Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Games in Galleries

The Family Center where I work was recently turned into a gallery by a group of visiting artists.  As some of them transformed the main room into an exhibition space, others performed music while a friend from a local catering service demonstrated how to cook some amazing Thai recipes.  Together with some inviting Spring weather and opportunity for children to make their own art outside, it made for a very creative and festive atmosphere.

I thought it would also provide a good opportunity to present my game-as-art project, War Game: A Prototype For Peace, in a better context.  Up until now, I had only tested the game during a game night or prototype-testing session, where it was compared to other games that were meant mainly as entertainment.  This would, instead, be an opportunity for people who are unfamiliar with the gaming culture to approach this as a work of art.  At least, that was my hope.

The exhibit actually started Friday, and that evening, I held my usual game night. Naturally, I encouraged those in attendance to try the game out and leave their comments in my “guest book.”  Unsurprisingly, their comments revealed that the players were uneasy with having to define the victory conditions for themselves.  They were used to having it done for them, and it was difficult for them to experience this game out of that context.

Most players adopted a victory condition typical of many other games: that the one who controlled the most territories at the end of the game won. And the games usually ended when no more cards could be played to remove figures from the board. 

One player commented that he was “prepared to play more peacefully, but it never happened.”  It seems he was only prepared to do so if the other player followed suite.  Otherwise, he was weary of giving up any perceived advantages by playing “peacefully.”

The following day, I was able to speak to several people who were not frequent game-players, but were interested in the ideas behind the game and how the mechanisms supported its theme.  In fact, they were interested in these things more than in the game-play itself.  Even though I had several good conversations, no one was interested in sitting down to interact with the game.

My experience probably represents the greatest challenge of creating a boardgame that is meant as art:  those who play boardgames have trouble seeing the game out of its normal context as entertainment, while those who do not regularly play boardgames may appreciate the theme and message of the art, but are not compelled to interact with it by playing the game.

Even so, I’m not one to give up so easily.  There are plenty of other subjects I’d like to explore using the boardgame medium, and perhaps a body of work presented in a single exhibition will be more compelling.

Besides, I recently stumbled upon an article about video games in art galleries in the April issue of ArtNEWS.  The article is titled "Let the Games Begin,"  written by Carolina A. Miranda.

According to the article, some artists are now exploring the medium of video games in their work.  Christiane Paul, curator of the Whitney Museum, says that “New-media art,” which includes video games, “is still very far from being fully integrated into the art world.”  But artists such as Daniel Beunza and Cory Arcangel are helping to change that. Even the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C. is scheduled to open an exhibit on the art and history of video game design next year.

Beunza values the medium for it’s interactivity, the “lived experiences” that video games produce.  The article does point out the obvious limits that museums face, however, as there can only be a small number of “players”  (sometimes only one) interacting with a game at any given time.  This is also a limiting factor for boardgames meant as interactive exhibits in museums.

And Arcangel’s work in deconstructing video games for his art has also had its critics.  Miranda writes, “one video-game theorist decried the fact that ‘for games to be embraced by museums, they have to give up their gameness’—namely, the key aspect of play.”  This reminds me of Yoko Ono’s all-white chess set, which was a work of art based on a game, but stripped of any “aspect of play,” as Miranda puts it.

This is not to say that one cannot create art in this way.  It may, in fact, be possible to create art using game materials and metaphors without the aspect of play.  But surely a stronger use of the medium—and a more challenging work of art—would be to take advantage of its potential for interactivity.

And therein lies the challenge any game artist faces.  He or she must encourage the museumgoer to see the game as art—and also to play it.

All photos courtesy of BobbiJo Brooks.

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