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A simplistic stereotype even then, this characterisation now looks as crude and outdated as a game of Pong.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.”