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September 2014
Issue: March 1, 2010

VIDEOGAMES AS AN ART FORM

ATLANTA — “Play,” a creative form “older than culture,” according to Johan Huizinga, has served humanity in such diverse ways as entertainment, education, exercise, conflict resolution, ritual and self-expression. But it was not until the 20th Century that games and the play experiences they provide began to be perceived as an art form, as well. With nods to the past and the future, and with an open acknowledgment of all the awkwardness, bravado and measured successes thus far, the Art History of Games (www.arthistoryofgames.com) conference, held in early February, sought to more clearly explore and articulate the importance of games as a legitimate art form.

Hosted by the Savannah College of Art and Design, or SCAD (www.scad.edu), and the Georgia Institute of Technology’s Digital Media Program (www.gradadmiss.gatech.edu), the three-day Art History of Games symposium in Atlanta was the first of its kind to bring together experts in the fields of game studies, art history and the related areas of cultural studies.

Matthew Maloney, digital animator/associate dean for the SCAD School of Film, Digital Media and Performing Arts, describes the conference as both significant and timely. “Games and art have connections going back to the early 20th Century, but the subject is not very well explored,” he said. “While there is much discussion on whether games are art, it is often limited to comparisons to Hollywood cinema rather than contemporary art. This symposium provides a venue for artists, scholars and game developers to expand on games as a form of art, as well as set the path for conversations going forward.”

WHAT IS ART?

The conference provided attendees access to leading artists and academics in the videogame industry, and featured a host of panel discussions, presentations and Q&A sessions. Prominent game designers who spoke included SCAD professor Brenda Brathwaite, a pioneer at the forefront of women in games studies who recently received the Vanguard Award for her game Train at IndieCade; and Ian Bogost, associate professor at Georgia Tech’s Ivan Allen College of Liberal Arts and founding partner of the award-winning independent videogame studio Persuasive Games.

“Games are a part of human culture,” noted Bogost. “They have been for millennia, and we can study them for many reasons: to make better ones and to learn to plumb their depths as players, for example. But perhaps the most important and least common reason is to understand their role in our lives.”

Conference participant Celia Pearce, assistant professor of digital media in the School of Literature, Communication and Culture at Georgia Tech, where she also directs the Experimental Game Lab and the Emergent Game Group, provided an intriguing perspective about the evolution of games and their legitimacy as an art form.

“When the words ‘videogame’ and ‘art’ are used in the same sentence, the discussion tends to revolve around the questions of whether videogames are art, the art and graphics of commercial games, and, less often, the use of videogames in fine art,” said Pearce. “Contemporary digital game art is a growing movement, comparable to the rise of video as a fine art form in the ‘80s; however, fine artists have harnessed the expressive power of games for nearly a century.”

LEADING BY EXAMPLE

An integral and important part of the conference was the introduction of three new games specifically commissioned for the Art History of Games. Premiering their new games were: conference presenter Jason Rohrer, creator of the critically-acclaimed games Passage and Gravitation; Tales of Tales’ Auriea Harvey and Michael Samyn, creators of Path, many Website and Internet artwork; and Eric Zimmerman, co-founder of GameLab, and his partner, architect Nathalie Pozzi.

Rohrer’s contribution, Sleep is Death (Geisterfahrer), is a two-player asymmetric game. Pozzi and Zimmerman’s Sixteen Tons — aptly named after the folk song made famous in 1955 by Tennessee Ernie Ford about coal mining and debt bondage — looks like a large-scale board game, but the gameplay is complicated by the fact that players can pay each other with real money. Playing the game becomes an experience that critically blurs work and play, as the real value of money is grafted onto the artificial meanings of the game, and player identity shifts fluidly back and forth from cooperation to competition.

Lastly, Tale of Tales’ Vanitas is a virtual memento mori for your digital hands. Vanitas presents players with a gorgeously rendered 3D box filled with intriguing objects that can be moved by the tilt of an iPhone or pushed and dragged using a simple iPod.

Joining the illustrious roster of speakers and panelists was John Romero, a game designer, programmer, artist and sequential artist whose work spans more than 130 games — 97 of which have been published commercially, including the iconic works Wolfenstein 3D, Doom and Quake. Romero, who is inspired by, if not in awe of, the creativity and innovation of the videogame pioneers, celebrated the genius and contributions of those who first breathed life into the industry in his lecture “Masters Among Us.”

“Since the dawn of the digital industry,” noted Romero, “game designers and programmers pushed technology beyond its bounds and, on the granular level, millions of seemingly trivial mechanic innovations made the medium and cultural art form what it is today. Our masters still walk among us. Interestingly, however, few practicing game designers and even fewer experiencing their works know the masters among them.”

The conference also featured Jesper Juul, an influential theorist in the field of videogame studies and the author of Half-Real: Video Games Between Real Rules and Fictional Worlds, considered to be one of the top 50 books written about the game industry; and Frank Lantz, creative director and co-founder of Area/Code, a New York-based developer that creates cross-media, location-based and social network games.

Other notable presenters included Christiane Paul, adjunct curator of new media arts at the Whitney Museum of American Art; Henry Lowood, Stanford University’s curator for the history of science and technology collections and film and media collections; Michael Nitsche, a digital media scholar and assistant professor at Georgia Tech; and John Sharp, SCAD interactive design and game development instructor and art history professor.

Organized and chaired by Bogost, Nitsche and Sharp, the Art History of Games aimed to break new ground, unearth the past and pay homage to next-generation game developers.