) “subterfuge.” He associates purity with the procedural focus of designer Chris Crawford and the ludologists. Antagonistic to this are those who strive for immersion, or “those who want to hide the gaminess of games.” The scholarly impulse for this comes from Janet Murray’s ideal of the holodeck, while designers Chris Hecker and Clint Hocking manifest the approach through their respective focuses on the ludic contract and hyper-realism. Juul chose no explicit champion here, instead encouraging us to keep making theories and proving ourselves wrong.
Area/Code founder Frank Lantz managed to explain the mindset of a brilliant game designer without really talking much about games at all. He discussed the passions of Nabokov for butterfly collecting and of Wittgenstein for architecture, hobbies seemingly unrelated to the work they’re remembered for, that show us something about the way they understood and dealt with the world. It was an argument against the codification of games into art or even into a series of stock design patterns. Lantz explains that avoiding the “domestication” of games requires looking outside of the field for inspiration, embracing things that are messy, wild, and inexplicable.
Henry Lowood, a professor and archivist at Stanford University, chided academics for not taking a close enough look at the creative output of players. He controversially asked, “Who is the artist, James Naismith (the designer of basketball) or Michael Jordan?” He then compared Dr. J’s virtuoso around-the-backboard layup versus Kareem Adbul-Jabar to a famous Warcraft 3 match where the underdog, 4K.Grubby, won by using a defensive spell in an unexpected way. The “are games art” question holds little interest for Lowood, who reflected that over the course of the past century most people have come to distrust art while relying more and more on games in their daily lives.
Michael Samyn and Auriea Harvey of Tale of Tales, the enigmatic indie developer of The Path and The Graveyard, announced the formation of a “Not Games” movement with four messages emblazoned across the screen:
GAMES ARE NOT ART
ART IS DEAD
VIDEO GAMES ARE NOT GAMES
MAKE LOVE NOT GAMES
Tale of Tales explained the initial disillusionment with the high art world that led them to express themselves on the web and through games. Unfortunately, their experience with games has left them somewhat jaded, because the mainstream industry fails to exploit so much of the potential interactions afforded by the medium. “We want you to know: we’re just as evil as you are. We’re just evil in a different way,” Samyn clarified.
The closing keynote came from Christiane Paul of the Whitney, who explained the difficulty of her work trying to get videogames and other interactive media into a gallery setting. She explained why technically significant, critically celebrated videogames often fail to make the “fine art” cut. Her work is a careful balancing act, attempting to introduce traditional museum patrons to the medium without going completely over their heads. Paul’s fear is that, without the archival support of museums, many important games will eventually be lost to history.
Accompanying the talks were a collection of commissioned games on display at the Kai Lin gallery. Eric Zimmerman and Nathalie Pozzi combined their design and architecture backgrounds to produce Sixteen Tons—a game of tactical peg maneuvering with an added mini-economic dimension, played with heavy iron pieces and encircled by a beautiful paper wall. Their presentation raised the question: is the essence of Sixteen Tons in the design of its ruleset, in its architectural elements, or in the content of its social message about indentured servitude?
Jason Rohrer brought his new Sleep is Death, an uneven networked game with one player filling the role of an “actor” and another that of a “director.” This design mirrored his talk about the pipe dream of the singleplayer immersive, interactive narrative. Following an earlier argument by Michael Mateas, Rohrer argued that we should focus on interactive drama rather than a classical narrative arc. Tale of Tales unveiled their new non-game, Vanitas, in an installation crowned by a beautiful bell jar filled with the fragments of a shattered iPhone and a swarm of ladybugs.
Perhaps as a counterpoint to their argument, but really more close to exactly what Tale of Tales wants to see from the game industry, Brenda Brathwaite stole the show for many when she stood up and declared, “I’m an artist, and I’m sensitive about my shit.” Her Train was on display along the commissioned works at Kai Lin, and her speech covered her own mental processes while working on her “The Mechanic is the Message” series of games. Brathwaite shared details on her newest project, called One Falls For Each Of Us, about the Trail of Tears. One aspect of the design stood out as particularly memorable: in this game about displacing an entire people, you’re going to have to move one game piece for each of them.
That’s right: Brathwaite is currently hard at work painting 50,000 game pieces. She’s an artist, and she’s sensitive about her shit.
Are games art? Where is the art in games? Does it matter? None of these questions were answered conclusively. In fact, the presentations and commissioned works only served to muddy the waters. Which, as Juul and Lantz argued quite convincingly, is exactly what these events are supposed to do. At the end of the day, the field is better for all our confusion, wild energy, and playful theorization. We study and makes games, after all.
I should say that, all of the lectures aside, the most fulfilling experience I had was in meeting people I’d known online for some time but had never gotten the chance to talk with in person: Charles Pratt, Frank Lantz, and Mike Treanor (to name a few). At the climax of the conference, a group of people descended upon my apartment to play Space Giraffe and make fun of Demon’s Souls. Those people were: Kirk Battle (LB Jeffries), Mike Treanor, Charles Pratt, Frank Lantz, Eric Zimmerman of GameLab, Jason Rohrer, and Richard Lemarchand of Naughty Dog. A good time was had by all, except maybe Zimmerman because I kept spitting on him and saying stupid things because I’m his biggest fan ever. Then a few hours later I got the AHoG stomach bug and threw up for the first time in over five years.