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Gamescapes: Are video games contemporary art, too?

The first in the series of eight stories examines video games as a formal media in the purview of contemporary art.

by Shraddha NairPublished on : Jul 08, 2020

While I am aware of how (falsely) virtuous I might sound, the truth is that while other kids played video games, I would read books. The peak of my interest in games in my entire life was when I pleaded with my parents to buy me a PlayStation in grade six so I would have something in common with the boys in my class, an important factor when you are basically the only girl in a batch of twelve year olds. I played a grand total of two games on my PlayStation Portable and then left it for dead in the back of my cupboard (sorry, dad) without finishing either. My engagement with the world of gaming since then has grown marginally, if at all, with the occasional FIFA game. While talking to a gamer friend about something art-related, he mentioned in passing how renowned game designer and developer Hideo Kojima of Death Stranding fame had stated that video games too are a form of contemporary art. This statement triggered a series of questions and I immediately started a process of research into the potential of video games. While they have never been of interest to me, art has always been a big part of my life.

Once I began, I got sucked in. The more I read about video games and experimented by playing some myself, it began to reveal itself as a multi-faceted tool for the imagination. With a subject so vast, the adventure is really endless. In an attempt to break down the vast universe, this series starts with addressing the aspects of game narratives, which make the medium akin to other traditional art media. The series will conclude by examining how games and the gaming industry can play pioneer to the future of spaces, from technology to entertainment and education through its artistic and creative capacities. In this series we talk to creators of games that are nothing less than works of art.

‘Circulets’ is an award-winning game by Hashstash | Yadu Rajiv | STIRworld
‘Circulets’ is an award-winning game by Hashstash Image Credit: Yadu Rajiv

To be able to approach the world of video games from an appreciatively critical standpoint, one must first define what a ‘video game’ is. Simply put, we look at games as platforms that involve the use of screens as a primary interface and provides the user with significant amount of agency to control their experience. This is certainly not the first time anyone is bringing to light the potential of video game culture and it will not be the last either. However, we focus very specifically here on video games as a form of contemporary art. So before moving further, we must outline the criteria by which ‘art’ values will be credited to these games. Art, the definition of which can be argued for days, is above all a form of storytelling. The story may not be a linear narrative or explicitly clear cut but the story is the seed of the process nevertheless. In the games featured in the following stories, a strong sense of storytelling and conceptual intention will be present. We will look at developers with distinct aesthetic qualities and values embedded into their artworks. We will also examine and prioritise mental, emotional and physical stimulus within the game, not with the prerequisite of all in one but at least one in all. Our exploration also leans on the well-established Mechanics-Dynamics-Aesthetics framework for guidance, with particular focus on types of aesthetics present in games including but not limited to sensation, expression, discovery, fellowship and narrative.

While being a non-gamer writing about games might seem like a disadvantage, it also gives me a lack of bias, which frees me from leaning in any one direction. However, I was keen to gain some perspective from someone who is quite the opposite, someone who lives and breathes games. Yadu Rajiv is a game designer, developer, curator and evangelist based in Bengaluru, India. His exposure to the world of gaming started early during his childhood, when he was only around 10-years-old. An experimental child, Yadu explains how he journeyed from playing to making games, “We dabbled with BASIC at school and I remember planning on making a Mappy-like game using it as early as 12. We failed miserably. Fast forward another three years, my brother got a computer for working with MIDI and making music and I started playing a lot of games on it. At some point I was asked not to play too much games on it and rather use it for something useful, so I had to go learn something - I learnt a bunch of Macromedia stuff like Dreamweaver and Flash. Flash and VB5/6 were a turning point for me. I picked up C++ along the way. By the time I was 17, I was making tools and utilities for my friends and small games in Flash and VB”.

‘Circulets Lok Sabha’ is a variation of the original | Yadu Rajiv | STIRworld
‘Circulets Lok Sabha’ is a variation of the original Image Credit: Yadu Rajiv

Speaking with STIR, Yadu says, “Games sit at the intersection of art and technology. There is constant innovation in science and technology that it keeps feeding back into game development. Anyone doing interesting work and presenting a paper at SIGGRAPH are probably in some way directly or indirectly contributing to games; likewise, people doing research on psychology and human nature can possibly be contributing back to game development. We are a large sponge and we take everything and anything and see if it fits,” highlighting how games are an extremely versatile medium for creation. “Braid, Towerfall, Celeste, Gorogoa are some of the games I really enjoy and also the occasional Counter Strike skirmishes,” confesses Yadu when asked about his favourite games. Yadu Rajiv has been designing and developing games for over 10 years now. In 2011 he co-founded Hashstash, one of the earliest game development companies in India, which was also responsible for hosting one of the oldest game jams called BYOG. He has published four texts on game development and participated in a number of international conferences.

As someone who has little love for online viewing rooms, games are the perfect way to soak in an artist’s creative energy from the virus-free comfort of my home, making video games a very pandemic-friendly medium. Games are no longer just a form of entertainment. They are breaking down walls between genres and creating interactive and immersive ways to engage with art and artists. Recently, musician Travis Scott premiered his latest single in a series of five ‘performances’ within the popular game titled Fortnite. People all over the world gathered around their laptops in their homes to witness this first-of-its-kind performance, an innovation in his creative practice and a landmark moment in the history of lockdown 2020. However, this isn’t the first time an artist has created a space of his own within the virtual game world. In 2009, artist Cao Fei opened a year-long project to the public - a virtual city she built within the game Second Life. An avant-garde model of urban planning, RMB City was built as a platform for experimentation. She collaboratively organised events, exhibitions and contests with leading art institutions hosted within this virtual city, pushing our perception of the boundaries between real and virtual worlds. She even invited other artists to create artworks of their own within RMB City.

The book ‘Developing Turn-Based Multiplayer Games’ written by Yadu Rajiv | Yadu Rajiv | STIRworld
The book Developing Turn-Based Multiplayer Games written by Yadu Rajiv Image Credit: Yadu Rajiv

In 2014, the Museum of Modern Art hosted an exhibition titled Applied Design, which was curated by Paola Antonelli of the Department of Architecture and Design. The exhibition featured 14 video games that MoMA had acquired for its permanent collection, including Katamari Damacacy (2004), Pac-Man (1980), EVE Online (2003), Sim City 2000 (1994), Dwarf Fortress (2006) and others. The collection has continued to expand since, including Minecraft (2011) and Magnavox Odyssey (1972). This groundbreaking move received a great deal of criticism, which Antonelli defended with her ambitious goal to expand the notion of design itself while admitting that video games are also a form of art. The fact that video games are deemed worthy of being acquired by noteworthy museums like MoMA increase their value as objects of art as well as cultural and historical artefacts. In a post about the collection, Antonelli says, “As with all other design objects in MoMA’s collection, from posters to chairs to cars to fonts, curators seek a combination of historical and cultural relevance, aesthetic expression, functional and structural soundness, innovative approaches to technology and behaviour, and a successful synthesis of materials and techniques in achieving the goal set by the initial program”.

The growing culture of games transcends the stereotypical view most have of this massive industry. With the possibilities increasing and becoming more radical with every step, we must ask ourselves - can games entirely change the way we live?

A portrait of Indian creator Yadu Rajiv | Yadu Rajiv | STIRworld
A portrait of Indian creator Yadu Rajiv Image Credit: Yadu Rajiv

Click here to know more about video games as an artform and read the other articles in the Gamescapes series presented by STIR.

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