Tilman Baumg=E4rtel on Mon, 27 Oct 2003 19:34:31 +0100 (CET)

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<nettime> Games-Modifications by artists


The following was written for the catalogue of the exhibition "Games: 
Computerspiele von KünstlerInnen" (Games: Computergames by artists), that 
is currently on display in Dortmund, Germany (URL: 
http://www.hartware-projekte.de/programm/inhalt/games.htm). The piece is an 
attempt to asses the significance of art works that take computer games as 
a subject, and looks for historic precedessors.


Games-Modifications by artists

Tilman Baumgärtel

The spare parts store of the disused "Phoenix West" blast furnace plant in 
Dortmund stands on the abandoned works premises like an impressive monument 
to the industrial revolution. hARTware medien kunst verein will be holding 
exhibitions on this site in the years to come. Hardly any other place could 
present a more interesting contrast to the subject of our "Games" 
exhibition. For while the vast warehouse is reminiscent of times when 
gainful employment took place in factories on gigantic machinery for which 
the spare parts were stored here, today's workplace is more often than not 
just a computer with an Internet connection. Unlike the mechanical devices 
of the industrial age, the computer allows its users to directly access, 
modify and rework its inner functions. The works on show at our exhibition 
all take advantage of the possibility of direct, cultural intervention into 
the digital technologies that characterise our present day.

Another contrast to the work-centred location is the object chosen by the 
artists for this intervention: computer games. The "games" that give the 
exhibition its title may be regarded as prototypes of the post-industrial 
period. They were testing out the new possibilities of "digital capitalism" 
long before artists (just like companies, politicians and the rest of 
society) discovered these possibilities for their own purposes. Computer 
game developers can also lay claim to a pioneering role as regards 
interface design and digital design.

The "Games" exhibition provides a synopsis of artistic works from the last 
five years that focused on the complex subject of computer games, viewing 
them both in terms of formal aesthetics and media but also as a social 
phenomenon. The artists who made computer games the object  or indeed 
part  of their work have thus entered a subject area whose significance is 
still underestimated. The turnover achieved with computer games has long 
surpassed that of the music and film industry, and computer gaming has long 
ceased to be a teenage domain. In Germany, however, the computer game 
debate is still restricted almost exclusively to the question as to whether 
computer games make children and young people violent.

Our exhibition cannot counter such prejudices. What it attempts to show is 
that computer games are more complex, multi-layered media than a knee-jerk 
condemnation as "shooters" would care to admit. Anyone who takes an 
open-minded look at computer games will quickly discover a number of 
artistic and social aspects worthy of closer scrutiny. For many people, 
games are the first contact with computers; many of those who grew up with 
computer games later made computers and programming their profession or at 
least became accustomed to the computer as a medium through games. Computer 
games are still one of the most important motors for the ongoing 
development of computers, with processors becoming ever faster and more 
powerful. Computer games have also been the centre of gravity for vast 
subcultures playing against each other through the Internet or at LAN 
parties, internal network gatherings at which hundreds of players log in to 
the same game. This is no meet-up of lethargic, isolated couch potatoes, as 
common prejudice would have it, but rather of enthusiasts putting together 
high-tech events on a voluntary basis and with great team spirit. Because 
many games allow users to invent new levels  i.e. self-made digital 
environments including characters  a fascinating scene of hobby producers 
and designers has also evolved around computer games.

But computer games are equally interesting from the artistic viewpoint. Not 
only do they  following the technical evolution of the computer  illustrate 
various degrees of abstraction, from the almost non-representational early 
classics such as "Breakout" or "Tempest", to the virtual photorealism of 
today's arcade games.

The notorious "shoot-em-up games", above all "first-person shooters", 
also  and particularly  have to do with representing perspective and 
three-dimensionality  questions that already preoccupied the inventors of 
Renaissance perspective. Today, architects also use the game engines of 
games such as "Unreal" or "Doom" as powerful CAD programs to add the 
illusion of three-dimensional reality to their designs. The software of 
these games has even been used to "shoot" short animation films. And if you 
look open-mindedly at a game like the computer car race "Gran Turismo" 
(which involves driving such tracks as the Monaco Ring or Downtown 
Manhattan), it may occur to you to view this game as a form of activated 

With their combination of performance and moving images, sound and music 
with interaction, they are also a contemporary form of the "dream of the 
total art work" that unites images and music, architecture and narrative, 
acting and choreography. Not for nothing are groups of specialists involved 
in the production of many of today's games, groups that can even assume the 
size of whole film crews.

By dint of their interactive operation, computer games also meet a number 
of demands that have often been made on contemporary art ever since 
happenings, and which have become particularly topical in connection with 
current media art: they involve the viewer in the creation of the work and 
allow him to examine the work in a very direct way that may even go as far 
as independent further development. In terms of the way in which they are 
marketed, they resemble multiples from the nineteen-sixties. Similar to 
these serial objects, computer games allow you to take part relatively 
inexpensively in advanced (pop) culture production.

Hence, it is no coincidence that some (media) artists have begun working 
with computer games in recent years. The possibility of making 
modifications to computer games ("mods" for short) has inspired them to 
create their own versions of games that, in some cases, take the premises 
of the games further and think them through to their logical conclusion 
and, in others, explicitly contradict them. As such they differ from mods 
created by fans, as these generally make do with redecorating the existing 
game structures. But there have also been totally independent art games 
that would not have been possible on the basis of existing games. A similar 
approach can be observed behind direct manipulations of gaming hardware 
that turn game consoles into autonomous image-generating machines.

While these works were born of an exploration of the computer as a medium 
for making culture in the tradition of net art and software works from the 
latter half of the nineteen-nineties, artists hailing from more traditional 
fields of art such as painting or installation have also focused on 
computer games. It was particularly important for us to incorporate such 
works into the exhibition as well as they very often emphasise aspects of 
computer games that are not perceived by works that are games themselves.

In a way, artist-made computer games follow on from works of 
twentieth-century visual art that were also concerned with games. Remember 
Öyvind Fahlström's "The Little General" pinball machine or Niki de Saint 
Phalle's shooting pictures. But to the extent documented in the "Games" 
exhibition, modernist artists have not been concerned with this key aspect 
of our life in the past. At the same time, in his famous essay "Homo 
Ludens" the Dutch historian Johan Huizinga convincingly expounded that 
playing was the origin of all human culture, and hence of visual art. 
Ironically, games had to achieve the high level of technology of 
current-day computer games in order for artists to wish to explore this so 
intimately related sphere.

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