The Art History of Games isn't simply another venue to show off particularly lovely screenshots or paintings inspired by gaming. The event seeks to answer deeper questions about the nature of art and games, exploring the convergences of the two and how both have coevolved in response to one another.
During the opening panel, game culture expert Ian Bogost was joined by digital media scholar Michael Nitsche and art historian and game designer John Sharp to discuss where we should look to find the art in games.
Is the art of games found in visual arts?
This is where the industry often points when asked for examples of video games as art. It's probably the easiest way for the layman to equate the two. When the average person thinks of art, they think of images.
"In some of the shows that have existed they've just shown printouts of screens," Sharp says, as a slide is projected on the screen, giving examples of visually compelling titles. That Game Company's Flower is there, along with Tale of Tales' The Path, BioShock, and Colecovision Boxing. The latter seems an odd duck, a blocky mass of pixels amidst gorgeous polygon-built art, but the more I look at it the more I appreciate its simplicity.
And while BioShock strikes me as one of the more artistic games of the lot, Bogost explains that the game is borrowing trends and traditions from art deco, translating them into game imagery. Is that art, or homage?
Or perhaps the art is in the game world?
This thought raises interesting questions, particularly from Michael Nitsche, who ponders where the game world ends. "Is this the rendered polygon masses, or the play spaces we are talking about? Is it the social space created by thousands of players playing together, or is it the living room where we're playing the Wii?"
Taking another angle, Sharpe compares creating game worlds to sculpting. "Part of what game design is about is sculpting a space for the player to go through."
Is there art in the creative use of technology?
Another slide flashes on the screen, featuring id's Doom, a lifestyle shot of Project Natal, David Crane's Atari 2600 classic Grand Prix, and Julian Oliver's ioq3apaint.
"We can appreciate all games from a technical standpoint. Appreciating them for the systems," Sharpe continues, pointing to Grand Prix as a prime example. "Getting the cars to come off the screen instead of wrapping around like the Atari 2600 wanted them to took a lot."
Is there art in technique? In implementation? Sharpe talks about his times in grad school studying the Northern Renaissance, when students would take chips of paint and analyze them, photographing them and x-raying them to help understand the techniques that went into the creation of art. To them, how the painting was created is just as important a factor as the painting itself.
"We could argue that technical virtuosity is the primary way game designers talk about games as art," Sharpe concludes, and the slide changes once more.
Is there art in game design?
This is where traditional ideas break down. When considering the design of the game as art, it isn't as much about the design of the game as it is the player's response to that design. It's what the player gets out of playing.
The slide shows Wii Sports Tennis, Jason Rohrer's Gravitation, Rod Humble's The Marriage, and NCAA basketball court specifications. What do court specifications have to do with it?
"You can't simply point to the court and say that is basketball, Bogost explains. "You can't put that in a frame or on the wall. It resists the traditional methods of preserving art."
In the same way, you couldn't show a video of Wii Sports Tennis in action and fully communicate what is going on. You'd have to see the people playing the game as well.
As Nitsche points out, game design can be lo-fi in sensory elements as well. "It doesn't have to be about recreating the visual world in the game." Take Rod Humble's The Marriage. It's an allegorical game about marriage that strips everything else away. It mounts the image itself, and the player's experience fills in the rest. The art lies in the player's perception of the game.
Is there art in player activity?
Finally we look at the art found in the players actually playing the games. "This is a sticking point," says Sharpe, "It suggests co-authorship...the power lies in the player and not the designer."
A broken Pac-Man screen, Ubisoft's Far Cry 2, and a couple of shots from Robbie Cooper's "Gamer Faces" come up on the screen. Sharpe continues.
"If we think that the art is in our interaction with the artifact, then we obviously have to look at the artist in front of the screen. "
Again, sport is turned to as an example. There is great beauty found in the players playing sports. Robbie Cooper explores this from a gaming standpoint in his "Gamer Faces" series. Games were projected onto a clear plane of glass, with a camera behind it, taking pictures of the gamers as they played.
Then there's player mastery. Bogost uses Pac-Man as an example, showing the broken screen that comes after a player completes the 256 level of the game. "The performance required to get to this end result is somewhat remarkable."
Why are we looking?
Summing up the talk, Bogost explains the reasons behind The Art History of Games symposium.
"Maybe this is just bollocks and we should move along, but If we don't explore the questions more seriously than "are games art, yes or no?," we don't necessarily make any progress."