Video-Game Art



Changing Software Meanings



Alessandro Ludovico




The video game is a medium with its own language generated by rules, stereotypes and the peculiar loops of interaction feedback from the video screen. At the same time, it is one of the most popular and pervasive media, representing dreams and reality with their many paradoxes. One of the key elements is the »play« factor, a universal and instinctive method of interaction that underlies the pleasure of instant gratification. More and more artists are hacking into games' codes in order to deconstruct the entertainment paradigm by adding social values, decontextualizing lead characters and their actions, and subverting the usual rules of contraposition. In this way, the meanings are definitively changed and the digital landscape is clearly manipulated.

This is true of Joan Leandre's seminal experiments, expressed in their own project. He changes hidden parameters by varying physical laws and spatial orientation, while at the same time altering the electronic games' collective imagination. We can find similarities in the subtractive approach of Cory Arcangel's »Super Mario Clouds«, where only clouds and sky are left in a Super Mario cartridge game that has mutated into a perpetual minimal and conceptual landscape, or in the artificial transparency that Tom Betts' »QQQ« gives to popular games, revealing their tri-dimensional structure.

Over the past few months, various art exhibitions have been devoted to video-game art: »« in Cape Town's Institute for Contemporary Art, »Bang the machine« at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco, and »Games, computerspiele von künstlerlnnen« at the Phoenix West in Dortmund. Works by Leandre, Arcangel and Betts were included in the latter exhibition along with a wide range of different works related to »video-game culture« in general. For example, the aforementioned addiction to the screen was well depicted in »Shooter«, an intriguing video by Beate Geissler and Oliver Sann. It is made up of first-person shooter players in LAN parties, and assumes the screen's point of view, looking at players and their quick sequence of emotions (happiness, delusion, concentration). And classical video-game conventions like »fighting an alien invasion« can be placed in a real context, turning the safeness of the screen limits into the uncertainty of a boundless natural landscape. Space Invader [ ], a Frenchman who places pixel mosaics from the game of the same name into the urban space, performs his »attacks« in various cities around the world and records them on maps. His iconic »invaders« pop up on bridges and museum walls, near entrances, on sidewalks, or wherever he succeeds in secretly putting them. In his own words: »It's more a kind of electronic virus.« Exporting virtual characters into the streets is a matter of changing the context. But another crucial aspect of video-game culture is »identity«. Reflecting yourself on the digital screen means changing your identity and often personifying a prepackaged character.

But in fluID [ ], developed by Mathias Fuchs and Sylvia Eckermann, it is all about destroying/finding your own identity by trading it, stealing it, or lending it out. A public representation is negotiated from the beginning (the player starts with no face/clothing/sex) and the intermediate states are hypnotic, ranging from mirrors that reflect and distort your image to infinite duplications of your representation, none of which can be controlled. The negotiation of self is on the other side of the screen, and favours perspectives that have become dominant during the last decade.

One of the main branches of video-game art uses the open-game engines (Doom, Quake, Marathon etc.) to create new kind of narratives within a socially accepted aesthetic convention: the first-person perspective. Then comes understanding the structure in order to own the means of cultural production and to produce independent content that guarantees a fundamental freedom of expression. This is a form of cultural resistance that transfigures reality into a new narrative representation, putting an end to the good/evil dichotomy that underlies 99 per cent of commercial games. Social and political messages are presented with plenty of sarcasm, like the fight against the craziness of genetic engineering in Cmielewski-Starrs' »Bio-Tek Kitchen«.

On the other hand, the »SARS Kung Fu Hack« [ ], developed by Jeremiah Johnson / Nullsleep in the old arcade style, replaces the martial art of Kung Fu and its harmful effects with the SARS virus (both coming from the »east«). The only defence left is not the ability to jump and attack quickly, but wearing the iconic protective masks. An everyday plague takes the place of an epic challenge, and its effects on the scared player/human are much more potent. The »isometric« look is another visual classic, and has already been exploited by John Haddock in his »Screenshots« series, which consists of famous photographs translated into screenshots, archetypes of the videogame's static (printed) appearance. The screenshot is used as an artefact in the »Fake Screenshot Contest« [ ] as well, in this case as a »proof« of the game’s existence. Here the »scores« have become the quantifier of a generic act, abstracting their established role of certifying the player's obedience to the rules, and moving forward towards an active, critical and liberated construction of video games.