On its surface, it is easy to dismiss satirical digital art games as a practical joke played by conceptual artists on an unsuspecting public. Take Super Mario Clouds:
For those accustomed to the interaction afforded by video games, Super Mario Clouds is an anethema. You still have interaction, of course, but you can’t see anything you are doing. There is no immediate feedback, save for the existing sounds which remain persistent in the background, likely a precursor to your impending death by even the slow moving Goombas.
Before a casual dismissal, let us examine what it means for a game to be Art. Yes, art with a capital A!
In her writing on the Aesthetics of Interactivity, Celia Pearce posits some ideas as to what might constitute the bounds of Game Art. The first is that a game as an artistic medium invites the player to be a co-creator of the game work. This is not entirely divorced from the social bonds that have driven the vast majority of play throughout history. As Bernie DeKovan noted in his book The Well Played Game, games should facilitate social interaction with others above all things, certainly above trivial matters as to who is the winner and who is the loser.
Secondly, Pearce states that game art should fundamentally question the role and value of the art object. It is here that Super Mario Clouds delivers in spades. For many, the entire point of even playing a game is in the interaction, either with a computer system or with each other. Super Mario Clouds, alongside works such as jodi.org’s first-person shooter modifications, actively works to subvert the very idea of the game as a construction of an alternate reality. This is done by obfuscating the interface and drawing attention to the tropes that are taken for granted in such games.
It is clear that these works are derived from the satirical bent of the Fluxus Movement. Just as the Fluxus artists reveled in games as a ‘Low’ culture, so to have these early attempts at game art, which make a mockery of the reality that these games construct. There is also a Surrealist bent to these works, particularly by jodi.org, who likely see a kindred spirit in the subversion of cinema executed in Un Chien Andalou.
Un Chien Andalou remains a groundbreaking work for many reasons, one of which is the associations created when the smash cut editing style of Eisenstein is taken to its Absurd extremes. Even though this film is a mockery of cinematic convention, it exploits the tropes of cinema to this end. On the other side, a new work is created, one that is bewildering to a passive viewing, but rewarding to a more active viewing.
By this standard, both Super Mario Clouds and the obfuscated Quake modifications of jodi.org fail. The creators of both manage to strip away the convention, but fail to add the substance. Even the Fluxus kits were made up of an assembly of objects, which were pieced together for a purpose. An equivalent approach to a Fluxus Game Kit as espoused by these games would be taking a toaster, removing all of the parts, and then throwing them in a shoebox with the word “Food” on it.
Immediately, The Fountain, the Readymade creation of DuChamp, comes to mind. DuChamp too played games, though there is little evidence that he applied such mockery to chess, the game he loved so much that he became a master of it. How is it that the lowbrow nature of gaming escaped his satirical gaze? Before DuChamp is praised as the father of art in gaming, we might consider this.
Contrast the satirical approach with Bernie Dekoven’s own Alien Garden, widely considered to be one of the first art games. Rather than obfuscation of an existing game object, this game created an environment that encouraged interaction, truly engaging the player to become a co-author of the art work. While Super Mario Clouds offers cerebral engagement as one considers how the game functions without its platforms or even its character, there ultimately remains an impassable barrier between the player and the art work itself. When a game that portends to be art does not utilize the conventions of the form, it is destined to failure.
Those conventions are the dialogue between the player and the artwork. No one watches Andy Warhol’s Empire, but many have seen Un Chien Andalou. Cerebral pranks that do not truly engage the medium are doomed to the dustbins of history, no matter how many papers cite their influence.
Alternative Game Movements succeed when they not only transform the conventions of the medium, but also utilize the aspects of play that make games a compelling activity in the first place. To ignore the communicative aspect of gaming is to ignore what makes games special, or indeed, what makes up game art.
This said, it is certainly important to consider these prior works of subversive game art, particularly with the knowledge that modifications to existing code bases were more easily executed in the 1990s than making games from scratch. After all, artists work with the materials that are available to them. However, for the medium to truly grow as an artistic one, even the satirists have to communicate with their audience through the controller, not in the gallery.
It is clear that Arcangel is not interested in such growth. His most recent work is Beat the Champ (AKA Various Self Playing Bowling Games), which is 14 different bowling games rigged to only throw gutter balls (source). A gutter ball, indeed.
DeKoven, Bernie. The Well-Played Game: A Playful Path to Wholeness. San Jose: Writers Club, 2002. Print.
Fron, J., Fullerton, T., Morie, J. & Pearce, C. (aka Ludica) (2005). “Sustainable Play: Towards A New Games Movement for the Digital Age.” Digital Arts & Culture Conference Proceedings, Copenhagen, December 2005.
Pearce, Celia. “Games as Art: The Aesthetics of Interactivity.” Visible Language: Special Issue on Fluxus. January 2006.