Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Works of Game: On the Aesthetics of Games and Art

In 2012, the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, DC presented the exhibition "The Art of Video Games," now on view at the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art in Tennessee until September 13 as part of a ten-city tour. The exhibition is billed as one of the first to survey the evolution of video games as an artistic medium over the past four decades, although video games have certainly been featured here and there in art exhibitions previously. John Sharp's book Works of Game: On the Aesthetics of Games and Art doesn't argue whether games are art or not, but instead looks at the intersection where games and art meet.

One of the book's key concepts comes from James J. Gibson, a psychologist known for his work, along with his wife Eleanor, on visual perception. Gibson coined the term "affordance" to describe the relationship between things and environments and organisms. Affordances, in turn, are embedded within communities of practice, or what Gibson termed a "psychological ecology," a perceptual environment of understanding rooted in place and time.

Industrial designers use the phrase "product semantics" to similarly identify the way in which objects are designed so that their meaning or use is encoded in their physical form. For example, the product semantics of a hammer, in terms of its shape and materials, tell you which end is for holding and which end is for pounding. So a hammer has affordances with the nail and the wood into which it is pounded, as well as the human hand by which it is held and used. It is situated within a community of practice, i.e., a psychological ecology, that includes a particular method for constructing shelter, which contrasts, for example, with non-Western practices such as the Turkic yurt, Native American teepee, and African grass hut.

When it comes to games, according to Sharp, the affordances change depending upon the community of practice. The example he gives is chess, which has a range of communities of practice, from amateurs to Grand Masters. Each of these accepts certain aspects of the game: the movement of the different pieces, the rules of play, the offensive and defensive strategies, and the ultimate objective, which is to best one's opponent by capturing the king. Artists, on the other hand and most famously Marcel Duchamp, also see the game as a trope, which can signify struggles of various kinds̬—ideological, sexual, aesthetic, and more.

Sharp constructs his discussion of the intersection of games and art using three categories: game art, artgames (rendered as one word), and artists' games. Each has its own affordances situated within their communities of practice, though the distinctions can sometimes be subtle to the point of being somewhat opaque.

Game art appropriates game industry tools and bends them toward artistic purposes. The resulting works comment both on game culture and the art world. Julian Oliver uses a well-known bug in Quake 3 to create abstract images that subvert the 3D verisimilitude of the game space and thus its field of battle. More interestingly, Cory Arcangel hacks Super Mario Brothers 3 to create room-size art installations that completely remove any narrative from the image. Both contest conventional art world notions of originality and preciousness.

Artgames, on the other hand, adopt game conventions and refract them through traditional aesthetics to create forms of self-expression. Like the auteur theory in film, the notion of the artgame sees the developer as a kind of artist, using game mechanics to meditate on a variety of issues. The most obvious is the game as autobiography. Jason Rohrer designs game narratives drawn from his personal life for others to use as part of their own self-reflection. The 2007 game Passage deals with the untimely death of a family friend. Another, Gravitation from 2008, is about Rohrer's need to balance family obligations against his need for creative fulfillment. Brenda Romero's games are about more social issues drawn from historical tragedies, such as the English invasion of Ireland and the Holocaust. Jonathan Blow's games are downright epistemological, about the way in which iterative processes factor into knowledge acquisition. (Repeated play, of course, is at the source of game mastery; Blow makes it the subject of the game rather than its presumptive precondition.)

Finally,  artists' games are more sophisticated than either game art or artgames. Where game art experiments primarily with form and artgames with content, artists' games synthesize both form and content to construct new interactive situations. While meant to be the capstone of Sharp's argument, the category is a bit fuzzy. Sharp himself seems unclear when in the final chapter he asks: "Is there a different sort of aesthetics at play in artists' game that combines the values of both the art and game communities than that found in a more traditional approach to games or art?" Indeed, in trying to write his way through the concept of the artists' game, Sharp makes reference to contemporary art theories of relationalism, collaboration, and participation loosely gathered under the rubric "social practice." He touches on the role of play in making the connection between art and games, not only in the sense of play as recreation but in the sense of play as a space that allows movement. The examples he gives could just as easily fit into a study of contemporary performance and installation art as one on games.

Works of Game is an effort at constructing a framework for understanding how games and art interact. It accepts the rules of contemporary art as its field of play. As such, there isn't much consideration of games as a social and cultural phenomenon, which for me would have been a more interesting subject. For an astute analysis of that, see McKenzie Wark's Gamer Theory, a book that is a bit dated perhaps but well worth checking out nonetheless.