Press Start; Game Structures in Contemporary Art Practice.
This essay seeks to look at the role of the game within contemporary art. The inclusions of gameplay and interactivity in artforms has been regarded negatively by critics, yet it is impossible to ignore that games hold an important place within contemporary culture. This essay looks at the idea of the art game: works which have both a physical aesthetic component and a playable interactive element. Within an art game a participating audience, termed active user, is able to suspend their default societal norms and critically play (Mary Flanagan) within the magic circle (Huizinga) of the artwork.
By possessing both physical and interactive facets, an art game is able to be situated between various binaries. Between the relational aesthetic and the commodifiable object, between singularly authored and collaborative, between low and high culture. This situates the art game at a series of intersections where it is able to critique the world around it.
In 2010 at the Art History of Games conference in Atlanta, Michael Samyn and Auriea Harvey, the founders of games studio Tale of Tales, gave a talk called Over Games (Georgia tech, 2010) in which they argued that games ‘are not art’ because they are largely ‘a waste of time.’ Central to their separation of the two forms is the idea that ‘humans possess a biological need that is only satisfied by play’; that games therefore represent ‘nothing more than a physiological necessity.’ Conversely, according to Samyn and Harvey, art is not created out of physical need but instead it ‘represents a search for higher purposes.’ In their argument, the idea that games serve only to satisfy the physical needs of the player is sufficient to disqualify them as art. While this distinction may help Samyn and Harvey separate the two forms, if game satisfies a human physiological necessity, then it must not only be a viable space for artistic creation, but a critical one.
While the role of gameplay in fine art is still a relatively new subject, authors who have approached the subject, such as Mary Flanagan in Critical Play: Radical Game Design (2009), have written a genealogy of the inclusion of games and play in artwork. My aim therefore is not to create my own genealogy but to discuss the benefits of game’s interactive nature to contemporary art.
My essay will argue that game structures have a role in a contemporary art practice, demonstrating that through having both interactive and experiential elements they are able to offer their audience not only an aesthetic object but an experience. I do not intend to argue that they present a better platform than other means of art making; the suitability of the game structure as methodology is still reliant upon its subject.
Games are continually a prominent part of modern culture and with that, their inclusion in contemporary art becomes increasingly important. As Anne-Marie Schleiner argues in her curatorial note on the exhibition Cracking the Maze:
Many artists, art critics, new media critics and theoreticians have expressed a disdain for games and game style interactivity, in fact, to describe an interactive computer art piece as 'too game-like' is a common pejorative. But considering the increasing popularity of computer games […] it seems perilous to ignore the spread of gaming culture (1999, para. 4).
This negative view of game style interactivity and the art world is significant as artists’ appropriation of games and game structures has the potential to allow for a critical take through a popular form of entertainment and its social context.
Contemporary art has seen examples of works which utilise imagery and elements of game in their creation, such as Cory Arcangel’s Super Mario Clouds (2002) (fig.1). While these works break the binary opposition of games and art, I intend to focus on a method of working which utilises active play structures and game mechanics as a means of audience interaction.
This subject is relevant to my own studio practice which is exploring game structures as a component and as a production methodology. The discussion is separated into four chapters; the first chapter explores the intersection of art and game, introducing some key terms. The second and third chapters will respectively interrogate the interactive nature and physical components of games using relevant critical texts. Chapter four analyses Yael Kanarek’s World of Awe (fig.2) (1996-2011) as an example of an artwork which employs a game-like structure for its audience.
Fig. 1 Cory Arcangel, Super Mario Clouds, 2002.
Fig. 2. Yael Kanarek, A Traveler’s Journal, Chapter 1: Forever, 1999.
Flanagan, M. (2009) Critical Play: Radical Game Design. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press.
Georgia Tech (2010) Over Games, Art History of Games Symposium. Available at: https://youtu.be/nlep9kT1API (accessed: 25 September 2021).
Schleiner, A. (1999) Cracking the Maze, Curators Note. Available at: http://switch.sjsu.edu/archive/CrackingtheMaze/note.html (Accessed: 29 September 2021).
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