Art History
Issue: Volume: 33 Issue: 2 (Feb. 2010)

Art History

Georgia Tech and SCAD examine the artistic aspect of games through time.

“Play,” a creative form “older than culture,” according to Johan Huizinga, has served humanity in such diverse ways as entertainment, education, exercise, conflict resolution, ritual, and self-expression. But it was not until the 20th century that games and the play experiences they provide began to be perceived as an art form, as well. With nods to the past and the future, and with an open acknowledgment of all the awkwardness, bravado, and measured successes thus far, the Art History of Games conference held earlier this month sought to more clearly explore and articulate the importance of games as a legitimate art form.

Hosted by the Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD) and the Georgia Institute of Technology’s Digital Media Program, the three-day Art History of Games symposium in Atlanta was the first of its kind to bring together experts in the fields of game studies, art history, and the related areas of cultural studies.

Matthew Maloney, digital animator and associate dean for the SCAD School of Film, Digital Media, and Performing Arts, describes the conference as both significant and timely. “Games and art have connections going back to the early 20th century, but the subject is not very well explored,” he says. “While there is much discussion on whether games are art, it is often limited to comparisons to Hollywood cinema rather than contemporary art. This symposium provides a venue for artists, scholars, and game developers to expand on games as a form of art, as well as set the path for conversations going forward.”

The conference provided attendees access to leading artists and academics in the video game industry, and featured a host of panel discussions, presentations, and Q&A sessions. Prominent game designers who spoke include SCAD professor Brenda Brathwaite, a pioneer at the forefront of women in games studies who recently received the Vanguard Award for her game “Train” at IndieCade; and Ian Bogost, associate professor at Georgia Tech’s Ivan Allen College of Liberal Arts and founding partner of the award-winning independent video game studio Persuasive Games.

“Games are a part of human culture,” says Bogost. “They have been for millennia, and we can study them for many reasons: to make better ones and to learn to plumb their depths as players, for example. But perhaps the most important and least common reason is to understand their role in our lives.”

Conference participant Celia Pearce, assistant professor of digital media in the School of Literature, Communication, and Culture at Georgia Tech, where she also directs the Experimental Game Lab and the Emergent Game Group, provides an intriguing perspective about the evolution of games and their legitimacy as an art form.

Presenting at the Art History of Games symposium was Auriea Harvey and Michael Samyn from Tales of Tales, creator of Vanitas, a unique title for the iPhone and iPod. 

“When the words “video game” and  “art” are used in the same sentence, the discussion tends to revolve around the questions of whether video games are art, the art and graphics of commercial video games, and, less often, the use of video games in fine art,” posits Pearce. “Contemporary digital game art is a growing movement, comparable to the rise of video as a fine art form in the 1980s; however, fine artists have harnessed the expressive power of games for nearly a century.”

Leading by Example
An integral and important part of the conference was the introduction of three new games specifically commissioned for the Art History of Games. Premiering their new games were: conference presenter Jason Rohrer, creator of the critically acclaimed games Passage and Gravitation; Tales of Tales’ Auriea Harvey and Michael Samyn, creators of Path, many Web sites, and Internet artwork; and Eric Zimmerman, co-founder of GameLab, and his partner, architect Nathalie Pozzi.

Rohrer’s contribution, Sleep is Death (Geisterfahrer), is a two-player asymmetric game. Pozzi and Zimmerman’s Sixteen Tons—aptly named after the folk song made famous in 1955 by Tennessee Ernie Ford about coal mining and debt bondage—looks like a large-scale board game, but the gameplay is complicated by the fact that players can pay each other with real money. Playing the game becomes an experience that critically blurs work and play, as the real value of money is grafted onto the artificial meanings of the game, and player identity shifts fluidly back and forth from cooperation to competition.

Lastly, Tale of Tales’ Vanitas is a virtual memento mori for your digital hands. Vanitas presents players with a gorgeously rendered 3D box filled with intriguing objects that can be moved by the tilt of an iPhone or pushed and dragged using a simple iPod.

Jason Rohrer presented Sleep is Death, which is meant to blur work and play, as the real value of money has a role in the game.

Joining the illustrious roster of speakers and panelists was John Romero, a game designer, programmer, artist, and sequential artist whose work spans more than 130 games—97 of which have been published commercially, including the iconic works Wolfenstein 3D, Doom, and Quake. Romero, who is inspired by, if not in awe of, the creativity and innovation of the video game pioneers, celebrated the genius and contributions of those who first breathed life into the industry in his lecture “Masters Among Us.”

“Since the dawn of the digital industry,” says Romero, “game designers and programmers pushed technology beyond its bounds, and on the granular level, millions of seemingly trivial mechanic innovations made the medium and cultural art form what it is today. Our masters still walk among us. Interestingly, however, few practicing game designers and even fewer experiencing their works know the masters among them.”

The conference also featured Jesper Juul, an influential theorist in the field of video game studies and the author of Half-Real: Video Games Between Real Rules and Fictional Worlds, considered to be one of the top 50 books written about the game industry; and Frank Lantz, creative director and co-founder of Area/Code, a New York-based developer that creates cross-media, location-based, and social network games.

Presenting at the conference were Ian Bogost (top), associate professor at Georgia Tech’s Ivan Allen College of Liberal Arts, and John Sharp (bottom), interactive design and game development instructor/ art history professor at Savannah College of Art and Design.

Other notable presenters included Christiane Paul, adjunct curator of new media arts at the Whitney Museum of American Art; Henry Lowood, Stanford University’s curator for the history of science and technology collections and film and media collections; Michael Nitsche, a digital media scholar and assistant professor at Georgia Tech; and John Sharp, SCAD interactive design and game development instructor and art history professor.

Organized and chaired by Bogost, Nitsche, and Sharp, the Art History of Games conference aimed to break new ground, unearth the past, and pay homage to the next generation of game developers. To some, it’s all about gameplay; to others with a wider vision, it is about the art of the game.