[-empyre-] Art cred and advocacy

paolo - molleindustria paolo at molleindustria.it
Sun Mar 3 03:17:38 EST 2013

Hello empyrialists,
thank you Claudia and Renate for inviting me.
I'd like to start by reframing the introductory post. Just a little bit.

If your filter bubbles include gaming circles you have witnessed the 
many collective cheers, hoots, and metaphorical stadium waves raising 
upon every glorious step of the videogame medium toward high-culture 

The repeated "video games can never be art" claims made by Roger Ebert 
from 2005 onward forced a multitude of North American game developers, 
critics and players to confront the mysterious Art Thing, possibly for 
the first time in their lives. Their honor, their reputation and, most 
importantly, their favorite pastime was being attacked by a prominent 

In the following years, a fierce movement of DIY art criticism emerged 
within the game industry. Programmers started to google terms like 
"aesthetics"; game journalists filled their indignant counter-articles 
with pictures of Duchamp's Fountain. Every strange, intimate, weird 
looking game was measured for its potential to defuse Ebert's argument.
Even hardcore gamers started to cry while playing (and wrote extensively 
about it) demonstrating they also had feelings. Those little sprites and 
polygons really mattered to them.

As the narrative goes, from that cycle of shame and pride emerged a new 
sensibility. While the gaming community matured and developed higher 
cultural ambitions, the blinded masses of non-gamers and the mainstream 
press became more and more sympathetic to the popular form.

The recent move by the NEA to include games as possible recipients for 
grants has been interpreted as a federal seal of approval (although, in 
the past, the agency funded videogame projects through individual artist 
grants). The exhibition "The Art of Videogames" at the Smithsonian, 
shortly followed by the acquisition of 14 game titles by the MoMA, has 
been saluted as the ultimate institutional validation of the "games are 
art" truism.

In the midst of the celebrations it wasn't appropriate to wonder whether 
or not the Smithsonian show was a populist publicity stunt "generously" 
supported by Entertainment Software Association. The curatorial process 
involved an online poll asking netizens to vote for their favorite games 
- it didn't make a big difference since only 5 among the 80 chosen 
titles were actually playable.
And I haven't heard many commentators reflecting on the fact that the 
aforementioned MoMA acquisitions were part of the Architecture and 
Design collection. What does it mean to put Pac-Man right next to swanky 
furniture? Is the hip and yuppie field of interaction design 
imperialistically claiming videogames? Are games furniture? Can 
architecture make you cry (like videogames, of course)?

For those who don't hang out in certain niche art circles, it doesn't 
really matter that artists have been appropriating, hacking, and 
creating videogames (and videogame culture) for about 20 years now. It 
doesn't matter that a myriad of game-themed art exhibitions swept across 
the digital art world, arguably becoming its most popular sub-genre.
Last night Stephen Colbert cracked a joke about the exotic idea of 
arcades at the MoMA but we rarely see games presented in relation with 
computational, interactive, combinatory and digital art, or even with 
relational aesthetics or performance. All these forms are way more 
related to games than the kind of art that collects dust inside museums.

These issues did not matter because that exciting, pedantic, fractal, 
never-ending dispute we call "art" was never the point of this debate. 
The point was to "elevate" the cultural status of videogames as a whole: 
as a medium and as an industry.
For gamers it was a retroactive validation of the countless hours they 
spent moving pixels and polygons around: "We knew we weren't wasting out 
For the industry it was a way to snort some of that magic art dust 
without accepting the responsibilities that come along with a privileged 
space for cultural experimentation: "We don't want just weird artsy 
games in galleries and museums. We want Pac-Man!"

The game industry and the culture surrounding it can be best understood 
as a traumatized child or an abused pet. Throughout the years videogames 
have been repeatedly treated as cultural punching bags and convenient 
scapegoats. The folks personally involved in this field reacted to the 
long stigmatization by developing a certain brand of groupthink, a 
perennial persecution complex, and a compulsion to stick together no 
matter what.

In the past I've been accused of damaging the reputation of the industry 
by making games about controversial issues; works defying players' 
expectations or rejecting clearly defined goals were dismissed as "not 
Now games for social change are often mentioned as symptoms of the 
"maturation" of the form via New Age gurus like Jane McGonigal. 
Independent/artsy titles are presented next to idiotic shooters to 
support the launch of the new PlayStation. Imagine the toilet industry 
using Duchamp to achieve cultural validation (and possibly get art 
grants and tax breaks in the process).
What did not change between now and then is the tendency to 
conceptualize the gaming field as an  homogeneous space devoid of conflict.

I would love to see a conversation *not* informed by the catch-all 
attitude of the "Videogames and Art" controversy of these recent years. 
If we are talking about games we must learn to qualify the objects in 
question. Because there are major differences between a commercial 
product like Pac-Man and a personal and profound game like Cart Life. 
The lack of critical discourse within the game industry should not 
influence the way we treat games outside of it.

And while we push arcade cabinets in and out of museums we could also 
try to complicate the terms of the debate.
Instead of asking ourselves if and how games can be art, maybe we can 
start to think how art can be more like games: popular, participatory, 
accessible and yet complex; able to engage people deeply and for more 
than a fleeting moment; capable of providing richer experiences the more 
you get intimate with them.


More information about the empyre mailing list