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Art/Games/History

 

Videos are now available online of presentations and panel discussions from the Art History of Games Conference, held at the Georgia Institute of Technology in February of this year. By locating video games in the discourse of art history, the conference’s gathering of a distinguished line-up of media theorists and game designers take on the stubborn critique of video games as being merely toys, crude entertainment, distractions, cultural forms that are something other than art. A key tension that runs throughout the presentations is the need to on one hand balance the desire to promote games and game studies as having attained a degree of maturity as a legitimate fields within the elite academic and art worlds, and on the other to recognise and account what makes a game a game and how this sets games apart from other cultural forms that are elevated to the status of art.

Two main tactics for arguing this point can be seen in the presentations:

  1. The location of video game aesthetics in a history of other artistic forms (painting, cinema, theatre, etc).
  2. The development and identification of “art-games”, cultural artifacts that function both as games and as works of art.

What is perhaps most valuable about this conversation is not the rehabilitation of video games as a “legitimate” “high” “art”, but the tricky challenges that describing the conditions under which a video game would qualify as a work of art pose to art criticism itself.

Using the analogy of cinema, much of what seems to qualify any particular game as a work of art is the signature style of an auteur. In games commissioned for the conference, Jason Rohrer, Nathalie Pozzi and Eric Zimmerman, and design team Tale of Tales each demonstrate their particular authorial voice in game-form. Jason Rohrer’s 2003 game Passage is often held up as an exemplar of an art game that is both beautiful and efficient in its ludic meditation on life and death. We see the themes of death and memory appearing again in Tale of Tales’ Vanitas, while Pozzi and Zimmerman’s 16 Tons seems to contribute to current conversations around play and labor, and Rohrer’s Sleep is Death is a sort of meta-game, a story-building environment.

The emergence of the art-game auteur can be compared to directors of the European New Wave and later to iconoclast film directors in the US and elsewhere. Art games play with the conventions and audience expectations of the form in much the same way as art-house cinema played with the conventional narrative and production modes of films produced under the studio system. Taking this analogy a step further, one might consider the possibility of future gaming movements equivalent to Third Cinema, the explicitly anti-colonial mode of filmmaking that emerged in the Americas in the 1960s. To revolutionise art is one thing, the art of revolution is quite another. It would be foolish to attempt to transpose the history of cinema or any other cultural form onto video games directly, but in the search for ways in which cultural work can be incorporated into social justice struggles, the experience of prior movements which have sought to do such work may be instructive.

Fifty years into its history, auteurism instituted a particular approach to artistry for a cultural form that was often seen as being mere entertainment. Video games seem to be entering a similar era. Those concerned with the political impact of the video game form should already be looking forward to what’s coming next.

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