One of the biggest challenges I faced in writing my Masters dissertation was defining the particular area of production I’d be discussing. Sure, narrowing scope to that just-right point is a challenge for most academics, but in my case teasing out the categorizations and movements to focus on was particularly hairy. When I said I wanted to write about videogames in art museums, my advisor presented me with several interpretations of that seemingly simple phrase that surprised me. I was of course thinking of the exhibitions attempting to bring videogames produced outside of the art world into it, like Game On at the Barbican Centre or The Art of the Video Game at the Smithsonian. However, there are also many other ways to interpret this term.
Videogames have been appearing in museums long prior to large exhibitions featuring titles like Pac-Man, Rock Band and Super Mario Galaxy, but these titles are marginalized both in gaming history and the history of art, perhaps because they operate at this borderline. Games made for art galleries or online arts contexts during the 90s and early 00s include Natalie Bookchin’s flash games, and JODI’s abstracted Quake mods (pictured above). This lineage continues to some producers today who categorize their work as art and present in venues like festivals and galleries. Tale of Tales games, for example, includes their “Realtime Art Manifesto” on their site, while also distributing their works over the popular Steam platform.
Besides art games, there is also game art, that is, art which takes videogames and their surrounding culture as its subject. These works can come in the form of recursive or self-referential games, or they can be as traditional as a physical sculpture of Mario and Peach imitating Michelangelo’s Pietà. So in terms of videogames entering museums, there are three broad categories, mainstream games, art games, and art about games or game art, and countless other tendencies between these main points, such as the wide spectrum of indie development, from single creator works made with free development tools, to small groups or studios which simulate the mainstream studio process on a smaller scale. Furthermore, while mainstream games are turning more towards larger and more expensive AAA development processes, smaller games and single auteur-styles of development still exist, meaning there are also different layers to the mainstream.
So the question “Are videogames art/should videogames be presented in art museums/if so how” that I planned to wrestle with was much more complex than I first assumed. And there’s not much work, either in game studies or in the history of art, which addresses this complexity and divide. Only specialized sites and publications regularly cover a variety of games outside the mainstream, and even fewer offer a variety of analyses beyond news and consumer reviews. Exhibitions of games and game art either focus on mainstream works (with an occasional minor addendum addressing “indie” work as a monolith,) or certain works as a part of net.art and new media art, never bridging between the two, or the variety of practices that don’t easily fit these definitions.
I hope to do my part filling this gap in my own PhD research come this fall, by investigating ways that all aspects of videogames in museums can be examined more critically from an art history framework, and how connections can be drawn between them to create a more complete history of both art and videogames. But I’m not alone. Archivists and conservation scientists are working hard to solve the all-too-frequent issues of accessibility and long term viability that come with new mediums. Publications like The Arcade Review, which I’m a regular contributor to, offers the serious consideration and arts-based perspective overlooked small and experimental gems of gaming deserve. And of course, developers are creating games that reflect on the medium and its history in new ways all the time. In Avant-Garde Videogames, Brian Schrank sets out a scatterplot with two axes to determine the varied nature of games in the Avant-Garde versus the mainstream. One axis refers to the focus of the work, formal or political, and the other runs from radical to complicit. Only formally complicit non-political works are in the current mainstream, and this is supported by the overwhelming focus on design properties and rules in mainstream game studies, as well as the rejection of political content, even when dealing with issues as obviously political as war or slavery, in most mainstream games, as well as their fan communities.
I see the work I want to do forming a scatterplot as well, with one axis stretching between appropriative and generative, that is, whether the game or piece of art in question is referencing or appropriating imagery from previous games or aspects of gaming culture, and another, perhaps harder to pin down, would stretch from static works to works that must be activated by the viewers. Game art, art games, and mainstream production can all be approximately located on such a spread, with room for interesting things in the spaces in between. Only one far corner, generative, static works, would represent the traditional art objects that do not encourage play in the viewer and do not reference or appropriate any imagery or other elements from the history of gaming. In essence, this is my rudimentary map, and filling in points of interest on it, mapping roads between points, setting down borders and new guidelines for this space will be a long and collaborative process, but one I’m excited to take part in over the coming months and years.