Games in the gallery

By Helen Stuckey, games programmer and curator of the Games Lab Australian Center of The Moving Image

If you won the Booker Prize, would you decide to give novels a rest and focus instead on writing scenarios for Massive Multiplayer Online games? This is just what award winning Korean writer Yi In-hwa, whose writing has won several prestigious prizes, including the Yi Sang Literature Award, has chosen to do. His defection from print was based on a belief in the emerging cultural importance of videogames and an enthusiasm for MMOs' capacity to offer rich, engaging experiences.Yi In-hwa's choice reflects videogames' growing maturity as an art form. He embraces videogames not for their similarity to the traditional art of which he is a master, but for their potential to support a different kind of engagement and new forms of expression. Theorist Henry Jenkins elegantly explores the notion of games as an art form in his essay, “Games, the New Lively Art.”1 Like other arts, games entertain and engage audiences on a variety of levels. But as a new art form, videogames need to be understood and appreciated as distinctive, with distinguishing structures and unique strengths.Videogames offer a dynamic language for cultural expression that involves interactivity, repetition, process and performance. It might appear ironic that some of the most sustained explorations of the intrinsic nature of videogames and their relationship to society are being conducted by artists, but these artists have grown up as gamers. They not only see the creative potential of game engines, but also seek to explore the intrinsic language of videogames, including the rich iconography of game worlds, their emerging social networks, and their rules of play. These artists embrace videogames as significant cultural artefacts. They use tools provided by the game community – such as modding, patching and performance – to celebrate this community's dedication to shareware (which is software that is free to share), and to the use of the Internet as a site for discourse, distribution and exhibition.All videogames are artificial environments build around carefully crafted rules and conditions. The constructed nature of each element makes games more available to critical deconstruction, as well as the exploration of alternative ontologies and aesthetics. Many artists apply formal interventions to pre-existing game code in order to expose the code within. In his Nintendo Entertainment System cartridge hacks, Cory Arcangel reprograms original Nintendo games. His deconstruction of the sound and images is driven by a formalism informed by 8bit aesthetics, as seen in “Super Mario Movie's” (2005) fragmenting world punctuated by screens of blinking abstraction.In their work “SOD” (1999) the art collective JODI stripped “Wolfenstein 3D” of its representational elements, leaving an austere and un-navigable diagrammatic world of black and white lines. Their intervention makes us aware of how our cognitive processes are engaged and affected by the game's representational codes.This idea is further examined in Julian Oliver's “2nd Person Shooter.” Oliver's work is not a game hack or mod. Rather, it is a custom game demo dedicated to investigating the cognitive affect of the displacement of agency. Its camera and controls enable you to control one “bot” while seeing through the eyes of your virtual opponent. This presents a schism between the biological sense of embodiment in space and the logic of the game world. The game space becomes a laboratory for a formal inquiry of player point of view.While Oliver's work offers cognitive challenges, Eddo Stern's “Darkgame” explores perceptual challenges that undermine the primacy of the visual in its game play. Players manoeuvre around a two dimensional plane, but one player is completely “blind” and must rely on non-visual cues to locate the other player. Stern describes “Darkgame” as a form of empirical role-play, one dependent on real-life skills, in which the blind could play the sighted and blindness would be an advantage.Other artists explore the emotive effect of interactivity in relation to the social anxiety surrounding media images of violence. Brody Condon's mod “Adam Killer” provocatively tackles the meaning of agency when reduced to a single act of violence. The “game” consists of an endlessly repeated avatar that passively invites infinite slaughter. Created after the Columbine massacre, it was conceived as a visceral meditation on the gulf between the experience of media representations and the trauma of the actual events the media covers. Its abstracted violence elegantly interrogates the alienating effect of the aestheticizing of trauma. This subject is also addressed by John Haddock in his “Screenshots.” This series of isometric drawings illustrates major media moments of the late twentieth century, most real but some fictional, portrayed as if set within a videogame.For his performance art work “Dead In Iraq,” Joseph DeLappe logs onto the networked game “America's Army” and types into game's chat the names of American soldiers who died during the occupation. It is both a protest work and a memorial that makes a direct link between the game-cum-recruitment tool “America's Army” and the reality of warfare. DeLappe's work draws attention to the way that online games can be public, politicized spaces.The discourse of game art is situated outside traditional publications, conducted instead on sites like “Selectparks,” “GrandTextAuto,” “Collision Detection” and “we-make-money-not-art.” These sites do not necessarily distinguish between art, experimental games and commercial product, blurring boundaries in a way that can seem rather arbitrary to those used to the strict lines patrolled by the authoritative “gatekeepers” of art and media criticism.Self-identifying as “experimental games,” “flOw” and “Braid” could easily be mistaken for “Fine Art.” In “flOw,” Jenova Chen offers a poetic embodiment of “flow” - the energised feeling of pleasure that occurs when the level of challenge is dynamically balanced with ability – a fundamental principle of game play. Jonathan Blow's “Braid” uses time manipulation to deconstruct the conventions of the platformer, reaching its twisted conclusion in which time runs backward, deconstructing the hero's journey and its conventional goal of “saving the princess.”But, ironically, it is a Playstation2 game, “The Shadow of the Colossus,” which offers the most poignant deconstruction of the hero's journey. In its beautiful atmospheric world, the player takes a powerful emotional journey. But this is a journey that needs a different kind of engagement, and many days to complete, so it can never be fully experienced in an art gallery.


Explores video games as an art form and presents contemporary art related to video games. ...

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