Are games art? Part #25266 of a continuing series.

March 6, 2008

After reading Dash’s post about the work of Cory Archangel, I also found myself puzzling about whether it can legitimately be called “art.”  Given that a precise definition of “art” has eluded scholars for generations, I won’t attempt to provide one here (which is in contravention of Yesterday’s Salad principle #422, “always strive for hyperbole”). However, I will instead provide a number of perennially popular definitions (fulfilling Yesterday’s Salad principle #423, always take both sides), and see if it succeeds by any of those criteria.  For the sake of argument, my criteria are as follows: Does the piece imitate life? Did its construction require skill? Is it novel? Does the piece convey a particular meaning or message?  And if not, can a variety of meanings be found in it?

At first glance, the piece does not imitate life. No matter how fervently Mario may jump across the screen, he remains a mere collection of poorly juxtaposed pixels. Nor is inspiration to be found in the intermittent messages that Archangel provides throughout the piece: if these are supposed to be part of Mario’s inner monologue, the effect is less than successful.  However, if the piece means to imitate the drug- and videogame-addled dream life of your average, early-twenties video game player, Archangel might be on to something with the collision of techn0-style beats and non-sensical gameplay.

Far more clear is the question of skill.  Did this piece require skill to create? To paraphrase Spivak in Yiddish translation, “no.” As previously noted, the modification of video games is hardly a new practice, utilized by both hacker and hobbyist alike. The Nintendo Entertainment System, by dint of its age, has been comprehensively hacked, ripped, and retrofitted by more than one generation of gamers, and such instructions are widely available around the web.  So too, the prevalence of machinima available on the web, wherein avid gamers create films from the gameplay of various games (whether it is altered or not) should dismiss any claim that Archangel’s work may have toward freshness.

The idea that Archangel is offering a critique of our generation’s current reliance on technology, as a source both of entertainment and a sense of meaning, is perhaps the most reasonable conclusion that one may draw from this and his other works.  Perhaps his most famous work is a performance piece in which he deleted his Friendster account in front of an audience.  According to accounts of the piece, the audience was shocked and stupefied.  While this might puzzle some less ‘net-addicted readers, there was a point in time where Friendster was akin to Facebook (almost).

If Archangel’s work is to stand as criticism, it is tepid at best.  As mentioned before, it is neither unique nor skillful, and what remains after these criticisms are taken into account is far from a trenchant critique.  And what basis is there for variant readings of the work? Given the extensive foregrounding that Archangel’s works have received, from high praise in the press, to major New York exhibition space, such a reading has yet to be given voice.

While the question of video games as art (rather than as a mixed-media for art) is a much larger question, perhaps a much more artful subversion of Super Mario Brothers can be found in “The Lost Levels,” the official sequel to the first Mario Bros. title which never saw the light of day in America during the heyday of the NES.  The Lost Levels was a virtual bizarro-world Mario game, which took the player’s knowledge of the original to deliberately make it challenging for the player.  Hidden boxes were moved, seemingly safe jumps were confounded by invisible boxes, 1ups became poisonous (as wild mushrooms ought to be), and the end-level flag began to actively run away from the player.  In fact, the better one’s knowledge and skill with the original, the *harder* the game became.  So while Archangel might put on a nifty light show with Mario, or laugh at our increasing dependence on the web for our social lives, it takes a real insider to really create jazz with the paradigm.

One Response to “Are games art? Part #25266 of a continuing series.”

  1. dailysalad Says:

    I enjoy your commentary and would like to subscribe to your newsletter. We absolutely agree on this: in its form as a webvideo, it is not art. But surely you must admit that the creation of the modified cartridge is a skill. So the piece in its life did, in effect, correspond to the craft/technical element of art. It’s only in its afterlife as a youtube non-phenomenon that the piece is removed from technical skill and is, as you say, simply another hack of an NES game. The other major change is space. We are no longer in a controlled gallery; the viewing experience is no longer the focused one of a museum (where Arcangel’s pieces are presented in separate, custom built, viewing facilities) but our home computer screens. In this context, the content becomes incredibly familiar. Simply another mario acid trip.

    But the best part of your argument was the last paragraph. A very thoughtful consideration.

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