Why Gaming Is An Art Form That Belongs In A Gallery

As the Victoria & Albert Museum host a major exhibition of gaming, Zoheir Beig celebrates the thwacking of the big final level baddy called snobbery and the increasingly widespread acceptance of it as an art form in its own right

In 2006 Auriea Harvey and Michaël Samyn – better known as the Belgian games development studio Tale of Tales – presented the Realtime Art Manifesto. Boldly asserting that "Realtime 3D is the most remarkable new creative technology since oil on canvas", the Manifesto was a deliberately disruptive mission statement, and featured declarations set out on paper, like the stanzas of a poem, such as –

Make art-games, not game-art.

Game art is just modern art

-ironical, cynical, afraid of beauty, afraid of meaning

In its somewhat wry provocation the Realtime Art Manifesto was a challenge "for creative people to embrace this new medium and start realizing its enormous potential". At the time, video game designers and fine artists were eyeing each other suspiciously across a seemingly unbridgeable divide, with play on one side and display on the other. Had video games, in the words of Harvey and Samyn, really "taken computer technology hostage", or did the possibility remain for them to be something more?

Tale of Tales’ The Graveyard, a sombre black-and-white game about mortality, is prominently featured in the V&A’s new major show, Videogames: Design/Play/Disrupt. In The Graveyard, you play as an old lady whose one aim is to walk up the central path of a cemetery to sit on a bench. Displayed on a large screen in the V&A, The Graveyard perfectly encapsulates the exhibition’s aim to showcase the breadth of contemporary video games that, as co-curator Marie Foulston states, are "really pushing against the boundaries (with) new ambitions and horizons".

Design/Play/Disrupt is arguably the most important attempt yet to position video games as an art form that belongs in either art gallery or museum space. Ambitious, exciting and forward-thinking, it’s a show that also hints at the inferiority complex that still exist around the medium’s perceived cultural worth.

MoMA’s introduction of video games to its permanent collection in 2012 was, prior to the V&A’s show, the most significant intersection of gaming and the curated space – it also remains an epochal moment in gaming’s complex history with cultural validation. Paola Antonelli, MoMA’s senior curator of architecture and design, nonchalantly announced the news in a blog post, anticipating the criticisms that would follow: "Are video games art? They sure are, but they are also design, and a design approach is what we chose for this new foray into this universe." The most pointed of these criticisms came from The Guardian’s art critic Jonathan Jones, who in a piece entitled ‘Sorry MoMA, video games are not art’ couldn’t quite believe that "the same museum that owns such great works of art as Ma Jolie by Picasso, Starry Night by Vincent van Gogh and Vir Heroicus Sublimis by Barnett Newman is also to own SimCity, Portal and Dwarf Fortress".

MoMA’s initial list of twelve games encompassed the iconic Pac-Man, the minimal music game vib-ribbon (in which levels are generated by the music you decide to play) and the decorative point-and-click adventure Myst. These titles showcased, in the same manner as the V&A show does six years later, a variety of aesthetics, mechanics and form.

The MoMA acquisitions also tackled one of the practical issues surrounding video gaming’s relationship with galleries; as a medium inexorably bound to ever-shifting technological boundaries and specific platforms (unlike sculpture, painting or even music and film), how do you preserve something that ten years from now may not be accessible in the same way as it is now – if at all? Antonelli’s solution, as outlined in a TED talk she gave in March the following year, was that "what we aspire to, is the code. It’s very hard to get, of course. But that’s what would enable us to preserve the video games for a really long time, and that’s what museums do. They also preserve artefacts for posterity."

One of the games that MoMA acquired in this first wave was Jason Rohrer’s elegiac miniature marvel Passage. Like The Graveyard, it’s a game about the passing of time, memory and death, in which your character walks in traditional Super Mario Bros fashion, from left to right. Over the course of this five minutes he visibly ages, acquiring wealth, memories and a wife before experiencing the loss of all of these things. The game’s 8-bit visuals work both for the minimal budget of an indie game and as a reminder of the player’s own youth. As The New Yorker’s Sarah Larson writes in a profile of Rohrer, to mark the opening of his own exhibition (the first such to have been dedicated to a single video games designer): "For someone of my generation, the nostalgia that the 8-bit animation provokes adds another layer of consciousness about the passing of time. When we were kids, video games, a new and futuristic realm, looked like Passage".

Jason Rohrer is one of the foremost practitioners working in support of video gaming’s place within a gallery. In the same New Yorker piece, he discussed his approach whilst making his second game, the gardening sim Cultivation: "I started to get into the idea of games being meaningful art," he said. "What’s the mechanism through which a game can give you an artistic experience?" This philosophy is similar to the ideas espoused by Tale of Tales (e.g. "Express yourself through interactivity").

In 2016 the Museum of London held a similarly modest show, London in Video Games, a look at games that depicted the UK capital – from the 1984 text adventure Hampstead to blockbusters such as Tomb Raider III – drawn from the Museum’s own collection. If video games are to take their place in galleries, it’s worth remembering that someone has to put them there. The Museum’s digital curator, Foteini Aravani, admits that her job title means different things at different institutions. Aravani, however, doesn’t see her acquisition of video games as exceptional: "I just wanted to create a new collecting area in the museum which would be more engaging, to have something to tell the story of an aspect of London but through hands-on experience. I wanted something where people had to interact and touch in order to get that story"

Passage, The Graveyard and Journey are, to varying degrees, all notable examples of what could be described as an art game. The very existence of the term suggests that there is now a consensus on what constitutes a traditional video game, and therefore what aspects of the form can be experimented with, subverted and expanded to differentiate from mainstream, established approaches. However, early titles such as Donkey Kong, Doom and The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time are no less notable for being so familiar and established within the classical canon. A similar analogy would be the continuum in film from, for example, Casablanca, It’s A Wonderful Life and Gone With the Wind to The Passion of Joan of Arc, Citizen Kane and Andrei Rublev. If the former set belong in galleries, then so do the latter.

All the traditional classics named above were showcased in the Barbican’s 2002 show Game On, which for many video game devotees remains an epiphany. Here was the first sign that games had seemingly reached a level of acceptance far removed from the hoary clichés of teenage boys locked in their bedroom. Its curator, Conrad Bodman agrees: "Game On hit the spot with the community and validated the passion…many regard the exhibition as a cultural gem, about a form which people were being very critical of at the time".

The V&A’s exhibition’s most fascinating segment dedicates an entire room to highlight how radical video games design has become, how these unlimited possibilities slowly took shape. Phone Story, a satirical examination of the impact smartphone manufacturing can have on societies across the world is featured (it was banned by the App Store shortly after release), as is the big-budget Mafia III, for its portrayal of the effect of civil rights-era America on the game’s African-American protagonist. Like any art form, the video game has the capacity to make political statements via personal expression. Through a video screen of revolving interviews the audience, designers and critics of video games are then challenged to demand more from the form. In the context of a show about the discipline in its beautiful, messy, chaotic entirety, it’s a bold move and one that works.

Twelve years ago, when the Realtime Art Manifesto was first published, the debate around games as a distinctive art form and their place within the venerable walls of a cultural institution was in its infancy. The sheer wealth of creativity and, yes, artistry around ought now to silence the critics, for gaming has given us work which have challenged convention, raised pertinent issues, married the commercial with the visionary, looked and sounded amazing

There’s a final reminder that in their reliance on interactivity and technology video games remain, and will continue to do so, quite unlike any other art form. Overherdc at the V&A, a gallery assistant guides a member of the public struggling to control The Graveyard’s elderly protagonist with some helpful advice – "She’ll be caught on the geometry of one of the shrubs"; no-one ever said that of a Monet.

Videogames: Design/Play/Disrupt is open now at the V&A in London, and runs until Sunday 24th February 2019.

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