Games referenced in paper below:
Esc to begin,
Mouchette, Lullaby for a Dead Fly
John Klima, Go Fish
Art games and Breakout: New media
meets the American arcade
This paper explores how the interactive paradigms and
interface designs of arcade classics like Breakout and Pong have been incorporated
into contemporary art games and offer new possibilities for political and cultural
Breakout, the first mass marketable video game, was a
defining game experience for many in the 1970s.It positioned Atari at the forefront
of the game industry under the business union of Apple Computer’s founders, Steve
Jobs and Steve Wozniak.The long-term potency of game culture has since been firmly
established.In 2001, twenty-five years after the original version was released,
MacSoft released a new Breakout that incorporated kidnapping narratives, paddle
angling, and power-ups into the classic game.Also last year, the release of two
powerful new consoles, Microsoft’s XBox and Nintendo’s Game Cube, redoubled the
hype surrounding the obsession with gaming.In 2000 the video gaming industry surpassed
Hollywood in gross annual revenues to become the second largest entertainment
industry after music in the United States.
Retro-styled Art Games
The immense success of the gaming industry, now global,
has inspired droves of artists to create new works that pay homage to arcade classics
of the 1970s and 1980s. For example, Natalie Bookchin incorporates interactive
tropes from Pong and Space Invaders into work that demands both manual dexterity
and theoretical reading. Bookchin’s game, The Intruder, adapts a short
story by Jorges Luis Borges about the life of two brothers who fight for the mysterious
woman both desire. Another art game project, Font Asteroids, allows users
to select information itself as the enemy.The German collaborative, Esc to begin,
designed the game to look much like the arcade classic. After selecting a target
URL, the text from that web site becomes the interplanetary debris that you must
shoot away. Like the original Asteroids, the words in Font Asteroids
break apart into smaller and smaller fragments—in this case, prefixes, suffixes,
The exciting works of these game-influenced artists have begun
to make their way into elite museums. Several exhibitions showcasing art games were
organized in the last three years alone: Mass MOCA’s “Game Show”, the San Francisco
MOMA’s “010101: Art in Technological Times,” the Walker Art Center’s “Beyond
Interface,” and the Whitney Museum’s “Bitstreams.” Overall, the proliferation
of works by artist gamers in conjunction with the sweeping accomplishments of
the gaming industry has had a reverberating impact on a variety of cultural
institutions: art museums, grant organizations, and of course, art schools
Fanatical gamers and art schools
The tremendous success of the commercial gaming industry
has helped to shape curriculum at universities and art schools around the world.
Espen Aarseth, editor of the journal Game Studies, contends that computer
games, as a cultural field, will carve out new territory for graduate programs.
However, many art students seek only the computer and technical skills that will
enable them to secure design and programming jobs at game development companies.
These students often sacrifice valuable classes in political theory, women’s studies,
and economics among others to obtain a solid grounding in software manipulation
and code writing. Educators thus face a tremendous challenge in striking the proper
balance between technique, craft, and theoretical knowledge in game-related media
arts courses at both introductory and advanced levels. The largest challenge remains
satisfying student-driven demands for technical skill while maintaining the intellectual
and artistic integrity of art education.
Objectives of paper
My own intervention in the historical context elaborated
above involves a critical reading of the current surge in game-inspired interactive
art works. I began to investigate this new genre while developing a course curriculum
at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. In “Interactive Multimedia: Breaking
out of the Arcade,” intermediate-level students explore the history of art games,
beginning with the Surrealists and Duchamp and progressing through the recent
online experiments released by jodi.org. The principal assignment asks each student
to invent a unique version of Breakout that showcases their ability to incorporate
an individual narrative and concept within an arcade-style form.
Figure 1: Breakout animation still, Lidia Wachowska, 2002.
The course inspired a series of discoveries that enriched
both my teaching and my own studio practice.First, appropriating the game form
for art making allowed students to explore different models of space. Cultural
theorists like Michel Foucault—whose Panopticon makes for a striking comparison—and
Lev Manovich, among others, provided students with theoretical readings of power,
space, and storytelling. “Narrative and time itself are equated with movement
through 3-D space,” Manovich writes, “progression through rooms, levels, or worlds.”Second,
in the art-making part of the course, students produced surprising variations,
both serious and humorous, on the familiar Breakout theme.In one game, the bricks
became government currencies.In another, the blocks took on human qualities, enacting
behaviors labeled “mother,” “magician,” and “bouncer.” One ambitious student,
interested in the idea of game play rooted in the act of consumption—as evidenced
in arcade classics like PacMan and Burgertime—chose to make her game begin with
a survey that documented participants’ food preferences (Figure 1). At the conclusion
of the survey, the player is presented with an array of distasteful food from
which they must escape. Here food becomes a medium that imprisons. In advising
these student projects, I realized that the art game genre provides a new vehicle
for artists to articulate political and cultural commentary. Third, and finally,
I incorporated the Breakout trope into my own work, an installation called <email@example.com>
for a special exhibition of optical toys at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los
The remainder of this paper will explore each ofthese subjects in turn: video gaming and models of space, art games as
spaces for cultural critique.
SpaceWar: Gun Play on the Cartesian Grid
The defining element of both mainstream video games and
game-inspired art is the organization of play through and across space. The spatial
aesthetic and spatial language of both shape the meaning of experience. While
there are many different types of video games, the great majority are first person
shooter epics with plots based on militaristic combat. SpaceWar, Tank, and Space
Invaders are early examples of shoot ‘em-up contests in which, as the Beatles
said, “happiness is a warm gun.” Breakout is one version of the shooter epic,
located within a prison complex. As illustrated in the arcade marquee from 1976,
the player assumes the role of a convict attempting to escape by smashing through
a brick wall with a mallet. In the video game, this narrative was formally simplified
as a small rectangular paddle that the user guided to hit a ball that chipped
away at a grid of jewel-toned bricks. Despite the imaginative narrative context,
the game was essentially a flat, non-dynamic grid.
In striking contrast to the two-dimensional simplicity of Breakout, the most recent
generation of video games offers a version of hyper-reality in which story and
space are three-dimensional, dynamic, and experientially real. On March
10, wedding bells rang online for Mr. Dong-jun Choi and Ms. Yousun Jang. The couple
made their vows of commitment in the context of the multiplayer game environment
that both fondly remember as their courting ground. The two lovers met online
competing in Blizzard Entertainment’s Diablo II, a role-playing adventure game
in which participants choose characters and battle the forces of evil from their
comfortable living rooms. The experience of Mr. Choi and Ms. Jang is part of an
emerging dynamic familiar in the web-based video gaming subculture. More and more
couples are meeting virtually in their game communities and celebrating their
romantic successes with faraway friends and fellow competitors. The game world
has evolved from the geometric abstractions of Breakout to extensions of an individual’s
daily pathways and travels through space, an extension of real life. Virtual
spaces provide portals for exploration and discovery as well as a sense of amazement.
Steven Poole, author of Trigger Happy, contends that the “aesthetic emotion
of wonder” is the “jewel” of the game-playing experience. Certainly the sheer plasticity of
the spatial environment is a primary lure for the designers of the games as well
as those actively playing. The newest games feature sprawling swaths of territory
on which to battle. The frontier of the game world is limitless, contingent only
on the speed and memory of the gamer’s computer or console. On the Internet, Diablo
II boasts “four different, fully populated towns complete with wilderness areas
as well as multiple dungeons, caverns, and crypts in every town for players to
battles between the forces of good and the forces of evil take place in a sprawling
land empire. Games like Diablo II and Starcraft are especially popular in Japan
and Korea, where domestic space remains quite small and panoramic mountain vistas
and babbling brooks are several hours away by rail.
Despite the extreme popularity of the newest cutting-edge graphics engines, game
environments suffer from two limitations that complicate their relationship to
contemporary new media-based art. First, they remain the same Cartesian enclaves
clogged with familiar structures: skyscrapers, towers, trees, boulders, dams,
and dungeons. The spatial aesthetics of video games have evolved from the abstract
beauty of bouncing squares to the realism of metal-sheathed guns, but they celebrate
rather than transcend the boundaries of Cartesian spatial logic. Second, and perhaps
more obviously, game culture remains wedded to a first-person narrative of violence
and point acquisition. The win/lose dichotomy and the shooter aesthetic and subjectivity
that dominate the industry offer an impoverished model of space, their “virtual”
The issue of who controls the spatial aesthetics of commercial video games is
complicated. The limiting factors associated with consumer economics, mathematical
models, and popular taste combine, resulting in the formation of surprisingly
similar structures for the putatively cutting-edge graphical worlds: futuristic
cities, Gothic churches, medieval castles. The Cartesian perspective is the most
straightforward to generate mathematically, but the hardware industry also has
a vested interest in the popular penchant for ever-realer spaces. And PC manufacturers
and console developers rely on the game software’s demand for speed to spur sales.
Joystick Nation author JC Herz describes the parasitic relationship that
develops between the computer hardware and the game development industry: “The
only thing that will push a computer to its limits is a game. No one admits it
but no one needs a new computer to do a spreadsheet programme or Word document.”
She asserts that games ultimately manipulate and rule the PC industry: “Unless
you are in a military installation, the most demanding application on any computer
will be a game.”
However produced, the video game industry’s reliance on Cartesian realism sits
in striking contrast to the contemporary art world. Over a century ago, painters
abandoned Cartesian space after mastering the process of manipulating pigments
to form a perceptively accurate space. Fine art collectors, including museums,
have for decades defined gallery-quality art in terms of “high brow” aesthetics
that honor the traditions of minimalism, conceptualism, and abstract expressionism.
Video games, in contrast, constitute a popular, “low brow” form of entertainment
that takes realism for granted. Yet as games reenter the immaculate spaces of
museums, they force a new dialogue about what constitutes an “art space” as opposed
to a purely “game space,” resurrecting long-standing debates about high and low
culture, high and low art.
Artists have taken notice of the proliferation of the commercial game medium and
are experimenting with not only the spatial aesthetic but also the mode of game
play. They are attempting to vary the characters and to introduce narratives with
game outcomes and objectives that resist the assumed spatial and narrative logic
of a traditional game. Feng Mengbo, for instance, began his work in the art games
arena by recasting the popular Nintendo character Mario as Mao Zedong. His first
piece, The Long March Goes On, locates the game objectives of the Mario
Brothers classic within the contentious relations between his homeland, China,
and the West. Throughout his life—as a child of the Cultural Revolution and a
young adult during the events at Tianamen Square—Mengbo witnessed oscillating
degrees of openness between China and the West. The artist chose to make work
about the opposing ideologies shaping Chinese society: revolution and modernization.
In selecting the highly structured and delimited game format for this politically-charged
subject matter, the artist grounds his cultural critique in a pop medium that
is itself an emblem of western consumerism and modernization. In his most recent
work, Q4U, Mengbo writes a patch for the Quake game that features the artist wielding
a camera in one hand, a rifle in the other. The frag-or-be-fragged excitement
so dominates game play that one ignores the specific identity of the enemy, the
artist himself. Perhaps the instantaneous forgetting is the slippage that is the
Space Invaders: Cyberfeminism and Artistic Practice
In the late 1990’s, women publicly laid claim to the crowded
territory of the male-dominated gaming world.As online games became increasingly
accessible, more women tried their hands at fragging, dueling, and role-playing.A
host of new organizations sprang up to create a safe and stimulating place for
women to experiment in trigger-happy cyberspace: Womengamers.com, Joystickenvy.com,
GameGal.com, Gurlgamer, GameGirlz, Grrl Gamer, and many, many more. Why this sudden
landslide of femme-only gaming communities? Single-mom "Aurora" Beal
confesses her motivation: “When I started the GameGirlz site…my only goal was
to create a website where girls who were into games didn't have to wade through
the semi-nude pictures and scroll through the jokes only a guy could appreciate.”Like
the quilting circles of yesteryear, women have created their own spaces of retreat
to share conversation that spans a variety of topics beyond game reviews and strategy.
Unfortunately, as theorists like Faith Wilding have pointed out, this phenomenon
of “cybergrrl-ism” is afflicted with a blinding net utopianism. Wired women participate
in an ambiguous feminist politics by adopting the “if you can’t beat ‘em join
‘em” attitude with regard to online gaming. However, in the real world, women
are not in visible positions of leadership in the critical venues of research
and development in new technologies—neither in business and industry nor in the
university settings of science laboratories and art schools. Trigger-happy girl
gamers might believe that Quake game patches written to produce custom female
tattooed skins inject a certain feminist presence into cyberspace.
More and more female bodies are invading the spaces of popular entertainment,
yet they share the same buff bodies and aggressive personalities. The online explosion
of the riotous cyberpunk culture in the mid to late nineties was followed by a
resurgence of a fighter chick character in both television and Hollywood productions.
The entertainment industry labored to establish women as players in a larger culture
of sanctioned violence. Buffy, Zeena, the Matrix’s Trinity, and Charlie’s
Angels are but a few examples of the new warrior heroine. Women who do not play
games can thus passively endorse the commodification of violent gesture as a symbol
of girl power. Yet for the most part, both women who “game” and women who watch
participate in a larger narrative of, at best, ambiguity, and, at worst, submission
that their overwhelming desire to beat the boys at their own game promotes.
Figure 2: The Intruder, animation still, Natalie
To develop a feminist politics and activist trajectory
in cyberspace, girls need to develop their own games. While this remains a marginalized
project in the game industry, artists have pursued it with vigor. The emerging
art game genre provides artists with a new structure to hack masculinist institutions
and power hierarchies. Perhaps the best current working example of the “low art”
form being elevated to “high art” is Natalie Bookchin’s aforementioned The
Intruder, an experimental adaptation of a short story by Jorge Luis Borges.
The game changes readers into players who move through the linear narrative by
shooting, fighting, ramming, and dodging objects. Bookchin mines the arcade classics
to tell the story of two brothers who fall in love with the same woman. One of
the most interesting moments in the game happens in the Pong screen, in which
the viewer and the computer compete for points by batting a female icon back and
forth. The war takes place atop a field of flesh—photographs of a nude female
body appear each time one of the players temporarily takes possession of the woman.
The “field” metamorphoses from skin into turf—the body becomes territory to possess
in a game of football. The story advances when one man tackles the other. Here,
the narrator comments: “They preferred taking their feelings out on others.”
Computer games have traditionally provided a culturally sanctioned outlet for
male killing and sexual fantasies. Gamers can only advance in The Intruder
by perpetrating violent gestures. This novel, first person shooter structure invites
gamers to see how popular computer games perpetuate masculine ideologies of spatial
conquest, combat fantasies and sexual domination.
New spatial paradigms and modalities of play in the art game genre raise additional
questions about the permissibility of violent conduct by introducing new forums
for injustice into the online world. For example, in Lullaby for a Dead Fly,
the artist Mouchette invites the gamer to kill a fly with a click of the mouse.
In this simple interaction, the fly reminds us that a click represents a choice,
an assertion of power in her own elegiac song: “You clicked on me, you killed
me.” Likewise, Eric Zimmerman’s Sissyfight, an immensely successful project
produced by the online magazine Word.com, asks participants to consider
the violence of words in a multiplayer online game set in the context of a simple
two-dimensional playground. Players participate in a wickedly humorous catfight
with other girls, using teases and tattles to break down the self-esteem of other
players and drive them away. Perhaps to its detriment, the game allows players
to scratch and grab in their quest for points. The all-girl characters and witty
repartee, not the violent combat, make the game novel.
As artists continue to work collectively to recontextualize and reinvent female
characters, so too must industry and gamers re-imagine the diverse cultural possibilities
of game space. The popular excitement around the culture of cybergrrlism reveals
a positive new interest in carving out an active space for women to communicate,
congregate, and play online. Yet in the absence of roles for women in cyberspace
different from those assigned to or by men, there remains a profound ambiguity.
As history shows us, today’s internet originated as a system to serve war technologies.
War games are but a fantastic extension of militaristic laboratories. In the future,
women must claim their territorial rights not only as players of games but as
producers, designers, and developers of technologically mediated experiences like
games—games that are not war games, games that steer us toward a more engaged
relationship with complex female characters that refine today’s definitions of
cyberfeminism. Today’s art games and multimedia projects are opening the door
to a more nuanced description of virtual spaces that embrace a diverse array of
characters and modalities of play.
Game-inspired art works represent a vitally important
emerging form that explores new modes of visualizing space and time, and from
these investigations emerge new narrative models for interaction, new formats
for cultural and political critique, and alternative interfaces for game play.
John Klima’s multimedia installation, Go Fish, is a novel first-person
shooter game with real-time consequences —the death of a goldfish.
Housed in a retro-styled arcade cabinet, the game asks participants take moral
responsibility for their trigger-happy behaviors. Arcangel Constantini’s new game,
Atari Noise, features a hacked Atari 2600 that functions as an audiovisual
noise pattern generator—a very abstract look at the spatial possibilities inherent
in the art game genre.
From the straightforward Breakout sequence to the complex 3-D landscapes of games
like Quake, video games have collided with the world of art to forge a new genre
of art games. As artists, we have much more to explore in the game format in terms
of both spatial innovations and also game play. It is our responsibility as artists
to “break out” our software design abilities to continue to refine, via formal
structure and cultural commentary, the realm of game architecture to create new
interactive structures for expression.
Tribe and Alex Galloway, “Net Games Now,” Rhizome, April 29, 2001, http://rhizome.org/print.rhiz?2632.
 Lev Manovich, The Language
of New Media, (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2001), p.245.
 Steven Poole, Trigger Happy:
Videogames and the Entertainment Revolution, (New York: Arcade Publishing,
 Advertisement for Diablo II:
 JC Herz, Go Digital,
BBC news interview, August 4, 2001, http://news.bbc.co.uk/hi/english/sci/tech/newsid_1504000/1504718.stm.
 Interview by Geri Wittig and
Max Hardcore, http://switch.sjsu.edu/web/v5n2/interview.html.
 Klimas’s Go Fish was
exhibited at Postmasters Gallery, NYC, 2001: http://www.cityarts.com/lmno/postmasters.html.