We'd like to see games as art. Even those of us who'd personally rather just shoot stuff, thank you very much, realize in general that "games as art" might be a simple way to vault them into the sphere of mainstream relevance, earn them appreciation and understanding from an audience that currently, unjustly, looks down on them. We love, of course, when games have themes and messages, when they offer the player a choice - this equates to more complexity, we feel, this places a game on level with other media that aim to make us feel. There's an entire segment of the audience that devotes itself to finding the emotional moments in games; we write essays, post blogs and have forum discussions about Little Sisters, about holding hands with Yorda or getting rid of GLaDOS. And many of us have even accepted, to some extent, that games are currently a little bit self-referential and insular. They often tread dangerously in the direction of comic books, which by giving comic book fans only and exactly what they wanted, ended up being of interest only to comic book fans and no one else. We see that games, as an interactive medium, have much greater potential than this. But what happens when a game doesn't create the message from inside its fictional world, but uses a message that already exists? What if "games as art" in the real world actually looks like something we really, really don't like? Let's talk about Invaders!.
Anatomy of a Firestorm By now you've heard the story - at the Games Connection Developer Conference in Leipzig, Germany, digital artist Douglas Edric Stanley presented what he calls an "art installation" - a Space Invaders mod that has players trying to fight off the destruction of the World Trade Center's Twin Towers. And it's not winnable; based on the hands-on impressions by Mike McWhertor, it seems deliberately engineered to be an exercise in futility. According to McWhertor, the exhibit - since closed down by the artist himself amid a firestorm of controversy following Kotaku's initial report - was also accompanied by video clips of American films and President George W. Bush, additional peripheral elements that let us know we had a nebulous "political message" on our hands. McWhertor's report on Kotaku garnered over ten thousand comments fairly rapidly - Fox News, who can often be said to be on the hunt for a sensational controversy, rapidly picked up the story. Stanley says he's received death threats. Amid all this, Stanley doesn't appear to have ever stated why he made the game; in the statement he made when he voluntarily closed his GC exhibit, even the artist admitted there was "uncomfortable ambiguity." But a day on which thousands of lives were lost in a tense political climate is a topic so broad and raw as to constitute a wound which might never wholly heal, and emotions are running high. It doesn't, at a glance, seem like appropriate subject matter for a "game." Is It Art? Especially because, if there was ever a time when the "relax, it's just a game" defense was wildly inappropriate, it's now. In a case like this, many of us are so bred-in to defending games against Fox News that we reply that Stanley's work is "art" without thinking much about it - without knowing why it's art, without knowing how we feel about it or what its value is or is not. It has "messages," people say. It's "making a statement," and that alone is a reason why it ought to exist, why someone with criticisms of American policy is justified in taking one of the most painful days of the modern American's life and making it into an arcade shooter. It's offensive. It's upsetting. Those who are angry with Stanley have a right to be. However, that doesn't exclude having a basic respect for his right to have an opinion - and that he found an innovative way to express himself. The artist's statement says "it was never created to merely provoke controversy for controversy's sake," and in taking responsibility for the "ambiguity" he mentioned, Stanley seems to be suggesting that he intends for those who view the piece to discuss it. Self-expression in an attention-catching way with the aim of presenting a viewpoint with numerous possible angles of discussion. That's pretty much the definition of modern art. What's The Point? In fact, Stanley's work is obviously far more "art" than it is "game." The entire issue begs comparisons to Danny Ledonne's Super Colombine Massacre RPG!, an unsettling and involved title that tasks players on the most basic level with acting out the 1999 Littleton, Colorado school shooting in the role of killers Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold. Ledonne told the Washington Post that his intention with the title was never to glorify the tragedy, but to "confront their actions and the consequences those actions had." Super Columbine RPG! contains several elements that suggest themes of game violence, the connection (or disconnection) between fantasy and reality, and the influence of culture on behavior. Like Stanley's Invaders!, Ledonne and his title stopped short of providing a direct interpretation - neither artist has been especially specific about "what it means," or in instructing players on how they should interpret their work or what "message" should be taken away. Art, by definition, is subjective and open to interpretation - that it is a collection of images and themes designed to mean something different to each person who looks at it is part of its nature. Some people were pained by Stanley's Invaders! Some people supported the messages they thought they saw inside. Still others became angry, and in the resulting discussions surfaced many questions along the lines of, "what is the purpose of this game? Why did he make this? What's the point?" "Contrary to previous reports, I am an American, and it saddens me that we as a people remain so profoundly unable to process this event outside of some obscure, but tacitly understood, criteria of purely anesthetized artistic representation," says Stanley in his statement - by taking issue with so-called "pure anesthesia," he seems to suggest he intends for people to use his game to confront and "process" the events of September 11th in a new way. Some would say he's been successful in his aim - it's a new way, all right, and it's not "anesthetized." Others will disagree - but the fact that there's no right answer, no pass or fail, no win or lose, is the strongest argument yet as to why Invaders! is art. The more interesting question, however: Is it a game? Well, Is It? It can be argued that a game that's impossible to win - that has no achievable objective whatsoever - is not a game at all. Remove the "art" aspect and pretend we're talking about an image-neutral Space Invaders mod that was designed so that defeat is an inevitability. It defies the logic innate to game design, doesn't it? Games need rules and they need an achievable objective. It helps if there are rewards and penalties, and information that helps players learn how to interpret and interact with the game environment. Even if the "rule" is something simple as "player needs to go from point A to point B," there is a task, a start point, an end point and a result, even if there's not an end game. Invaders! isn't a "game with a message." The tasks the creator intends players to undertake have nothing to do with what's on the screen. The real "gameplay" takes place away from the exhibit, in the arena of private thought and public discussion. Ultimately, it has little to do with the game itself at all. It's a tough call to even call it "games as art" — Okami's brushed-glorious landscape, Braid's radiant, strange skies, BioShock's meticulous Art Deco are "games as art." This is more like "art as game." Still, semantics aside, Invaders! actually accomplishes everything we've constantly asked games to achieve - it draws mainstream attention. It provokes thought and discussion. It deals with a real-world issue. It's open to interpretation. It's independently-created art. And it stings, doesn't it, to see our hopes for the medium twisted into such an uncomfortable, painful shape. But let's not let the pain force us to dismiss it. This is an achievement. And in a way, by embracing Invaders!, we use it in the way the artist intended - we take away from it what we choose. Because there's no way to win Stanley's game - except to take away only the valuable lessons on games, art and ourselves as players. Leigh Alexander is news director for Gamasutra, freelances and reviews often for a variety of outlets including Variety and Paste, and maintains her gaming blog,Sexy Videogameland. Her monthly column at Kotaku deals with cultural issues surrounding games and gamers. She can be reached at leighalexander1 AT gmail DOT com.