Indie Games +/or Games as Art

Invisible Threads, Double Happiness Jeans by Stephanie Rothenberg and Jeff Crouse

In continuing the thread (no pun intended with Double Happiness) of Play and it’s relationship to newMedia art, I thought an appropriate—perhaps unavoidable—topic would be Art Games. I can’t begin to talk about this genre without properly pointing towards the history/community of game modding and machinima. Not to say that these communities get overlooked, but I think this history/hystory and its subculture is essential in approaching the type of critical engagement certain artists putting forward with their work.

For instance, a couple of years ago JODI (browsers be warned) came to Chicago to give a retrospective-type talk at Conversations at the Edge (a screening program organized/curated mostly by Amy Beste and the department of Film, Video, and New Media at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago) and the question arose concerning the efficacy of making art games with regards to it being similar (if not identical) to other game mods developed by “fans.” JODI responded that essentially there was no difference and that their mods can be seen as either being in homage to this community or else a reflection upon different strategies of gameplay. Machinima, along with game modding culture, has inseparable roots in fandom culture/subculture; is surely a testament to thriving community that produces this type of work.

The rhetoric involved in game art includes a multitude of conversations; gameplay, interactivity, immersion of senses, virtual reality, and a growing (if not innate) dialog concerning cinema. Lev Manovich’s discourse on newMedia is heavily vested in the cinematic relationship in newMedia art, and points towards early cinema as being a visual and cultural gateway into the digestion and analysis of digital arts. He positions Dziga Vertov’s Man With a Movie Camera is the essential reference point in Manovich’s book as being a primary example and case of interest in mapping the emergence of newMedia as an art form. The self-reflexivity, the formalistic concerns, and interface (or HCI), are the particular elements that Manovich highlights that are relevant to the discourse surrounding Games as Art. When addressing the formal qualities of Game Art, a common solution, or route, I’ve notived artists employ involve one of two strategies of investigation; Self-reflexive machinima (see Brody Condon), or media vested in the language and history of experimental cinema (see Philip Solomon’s Last Days in a Lonely Place).

Although these works reflect on the cinematic qualities/possibilities of games as art, what has emerged as perhaps the most culturally potent engagement with this medium is how games themselves, unaltered (un-modded) or self-created, can exhibit a(A)rtistic qualities. It seems irrefutable that games as a source of entertainment are an undeniable mode of cultural production and media creation. The easy way of substantiating this is by observing how the finances of the game industry (profit/production/distribution) have surpassed the movie industry. A whole generation has grown up considering games—as opposed to “the movies”—as being the new industry to creatively delve into (as could be also evidenced by the growing number of academic institutions providing game development degrees and coursework). Games have exponentially grown to hold more and more cultural capital, and in doing so, museum/gallery society cannot refuse the force of this emergent form any longer.

Cowboyana Trailer by Mark Essen

Although I’ve probably gone on a tangent, I wanted to bring up art games, and using game engines for artmaking purposes, to accentuate certain aspects of Play and interactivity in newMedia creation and engagement. The above examples of game art, or indie games, provide good examples of some of the concerns I have with this genre. Mark Essen’s Cowboyana is an interesting example of re-purposing 8-bit aesthetic into a type of cinematic gesture; connecting the nostalgia for the “Old West” with Nintendo-esque graphics. Cowboyana also conveys a critical engagement with side-scroller shoot-em-ups/run and gun (of the Contra variety) gameplay, questioning the relationship of co-operative play as well as the frenzied feeling of this sub-genre of games.

The Endless Forest – chocolate and blue deer from Tale of Tales on Vimeo.

Tale of Tales’ The Endless Forest is perhaps one of my favorite Indie games right now. A “social screensaver, [and] virtual place where you can play with your friends” (quoted from TOT website), this game/social interactive environment directly deals with the critical argument about 3D art being merely “screen saver art.” The game works when your computer goes to sleep (a wonderful use of techonological metaphors) and uses this rest period to connect you to other cyber-dreamers. In exploring this mythical space (which is designed beautifully), TEF subverts notions of gameplay being related to vegetative states, and re-contextualizes this into virtual meditative space. The format, and the execution of this project encourages “breaks” in typical computer use, by forcing users/players to play this only during states of natural “rest.” This layer of engagement changes the dynamic of game play into a casual exploration as opposed to task/goal-based games.

(poor quality video) Suicide Solution by Brody Condon

Brody Condon’s Suicide Solution is perhaps one of the most intriguing and disturbing pieces of machinima that I know of. It traverses hundreds of suicides in 50 game engines over the course of 19 minutes. The piece, watched in its entirety, shifts from humor to disaffection, to abject horror. The process of self-obsessive killing reinforces notions of our digital-self being impermanent and malleable, but only through destruction and mutilation.

Invisible Threads exhibits a fascinating approach to destabilizing the connection between cyber-virtual environments and RL. In re-imagining the sweatshop through the potentially suspicious practice of crowd sourcing, we’re asked to rethink layers of media interactivity and productivity. In making “everyday” users of Second-Life into active participants in the decentralized manufacturing of paper clothing, the line between digital participation and exploitation becomes blurry. I feel like this project also asks the greater question of our willingness to put our faith of personal identity and representation into the hands of corporations (ie Second-Life being a proprietary product/service). By using the Second-Life engine and community as its production core, Invisible Threads poses the question of how games can produce cultural goods and breach/complicate our standard concept of the purpose of gaming environments.