Carl Goodman


(Senior Deputy Director, Museum of the Moving Image, New York)

The exhibition Playware is an elaboration – or, in game industry parlance, an expansion pack – of Gameworld: Video Games on the Edge of Art, Technology and Culture, one of three inaugural exhibitions at Laboral in March 2007. This initial exhibition presented thirty contemporary artworks that use video games as raw material, subject matter, or reference points. Mounted in the second level of the exhibition space was a playable selection of ten influential historical video games – a digital game canon – made between 1967 and 1994.

Playware focuses on play as the core component of video games and interactive art, presenting 23 interactive digital works that can be seen as game-like interactive art or as artistically inspired digital games (sometimes referred to as “art games”). The field of interactive art is largely defined by installation-based work shown in galleries, festivals, and art/technology centers. Video games are rarely (if ever) installation-based, and are instead distributed as software to be played on personal computers and special purpose game systems.

The installations and software featured in Playware highlight a strong bond that exists between video games and interactive art.

Both are expressive forms native to the computer and informed by technological inquiry, but their affinities are often masked by the distinct communities of practice, industrial processes, and descriptive and critical languages behind them.

Ludic, not Narrative: At the Museum of the Moving Image, the first Museum to collect and exhibit video games, we have taken special care not to interpret and define games as an extension of story-oriented forms of moving image media, such as film and television, a syndrome dubbed “cinema envy” by game designer and theorist Eric Zimmerman. Instead, we focus on video games’ ludic attributes, i.e. the underlying rules, behaviors, and interactions that define the game as a system and the kinesthetic experience of playing the game. Interactive art, too, suffers from cinema envy. Plenty of curatorial and critical attention is paid to cinematic aspects of interactive art, perhaps at the expense of its ludic aspects. While the earlier Gameworld exhibition adopted a narrative approach to Playware, A Gameworld Expansion Pack Carl Goodman Senior Deputy Director, Museum of the Moving Image, New York the topic of games and art, Playware takes a ludic approach.

Technology Research: Games and interactive art are both durable forms of media technology research in the digital age. It is games, not spreadsheets, that drive public interest in successively faster and more efficient computers. Video games are the embodiment of the latest in computer simulation and real-time graphics technologies. Technological inquiry also plays an important role in the production and meaning of interactive installation art. Many of the installations in Playware were developed by individuals and groups associated with top media research centers such as the Futurelab of exhibition co-curator Ars Electronica (Linz, AT), the MIT Media Laboratory (Cambridge, USA), and the now-defunct Interval Research (Palo Alto, USA).

Abstraction: Playware features games that foreground visual abstraction, rather than striving for photorealism found in more expensively produced games. Visual abstraction is another common element in the works’ interactive graphics. The spare, often elegant graphics of early video games were borne out of the technical limitations of the time. The works employ narrative as well as visual abstraction. They function as metaphors for, rather than depictions of, various forms of human social interaction.

Interface: The video game field has recently been responsible for the development of new interfaces that allow for more natural, multi-sensory, and varied forms of interaction with digital information. Notable recent examples include Nintendo’s touch-sensitive DS hand-held system and their revolutionary position-sensing Wiimote, and Sony’s video-based motion-sensing Eye Toy and motionsensing Siaxis Playstation 3 controllers. Much interactive art is about the exploration of new interfaces. In Playware’s installations, visitors will find that tables (Jam-O-Drum), floors (Metafield Maze), ropes (Tug of War), and other people’s hands (Freqtriq) act as digital interfaces, serving as examples of the responsive environments and tangible media objects that will become an increasing part of our everyday lives.

Creative Play: Some digital entertainment software available for gaming-specific consoles and hand-held systems resist being defined as games, and blur the boundaries between game, toy, instrument, and creative tool, all of which engage and activate open-ended, creative play. Players design and build 3D simulations in Armadillo Run. Electroplankton is a software-based toy that also functions as a music composition tool. The field of interactive art is especially welcoming to open-ended, creative play, and examples abound in Playware. On the Reactable, the placement and movement of symbolic objects on a table form musical compositions. For many of the works, music is no mere accompaniment to the action, it is its objective or defining character.

Interactivity: The works in Playware explore a more expansive notion of interactivity than the traditional one of a closed-loop system between human and computer. Whereas multi-user interactivity is a common attribute of games, it is relatively novel in interactive installation art, which historically has focused on a single user. In Playware, most of the installations invite collaboration or competition among multiple users, sometimes across space and time.

Japan: A final, crucial game/art overlap evident in Playware is geographical rather than conceptual. Close to half of the works in Playware were made by Japanese artists, who operate in a culture in which media-based art and entertainment are more closely conjoined than in the West. In Japan, it is not necessarily derogatory to compare an artwork to a video game. Not surprisingly, Japan is the seat of aesthetic and technical innovation in the game industry. Playware aims to expand Western audiences’ recognition of play as a function of digital art and of art as an element of digital play. Hopefully this will create a greater awareness of the leading role played by artists and game-makers in inventing new forms of fun.