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<nettime> essay on game art and medienkunstnetz
Tilman Baumgaertel on Wed, 9 Mar 2005 05:35:32 +0100 (CET)


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<nettime> essay on game art and medienkunstnetz



     [text de-cruftified  {AT}  nettime --mod(tb)]


Hello!

I attach a text I have written for the website www.medienkunstnetz.org
(German) or www.mediaartnet.org (English). The site is a vast resource
on media art, that has been completed a couple of days ago. It was
sponsored by German government grants, and contains extensive essays,
artists biographies, work descriptions etc.

While it may not contain a lot surprises for people who have been into
media arts for a longer time, it is a great teaching resource that one
can use instead of a traditional text books. I will certainly use it in
my classes next semester. Unfortunately there will be no updates to the
site now that it is finished. Yet, for the time being, it is a useful
online tool.

Yours,
Tilman Baumgaertel

---------------------------------SCHNAPP!-----------------------------------

Tilman Baumgaertel
Modification, Abstraction, Socialization.
On Some Aspects of Artistic Computer Games

I. Introduction: "There's no turning back now!"

This opening scene is etched into the minds of an entire generation of
computer players: a hall with grey walls, from which several passageways
branch off; and in the background, dark mountain scenery. There are no
humans around. We have landed at the Union Aerospace Corporation, a
research laboratory on Phobos, a moon of Mars. We--or, more correctly,
our avatars in the "first person Shooter" game "Doom"--are part of a
unit of Space Marines who have been deployed to find out what happened
to the people who had been working at the laboratory. After secret
experiments, during the course of which matter had been sent through
ominous gateways on an inter-dimensional journey through the universe,
radio contact with the station had broken off. "Securing your helmet,
you exit the landing pod.

You hope to find more substantial firepower somewhere within the
station.  As you walk through the main entrance of the base, you hear
animal-like growls echoing throughout the distant corridors. They know
you're here.  There's no turning back now."[1] Thus begins the famous
and notorious "first person Shooter" "Doom," which rang in a new era in
the development of computer games when it was released in December 1993.
The game comes from Texas computer game manufacturer id Software, which
at the time was known for producing games with an extremely high level
of violence. But the company also enhanced the technical possibilities
of computer games. The genre of "first person Shooters" for the
PC--games that are seen through the eyes of a fighting protagonist--wa s
basically id's creation.  But the most important of the developments
that came from id was not the new perspective from which it allows its
users to view computer games. In fact, id converted the principles of a
hacker ethic [2] into a functioning business model. It has released the
code for its games and has sold them over the Internet as shareware. In
this business model, which is only possible in a digital economy, the
program is available free of charge and only those who like it pay for
it, but they can then also use additional functions. This sales
technique was the basis for the breath-taking success of a business that
made its founders multi-millionaires. And when they discovered that
their fans had hacked their games and had developed several versions of
their first successful game "Wolfenstein 3D"--do you think they called
the prosecuting attorney? No, they did not. In fact, as a feature in the
next releases, they provided users with the possibility of creating
their own "user-edited versions" of the game!  David Kushner describes
the consequences in his book Masters of "Doom," a biography of sorts of
id Software. The protagonists on the scene are John Carmack and John
Romero, the founders of id Software and a kind of Lennon/McCartney of
computer games: "Hey," Romero told Carmack one day at the office, "Here
is something you have to see." He booted up "Doom" --or at least what
was supposed to be "Doom"--on his computer. Instead, the trumpeting
theme of the Star Wars movie began to play. The screen was filled, not
with "Doom"'s familiar opening chamber, but instead a small,
steel-coloured room. Romero hit the space bar, and a door slid open.
"Stop that ship!" a voice commended from within the game. Carmack
watched as Romero jolted down the hall past bleeping droids, white storm
troopers, laser guns, the deep bellows of Darth Vader. Some hacker had
completely altered "Doom" into a version of Star Wars. "Wow," Carmack
thought.  "This is gonna be great. We did the Right Thing after all."
[3] If a defining scene were sought for artists that deal with computer
games, then this might be it. And if a defining scene were sought for
the considerably larger community of gamers who, day after day, spend
their free time modifying their favourite games according to their own
taste and generating their own versions--then this is also probably the
one.  "Doing the right thing"--in this connection, meant not taking his
own creation "Doom" too seriously, but instead offering other hackers
the opportunity to modify the game as they see fit; or rather
paradoxically, taking his own cultural product "Doom" just seriously
enough so that hackers were offered an opportunity to modify the game as
they pleased.  With "Doom," a medium developed out of a game, an
opportunity to create one's own worlds.

With "Doom," id Software put a potent piece of software for creating
three-dimensional spaces into the hands of its customers. Of course, in
1994, there might have been methods by which better 3D simulations could
be generated on PCs than "Doom." But as easily as this? This was a
Shooter game, which, because of its violence, was immediately listed by
the German government which scrutinized games potentially harmful to
young people. It was programmed in such a way that users could even
write themselves into a game. Experience with computers was needed, to
be sure, but the ability to program was not necessary. According to
David Kushner, "[this] was a radical idea not only for games but for any
medium. It was like having a Nirvana CD with tools to let listeners dub
their own voices over Kurt Cobain's, or a Rocky video that let viewers
excise every cranny of Philadelphia for ancient Rome." [4]

On January 25, somewhat more than a month after the Internet release of
"Doom," Brendon Wyber, a student at the University of Canterbury in New
Zealand, published the "Doom" Editor Utility (DEU) on the Internet. This
program, which has been improved upon again and again, and which came
about with the help of amateur programmers around the world, made it
even easier to hack "Doom" and construct personal versions. "Doom"
crossed with "Star Wars"? Why not a version of "Doom" in which the
Simpsons fight Ronald McDonald?  In the following years, articles
appeared again and again in the press describing how students had
changed their high schools into models of a Shooter game--most of them
using "Doom" as a model, or the follow-up game "Quake," for which there
was a mature "level editor" already available--followed by sheer
indignation that the young people had made their school into a venue for
virtual Shooter orgies. The critics certainly overlooked the fact that
in doing so, the students had learned to work with a program that
allowed 3D modelling and whose use a few years earlier had still been
the privilege of industry and well-equipped research laboratories.

Other games followed suit and also put tools for game creation in the
hands of their users, turning consumers into producers of virtual
fantasy worlds.  In the case of the action game "Half-Life," the
modifications were so extensive that a complete new game came into
being: "Counterstrike" was to become one of the most successful computer
games of all time. Now, the possibility of modifying games to a greater
or lesser degree from their standard versions is basically a standard
feature. The action figures, maps and levels created by gamers--that is,
the "playing fields" of computer players--were often offered as
downloads on the Internet and brought their creators prestige on the
gaming scene. The depiction of space, which characterized this level,
had been the Holy Grail of academic computer visualization at the
beginning of the nineties. Because of "Doom" and "Quake," this
technology came into children's playrooms--and into artists' workshops.
The possibilities that computer games offered their creators did not
remain hidden for long, especially from artists who worked with new
media or the Internet. The first attempt by an artist to use a computer
game[5] as an artistic medium appears to have been "ars Doom" by Orhan
Kipcak and Reinhard Urban. Their game, which was shown at ars
electronica in 1995, was a crude satire on the art business, obviously
in the tradition of context art of the early 1990s.

Verena Kuni writes about the game in Blitzreview[6]. "No one helps
anyone," growls the player's alter ego as it stumbles through catacombs
as Nitsch, Baselitz or Beuys, armed with either a shotgun, paint brush
or another tool. These catacombs are easily identifiable as being a
digital model of the Bruckner House (the location where the ars
electronica took place--see footnote) whose somewhat stiff 1970s' charm
rather unwillingly couples with the characteristic SS prison aesthetic
typical of "Doom." A report for ORF-Online describes the work as
follows: "After getting on board via the Internet, a user receives a
character mask, perhaps that of Georg Baselitz, Nam June Paik or Arnulf
Rainer. Then, with their tools--Baselitz' thumbs, Paik's remote control
or Rainer's paint brush--works of art and artists can be destroyed."[7]
The article in the catalogue of the ars electronica names, among others,
Ecke Bonk, Heimo Zobernig, Joerg Schlick and Peter Kogler as belonging
to the opponents, among whom were other artists and critics as "involved
inner circle artists."[8] The favourite victim of "ars Doom" players was
said to have been exhibition director Peter Weibel.[9] The work started
a certain tradition. Afterwards, artists like Tobias Bernstrup and Palle
Torsson (see below) as well as Florian Muser and Imre Osswald (with a
level that was created after the example of the Hamburger Galerie fuer
Gegenwart[10]) strived to introduce computer games as a commentary on
the art business and its institutions.

Among the first artists to deal with games as a medium was the
artist-duo Jodi, who, however, blazed a completely different aesthetic
trail. In 1999, as guests of the Budapest Media Art laboratory C3, they
made a first modification of "first person Shooter" "Quake,"[11] which
has since been followed by many more new variations under the name
"Untitled Game." [12] These depart in ever stronger, alarming and
exciting ways from the appearance and rules of the original game. About
the same time, Margarete Jahrmann and Max Moswitzer, with their work
entitled "LinX3D" (1999), brought the game called "Unreal" into an
abstract debate with the "materiality" of code.

The works of Jodi and Moswitzer/Jahrmann, therefore, led to several
themes which would soon interest other artists. While simple
modifications of existing architectures into computer game architectures
quickly turned into a blind alley, these artists concentrated on the
special graphic qualities of the games. These were subjected to
merciless deconstruction in a manner similar to that done earlier on the
Websites of Jodi's Internet projects.

For Jodi, the manipulation of the graphical interface was not
enough--they also began to be interested in the non-visual aspects of
software. This included, for example, the user's guide and the "game
physics" which Jodi changed to the point of being almost completely
unusable for the game. This is the approach that artists like Tom Betts
and Joan Leandre used as a starting point in their work.  In this text,
we will concern ourselves with art that has come about through
interchange with games. Therefore, works that utilize codes of computer
games as the foundations for their own works will be in the focus of
attention. I will not, however, limit myself to this area alone. It
seems to be in the nature of this topic that artists have not limited
themselves to "exclusively" re-working codes but have dealt with all
facets of the many levelled themes of computer games. This specifically
also includes excursions into "traditional" areas of art
production--like painting, installations or video.

This multi-facetted nature had a pleasant side effect for the exhibition
called "games. Computerspiele von KuenstlerInnen" which could be seen in
2003 at the hARTware medien kunst verein [13]. The presentation, which I
conceived and for which I acted as a curator, together with hARTware
founders Iris Dressler and Hans D. Christ, could not limit itself to
showing computer programs running on computers but also had to include
installations, paintings and video. The following ideas developed from
working on this exhibition.[14] I have divided the following overview
into three loose categories: abstraction, modification and
socialization. Although the first category deals with works that
directly follow the historical methods of graphical abstraction, the
second focuses on works that deal with direct, artistic intervention
into software. Works that will be considered under the category of
"socialization" leave the narrow realm of direct interaction with
computer programs and concern themselves with the surrounding
socio-cultural environment of games--their playing, their reception and
their position in the "real world," in which they are components of
complex connections between technology, economic interests and a highly
developed fan culture.


II. Modification

The point of departure for artistic work with computer games was the
possibility of modifying the games themselves by using level editors.
All approaches that start with changing the game interface were first
established after artists from the media and Internet art scene had
begun to discover the possibilities of modifying computer games. These
modifications result in the premises of the original game leading to
either partial or complete absurdity, or they contradict those premises
explicitly. In this way, they also differ from most of the modifications
that had been introduced by fans. As a rule, fans contented themselves
with "new decorations" of existing structures, whereas artists carried
out very many far-reaching changes, some of which led to the games
becoming completely unplayable.  Meanwhile, even the notorious "Shooter
games," that is, the so-called "first person Shooters," put programs
capable of developing three-dimensional spaces--the so-called "level
editors"--at the disposal of their users. Using these programs, the
players could create their own "levels;" this was a method of keeping
gamers tied longer to a particular game. In the meantime, these programs
were, to a certain extent, even being used by architects to visualize
their blueprints. The "first person Shooter," which presents a game from
the perspective of the person doing the action, also always deals with
the depiction of perspective and space.

Even the illusionary character of the spaces, which were developed in
this way, made artists become interested in these programs from the very
beginning.  The software versions that the artists came up with use
commercial game software in ways for which it was not intended. These
modifications penetrate like parasites into the existing program which
they alter and--going from partial to complete unrecognizability--
alienate, and therefore exploit their own artistic goals. With respect
to these works, artist Annemarie Schleiner writes: "Like the sampling
rap MC, game hacker artists operate as culture hackers who manipulate
existing techno-semiotic structures towards different ends or, as
described by artist Brett Stalbaum, "who endeavor to get inside cultural
systems and make them do things they were never intended to do"."[15]

The art history of the 20th century is full of examples of these types
of appropriations and redesignations, including: the "Ostranenie" of
Wladimir Shklovsky[16], Bertolt Brecht's "Verfremdungseffekt"
(alienation effect), the recontextualization of Pop Art or the
detournement of the Situationists [LI Debord]. The distortion of
aesthetically complete pieces can be regarded as one of the most
effective and workable ideas of modern art.  Media scholar Claus Pias
pointed out the parallels between the artistic modifications of games
and the "Appropriation Art" of the 1980s. At the same time however, he
states that he was not out to "discredit the ideology of originality,
authenticity or expertise from which the [computer art] undertook its
critical mission within the institution of art=85 If there is =85 an
"ideology of computer games" that could be deconstructed by
appropriation, then perhaps it is in the nature of humanistic arrogance
to wrongly believe that the game is in the possession of the
subject."[17]

Tobias Bernstrup / Palle Torsson: "Museum Meltdown" (1996-1999) 
Tobias Bernstrup, a Swede, would be one of the first artists to
personally attempt his own game modifications. In 1996, together with
Palle Torsson, he modified the game called "Duke Nukem" so that it
depicted the museum in which he was exhibiting.[18] With regard to the
first version, which the Arken Museum in Copenhagen displayed, the
artists say the following on their web site: "Since the museum was
recently built and had a somewhat superficial architecture, we thought
it would be interesting to do something that dealt with the idea of the
entire exhibition space. The interior had a lot of fake details, like
big metal panels and doors. This fake hi-tech style corresponded well to
computer game aesthetics. When we found the game "Duke Nukem3D," which
had a level editor, we decided to transform the actual space into a game
environment." Since then, he has frequently re-arranged this work, under
the title "Museum Meltdown," for other exhibition venues, including,
among others, the Moderna Museet in Stockholm and the Center for
Contemporary Art in Vilnius which were designed with the "Warcraft"
level editor for the game "Doom." The artists have emphatically pointed
out that they also view their project as a commentary on the "art world
operating system" (Thomas Wulffen): "The range of human interactions in
our game is very limited, the rewriteable program code of the game
contains the basic lab for understanding the art world through game
theory."[19]

Jodi: "SOD" (1999)
Jodi has subjected the game "Quake" to a radical treatment, resulting in
all objective details and all textures being removed, with only abstract
symbols remaining. This precursor of "Quake," which was also developed
by id Software, is now reduced to just a mysterious black and white
landscape in which only rarely can be seen what is being hunted or what
is blocking the way. The castle with the intertwined passageways,
through which the player has to find his way, looks like a gallery in
which only copies of Kasimir Malevitch's "Black Square" are hanging on
the walls; Nazis have become black triangles--they are recognizable
because they occasionally yell "Achtung!" Of all the game modifications
that Jodi has produced, it is the graphical aspects that are the most
reduced. At the same time however, the mechanics of play of the original
game are respected. "SOD" is quite playable and is really "fun to play,"
as the reviews in the computer game magazines have so often noted. In
addition, the game is Jodi's hommage to the programmers at id Software
for technical breakthroughs that they have achieved by creating
three-dimensional spaces on PCs.

Joan Leandre: "retroYou r/c" (2000)
In "retroYou r/c" Joan Leandre has reprogrammed a race in several
levels, and changed the rules by which space, movement, gravity etc. are
simulated.  The game, in the original form of which, small,
remote-controlled cars had to be steered through an American suburb, is
only recognizable as such in the first few versions. Later modifications
become increasingly more abstract and the game becomes less and less
navigable in the usual sense: cars fly though the air instead of driving
on the road and if attempts are made to control them, they hurl
themselves more and more uncontrollably through space. Joan Leandre
continued this approach with "retroYou nostalG," which subjected a
flight simulator to similar treatment.

Tom Betts: "QQQ" (2002)
In Tom Betts' "QQQ," initially, we see images that look like they were
formed in a broken kaleidoscope--sometimes in icy blue and white,
sometimes in warm shades of brown. In addition, there is roaring and
droning to be heard. A human silhouette suddenly appears to be seen
running through the confusion. Seasoned gamers recognize the figures:
they are martial arts fighters from the "first person Shooter" "Doom"
rushing through the game to "frag" one another; that is, to shoot each
other down. Upon closer inspection, parts of the passageways, staircases
and halls that form the background and the playing field for "Doom" can
be seen in the image fragments. Tom Betts has taken apart the individual
elements of the game, the task of which is actually to simulate an
apparently realistic, three-dimensional space. What used to be rooms now
look like non-representational images in constant motion, so the work
could also be viewed as if it had abstract characteristics of computer
games--that is, if the source from which these images arise were not
available. Tom Betts runs his own server through which fans of the
Shooter game can play against each other on the Internet. Without the
players knowing it, data traces left behind on the server are gathered
together and become part of the work. So "QQQ" is actually a hidden
Internet work of art which extends itself by receiving input from
unsuspecting players via the White Cube in the exhibition room.  Data
control the images that the observer sees in the exhibition room: a
shimmering confusion of colours and shapes on which the observer,
however, has almost no influence. The perspective can be changed, but
"QQQ" offers no further "interaction'. With "QQQ," Betts not only
modified the interface of the game but also the entire complex,
technical infrastructure of an online game. In addition, he drew the
players" milieu into his work. When the work is installed, it is
sometimes completely quiet. But at night or at the weekend, it can
suddenly spring to life and start droning if online players match up
against each other in industrialized nations. If players occasionally
leave the game without warning, then the image that was seen from the
perspective of a fighter is suddenly left behind, and it becomes very,
very quiet.

Lonnie Flickinger: "Pencil-Whipped" (2001)
If "QQQ" by Tom Betts appears to be the ultimate in visual
sophistication, then "Pencil-Whipped" by Lonnie Flickinger appears to be
the exact opposite. The game shows a peculiar black and white universe.
The walls, floors and roofs look like they were scrawled by a
three-year-old. There are also little scribbled figures that dance
around the player and annoy him. If one of these figures is struck, a
muffled thud is heard, and the figure falls over like a piece of
cardboard. While normal "first person Shooter" games put all their
efforts into looking as realistic as possible on the computer monitor,
Flickinger does the exact opposite. His game landscape looks like a
three-dimensional version of a picture scribbled by a child. In contrast
to other computer games, Flickinger does not try to imitate reality as
faithfully as possible. Instead, he creates a very idiosyncratic
universe which calls into question the status quo of game design.

Cory Arcangel: "Super Mario Cloud" (2002)
Like Arcangel Constantini, Cory Arcangel hacked and modified, not a
piece of software but of hardware--the cartridge on which the game
"Super Mario" is stored, or rather, was stored--to produce "Super-Mario
Cloud."[20] This is because, by disconnecting some contacts on the
circuit board and putting in a chip for which Arcangel wrote his own
program, superhero Super Mario disappears, together with all the
obstacles over which he has to jump. Only a few comical, white clouds
remain in a blue sky. Arcangel took away all the narrative elements of
the game and everything that made it dynamic.

III. Abstraction

Many works that deal with computer games from an artistic perspective
have concentrated on the genuinely graphical nature of computer games
and have sought the types of images that actually can only be produced
with this medium. In addition, the representational conventions and,
above all, the visual limitations of games have become important
subjects for artists. In such works, computer games often appear as a
kind of further development or a curious variant of abstract painting.
This theme is inherent in the development of computer games, which in
the beginning could show little more than geometrical shapes. The
"building-block look" of the first games for video arcades or early play
consoles like the Atari 2600 actually recall historical techniques of
picture-making in stunning ways. Ancient Greek and Roman mosaics or the
Moorish "alicatado" (tile covering) of the Alhambra in Granada are only
two examples of historical production methods that show a clear
connection to the pixels from which computer images are constructed.

In the meantime, the fact that early games of the seventies have an
obvious connection to abstract art of past eras has almost become a
commonplace in academic discussions. Mark J.P. Wolf, an American media
scholar writes: "The video game began with perhaps the harshest
restrictions encountered by any nascent visual medium in regard to
graphic representation. So limited were the graphic capabilities of the
early games that the medium was forced to remain relatively abstract for
over a decade."[21] Like many computer players who had been socialized
through games during the seventies and early eighties, Wolf is also of
the opinion that the further graphical development of computer games,
which now permit the creation of almost deceptively accurate
photorealistic fantasy worlds, is not just a step forward aesthetically:
"This great, untapped potential will only be mined by deliberate steps
back into abstract design that take into consideration the unique
properties of the video game medium."[22] Many of the artists who modify
computer games have done him this favour and stress exactly those
abstract, non-object bound aspects of computer game graphics.  It is not
necessary to be preoccupied with dates, which is popular in German media
theory, in order to notice that the visually poor early days of computer
games fall into a period in which creative minimalism was also
considered a virtue in the arts. During the period in which computer
games like "Spacewar" (1962), "Pong" (1972) or "Asteroids" (1973) only
consisted of two-dimensional elements on a black background, a radical
reductionism was en vogue in the fine arts as a result of minimalist and
concept art. [23]

The parallels do not stop with the scanty visuals: artists like John F.
Simon Jr. (who in the nineties became one of the first software artists)
have repeatedly pointed out similarities between concept-based and
software-based art. "I see parallels between my work and works by those
like Lawrence Weiner and Sol LeWitt at the end of the sixties," says
Simon.  "Their wall sketches especially were nothing more than a set of
instructions=85I believe that software and programming are a natural
continuation of this concept because software is basically nothing more
than a set of instructions=85 The ideas of some concept artists could be
written as programs and could then be implemented by a computer. The art
works would then simply produce themselves. Or, more simply: art does
what it says. That's the way I look at my programs."[24] Florian Cramer
has also taken up this argument, but emphasizes that, compared to its
historical predecessors, software art today is, "no longer a laboratory
construct and paradigm of conceptualistic purification but rather, since
the spread of error-ridden code from PCs and the Internet, a cause of
crashes, incompatibilities and viruses; a symbol of contingency instead
of stringency." [25]

The defect paradigm has also played a role in artistic modifications of
computer games although, interestingly enough, a considerably smaller
one than in Internet and software art. Above all, destruction--or should
we say creative modification?--is the focus of works that specifically
concentrate on using the true graphic qualities of games as "visual raw
materials" like, for example, in Arcangel Constantini's "Atari Noise" or
Jodi's "Jet Set Willy =A9 1984." [WB und http,//jetsetwilly.jodi.org] By
way of example in what follows, I will present some of these works that
deal explicitly with abstract representational forms of computer games.

Arcangel Constantini: "Atari Noise" (1999)
Arcangel Constantini is a hardware hacker. In the scene, these are
hackers whose efforts are not directed towards breaking into software
but rather into the equipment on which software runs. His work called
"Atari Noise"[WB und http,//www.atari-noise.com], which has been shown
at international festivals and exhibitions, is a rather crude
modification of the well-known Atari 2600 console. This piece of
equipment, which came on the market in 1977, is a predecessor of today's
popular console types like Playstation or Gamecube. In contrast to the
leading consoles, which were generally delivered only with pre-installed
games, the 2600 could be fed with cartridges on which games were stored.
The apparatus was connected to a television set.  Constantini, a
Mexican, modified the console--which today can be bought cheaply at flea
markets or on Ebay--into an "audiovisual noise pattern generator
keyboard," as he calls it. This means that crossed some of the elements
of the play console with each other so that it was no longer the
"correct" images that were shown but rather a chaotic muddle of
distorted picture elements. For example, a tennis game became a row of
greenish and bluish lines where a serious effort was required to
recognize any pattern.

Constantini added a row of buttons to the console chassis with which the
image could be modified continually.  This deconstruction of visual raw
materials is not just part of a long, modern tradition of alienation,
which we will see in the next chapter on modifications. "Atari Noise"
refers to one of the most important works of media art: the
"Videosynthesizer" (1969/1992) by Nam June Paik, but in a low-tech
version. While at that time Paik had to bring in Shuya Abe, a
technician, in developing a machine where moving images could be
manipulated in real time, "Atari Noise" reflects a media culture in
which the required hardware is available as scrap electrical parts. The
perpetually new images that the machine generates stress the special
properties of these "game screens" by creating abstract distortions, and
make it clear that there is simply no other medium that can produce such
images.

Jodi: "Jet Set Willy =A9 1984" (2002)
"Jet Set Willy =A9 1984" by Jodi, which was created for a travelling
exhibition in Basel, Berlin and New York, is an alienated version of a
game for the Sinclair Spectrum, one of the first affordable home
computers at the beginning of the 1980s.[26] Since it is a
"modification", it could be included in that category as well. However,
since Jodi has been showing the work not only with the possibility of
interactive "self-service" but also as a linear video projection, I have
decided for a different category in this case. Without the usual
possibilities of intervention, the viewer sees the images go by like a
combination of abstract cartoons in the Oskar Fischinger tradition and
an animated work of concrete poetry.  At first, apparently meaningless
chains of letters from code segments appear on screen, which at best
make sense only as images put together with letters. Then multi-coloured
quadrilaterals move through a room built out of thick beams, immediately
reminiscent of Mondrian paintings. Later versions of "Jet Set Willy =A9
1984" develop this aesthetic further in another direction where, for
example, all the colours are removed from the game or the playing
scenarios are replaced with nothing but text.  Of course, this makes the
work a modification of an existing game that is reminiscent of the work
of Tom Betts or Jodi's own modifications of "Quake" and "Quake." Yet
while Jodi show a pre-enacted version as a video, they use their
work--as "Machinima" filmmakers do--as software in order to produce
their own films and to give their work another conceptual direction.
Instead of deconstructing the "contents" of the program, only its
re-designation as a tool for generating animations is in the foreground.

Norbert Bayer ("Mr. Ministeck"): "Touchscreens" (1998-2001)
Norbert Bayer uses computer games to generate picture motifs for his
plastic mosaics. This Berlin artist, who operates under the pseudonym
"Mr.  Ministeck"[27], turned the toy of the same name from the seventies
into his medium. His series, called "Touchscreens," is based on screen
shots from games on the C 64 home computer. Bayer re-materializes these
immaterial images that represented an initial contact with digital
images for an entire generation of computer users. His works are
reminiscent of Pop Art in their emphasis on technical composition, like
the use of rasters, which Roy Lichtenstein or Sigmar Polke stress in
their paintings, or the blurring and fuzziness of photographs that Andy
Warhol and Gerhard Richter produce.

IV. Socialisation

As should be clear by now, computer games are not only a fascinating
aesthetic development but also a social movement. This is shown by
different phenomena like, for example, LAN parties, in which as many as
several thousand players face off against each other in a kind of
tournament. Then there are online players, who in games like
"Ultima-Online," have created their own economies, whose "products" are
traded for real money in "real life'. There are also amateur graphic
artists who, using the "photo album" function from "The Sims," build
entire photo novels. J.C. Hertz speaks of "a decentralized culture that
rapidly learns, adapts and selects for best practices. This culture and
its processes are perhaps the Industry's greatest assets." [28] The
works that will be described in the following section deal with the
social culture that has been built up around computer games. They also
take a quick look at their targets "from the outside," as it were.
Instead of dealing with the inner life of the games--the code--and
instead of making the superficial into a major theme, they deal with how
computer games in the "real world" are relocated--whether it be via the
elements through which we interact with them, or via the forms used in
their construction. They check their interfaces with reality and make us
aware how limited our hold on the virtual worlds always is, despite all
the technical progress that has been made.

Olaf Val: "swingUp Games" (2001)
Olav Val developed a computer game at minimal expense. He made a simple
game using transparent plastic film, bicycle lamps, a small circuit
board and a few electrical parts. Val describes his work as follows:
"The games are conceived so that they can be easily transported and
installed=85 "swingUp Games" is oriented towards acting as a point of
communication with a wide audience."[29] Apart from this, they also
function as a pedagogical media project: Val holds workshops where young
people can build and program their own games and de-mystify how video
games originate.

Volker Morawe/Tilman Reiff: "Painstation" (2001)
Creators Voker Morawe and Tilman Reiff have even shown their Painstation
on the "Harald Schmidt Show" (a popular evening program on German TV
until 2003). Their game is a version of the classic game of "Pong."
Unlike in the original game, if one of the players misses a ball, that
player is not punished by having a point being given to his opponent.
Instead, punishment comes in the form of direct, physical pain: his hand
is tormented by heat, electric shocks or blows from a small whip. Such
painful reality comes from a completely abstract, immaterial game, a
reality that, for once, confronts the players with real consequences for
their actions in virtual space.

SF Invader: "Space Invader" (since 1999) The French artist hiding
behind the pseudonym SF Invader took the computer game title with its
entire double meaning literally, and unleashed an invasion of digital
art figures into real space. Using tile mosaics, he leaves his mark in
public spaces with figures from the classical computer game Space
Invaders (1978): he sticks the little attackers from the cosmos on the
facades of houses, street signs, and bridges--even the Brooklyn Bridge
and the Hollywood sign are not safe from attack from outer space.  His
campaigns, which, in the meantime, have taken place around the globe,
are meticulous and have been documented in maps, photos and videos on an
opulent web site[http,//www.space-invaders.com]. In case anyone has any
doubts, he has the proof: They are among us!

Beate Geissler/Oliver Sann: "Shooter"(2000-2001)
Within the space of a year and a half, the artist duo Sann/Geissler
organized a series of LAN parties at their studio to which they invited
players who were passionate about games. The results of this
collaboration are documented in the two-part "Shooter." Using a
front-mounted camera on a monitor, they photographed players, always
from the same perspective, and put them on video while they were playing
against each other on a LAN.  Through body language, gestures and facial
expressions, they mirrored the drama of the conflict. Just like
"Painstation," this work deals with the rematerialisation of
immaterial processes, and with the human relationship to unreal, virtual
spaces. Above all, however, "Shooter"is a portrait of a
generation--the gamer generation--that otherwise received hardly any
attention from the public or the media; whatever attention it did
receive was negative.

V. GAME ART--NOT YET A GENRE...

The origin of artistic computer game modifications is at the end of a
detour for arts that deal with new media. Artists have been using the
Internet since the middle of the nineties. Hype about the Internet had
come out, but actually, it was a comparatively exotic medium at that
time, and Net Art profited from this. Likewise, at the end of the
nineties, artists increasingly turned to the difficult-to-understand
area of desktop software before they finally discovered the mass
phenomenon of computer games for themselves. The discovery of this
secular theme in secular art also needed time, although computer games
at this point would have already been available as objects of artistic
modification for nearly forty years.

Artistic experiments should therefore not immediately be elevated to the
position of a new art movement =E1 la Net.art or Software art. Their
methods are too divergent for that. Many of the artists who work with
computer games have of course been active in the areas of Internet and
software art. Yet it would be a simplification if the works this essay
focuses on were looked upon as a sub-category of Software art. To be
sure, they are to a large degree actually based on code, and are actual
software.  Yet in contrast to most software works that do not come out
with internal commentaries on programs and computer functions, many of
these works take up definite positions on a multi-level social, economic
and political network of themes that go far beyond simply re-designating
or re-contextualising software.  Whoever works as an artist with
computer games is dealing with a subject that has now become an integral
part of Pop culture, even if it is socially marginalized, at least in
Germany. This marginalization certainly stands in no relation to the
cultural and financial importance of computer games. In the USA alone,
computer games represent a 2.5 billion dollar business annually. They
are part of the media socialization for most young people in western
industrialized countries and, at the same time, one of the most
important motivations for building faster and faster, higher performance
computers. Artistic experiments with computer games apply not only to
code but also, along with this entire cultural and economic complex, to
a mature social culture that has been built around computer games. Art
that deals with computer games therefore has quickly moved beyond the
boundaries within which most Internet art and software art is situated.
At the same time, in games, art has found a subject with which it had
much in common structurally. In his famous essay "Homo Ludens," Dutch
historian John Huizinga convincingly demonstrated that the apparently so
regressive game is in reality the origin of human culture, and therefore
of the fine arts as well. To be sure, Huizinga's remarks on contemporary
art of his time remain rather superficial, [30] yet many of the elements
that he describes as being fundamental to games are also valid for art:
their apparent meaninglessness and pointlessness, their position outside
of the everyday world, their "being forever childish." Even if many
artists of the 20th century have integrated elements of games into their
own work, it is in works like those described above where art and games
first came together in mutually complementing forms.


[1] Hank Leukart, The Official Doom FAQ. The data are sold as part of
"Doom" and "Doom II."

[2] Stephen Compare Levy, Hackers. Heroes of the Computer Revolution, New
York 1984 (Delta), pp. 39-49.

[3] David Kushner, Masters of Doom. How two guys created an empire and
transformed pop culture, New York, 2003, p. 166.

[4] David Kushner, Masters of Doom. How two guys created an empire and
transformed pop culture, New York, 2003, p. 166.

[5] Karl Gerbel/Peter Weibel (eds.), Mythos Information - Welcome to the
Wired World,  {AT} rs electronica 95, Vienna/New York, 1995, pp. 254-257.

[6] Blitzreview 76 [http,//blitzreview.de/b-76.html]

[7] Adelberger, Michaela, "Hans Dampf auf allen Sites"
[http,//kultur.orf.at/orfon/kultur/011019-6326/6328txt_story.html]

[8] The involvement of these artists could not be determined definitively,
but they are still included.

[9] Der Spiegel 27/1995, p. 183.

[10] Florian Muser und Imre Osswald, "No Room Gallery"
[http,//www.re-load.org/artists/noroom/berlin.html]

[11] Jodi, "Ctrl-Space" [http,//ctrl-space.c3.hu]

[12] Jodi, "Untitled Game" [http,//www.untitled-game.org]

[13] Tilman Baumgaertel (ed.), games--Computerspiele von KuenstlerInnen,
hARTware medien kunst verein, Dortmund/Frankfurt a. M. 2003.

[14] "Games--Computerspiele von KuenstlerInnen" is one of an entire
series of exhibitions that dealt with computer games by artists. Here is
a subjective selection of some other presentations on this subject, some
of which have taken place only on the Internet, and others in galleries
and museums, "Synworld," T0 Netbase, Vienna[http,//synworld.t0.or.at],
"Cracking the maze," Switch-Website
[http,//switch.sjsu.edu/CrackingtheMaze/] "Trigger Game Art,"
Gammaspace, Melbourne [http,//www.gammaspace.com.au/trigger] "Reload,"
Shift e.V., Berlin [http,//www.shift-ev.de/exhib/reload/intro.html]
"Loading," Galleria Civica Civica d'Arte Contemporanea, Montevergini,
Ortigia [http,//www.montevergini.it/loading.html]. A regularly updated
overview of computer game projects can be found at
"selectparks."[http,//www.selectparks.net]

[15] Annemarie Schleiner, "Cracking the maze--Game Plug-ins and Patches
as Hacker Art."  [http,//www.opensorcery.net/note.html]

[16] The Russian literary critic and "formalist" Viktor Shklovsky
introduced the term "ostranenie" (i.e. "making strange,"
"defamiliarize") in his 1917 study "Art as Technique."

[17] Claus Pias, "Appropriation Art & Games, Spiele der Verschwendung
und der Langeweile," in Tilman Baumgaertel (ed.), games -
Computerspiele von KuenstlerInnen, hARTware medien kunst verein,
Dortmund/Frankfurt a.M. 2003, pp. 16-31, here p. 30.

[18] Tobias Bernstrup [http,//www.bernstrup.com/meltdown/main.html]

[19] Museum Meltdown FAQ [http,//www.bernstrup.com/meltdown/faq.html]

[20] Cory Arcangel, "Introduction"
[http,//www.beigerecords.com/cory/21c/21c.html]

[21] Mark J.P. Wolf, "Abstraction in the Videogame," in id., The Video
Game Theory Reader, New York, 2003, pp. 47-66, p. 47.

[22] Mark J.P. Wolf, "Abstraction in the Videogame," in id., The Video
Game Theory Reader, New York, 2003, p. 47.

[23] The dating of computer games from this period is not completely
undisputed. I have relied upon the dates given by Van Burnham in her
book Supercade (Cambridge, MA., 2001).

[24] Tilman Baumgaertel, net.art 2.0 - Neue Materialien zur Netzkunst,
Nurenberg, 2001, p. 103.

[25] Florian Cramer, "Zehn Thesen zur Softwarekunst,"  in Gerrit Gohlke,
Software Art - Eine Reportage ueber den Code, Berlin, 2003
(Kuenstlerhau s Bethanien), pp. 6-13, here p. 8.

[26] See Tilman Baumgaertel (ed.), install.exe, Basel, 2002.

[27] See Norbert Bayer's Website.  [www.misterministeck.de]

[28] J.C. Hertz, "Gaming the System,"  in Lucien King (ed.), Game On,
London, 2002, pp. 86-97, here p. 97.

[29] Olaf Val in Tilman Baumgaertel, (ed.), games - Computerspiele von
KuenstlerInnen, hARTware medien kunst verein, Dortmund/Frankfurt a. M.
2003, p. 87.

[30] See the chapter entitled "Spielformen der Kunst" in Johan Huizinga,
Homo Ludens - Vom Ursprung der Kultur im Spiel, Reinbek bei
Hamburg,1987 (Rowohlt Encyclopedia), pp. 173-188.


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