Once the present, now history


I came home from the Game Developers Conference last week to discover a box full of copies of Works of Game. It was a strange sensation, holding the slim volume in my hand for the first time. Once the excitement of seeing the book in person passed, I began to ponder how, exactly, it took me half a decade to get from proposal to book. (According to my file backups, I began writing the proposal for Works of Game in December 2009, and turned in the final manuscript edits in October 2014, nearly five years later.)

The late 00s were an exciting time in indie games. Numerous breakout hits proved there was a path for indie success, IndieCade and the IGF were attracting huge crowds, and devs were making games that no one would have imagined a few years earlier. But through all this excitement, I noticed some problems. For one, there was the “are games art?” debate that kept popping up despite nearly everyone saying it was an irrelevant question. Coming from the world of art and art history, this conversation always caused my head to spin. More often than not, pronouncements on the subject were made from a point of abject naiveté about what it means to be “art,” to be an artist, and to be part of a subculture that creates, critiques and appreciates art. MOMA’s acquisition of games into the Architecture & Design department only fueled the fire of misinterpretation. Yes, Minecraft, Sim City and Passage had MOMA’s good housekeeping seal of approval, but from the same people who collect lamps and bowls for the museum, and not those who collect paintings and video art. And the Smithsonian’s “Art of Video Games” show toured to great praise, but it was at best vague in its pronouncements of games as art—here meaning well-made, popular media artifacts. And that supreme court decision? That gave games first amendment protections, but it didn’t suddenly declare games art anymore than the first amendment anoints the Beetle Bailey comic strip “Art.”

I also noticed that the contemporary art world, and more particularly the media art community, was largely uninterested in games. Though there have been close to 100 exhibitions around games in museums and galleries, games are mostly treated as either creativity exercises, toolsets with which to make artwork, or cultural tropes ripe for critiques of technology, media and, well, games. But in the post-object, post-conceptual space art now occupies, the ambivalence toward games struck me as a missed opportunity.

It dawned on me that I was in a fairly unique position with games and art—I was a card-carrying Art Historian (at least as far as Indiana University’s Art History department was concerned), an indie dev and a game studies scholar. I began to look more closely at the history of games and art, on the origins of the game industry’s “are games art?” questions, and immersed myself in “game art” (art made of games) and “artgames” (games with artistic intentions). I started giving talks like “Painting with Games: JODI, Julian Oliver and the technologies of game development” at DiGRA 2009, ”Art History for Game Devs” at GDC 2010 and “A Curiously Short History of Game Art”  at FDG 2012. With Ian Bogost and Michael Nitsche, I co-organized the Art History of Games symposium in 2010, and a smaller version in 2013 with Eddo Stern and Melanie Swalwell.

Artgames set the tone for certain corners of the indie scene from 2008 to 2010, receiving all sorts of recognition in the games press and festival circuit. But by 2013, the tide had turned, and it seemed like most of the usual suspects were no longer making work that fit the artgame bill. And examples of game art were few and far between since the heyday of the late 90s and early 00s. What were once of the moment were quickly becoming moments passed, in the process turning two-thirds of my book into a historical analysis. This bothered me, because I wanted the book to be part of an ongoing conversation, and not an art history book. But as much as I understood the artgames scene and the games it produced, and I understood game art and its role in contemporary art, there was still a lot I was sorting out. I was still making sense of what it meant to combine the values of contemporary art and games. I was still grappling with why contemporary art largely shunned games, but seemed to embrace ideas around play. I was still trying to decide what to call the works that met the values of both games and art. So I kept talking and playing and thinking and reading and writing my through these questions. The hardest question was what to call the works that met the values important to both art and game communities. The answer proved to be quite simple, once I found it—artist’s games.

While artgames and game art may be more or less things of the past, artist’s games continue to be made. Artists like Mary Flanagan, Blast Theory, the collaboration of Nathalie Pozzi and Eric Zimmerman, Eddo Stern, Pippin Barr, anna anthropy, Molleindustria and Porpentine continue to produce what are clearly artist’s games. We no longer have to lean on Marcel Duchamp for legitimacy for artistically-minded games (he isn’t that helpful, anyway). We’ve got anna and Paolo and Tale of Tales and Eddo and all the others.

As I entered the endgame of proofreading, citation-formatting and image-permission-hunting, I began noticing game-like structures in new corners of the contemporary art world. Seeming to hearken back to Fluxus event scores, Surrealist games, OULIPian constraints and Cage’s use of chance, there is a burgeoning space in performance-based and participatory cultural works. In choreography, theatre, and socially-based artworks, spectators become dancers, actors, singers, historic re-enactors, and players of all sorts through methods, systems, and instruction-based frameworks that share a great deal with games. 

Hopefully Works of Game can be a helpful contribution to making sense of the ways games and art overlap, and bring some clarity to the conversation. Give it a read if you have a chance, and let me know what you think. In the meantime, I’m starting on the next set of questions around play, art and structured participation beyond the screen and gallery. We’ll see if this project also progresses at a pace of 17 words a day.