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Video Games as Medium, Future Paradigms and Practices

Panel Chair: Mike Salmond
Northern Illinois University

Panelists: Ben Chang, Jon Cates, Eddo Stern.

Report on: “Video Games as medium, future paradigms and practices,” presented at SCI-Arc Southern California Institute of Architecture (sponsored by College Arts and the New Media Caucus). February 28th, 2009.

This talk followed on from an engaging discussion that surrounded a group show I curated at the Olson Gallery at Northern Illinois University.  The show was titled “Play Up! Intersections Between Art and Video Game Culture”, and was exhibited from Feb 19th to March 29th, 2009. The exhibition began a dialog concentrating on the medium of the videogame as an art form, specifically on what constitutes an ‘art-based’ video game rather than the tired and overplayed question “can video games be considered art?”

Fig. 1: From left Eddo Stern, Ben Chang, Jake Elliott, Jon Cates, Tamas Kemenczy at the PlayUp panel discussion.

The basis for the dismissal of this question is in the contention that any media or technology can be used as a platform for Art, regardless as to whether or not that medium’s main output concentrates on entertainment over enlightenment.  At the NIU panel the discussion developed from artists: Ben Chang, the Guardians of the Tradition (GoTT: jonCates, Jake Elliott & Tamas Kemenczy) and Eddo Stern, who all work within the video game or interactive medium as art form.

In presenting their works in “Play Up!” it became obvious that there is a distinction between the ‘video game as entertainment’ and ‘video game as art’ based on the same tradition of what separates a urinal from functional object to art object.  There are key aspects present in art games/interactive media that set them apart from other types of entertainment video games.  Art games are not about ‘playing’ a game necessarily, but instead in investigating the ludological forms and audience expectations. 

The works by the GoTT the “Sidequest Text Adventure” hark back to the days before computer graphics and three-dimensional environments for players.  Accompanying this work the GoTT projected the “Art Games Walkthrough project”; these are text instruction sets for ‘cheating’ or completing a series of renowned art games.

Fig. 2: GoTT Members during gallery set up.

These descriptions of how to beat or play art games focuses on the artist creating games that are un-winnable or un-playable in the traditional sense.  In these works the GoTT reference popular gaming culture and the slew of individuals who spend a lot of time and effort in creating text-based instruction sets for games, but place this tongue-in-cheek work firmly within an art context.  It is a reflective space – art games like early video games tend to be un-winnable – the only ‘end game’ achievement is in garnering a high score, there is no “Game Over” screen.

Ben Chang’s work “Philosopher Deathmatch” merges extreme violence and philosophy in a gladiatorial setting. Ben has ‘hacked’ or altered the code of the First Person Shooter game “Quake” and has replaced the traditional space combat marines with well-known philosophers such as Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault. Bens’ assertion is that the argumentative states in philosophy are as challenging and mutable as any coliseum based tournament. As the player fights (shooting or ‘fragging’ an opponent), text from the relevant philosopher appears on-screen to overlay and underline the violence on screen.

Fig. 3: Players interacting with Ben Changs’ Philosopher Deathmatch Quake Mod.

Woven into this intricate and extremely violent aesthetic is a level of frustration in that the game is almost unplayable, as one cannot really see what one is doing (or whom one is shooting) and conversely because of the ‘twitch’ aspect of the fast-paced game, one cannot adequately read the philosophy text. As such both avenues play off one another to create a game that constantly shifts the player’s perception.

Eddo Stern exhibited his work “Best Flamewar Ever” a video work that derives from gamer culture forum discussions that are often vitriolic exchanges.  Visually Eddo’s work uses 3d models and recognizable visual elements from the video game “Everquest” to create talking head avatars representing the two flame combatants. “Everquest” is a Massively Multiplayer game or MMO and it is often this style of game that creates intense discussions, as they are persistent with no discernable end. As such a pseudo ‘ranking’ system of older and new players (or newbies) is established with the older, more experienced players quite often being dismissive of the beginner players.

Fig. 4: Eddo Stern’s “Best Flamewar Ever…..” Video

Eddo has created a variety of works that are video games but “Flamewar” is one that alludes to the culture directly without interfacing with any form of interaction. It is about what surrounds the game and the myriad of personalities that inhabit the worlds of gaming.

It is these works that sparked the dialog in February at Sci-Arc.  This panel discussion was less focused on specific works, instead Ben, Jon and Eddo opened up the format to discuss video game art in general.  They explored what constitutes creating a work that is technically challenging, engagingly interactive, entertaining (or frustrating) and one that creates a feedback loop into popular culture.  Video game culture it still in its infancy, although the business of making games is increasingly gargantuan and profitable, there is still only a small sector of society that are really aware of the nuances of gaming culture.  As with any culture it is always changing and reinventing itself.

Fig. 5: Sci-Arc Panel, Feb 28th 2009. From left Eddo Stern, Ben Chang, Jon Cates, Mike Salmond

The NMC Sci-Arc panel discussion started with Jon Cates presenting his work within game media and how it relates to other aspects of interactive art.  Within the heart of Jon’s work is an ethic of play, not in just interactivity but in humor and pop cultural references. His presentation can be seen here.  Jon asserts that his deliberate focus on early video game aesthetics and culture is because he sees it as paralleling the punk rock music scene.  In the early days of the medium programmers and artists would create works from their bedrooms on store-bought electronic devices which would then be showcased in clubs and societies as well as distributed on very early versions of the internet.  The business model was much more ‘underground’ and although Atari and Pong were in the ascendant culture, underneath it there lurked creators with fierce passion for experimentation and creating without the confines of profitability and sales.  These “punk rock programmers” breathed life into the culture by usurping the dominant memes.

Fig. 6: Jon Cates

Presenting on the GoTT game “Text Adventure” Jon gave insight into the depth of research and concepts that frame the visually simplistic (or 8-bit) game.  There are no ‘graphics’ in “Text Adventure”, instead it is all text with the player making choices. Traditionally text –based adventure games would have a space or fantasy thematic backdrop.  These settings would in part aid with navigating the textual space; swords were to be picked up and brandished, ray guns were to be shot, doors and treasure chests to be opened.  In the GoTT game, the navigation conventions are upset by the addition of fantastic and unexpected elements.  Starting in the Kentucky cave system (something fairly familiar to fans of the medium) the player then goes on to use the original lines of the Arpanet to cross geographical and philosophical space.  “Text Adventure” is less about the playing and, as an artwork, more about the cultural references, in understanding what is behind the curtain and about the culture from which is has been created.

Fig. 7: Ben Chang presents SpinLock

Ben Chang [] showcased his CAVE environment works – such as “Spinlock”, and “Ikea (Better Living Through Modularity”) as well as “Insecurity Camera”, “Philosopher Deathmatch” and Guitar Gods. Ben’s focus was in creating interactive works that engage modalities of play and discovery that merge with uselessness and futility.  The work “Better Living Through Modularity”, allows a player to manipulate Ikea styled furniture so that it becomes more and more abstracted and eventually deformed to an unrecognizable point. “Insecurity Camera” is a CCTV camera that is ‘shy’; the camera has facial recognition software as part of its makeup and once it sees that you are ‘looking’ toward it, will turn itself away.  It uses elements of playfulness and humor that identify a rule-based system and then usurp expectations.  Ben said that he often feels too confined by the immutable nature of most games and instead becomes excited when he notices clipping or glitching in a game (elements that due to bugs or errors that create unexpected results).  For Ben it is when looking behind the curtain or allowing for accidents in game-play that the medium of the video game becomes more interesting.  Ben’s other works such as “Guitar Gods” more directly associate with video games as this art piece actually predicted the eventual birth of the popular “Guitar Hero” and “Rock Band” titles.  In “Guitar Gods” players use hacked ‘toy’ guitars to control audio and video feeds of rock musicians, again using cultural forms and re-imagining them via an electronic interface.  It is on one hand a reflection on fantasy, desire, fun and interaction; and on the other the work is focused on appropriation culture.

Eddo Stern introduced a variety of his works in a montage of experimentation, craft and ingenuity.  Each of the works is an examination of, and often a mirror towards modern culture, art, interactivity and media.  In talking about his art Eddo wanted to distinguish his work away from that of a video game as we traditionally define it, but instead assert his work as akin to interactive or new media art (if it is to be defined and categorized at all). Although works such as “Cockfight Arena” and “Tekken Torture Tournament” are allusions to a certain brand of video game genre – the fighting game, these works seem to be more about using the familiarity of these cultural products to invite an audience into the playful and at times painful world of bio-feedback interactive art.

Fig. 8: Eddo Stern

In “Tekken Torture Tournament” the players feel the blows and strikes of the other player with electrical jolts, connecting the on-screen violence palpably with real-world, felt pain.  Although playful at its heart, this work connects the arguments about the disconnect players have with video game avatars and the violence being inflicted upon them, and relates it to actions in the real world.  Although Eddo did admit that many players would suffer through the jolts so as to inflict ‘revenge’ on the other player for the pain inflicted upon them, it was always more about the ‘fun’ of the interaction.  Eddo explained in his presentation that most art games are about making the game unplayable or breaking the game for a traditional player. In drawing away from the desire to entertain the focus becomes more about the performative act or the social interaction and context of the artwork, and that is what makes it more than just a ‘game’ and transforms it into a unique experience.

Although originally the title of the panel focus was on the future and definition of art video games after the presentations it could be questioned whether definitions were necessary or required.  Steering games in a different direction, many art game makers usurp the very heart of the ‘achievement and reward’ system of modern games.  Artists working in this medium are creating games that would not be made by developers seeking profit for their titles.  With the recent revival of Independent Games or small team developers, small groups are once again producing smaller, more experimental games that do not have million dollar budgets and do not fit into traditional genres.  As with any creative arena it is about ideas and the context in which they are created that is the important focus.

Fig. 9: Jon Cates, Mike Salmond

The panel was asked to consider two aspects of the video game medium and its relation to Art: one – that the technology and ‘wow’ factor of the interactive medium potentially supersedes a transcendence of the form, and two – that by their very nature video games are seen as a creation for the young, particularly young males and that this obstructs a wider audience.  The contemporary interactive medium is still in an emergent state, but the panel concluded that the technology does not get in the way for a new generation of artists and audiences.  As society becomes more comfortable with technologies and embraces them in the everyday, so then the obstacle for any audience is reduced.  While there is perhaps still a dominant mold of video games being for ‘children and the young’ this is changing as the current ‘digital generation’ ages.  As with many new technologies, it is the ‘punk rock’ indie game creators who are pushing forward with new interfaces and new gaming models, and are constantly redefining what an electronic game is.  As such, it is harder for those critics and writers who require a normative frame of reference on which to build their critiques it to nail down (such as relying on Mario or Lara Croft references). As with the punk rock movement, nothing was quite like it and nothing since it has been the same. So too with the art/indie game makers (if there is an all-encompassing word to define them), they work both outside of and within the social-pop cultural feedback loop of the video game world – relating, critiquing, co-opting and re-engineering the dominant cultural memes to create work that is interactive, immersive, engaging and relevant.

Gamer culture is as diverse as any other sub-culture, although many of the population do not see themselves as gamers it is almost impossible to find someone aged under forty who has not, at some time, played a form of video game.  These cultural artifacts already hold much nostalgia and romantic value for the digital and .net generationsIn closing, it was stated that it is ideas, passion and excitement for whatever one is creating that is important, the medium is somewhat the message but ultimately for the medium to grow it has to embrace its cultural roots, go beyond its definition of ‘game’ and become a genuine immersive and transcendent experience.