What’s the status of art in state of the art video games? Do pixelated citizens have a sense of aesthetics? Will we find a Van Gogh or Basquiat skin among the boogying human hunters of Fortnite? Does Halo’s Master Chief dabble in landscapes after littering them with alien corpses? Did Mario ever ask Princess Peach to draw him like one of her French boys?
I think we all know the answers to these questions. No. Don’t be ridiculous.
Let’s ask instead, are video games themselves art?
Tiffany Funk, editor in chief of the Video Game Art (VGA) Reader journal, thinks so. An art historian and new media artist who currently teaches in the Interdisciplinary Education in the Arts Program (IDEAS) at UIC, she’s made a vocation of exploring “digital literacy, games, and new media art,” and she found others who agree with her.
“I got involved with VGA because Jonathan Kinkley, Chaz Evans, and I were at UIC in the Art History graduate program at the same time,” she says. “Chaz and John studied video games as art, and my interests as a PhD student at the time overlapped as well.”
Kinkley and Evans founded the Video Game Art (VGA) Gallery in 2013, to take a serious look at a supposedly frivolous subject: video games, and explore their artistic potential and cultural impact through educational programs, talks, and exhibitions.
“My understanding is that it was born out of an interest in curatorial practice—Jonathan and Chaz both interned at Gallery 400 on the UIC campus—and video games,” says Funk. “VGA Gallery was a way of thinking through how games can be showcased as art, and a way to support the really great work so many Chicago-based indie game creators are doing.”
VGA exhibits have included Polymorphism: Queer Encounters of Intimacy in Games; Gun Ballet: the Aestheticization of Violence in Video Games; and Hunt and Peck: Alternative Expressions of the Keyboard. We’re well beyond Space Invaders here, though even Pong and old-school 8-bit games can come under VGA’s purview.
“It somewhat depends on the theme of the issue, but generally we’re interested in a long history of video games,” says Funk.
The gallery inspired the Video Game Art Reader, a peer-reviewed journal covering the same territory.
“The Reader was basically born out of conversation between Chaz and I that always ended in, ‘Hey, why isn’t there a publication about video games and art? That would be a great read.’”
Two issues have been released so far, the latest of which debuts at a release party at Quimby’s this Saturday (covered here by 3CR Games & Tech editor Antal Bokor).
The VGA site describes the Reader as “a peer-reviewed journal for video game audiences and video game practitioners interested in the history, theory, and criticism of video games, explored through the lens of art history and visual culture.” The current issue concentrates on the theme of survival strategy. Not necessarily survival in the traditional “Oh shit, I’m surrounded by zombie hordes and running out of bullets” sense. Article titles include “Survival Interventions in GTA: On the Limits of Performance in Virtual Environments”; “Thunderbird Strike: Survivance in/of an Indie Indigenous Game”; and “Virtual Intimacy and Queer Confrontations in The Last of Us: Left Behind”. Heady, heavyweight stuff.
“Our theme of ‘survival strategies’ approaches the topic more metaphorically—how do we use games as a survival strategy, and how are video games participating in larger conversations about radical and activist artistic practices?” asks Funk. “Additionally, we can think of video games as platforms for marginalized populations to communicate their own methods of survival. Games can raise awareness of issues of violence represented in media.”
Back in the aughts, the late film critic Roger Ebert decreed, “Video games can never be art,” igniting a predictable uproar from the gaming community. I asked Funk if the VGA Reader was a rebuttal or at least an answer to Ebert’s polarizing statement.
“I’ve had a lot of conversations about that particular article, even back as a film student at UW Madison,” she says. “Ebert’s viewpoint is well-taken, but only as it pertains to the very narrow idea of what he considered video games. The field of digital gaming is much wider, and has grown even larger since then. For instance, Ebert made this declaration long before the revolution in ‘casual gaming,’ and didn’t take into account how gamified our lives would become.”
Still, she sees his point, adding her own caveat.
“But his critique should be taken seriously. While I feel that video games are art, not all games are good art. And a lot of that, in my mind, is due to video game labor practices. We need to be socially conscious gamers and game makers, not just focused on pure aesthetics.”
The release of the second issue of the Video Game Art Reader takes place at 7pm Saturday, March 9, at Quimby’s, 1854 W. North Ave. Light snacks and refreshments will be served. For more information visit the VGA Gallery and Quimby’s sites.