Few topics in video game circles elicit more groans than the debate about whether games should be considered artworks.
Advocates for games want to see them garner the same cultural recognition as books, films, or paintings, and use “art” as shorthand for achieving that status. But in the rush to declare “Super Mario Bros.” a great work of art, we may be skipping over the intricacies of both how artists who may or may not think of themselves as game developers are using games in their work and how less mechanical “interactions” in and around games construct a complicated cultural significance for the still young artform.
The Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago’s new exhibition, “I Was Raised on the Internet” isn’t a video game art show, and yet the concept and impact of games are all over the place. “In broad terms, this exhibition is about how the internet has changed the way we experience the world around us,” MCA Curatorial Fellow Jared Quinton said. “While it could never be comprehensive, any discussion about the influence of the internet on culture requires thinking about games and gaming.”
Entering the show, which runs through Oct. 14, with this mindset, it’s easy to see the fingerprints of games almost everywhere. Jon Rafman’s Monet Economy Class print features a view down an emptied commercial airplane aisle, every surface covered in a garden scene by the Impressionist painter applied like a video game texture map. Rachel Maclean’s emoji nightmare video “It’s What’s Inside That Counts” sports a self-effacingly saccharine UI that implies a gamified layer to keep the user engagement machine running. It’s hard not to envision an extreme ragequit upon discovering Eva and Franco Mattes’ “My Generation,” a sprawl of broken plastic shards and cables connecting a CRT computer rig together that has been smashed against the floor.
Stick around long enough and you’ll see YouTube videos on the sideways monitor acting out gamer-on-machine violence. Hito Steyerl’s “Factory of the Sun,” installed in a “Tron”-like performance capture studio facsimile, features a complex, hyperreal video projection that delves into the muddle of virtuality itself; gamepad button prompts and “Metal Gear Solid” references abound.
“In the context of an art exhibition, games play two important roles: as content and as form,” Quinton tells Variety. “On the one hand, the show has artists who are looking at the culture that has emerged in tandem with online gaming, [such as] Julia Huxtable’s poetic texts [‘Untitled (For Stewart)’] about the struggle to find her trans-identity in the hyper-cis-masculine gaming community. On the other hand, artists are adopting the format of online and video games as a way to help people understand complex political and market systems that might feel more abstract in a less interactive format. Here, we’re thinking of a few games in the online section of the exhibition, like Francis Tseng’s ‘The Founder,’ which allows you to found your own startup, or Femke Herregraven’s ‘Taxodus,’ whose objective is to evade taxes using offshore shelters.”
With the infusion of games in so many pieces in an exhibition like “I Was Raised on the Internet,” it seems odd that video games and art could still be so often perceived as culturally divergent. “I Was Raised on the Internet” seems to posit that the “are video games art?” debate is missing the forest for the trees, because while we ponder whether games should be in art museums, games are already in art museums. “It is more than just games influencing art or vice versa; art and video games alike share concerns with aesthetics, real and virtual space, and human behavior and interaction,” Quinton said.
“We’ve been debating the boundaries between art and design for centuries, and video games are just the latest chapter in this.” Do, then, the artists in “I Was Raised on the Internet” see themselves as having any stake or agenda in defining a crossover of video games and art and what drove a subset of them to use game creation toolsets to produce their work
“My attraction to using a video game engine for making the simulations was that it presented a way to make art that is alive and governed by a composition of dynamic systems rather than by a static authored script or statically sculpted material,” Ian Cheng told Variety of his live simulation piece “Something Thinking of You.” The piece follows a tumbleweed of shredded polygons rolling around a stony bog, all generated in real-time. “I believe that the future of what it means to be an artist is about making a world and choosing whichever existing contexts best articulates that world at any given moment.”
“I’ve never been myself a gamer and I’m quite ignorant about the gaming scene or productions,” said artist Daniel Steegmann Mangrané, whose VR work “Phantom (Kingdom of all the animals and all the beasts is my name)”, which features a dot-matrix laser scan of an area of the Mata Atlântica rainforest, is rendered using the video game development platform Unity. “In my case I used [VR] because it allowed me to very directly address issues of the (im)materiality of the body, dissolve one’s perception of oneself in between something larger, and break through traditional ontological and hierarchical oppositions as body and mind, objects and subjects or nature and culture.”
“I hate culture,” asserts artist Porpentine Charity Heartscape after asked whether she sees herself or her work as a part of a “video game culture.” “Everything I make is anti-culture. For people abandoned by culture. I would rather have a bunch of alive happy people than any of the abstract, cold gains promised by culture.” Heartscape’s hypertext game “The Shape You Make When You Want Your Bones to be Closest to the Surface” was commissioned by the MCA (you can play it here), and in accompanying text for the piece, she describes it as “an autobiographical sci-fi fever dream that focuses on gaming and the internet, two technologies I’ve had evolving, narcotic, dysfunctional relationships with throughout my life.”
It’s important to note how video games surface within I Was Raised on the Internet: instead of putting the whole isolated medium on a pedestal and saying, “respect this art,” the exhibition offers a more nuanced, honest, and critical look at games. How can gun fetishization in games tie into game weaponization? What happens when gamification promises “fun” as a cover for exploitation? What does it mean on a personal level to participate in games culture but also abhor the oceans of toxicity that thrive within it? Instead of glorifying the escapism of the commercial video game space, artists in “I Was Raised on the Internet” investigate what it is those players are escaping from and analyze what they find within such “escapes.”
Cao Fei’s video “COSplayers” brings this concept full circle. In the 8-minute piece, teens dressed as manga, cartoon, and game characters wander the outskirts of Guangzhou, China, posing for dramatic effect, and ultimately stage fighting with one another. One cosplayer all in black, donning a flowing cape, holds a grim reaper-style scythe above the hazy skyline as a would-be god of death. Golden armored warriors stride past abandoned structures and new high-rise construction sites alike. Two ninjas face off in the tall grass, kunai drawn, skyscrapers looming in the distance. The dust settles and the slain lay motionless in the brush and on the edge of the riverbank. Then they head home.
An electric blue-haired warrior rides the subway. One of the ninjas and a sword fighter take a pit stop in the middle of a road bridge to look back at the barren sites of their epic conflicts. The energizing drums of the soundtrack are replaced with the drones of urban life. We then see a number of the teens, still in costume, back in their domestic environments, sullen, distant, and seemingly longing for their next great battle. Most are also shown in the same space as a parent or other member of an older generation, never a word passing between the generational divide.
“COSplayers” is an artwork that features games prominently, yet there are none to be seen. It prompts the viewer to ask questions about personal fulfillment, generational differences, media dissemination, urban development, and so much more, all intertwined with games without being about them. Perhaps games aren’t quite pervasive to the point where their influence over artists can be assumed more often than not, like a twist on the “post-internet” concept, but it’s not hard to envision a near future where that’s the case.
“COSplayers” is installed in a subsection of “I Was Raised on the Internet” titled “Play With Me.” Jared Quinton notes that, “When we’re talking about ‘play’ we mean it in an expanded sense—one that includes playfulness, role-playing, and imagination—in addition to playing games.” This seems an apt avenue for bridging the art/games divide—viewing video games not just as a technological medium, but as a multimodal cultural force with all the complexities of human interaction included.”