The February 2013 meetup writeup: Games As Art

Anthony Montuori, our February 2013 Boston Indies speaker, approached an infamous question – you know, the one involving “games” and “art,” dreaded by all who lack ert-fon diagrams – and, in an enlightening talk, took stabs at this question with the intent to kill. Anthony is an artist who makes video games, and as an employee of Boston’s ICA who studied painting and performance art in graduate school, he brings a valuable frame of reference to the questions: are games art? And so what if they are(n’t)?

Art and entertainment are indistinguishable, Anthony argued. Whether or not games are art is moot – the more important point is that in any expressive medium, the vast majority of art is crap. Yet since the judgment of quality is bound up in issues more thorny than we’d like to handle – taste and education, for example – a more useful metric is whether a cultural artifact (a game, an oil painting, or Fifty Shades of Grey) has entered, or can enter, a critical discourse so that its value as a work of art can be assessed.

To demonstrate his ideas, Anthony showed the games he created for his master’s thesis exhibition. Under the guise of a fictitious company called One Line® Games, Anthony created these five games in Processing and installed them in arcade cabinets for the exhibition:

The Adventures of Sisyphus – the player must push a boulder up a hill, forever
Ragz – dress up your avatar (or leave him naked) and navigate a mostly empty platformer world. Coins (the artist’s funds!) are either beyond reach or require you to jump to your death.
Into the Void with Yves Klein – Jump into the void, and stay there as long as possible
Debtris – a Tetris clone in which you pay off the artist’s student loan debt
Peer Pressure – battle your aspiring artist friends for precious gallery space

With each game came a short explanation of the intent of the piece and the critical discourse it enters – Debtris, for example, speaks to the endless struggle to rid ourselves of existential and material burdens, and Peer Pressure satirizes an uncomfortable reality that Anthony has surely come up against. To my mind, spamming the spacebar to cause the boulder to roll up the hill resembles the lever-pressing in a Skinner Box, as others have observed – a Sisyphean existence if there ever was one.

Anthony gave a brief outline of modern art history, starting with Marcel Duchamp’s 1917 Fountain (championing the idea that anything can be art as long as it’s put forward by an artist in that context and analyzed in critical discourse), and traced through minimalism, performance art (in which the artwork is a phenomenological experience, rather than an object – with obvious connections to video games), and conceptual art.

This outline of modern art’s history serves to show the artistic environment video games enter – one in which artworks are, rather than objects, schemes for experience devised by an artist, actualized only when consumed by the audience. Game designers work within this paradigm, obviously, and their medium also has the trait of interactivity, inseparable in a way that’s unique to the medium – something Anthony tried to demonstrate with his five-game project.

To those keeping score, that means that yes, video games are art, and yes, let’s please move on. Anthony has little patience for the debate – he prefers to talk about how the bar to entry has been lowered, although it was unclear to this listener whether the “lowered bar” refers to the flattening of the high-culture-low-culture distinction (and thus the “bar” on which the game of prestige hinges is revealed as illusory), or literal obstacles to artistic creation, or both. In any case, the latter is an important point – Anthony talked about how the artform flourishes as the technology needed to create it becomes more accessible, as indie developers are empowered today. Thus Anthony’s pessimistic assessment of most art — as “crap,” that is – brightens.

Anthony ended his talk with a list of games he thinks have successfully entered a critical discourse and lived to tell the tale – successful works of art, in other words, with reasons for each.

Metroid – sparked a discussion about the game designers revealing, contrary to the norm, that the leading character was a strong female, non-sexualized.
Katamari – overabundance of material things can be put to use to create something beautiful.
Braid – about relationships; countered criticisms that video games can’t speak to serious subjects.
Minecraft – gets people to think about the world and how to interact with it and create.
Portal – the player simultaneously authors the game experience and is embedded in the narrative.
Dear Esther – questions what a game is.
Gravity Bone, Thirty Flights of Loving
Passage – captures what it is to be human.
Every day the same dream – captures mundane life.
Run, Jesus, Run
Shadow of the Colossus – visually stunning; asks player to consider her/his motivations; questions the medium – nothing but boss fights.
Superbrothers Sword & Sorcery – compelled me to act despicably and then question why I did so.
Proteus – another “non-game.”
Home – even if not the greatest story, encourages player to go online and discuss with community afterwards.

Some questions arose after the talk that I feel deserve more debate:

  • Can we leverage games being acknowledged as art to constructive ends?
  • What are the alternatives to Anthony’s position that come out on the same side of the debate? And what reasonable positions come out on another side?
  • Can efforts such as the Smithsonian’s “Art of Video Games” exhibition and MoMA’s addition of video games to its permanent collection (although as “design objects” and not art objects) be counterproductive?
  • Why haven’t you read Tom Bissell’s Extra Lives yet?

Sound out in the comments section if you’d like to discuss these topics here.

See Anthony Montuori’s work and contact information on his website:

Boston Indies is a community of dedicated independent game developers in Massachusetts and the surrounding area. We define ourselves in connection with our community spirit and our group objectives. We gather in person once a month to talk about the art and craft of making video games, and to share our work with each other.

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