It's fun, social, engaging and inventive - but is it art?
All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy, runs the old proverb. In the age of the video game, however, the opposite behaviour has increasingly become the norm, occasionally with ominous repercussions.
In 2005, the death of a South Korean man, who suffered organ failure after playing an online game for 50 hours straight, became worldwide news, adding a new element of disreputability to an already derided medium. Mocked by outsiders as a trivial, solitary pursuit appealing mainly to hyperactive teenage boys and lonely young men, video games were now also branded as potentially lethal.
A simplistic stereotype even then, this characterisation now looks as crude and outdated as a game of Pong. Digital gaming has seeped into many aspects of our daily lives, altering leisure patterns, seeping through popular culture, even offering promises of economic betterment.
A new show at the Science Gallery, simply titled Game, aims to explore these technological, social and cultural ramifications. The exhibition sets out to remind visitors that the popularity of video games is rooted in most basic human instincts, while suggesting the medium has a future beyond mere diversion.
“I think games are a hugely important part of culture,” say exhibition curator Steve Collins, co-founder of Irish gaming companies Swrve and Havok. “There are a billion people playing games, be it Sudoko on their phone or the new Call of Duty on a console. Just as we don’t think of ourselves as computer users any more, so the term gamer will disappear as video games become part of everyday life.”
The evidence for this is everywhere. More and more people play on their phones rather than read newspapers on buses and trains. Video gaming occupies an ever greater place in the public imagination: figures as disparate as David Cameron and Salman Rushdie proclaim their proficiency at Angry Birds while characters such as Super Mario have become pop icons on a par with Mickey Mouse.
Meanwhile, as one of the more robust sectors of the economy, the burgeoning Irish games industry is commanding more attention: only last week Swrve announced a new €4.8 million investment to create 100 new jobs. For a supposedly puerile pastime, computer gaming has made quite an impact. When one views games from a different perspective, however, it is an unsurprising development.
“I would argue that playing games is an intrinsic part of human culture, like making music or telling stories, it’s part of what makes us human,” says game designer and author Eric Zimmerman. “Though video games have only emerged over the past 50 years, games themselves are an ancient form. They are part of the history of human interaction.”
This might seem a bold claim to make about video games, given their traditional association with adolescents lurking in bedrooms. But the earliest computer pastimes were invented with a social purpose in mind. Spacewar, a prototype game developed in the 1960s by graduate students at MIT, was meant to demonstrate the appeal of interactivity. Its design inspired Pong, the first two-player arcade game to achieve a global appeal.
“Because of the limits of technology there was this blip where games were made for single players, although even those were rarely solitary, but rather played at homes by friends,” says Zimmerman. “So with the rise of multi-player gaming on social networks, games are just returning to their roots.”
Zimmerman explores this interactivity in Interference, part of the Game exhibition. It is a multi-player strategy board game in which two opponents compete against each other on suspended metal playing surfaces, but have to steal pieces from other pairs of players.
But if the social aspect of games is evident, their artistic value seems less clear-cut. In the past, games have been collaborative commercial ventures aimed at turning a profit, rather than exercises in personal expression.
For example, Shigeru Miyamoto, designer of seminal games such as Super Mario Bros and Zelda, is an employee of Nintendo rather than an independent auteur. Films are similarly team-oriented, technology-dependent, profit-driven ventures, yet on the face of it appear more compatible with reflection and contemplation than interactive games.
But that does not mean video games are just ephemeral bagatelles. “If a half a cow in formaldehyde is art, then so are games,” says Collins. “Art is about challenging perceptions, and there are games that do that.”
Like the movie and music industries, the games world now boasts a growing independent sector, motivated by more than money. “There’s a renaissance in small teams making games,” says Zimmerman.
“There once was a worry that they were all going to be big-budget blockbusters, but suddenly all these little online games appeared, taking advantage of new ways of distribution.”
This has allowed designers to explore ideas as much as entertain players. Passage, a 2007 game by Jason Rohrer, was notable for its existential arc: the player’s character walks along, meets a mate and dies at the end. Generations, an exhibit at the show by One Life Remains, features a game that cannot be finished in a human lifespan, but rather is to be passed along at various stages of completion as an heirloom. Generations shows how games can occupy art’s sphere of ideas and aesthetic pleasure. This is not such a fanciful notion: rock’n’roll, after all, was originally dismissed as a vacuous teen trend, but is now an integral part of the artistic canon.
Moreover, video games chime with contemporary experience in a way that few other forms do, with Zimmerman suggesting that they even aid literacy in the modern world. “Literacy really just means creating and understanding meaning,” he says, “and in a time when so much of life is mediated through digital systems of information, and games – where we see how these things work – can better train us to deal with those systems.”
Many of Game’s exhibits examine this theme by focusing on the interface between player and game: far from being wasted time, those hours spent on the Wii or Xbox might teach valuable life lessons.
But it is possible to overstate the significance of games. Although occasionally thought-provoking, the medium has yet to produce the equivalent of Bob Dylan or Alfred Hitchcock, creative giants who emerged from similarly populist forms. By the same token, the enduring central appeal of games can get overlooked.
“Fundamentally, we loved being entertained and games, at their core, are entertainment,” says Collins. “When designing games, some people are looking to make a point or create something of beauty. But most of the time they’re trying to create an engaging experience for the player.”
As Game attests, video games inhabit a distinctive space of their own where design, technology, commerce, art and entertainment collide. The results may be wildly diverse, but the aim is the same. “What it’s about, really, is getting people together to play,” says Zimmerman. “It’s hard to argue with more play in the world.”
Game is at Science Gallery, Dublin, until January 18th, 2013
Three to see at game
Nicolas Myers and Nitipak Samsen’s fun piece reinvents pioneering game Pong with new sets of controls, such as weighing scales, spirit levels and microphones.
Artist Evan Roth records all the finger moves necessary to complete the eponymous mobile game on 315 pieces of tracing paper. The resulting piece has a hypnotic Zen simplicity.
Tim Garbos takes wooden blocks to create a changing landscape of trees, plants, clouds and floating platforms. Mixing traditional and digital materials, its childlike visuals blur creativity and play to delightful effect.