Tuesday, November 11, 2008

When the Videogame is a Work of Art

In the past as well as in the present, technology has driven the definition of art into unthinkable creative realms. What falls into the category of ‘art’ has grown exponentially within the last three decades, and that growth corresponds directly with cultural developments. Just as design, graffiti, cinema, and comics have been accepted as art forms, videogames are being added into the collective definition of art. The original intention of a video game is play. Entertainment has shifted due to the advent of technology which coincides with cultural development.

Experimentation by artists working with videogames as their medium has received praise and attention during the past 10 years and has taken off in the more recent years with open source media. Art relies on the object having freedom from the economic market. Art is made by the artist usually to satiate some kind of personal need. A video game is made to satiate commerce, to be an object of entertainment that the masses consume. Sounds familiar, or reversible. That's because it is.

Video games that garner respect internationally cause the viewer/participant to experience beauty, thought, action, and consequence of actions; not just hand eye coordination skills. A great example of this kind of art is The Legend of Zelda series. This franchise is considered the greatest of all time. The Legend of Zelda series embodies the journey being the point of experience. Completely novel for the 1986 composed of Dig-Dug's and Pac-Mans. Zelda gives you no direction. There is an objective and you must gain knowledge through involvement within that world. Through social interactions with other characters in this world you can achieve the objective presented, save the girl.

Nick Montfort 2 in an Arthouse Games interview explains, "There is a difference between art that exists mainly to pass the time or to amuse and that which is transformative, which helps us to understand new things about the ways we see, or about the language we use to communicate, or about the nature of the world and our relationship to it. But there's no simple test for telling one from another. By itself, being a blockbuster doesn't make a movie just entertainment, and being in an art gallery doesn't make something profound or beautiful. You can't even find out whether something is art (in the transformative sense) by interrogating the artist. You have to see if it transforms you." Zelda is called one of the greatest video games ever made because of the transformation it has caused people who have experienced it. The Legend of Zelda’s downfall as with all other videogames of this period is that it was sold as a commodity and you must purchase it to play it. You do not have to purchase art to experience it. Big difference. Thanks to artists inventing video games and opening their source of media to the world for free, we can now call video games art with no heavy burden on our consciences.

Dave Hickey explains, contrary to popular belief, “Art is not a commodity”3. A commodity is a product that can be purchased that influences or destabilizes our economic market. Art cannot destabilize the economic market because art has it’s own market, the art market. The art market does not cross paths with currency on Wall Street other than personal financing and decor. This is the reason why art is not a commodity. Just as you can purchase a person for sex and pleasure, so can you purchase art. This does not mean that sex is a commodity, it means that it is a business transaction.

The aforementioned is also the reason why video games of the past and most video games of the future which are "sold" today are a commodity and not art. However there are a few that stand against adversity. Art has consistently changed in the face of modernity and the video game is no different. Open source free downloadable games are not motivated by conglomerate businesses like Konami, Nintendo or Acclaim who affect the global market. Freeware games that can be found online are the creations of singular individuals who have no intentions of deriving profits. Their purpose is to share their work, ideas and beliefs.

The old masters of the video game universe, now greet the new masters who call by the tunes of individual artists. From these artists a new subculture has developed. Their intentions are to be transformative, to expand human awareness, and to better understand of the world we operate in. The new prerogatives within the medium, and the expanding freedom of the internet are the tell tales that videogames are art. Because they are not deriving a profit, and they are not participating in the economic market, these online videogames are not a commodity. Therefore the contemporary videogame that can be found online, for free, is art.

As a young medium, (not even the age of 50 yet) artists have only recently begun to stretch outwards and explore the capabilities within the videogame medium to make art. By hacking into the microchips of 8-bit Nintendo games Cory Arcangel in Mario Clouds has removed all characters and landscapes in the game Mario Brothers. He allows only clouds with smiley faces slowly drift by, as if you were in a park bench looking up at a digital sky. This work has altered the perception of how the medium can be pushed and in using the “obsolete game systems, the raw materials of many of his works, as a historical approach to human game culture and particularly video game culture.” 4 The Blip Festival events that are yearly at Eyebeam Gallery are another example of this circuit bending getting the full attention of Chelsea.

This being the surface, as one dives deeper into the Arthouse Video Game subculture, it get's better. There is an opus of work that has depth, empathy, and that can give incite into the human existence. A man named Jason Rohrer has done just that with a game he calls Passages. The games characters purpose is to merely exist. To walk around, get older, and potentially find another person to walk with. When the player finds their mate “you must travel together, and you are not as agile as you were when you were single” 5 The two are adjoined and the passages to walk through become limited. “Passages “ also having a double meaning for the passages of time. The game serves to remind people of their own mortality. When your mate dies “your grief will slow you down considerably” 5 huddled over awaiting the grave.

Further down the rabbit hole of video gaming one finds Stars Over Half Moon Bay as an introspective new work by Rod Humble that can be summed up as the journey inward to ask questions about how the human mind can make connections, as the ancients had laying patterns in the sky. This game touches upon simply the awe of looking up and gazing at the vast night. In it’s review by Arthouse games as, “In the case of Stars, neither the title nor the sub-title ("the gentle bite of ouroboros") helps us drill down past the surface interpretation. We (Arthouse games) must look to the artist's background statement to learn that this is a work concerning as Humble states "the relationship between observation, symbolism, exactitude and the creative process… The game is effectively drawing a meta-constellation of it's own. It's saying, Draw a line between the creative processes and star pattern hunting on a night when briskly-moving clouds threaten your view. Now think about that." Is this game a good metaphor for the creative process? That question is part of the point, I think.” 6

Movement and change in the world continue. New systems and modes of creating art will rise out of cultural revolutions, and heightened times of technology. These new systems may resemble Cory Arcangels 8-bit circuit bending ways. We may see more art that takes from the past, while reaching into the future. We may see work similar to what Jason Rohrer has left us with, to reflect on the choices and passages that we take and whom we take with us. The shackles that limit creativity are only put on and taken off by ourselves. Only we have the keys. Only we are the Masters of the Universe. Simple exercises of the mind dotting stars together that Rod Humble creates for us can be the keys to those ankle weights. Once freed, while looking up at the sky we can feel more grounded in who we are as humans.

Perhaps the same constellations exploding in the sky weaving together the night reflect the same movements and tremors going on inside of ourselves.

2. http://northcountrynotes.org/jason-rohrer/arthouseGames/seedBlogs.php?action=display_post&post_id=jcr13_1180438849_0&show_author=1&show_date=1

3 Hicky, Dave. Air Guitar. Pg.108

4 Gygax, Raphael. Minimalize Mario – Essay from The Work of Cory Arcangel.
Pg. 12

5 Rohrer, Jason. What was I Trying to do with Passages.

6 http://northcountrynotes.org/jason- rohrer/arthouseGames/seedBlogs.php?action=display_post&post_id=jcr13_1206025812_0&show_author=1&show_date=1

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