Hey everyone! This post is a transcript of a talk I gave at The Practices and Politics of Inclusivity in Games, a symposium at the University of Leicester, a gathering specifically to present research on how to make videogames a more broadly inclusive medium and industry. While there are many present practical issues, I naturally turned my mind more towards a theoretical and historical angle. Is the way that we tell (and repeat) the history of games part of the problems we currently face? Of course. Anyways, enjoy! I also included some recent articles I read after writing this talk at the end that are excellent further reading.
The past week was probably my busiest yet this academic year. On top of my usual responsibilities as a graduate student, almost every day offered an amazing opportunity to see new work and meet the creators of a broad variety of new media artworks. This year, the North East of North festival had a special focus on bringing Asian creators to the city of Dundee, and for some of the artists it was even the first time their work was exhibited or performed in the UK. This brought an influx of new thought and practice, but also highlighted areas of commonality between local and international art.
I got my degree in Art History from a small college of about 3,000 students in Central Pennsylvania. By the time I was done, I had probably only seen an incredibly small fraction of the works I wrote about, maybe one or two on day trips to New York or Washington DC. For many art historians, this is probably the case. Because the majority of objects of art history are paintings and sculptures, a good-enough sort of analysis can be conducted based on photographs and contextualizing historical information. Outside of very close investigations into underpainting, verso inscriptions, and other material quirks, most times a high quality photograph will do if you set out to write an analysis of a visual work, or at least we convince ourselves it does to keep the practice of Art History remotely sustainable and accessible.
Then, for my senior year thesis project, I moved on to writing about the Conceptual Art movement of the 1960s and 70s and its prefiguration in movements like Fluxus and Gutai. Oftentimes, finding photographs of the works became a challenge and even fewer were still intact or had been re-enacted in the time since the original exhibitions discussed in Lucy Lippard’s Six Years. Six Years is an incredibly interesting book because it is halfway between formal archive and personal scrapbook, a close-read of one perspective on what it was like to identify and formalize an artistic sensibility and mold it, often with her own two hands, into a program of exhibitions. Lippard frequently remade conceptual art pieces on the spot for her “numbers shows,” and despite her impressive archiving skills evident in the text, these great efforts of combined curating and art making usually ended up evading thorough photographic documentation. Each grainy, black and white, mostly unspecific photo I could find and tentatively identify a few of the artworks in was a blessing.
A screenshot from SOD, a Quake mod by JODI
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.
I’ve posted before about common downfalls of major museum exhibitions of videogames, and pretty much my entire Master’s dissertation (and proposed PhD research) is focused on finding effective ways to curate and present games to the public through museums and art spaces. Alongside my writing on this blog, which is an attempt to talk about videogames from an arts perspective alongside the histories of net.art and new media practices, I’ve started a new monthly project that will hopefully offer a place to experiment with these alternative approaches:
Here is the first monthly mini-exhibition on the GROUP SHOW blog!
Cutscenes are a contentious aspect of mainstream gaming, past and present. They’re frequently considered a roadbump to gameplay, marginal to the real meat of the game at best, and even evidence of ‘cinema envy’ on the developers’ part. They’re positioned as an intrusion of film into the ‘pure gameplay’ of the medium and a shallow attempt to gain the perceived acceptance and acclaim film as a medium has, and videogames apparently lack. The criticism of cutscenes, not only from this academic perspective but also reviewers and enthusiasts can be extremely harsh. Some go so far as to have hard limits of how long a cutscene should be, regardless of content or function within the story. Looking at games from a formalist perspective focused on the mechanics of gameplay, cutscenes would ideally be unobtrusively brief or non-existent. But the flavor of a game like Metal Gear Solid 3, part of a series frequently criticized for overlong cutscenes, would be completely different if not for the History Channel documentary style exposition that opens it.
Regardless, the pushback against cutscenes has led to a variety of strategies for working around non-interactive cinematics becoming increasingly common in AAA games. Environmental storytelling, in the form of visual details such as graffiti and signs, overheard spoken dialogue from nearby NPCs, and level designs that guide the player through realtime checkpoints serving to reveal plot has been described as post-cutscene game design. However, especially in AAA games, many of these attempts seem embroiled in an anxiety about the inherent intermedia quality of videogames. A videogame is not simply a game in the way that a painting is simply a painting. It’s a complex mix of programming, art, sound design, writing, and often cinematics, or at the very least event pacing, frequently taking cues from the moving image. The supposed integrity of the videogame as a medium that stands alone relies on refusing to engage with these other parts of its material reality, or at least minimizing them in favor of an experience where the player must always be focusing on mechanics. However, like collage, the meaning of games can’t be divorced from their intermedia quality.
I’ve written about how vital digital conservation is to keeping the visual culture and new media art of the past alive before, and as a practice it often demands creativity and improvisation, since the methods are far from as tried and tested as the ones used in physical or preventive conservation for more traditional art objects. Rhizome’s first Kickstarter is a bold experiment to see how these important projects could potentially be funded and presented to the public in the future, and I encourage everyone to check it out and consider backing! Here’s why it’s important to me:
The first time I got an emulator to work, it was to play Harvest Moon: Friends of Mineral Town. I was probably 13 or so. Really, it was more out of curiosity than anything. I already had the game for my Gameboy Advance and had put in almost 50 hours at it (and married Karen to save her from turbo nerd Rick). I had most of the items and buildings. Still, I was intrigued as to how some of the members of the forum were able to post such clean screenshots, push their stats and cash absurdly high, and peek into the code of the game itself. It was a brief dabbling, I liked the feel of the console in my hands more and restarting a game I had put so much care and effort into just to bulk up my farmer to perfection that would have required weeks, maybe months of grinding, wasn’t too compelling. I deleted the emulator program and the files from the family PC and forgot about them for a few years.
When I attempted to paint with oil the first time, I thought I was doomed to fail the Intro to Painting course I was taking. Using egg tempera in a medieval restoration course felt the same way. I often attempted to use the techniques of the nearest parallels that I had experience with, drawing or watercolor, but of course, it usually made an even bigger mess of what I was trying to do. Each language you learn, and every skill or process you practice has its own form that you have to feel out gradually be experimenting, failing, learning. This may seem obvious to anyone, especially someone who is a jack of all trades but master of none, but it’s easy to lose sight of these processes in the midst of the flattening power of digital media.
Last Thursday, the Museum of Everything returned in a bigger and better venue with a slightly tweaked title, now the Museum of Anything. In the ground floor display area of the Fruitmarket gallery, the same index cards and piles of craft supplies made their appearance, and members of the public gathered to select, hang and group objects of personal, or global importance.
I wrote about the previous incarnation of this project here and here, so I won’t say much this time around, just that some cards from the previous hanging made a reprise, and the submissions this time were even more varied and creative. Here are a few of my favorites:
The bustling Fruitmarket gallery was a great venue for the project, and I think just about every visitor lingered longer than they intended to, getting absorbed in discussion or being struck with inspiration for yet another card to hang up. Again, the results of the day-long exhibition were documented and collected… who knows where this true “museum without walls” may pop up next?