Video Games, in Search of a Warp Zone by Eryk Salvaggio: The birth of modern gaming probably began in 1968, the launch date for the Magnavox Odyssey video game system. It wasn’t the first video game, but it was the first video game console capable of supporting a library of external software. It launched the one-system, many-games model of gaming we know today.
At 41 years old, gaming is facing a mid-life crisis: not only are the original players of games beginning to grapple with existential pangs of self-doubt — so is the industry that supports them. And so the market — and the audience, and the independent crafters of code — have collided to create games that address the desire for meaning and maturity left out of younger days spent killing time and space creatures for the accumulation of superficial rewards.
One of the central questions addressed at Floating Points 6: Games of Culture | Art of Games, a conference hosted at Emerson University and co-sponsored by Turbulence.org, is the notion of game maturity: the idea that video games can transcend “gaming” to emerge as a distinct artistic medium with an exclusive set of qualities. Simple version: How do we make video games that can tackle issues meaningful to the first generation of players, who are just now beginning to panic about their own lives and mortality? Is there any doubt that the gaming market cannot expand to address these concerns?
The transformation of gaming in a market-based system is a bit like natural selection. Like cholera, or a good LOL Cat, games need environments that allow them to spread. Meditative games are just now finding a receptive audience, and so games that expand conventions can begin to thrive, meaning that games are just now becoming, for lack of a better term, “serious.”
But how do we pin down a set of qualities that distinguishes a meaningful, artistic game from the rest of the cultural pile? It begins with understanding the distinctive qualities of gaming, as opposed to video gaming’s older cousin, the cinema.
Jesper Juul, the game theorist at the Singapore-MIT game lab and the blogger behind The Ludologist, argued on the side of preserving some of that lineage. Juul believes that gaming’s unique qualities are a matter of accumulated conventions: Players approach games based on past gaming experiences. Art games that reject those conventions, such as SOD, JODI’s Wolfenstein 3D hack, were deemed “unsuccessful.” Perhaps JODI’s game –- a deconstructed, black-and-white implosion of game play which reveals the core of the Wolfenstein game engine, with none of the visual seduction –- is the product of gaming’s adolescence, a time when the rules were first being discovered, to be torn down in punk-rock acts of destructive defiance.
“No matter,” said Juul: Experimentation deprives a gamer from the pleasures of communication. It eliminates the possibility for a user to embrace a casual experience, turning art games into a statement of “Ha ha, you can’t play.”
“There’s a higher level of video game literacy than there used to be,” Juul said, arguing that this literacy should be embraced, expanded, and tested – not rejected in order to “chase a status of maturity or art.”
Panelists made it clear that chasing “mature” status doesn’t assure the assent of gaming to a high art form. Instead, another thesis began to emerge: there may be no way to create an “art game,” but there are ways to create thoughtful, inventive games that transcend mainstream, commercial pressures on the gaming industry. Gaming can age gracefully.
Asi Burak, co-founder of Impact Games, presented one such game: Peacemaker, a game addressing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict by modeling strategies based on the resources of the competing sides. The game has earned the designation of being a Serious Game, much as comic book artists embraced a transition to the term graphic novelists after artists like Art Spiegelman created Maus, planting the genre into the soil of serious artists who could address issues beyond the superheroes who captured the imaginations of children. As the readers of comic books matured, so did their relationship with media. And so has the generation of gamers.
For Burak, this transition from comic books to graphic knowledge informed his own decision to create games that weren’t afraid of having serious conversations with their players. He acknowledges a game heritage – he calls SimCity one of the first serious games, developed long before the term.
“Games are about taking a role in perspectives,” Burak said. The games build a better understanding of how real-world models work, showing why things happen in the system. You can take either side, and begin to understand the behaviors of both parties as you are forced to make the same decisions.
Games like Peacemaker can create an emotional investment into a process that can be complex and bureaucratic, or heated beyond rational debate. In the process, games go from being a test of will and reflex to a kind of explanatory journalism. And it has an audience - according to Burak, Peacemaker has sold more than 100,000 copies internationally.
There is a danger that modeling the world in the space of a game can eliminate complexity, reducing human elements to computer algorithms and emotions to math-based simulations of emotion’s pre-arranged consequences. But the threat of reduction is inherent within any form of media. The thrust of Burak’s arguments isn’t that games are a prescription for mapping a complete human experience. Instead, it points to a subtle shift in thinking about what computers can do: Instead of emphasizing the graphical improvements granted by advancements in processing power, games can create greater degrees of complexity, relationships, depth of feeling.
Emotional gaming “comes from a connection to real life,” and “not only the spectacle” of warfare and other trauma, said Burak, who noted that his games do employ actual images from the conflicts they model. But games like Peacemaker open up a space for empathy. Burak claimed to have received e-mails reporting tears in the eyes of players who had successfully built a model for peace.
Jason Rohrer, the independent designer behind the game Passage, delved deeper into the idea of emotional response to games, particularly responses that cross beyond adolescent fantasies. Instead, Passage dives into the heart of a particularly midlife conundrum: facing mortality.
Passage is unapologetically simple: a player navigates a maze. Time passes by on a clock in the top right corner. As you navigate the map, only the immediate future and past paths are visible. The game slowly –- slowly, in five minutes –- reveals itself as a contemplative rumination on life, death, love and aging.
Rohrer challenged the concept that we can measure game experiences by the amount of play that can be wrestled out of them. While Rohrer questioned the idea of the 10-hour game by pointing out that there are no 10-hour movies or rock records, he didn’t see immersion and complexity as a distinctive element of gaming. Instead, Rohrer argued – like Juul – that gaming experiences would benefit from addressing casual gamers. Part of that involves embracing the quality of conciseness found in literary media or pop music.
Rohrer aimed his cannons toward a cavalry of mainstream game criticisms: addiction, male-oriented action and escapism. But by addressing the flaws of the game, isn’t Rohrer also addressing the flaws of the players? These are all the marks of a juvenile gaming community, not a mature one. To become mature, a game must resist addiction and resist the appeal to the teenage boy, said Rohrer. But so, too, must a game’s audience.
Rohrer tested out a broad allegory: Action is to gaming as sex is to porn. Both forms contain narrative, but that narrative is only around long enough to drive gamers and porn-users into additional payoff scenes. Designers who build games using this model, Rohrer seemed to imply, will never get beyond the cheap porn phase of gaming.
But he also highlighted the criteria being developed by the market to evaluate gaming experiences, particularly the idea of “time killers.” Rohrer argued that game designers remain wary of questions about gaming’s addictive qualities, noting that notions of “compelling” and “addictive” exist on a spectrum, and that a rush to escape from addictive game play could mean abandoning compelling game play.
This leaves us with the question of art. From a cultural perspective, we can now only predict that a generation raised on video games will justify the time they’ve spent with the technology by designating it as a growing form – think of Super Mario Brothers as The Wizard of Oz. To emerge as a distinctive art, games need to abandon certain cinematic pretenses and simply allow themselves to be games.
As Rohrer asked the audience during a Q & A, “Is a baseball game art?” It’s the kind of question that rings true but also begs for a glib reply, so here’s one that may be equally true: A baseball game is art, if the artists are the umpires.
For a long time, artist-gamemakers were forced into hacking basic code infrastructure - Cory Arcangel’s 16-bit Super Mario Clouds seemed to float above the conference. But tools for designing a game have become cheap and games made smaller and simpler to distribute. So the question of an art baseball is on the wrong scale.
“The game designer is a legislator,” said Mushon Zer-Aviv, who presented the work of the artist group RSG, specifically their adaptation of Guy Debord’s game Kriegspiel, described as “chess with networks.”
Zer-Aviv pointed out that the infrastructure can drive storytelling, noting that creating narratives within a game is a different process from creating the rules of that game.
It was a point echoed by Friedrich Kirschner, a visual artist and game designer, who described game design as a means of building collaborative worlds to play in. He compared game design to Lego, “because they are so simple, they can be easily abstracted.” A piece of a Lego set designed to be a pirate ship can become a part of a spaceship. The important idea for game designers here is that modules allow people to build their own ideas of what they’d like to play. In turn, users can script their own narratives and draw their own meanings. Games can be a space to play, to build, and to reflect.
Perhaps, in 2038, as the core group of the Odyssey players enters their 60’s and 70’s, we’ll see gaming grow into a medium that reflects some kind of collective wisdom; to use games as a tool to evoke emotion and move out of their existence in a “cultural ghetto,” as Rohrer described it.
But questions of art, or wisdom, or “serious” games are thin. Ultimately, there are games –- and some games are more thoughtful than others, or more beautiful than others. The panelists warned against chasing after an “art” designation that it may have already earned -– video games have been played in a museum context for almost a decade now, in a gallery context for even longer.
More thoughtful gamers are emerging to question the market-driven definitions of “good” gaming and resisting the raw accumulation of processing power. It may just be a natural pausing point in the medium’s life cycle – the half-way point where it looks back and wonders what it has been doing for all of these years. The result is a new set of possibilities for gamers and coders to have conversations through the games they make and play. The search for art is secondary.
About the Author
Called “The Harry Potter of the Digital Avant Garde” by the Dutch Press, Eryk Salvaggio has been creating internet art since he was 17 years old. His work has been compared to “a more human Andy Warhol,” and strictly adheres to his own “6 Rules Toward a New Internet Art.” This formula has led to articles in the New York Times as well as mentions in ArtForum, alongside several international exhibitions and talks.
Turbulence commissioned Salvaggio’s American Internet in 2002, and he curated Duchamp’s Ideal Children’s Children: Net.Art’s Brat Pack for Turbulence’s Guest Curator series in 2003. He’s currently working on a degree in New Media and Journalism at the University of Maine.