Are Video Games Art?
That's the eternal question posed by "Design/Play/Disrupt," a new show at the Victoria and Albert Museum.
Minecraft, WesterosCraft, King’s Landing © Minecraft.png
The rules of the Food Tetris are simple: you play Jenny, and Jenny doesn’t want to eat too much, but she doesn’t want to starve. Jenny is a cute animated girl on your mobile phone screen, with rosy cheeks and big eyes and a large mouth. You have a series of foods, shaped like traditional Tetris tiles, that correspond to calorie counts; you’re timed as you try to piece them together, staying within a target range of calories. Feeding her just the right amount prompts a celebratory thought bubble: “Jenny ate enough! She is satisfied!”
This contemporary take on Goldilocks is part of a series developed by Jenny Jiao Hsia, called Consume Me, which deals with dieting, self-image, disordered eating, and rule-following. The game’s Jenny is a younger, food-obsessed version of the developer herself. Consume Me is featured in a new show at the Victoria and Albert Museum, titled Videogames: Design/Play/Disrupt, which provides a broad look at contemporary gaming.
Playing Food Tetris isn’t exactly fun. Or maybe it is, which is the weird part. “Is it fucked up to treat disordered eating as a game?” I wondered as I tried to hit Jenny’s calorie target. Or is it good to demystify eating disorders this way? Do the answers to those questions change, depending on who’s playing the game?
Questions about participation—the ethics of it, and the mechanics—are what often set video games apart from other art forms. These questions come up often in relation to popular violent video games, especially; to what extent do they encourage or foster violent behavior? Even in a museum space, it’s hard to simply be a spectator: Hsia has turned herself into game, and now it’s up to us to play and think about what playing means. The show explores these questions, at times explicitly, but there are no simple answers
Video games are narrative, visual, sonic feats. They are powerful examples of world-building. They’re wildly socially influential. Why aren’t they more widely considered art? Perhaps it has to do, in part, with the mass market appeal of—and backlash to—violent video games. Perhaps it has do with stereotypes about gamers. Perhaps it’s simply that they’re relatively new. The V&A is not the first major institution to show video games: MoMA included some in a design exhibition that opened in 2013, and the Smithsonian presented a historical show in 2012. But Design/Play/Disrupt is one of the largest shows to consider the video game.
The show focuses largely on games that are innovative in some way, rather than the norm, so its mainstreaming of games as art only goes so far; Fortnite and World of Warcraft remain outside the museum walls. Still, it makes a strong case—and maybe spends a bit too much time arguing—that video games deserve a bigger place in contemporary artistic discourse.
The show spotlights eight games that, like Hsia’s, intend to be “trailblazing” in some way. There is a wide range: the show highlights The Last Of Us, a big-budget action-and-adventure game that has a fairly traditional storyline—a hunky smuggler is tasked with guarding a teenage girl as they travel across post-apocalyptic America—but features jaw-dropping visuals. It also considers Kentucky Route Zero, a magical realist game created by indie developers, in which you play a truck driver making a delivery for an antiques company. (Kentucky Route Zero references René Magritte’s work; one of his paintings, The Blank Signature, is displayed beneath a feed of the game).
The games featured make for a kaleidoscopic view of the vanguard of video games today. The show is a bit of a dizzying sensory experience, an overload not unlike the experience of an arcade. It also does a lot of explanatory heavy lifting; objects from every stage of games’ creation are on display, from early sketches to lines of code. At times, this felt like the curator’s attempt to justify the show. Look at all this labor, the objects seemed to suggest; look at the storyboards and the layers of code and the notebooks and the artifacts of process; video games must indeed be Art!
But even without these layers of process, it’s clear that they are—or these are—works of art, by almost any definition. Most powerful of all was a game called The Graveyard, created by Auriea Harvey and Michaël Samyn, whose studio, Tale of Tales, aims to use video game technology to create interactive art.
Harvey and Samyn co-authored “Realtime Art Manifesto,“ first presented in 2006 and now on display in the V&A. This lays out their vision for how 3D game technology can be used as a new art form. “Realtime 3D is the most remarkable creative technology since oil on canvas,” they write. They want artists to use it to create “the most stunning art to grace this planet so far.” The manifesto lays out ten tenets, including “Reject modern art”—which they describe as cynical, niche, and afraid of beauty—and “Reject dehumanization: tell stories.”
In The Graveyard, you are an old woman. Your objective is to walk through a cemetery and sit down at a bench. You move slowly. You can take wrong turns; you can wander and get lost among the graves. Snow is falling lightly. The world is gray and beautiful and strange and I am immersed in it.
The show tries not to stand in a vacuum, acknowledging that games like The Graveyard don’t represent the majority of games created and consumed. There’s a room devoted to issues facing video games, which includes video of people in the gaming community—including Tanya DePass, founder of I Need Diverse Games, critic Katherine Cross, and game developer Rami Ismail— talking eloquently about racism, sexism, violence, sexuality, and ethics in gaming. It also features stations that address big questions, such as, “Why are video games so white?” Gamergate comes up, too, in brief. It was a more sobering addendum to an upbeat show, which recognized the disparities between popular mass market games and some of the more artistic attempts on display. It felt like a useful effort at contextualizing the past and present of the art form, if a slightly overstuffed one.
Design/Play/Disrupt ends with play; you walk into a makeshift arcade of sorts that’s whirring with light, sound, and colors. I played Queers in Love at the End of the World. The apocalypse was coming, and I had only 10 seconds to decide what I would do with my partner—would I kiss her, hold her, take her hand? Options presented themselves, and I was too slow to decide. Game over.