Case Study #3: Fire in the Hole – The Obviously Non-Short History of Art Games

Alex Myers

Assistant Professor and Director of Game Studies at Bellevue University, Bellevue, Nebraska

In 2012 John Sharp wrote an essay problematically titled, “The Curiously Short History of Game Art.” Sharp proposed that the golden age of the artistic use of video games was between 1995 and 2006. He gave such notable examples as Ars Doom (1995), SOD (1999), Adam Killer (2000), Max_Miptex (2001), Super Mario Clouds (2002), QQQ (2003), and Waco Resurrection (2004).

Ars Doom, Orhan Kipcak and Reini Urban, 1995, screen capture.

Ars Doom, Orhan Kipcak and Reini Urban, 1995, screen capture.

SOD, JODI, 1999, screen capture.

SOD, JODI, 1999, screen capture.N

A lot of cool stuff was made during these years. Most of the works were exploits of commercial videogames. A methodology that has since been dubbed ‘Art Mods.’ They took advantage of bugs, overlapping cheats, or code interventions to push the system to a breaking point or they so occluded the agency of the user that the games became unplayable.

Most of those pre-2006 art games are critically and pragmatically positioned specifically in relation to a popular commercial game: Ars DOOM [1] (DOOM),Adam Killer [2] (Half-Life), SOD [3] (Wolfenstein 3D), Super Mario Clouds [4] (Super Mario Bros.), etc. [6] It isn’t until 2004’s Waco Resurrection that we really start to see a utilization of the tools for original work. [7]

Waco Resurrection, Eddo Stern, et al., 2004, screen capture.

Waco Resurrection, Eddo Stern, et al., 2004, screen capture.

The reason for this isn’t always conceptual, either. I think this tendency can be firmly nailed to the door of technological need. At that point the tools for game development were so specialized that often the only vector for artistic use was to disrupt or take advantage of commercial software. [8]

Sharp concludes that Game Art is dead because of “the challenges of selling interactive works,” because apparently no one has figured out how to sell videogames. [9] [10] A digital distribution method might serve some game art, but Sharp’s statement implies that to be considered art, the work must be sellable and to be a commodity in the art world is to be a unique item crafted by a singular vision. Leaving aside the insanity of applying a commodity economic model onto what is essentially an experiential modality, just because you can sell it does not make it art.

Had he written in 2006, I could forgive this premature death certificate. But he didn’t. Sharp wrote his essay a full six years after the so-called death of the movement. Given his position at Parson’s School of Design and as the Chair of the IndieCade’s Conference and Festival, I had hoped that he would have a slightly more open perspective on the artistic possibilities of games.

Regardless of Sharp’s motivations, the interest in utilizing the form of games to make art has not lessened since the ‘demise’ of the form in 2004 – Quite the opposite, in fact.

In 2007 a (relatively) traditional contemporary artist, Bill Viola, and a (relatively) traditional game designer, Tracey Fullerton, collaborated on an art game. The Night Journey was created using an internal engine, Bushido, but was not conceptually tied to it. “It’s a game that rewards you for slowing down and for introspection,” says Viola. “You’re alone and you’re not even told why you’re there. You just fall out of the sky into the middle of this amazing landscape with mountains, sea, desert, and forest, and go wherever you want,” he explains. “The more you do things mindfully, the more is revealed to you.” [11]

The Night Journey, Bill Viola and Tracey Fullerton, 2007, screen capture.

The Night Journey, Bill Viola and Tracey Fullerton, 2007, screen capture.

A year later, 2008 saw the publication of Graveyard by Tale of Tales, a design duo with feet planted firmly within the traditional art and commercial game worlds. Graveyard was built with the Source Engine, like Condon’s Adam Killer, but was also conceptually separate. From their post-mortem: “You steer an avatar representing an old lady. You move her around but she walks very slowly. The camera is fixed to the avatar. No rotating, no zooming (reinforcing the feeling of limited motion of an old body). You walk through the graveyard. The camera follows you.” [12] It was an experience entirely within itself.

Graveyard, Tale of Tales, 2008, screen capture.

Graveyard, Tale of Tales, 2008, screen capture.

Zach Gage made Lose/Lose in 2009, an art game that mimics the mechanics of Space Invaders, with one important twist: every enemy you destroy deletes a file on your hard-drive. Gage explains, “It makes reference to lose/lose situations in our own lives, and the idea that even though there are many times that we know doing something is a bad idea, we do it anyway.” [13]

Lose/Lose, Zach Gage, 2009, screen capture.

Lose/Lose, Zach Gage, 2009, screen capture.

The afterlife of art games has been far more prolific than anyone could have imagined as development tools, such as Unity and Unreal Development Kit, have become more accessible and easier to use. Art Games made in Unity include Eddo Stern’s Dark Game (2011), Terry Cavanaugh’s At A Distance (2011), We Make the Weather (2013) by Greg Borenstein, Karolina Sobecka, Sofy Yuditskaya and many others. Unity’s website has a page showcasing non-game uses of their engine. [14]

Sharp also said that “[they] are not widely understood by the contemporary art scene” [15]. He cites lackluster reception to exhibitions at the Whitney Museum of American Art and Games: Computer Games by Artists as leading examples of the movement’s lack of promise. Perhaps Sharp was just looking in the wrong place at the wrong time. The contemporary art scene is getting more and more comfortable with the medium. That, or it’s just being invaded by people that make art games. In the past 18 months there have been at least four major international exhibitions and festivals dedicated to the work of art in the age of games. Curatorial efforts by Team Vector of Vector: Game+Art Festival in Toronto and the team behind GAMERZ Festival in Aix-en-Provence are trying to “facilitate critical conversations about games and their relationship to artistic practice” and having a lot of success. [16] The avant-garde in the true sense of the term is rarely ever shown and discussed by the mainstream art scene until decades after its demise. Perhaps that was Sharp’s intention? Maybe he wanted to kill off Art Games so that they’d finally become the topic of art history dissertations or receive a much-lauded retrospective.


1. “Ars Doom at Ars Electronica,” Ars Electronica Archive, accessed June 30, 2014,
2. “Interview: Brody Condon’s ‘Adam Killer’ (1999),” Gamescenes. Art in the Age of Videogames, accessed June 30, 2014,
3. “SOD,”, accessed June 30, 2014,
4. “Max Miptex: Game based glitch machinima, 2001(with Chad Chatterton),”, accessed June 30, 2014,
5. “Things I Made: Super Mario Clouds,”, accessed June 30, 2014,
6. “Game Art: Tom “Nullpointer” Betts’ “QQQ (2002) + Recent Lecture (2010),” Gamescenes. Art in the Age of Videogames, accessed June 30, 2014,
7. “Waco Resurrection,”, accessed June 30, 2014,
8. Cindy Poremba, “Discourse Engines for Art Mods,” Eludamos. Journal for Computer Game Culture 4:1 (2010): 41-56.
9. “John Sharp, Parsons Faculty,” Parsons The New School for Design, accessed June 30, 2014,
10. “About Us: Teams,” 2014 IndieCade: International Festival of Independent Games, accessed June 30, 2014,
11. “Art Game: Bill Viola’s The Night Journey,” Gamescenes. Art in the Age of Videogames, accessed June 30, 2014,; Hilarie Sheets, ArtNews, April 2010.
12. “Postmortem: Tale of Tales’ The Graveyard,” Gamasutra: The Art & Business of Making Games, accessed June 30, 2014,
13. “Interview: Zach Gage Caught in a Lose/Lose Situation,” Indiegames The Weblog, accessed June 30, 2014,
14. “Non-games,” Unity3D – Showcase ¬– Gallery, accessed June 30, 2014,
15. John Sharp, FDG, ACM (2012): 26-32.
16. “Interview: Skot Deeming on the Game Art Convergence,” Gamescenes. Art in the Age of Videogames, accessed June 30, 2014,


Alex Myers makes artgames to explore how accidental meaning/anomalous discourse emerges by breaking rule-based game spaces to disrupt player expectations and concepts.

He has exhibited at NP3 in Groningen, Nikolaj Kunsthallen in Copenhagen, Lab for Electronic Art and Performance, Berlin, Interaccess in Toronto, FACT in Liverpool, and LACDA in Los Angeles, among others.

He received his MFA (Honors) in Interactive Media & Environments at The Frank Mohr Instituut of the Hanze University of Applied Science in Groningen, The Netherlands in 2009.

In addition to making all sorts of weird stuff, he is Assistant Professor of Interaction Design at Creighton University in Omaha, NE.

He also mentors at the Kent Bellows Studio and Center for Visual Arts and gives talks and workshops about games, interaction design, and new media art.