Essay for Play!
Galeria de Arte Digital do SESI, São Paulo

March–April 2013


Play! 2013

Curatorial essay by Tanya Toft

Video and interactive games have been declared one of the most interesting emergent art forms right now. Not only have the boundaries between art forms dissolved—by which the “lowbrow” form of entertainment of video games gained a foothold in the “highbrow” aesthetic system of the art world—but the interactive and playful potential of games has gained recognition for its cultural value beyond the screen.

“Play!” is conceived from a consideration of how games are entering our cultural mainstream and becoming part of civic life. While video games are about the organization of play through space, what does the notion of “play” offer to our public spaces? What can gaming narratives convey to our cultural condition? The exhibition explores relationships between issues that pervade the game artworks and current social issues, which relate to our use of and being in public space.

There is an implicit irony in looking for these cultural-critical qualities in video and interactive games. Since the peak era of arcade video game popularity and technological innovation in the late 1970s and early 1980s, known as the golden age of arcade video games, game aesthetics have brought us escapist narratives and seductive worlds decorated with celebratory, Day-Glo colors and the celebrated pop symbols of our time. The introspective environments are trivial or complex at best, and seductive and illusionary at worst. The video gaming industry has long surpassed Hollywood in gross annual revenue to become the second largest entertainment industry in the United States after music.

It is the appropriation of this genre and re-imagination of the potential of games by a young generation of artists that has gained video games their contemporary relevance as artistic artifacts. These artists possess the skills, technology, and cultural ethics to make or modify games in which the rules are changed. The goal is not accomplishment but awareness, and the method is not escape but participation. These young artists design the games as art, and what they construct are not merely pieces of entertainment but narratives that enable social situations for public engagement and societal critique. A seeming fascination with obsolete technology, the outdated, the available, and the cheap make a recipe for a counterstrike at the gaming industry and a reclaiming of an art form with unrealized potential.

The works included in “Play!” draw on various generic traits from the history of video games, such as the race game, shooter aesthetic and subjectivity, the maze navigation, the win-lose dichotomy, and the third-person perspective on the subject of identification. The works include real-time interactive games as well as the documentation of online art games and modified versions of game classics. They engage with a contemporary conversation about the relationship between technology and culture, importing a sense of humanity into the technological realm.

These art games are not taking realism for granted. As situations of cultural experimentation, they offer models for better uses of our public spaces, reveal the failure of unsustainable cultural narratives, or suggest alternative ones. As video games have historically emerged as increasingly demanding applications pushing the capacities and conditions of computers, can game art also push the cultural condition and capacity of our public spaces?

Suzete Venturelli and MediaLab UnB’s Paulista Invadors addresses citizen ethics with a focus on two of the main problems of São Paulo: car traffic and air pollution. This real-time, interactive game commissioned for the “Play!” exhibition takes a video-based format and works through a tablet interface. In referencing one of the earliest shooting games, the iconic Space Invaders developed by Tomohiro Nishikado and released in 1978, Paulista Invaders is a game advocating for a green and sustainable street life. In this shooting game, the player is biking horizontally on the street level, shooting with flowers to keep cars away from the street. The player needs to protect the street-level space from invasion by cars that are approaching from the top of the screen, trying to reserve it for bicycles. This game offers an attempt to humanize Paulista Avenue, with the viability of track cycling that occurs every weekend. It contributes to the critical discussion about the quality of life, health, and the air in South America’s biggest city of São Paulo. The work inscribes in a discussion about how cycling can help relieve transit routes, and it underlines the fragility of cyclists trying to occupy—and survive in—the space of the street. The game aims to inspire people to see their environment in a different way, in a city with hopes for more successful cyclist lanes.

The Game Is Over (2009) by Les Liens Invisibles, the Italy-based artist duo comprised of Clemente Pestelli and Gionatan Quintini, is a video work made from sequences of the driving game Out Run from 1986, released by SEGA and designed by Yu Suzuki. In this original game, the player controls a red sports car, the Ferrari Testarossa, from a rear third-person perspective. The car is pre-equipped with a girlfriend in the passenger seat. They drive through a bright and leisurely environment with palm trees and the blue sea on the horizon. In this work, reminding the audience of games as theaters of escapism, we are confronted with a symptom of contemporary popular consumer culture. We see how the illusion of hopes, ambition, and marketing that have infused society and promised to enhance our lives for decades are being undermined or questioned. The sequence is looped in a never-ending narrative. By rewinding the game-over sequence, the simulated player will never reach what usually follows the “Game Over” message in the original arcade game, the option to “Continue?” The player is stuck in a repetition of failure with no option of moving forward. The gaming narrative of The Game Is Over indicates a failure in our cultural condition, questions our capitalist pursuit, and indicates an impossible future, or “next level,” in this situation. This critique is ironically put forward with imagery of the best-selling video game of its time. Out Run, however, was also one of the first driving simulators to give the player choices of routes and accompanying music to choose from throughout the game, which might have inspired the artists to choose this game for modification, as it implies some hope for humans to regain control of our cultural development.

Artist and game designer Mark Essen applies the ideas of avant-garde cinema to video games, making surreal narratives in which there are no scores. He is not just referencing computer gaming, but working within them as a medium. Bike Game (2008) is a lo-fi gaming take on bike racing. From a first-person perspective, the gamer—or the audience—drives with high speed though a black space installed with obstacles of blinking colorful squares like oversize psychedelic pixels. The vehicle is invisible. The game evokes nostalgia of the patterns of a TV test card, simulating an imaginary high-speed race into infinity. Installed on Paulista Avenue, the speed of Bike Game interferes with the speed of traffic. It manipulates a sense of space-time travel in an immersive image, almost soaking people into another urban scape and perhaps slowing down the sense of time in the digital gallery building’s surrounding environment. The only option in this narrative is moving with full speed ahead. The high intensity of the work evokes a shared hope for a successful journey in the audience. A sense of being in this high-speed urban reality, together.

Lummo Tetris by the Spanish artist group Lummo explores the game as a tool for reclaiming public space as a place to play—and the value of playing together. This interactive, real-time game for two players tracks their movements and applies this tracking data to the game, by which the players come to control the game in real-time by their body movements. The building façade shows a supersize version of Tetris. One player controls the rotation of the bricks, the other controls where the brick falls by moving parallel to the first player. The game encourages interaction, communication, and collaboration between the players in the space. The work indicates the “constructed situations” by the Situationist International, the avant-garde artist group of the 1960s, who set up playful zones or narratives in which the notion of play bled into the city in a unification of art and life, and the normal rules of capitalist society were relaxed. The game thus transcends the distinction between play and ordinary life and becomes an expression of a humanization of technology, which “works” because humans engage with it. It suggests a transformative potential: It invokes a call for modifiable urban spaces that can change in accordance with the will of citizens’ collective visions.

Brazilian artist Andrei Thomaz’ Labyrintos Invisveis proposes an existential challenge and confronts people with their everyday pathways and patterns in the city. This interactive, real-time game for two players works through a tablet interface. The player navigates through a maze and has three minutes to reach the end. Every second, a wall of the maze becomes invisible, but it is still a wall, which makes the maze increasingly difficult to figure out and confuses the game. In an almost surreal manner, the game challenges the player’s memory of the actual map of the maze. The iconic nature of the maze as an icon of 1980s’ popular culture was established by the video game Pac-Man, originally developed by Namco as an arcade game released in 1980—Pac-Man is considered one of the classics of the medium and has become a social phenomenon synonymous with video games. The maze is a form of spatial poetics and offers insight into our human psyche. The navigation in this Cartesian logic simultaneously reveal two sides of the human spirit: complexity and simplicity; mystery and design; intuition and sensory experience. The player is confronted with the philosophical tension between fate and free will.