Over the last few years the video game phenomenon has managed to consolidate its presence and expansion in the on-line medium thanks to the emergence of the Internet. Furthermore, it has established itself as an appliance whose potential goes well beyond its original condition as an instrument for leisure and entertainment. This new condition leads us to consider Multiplayer Online Videogames that enable multiple accesses to the game and allow the players to have a greater sense of participation. In some cases, these platforms confer onto the player-programmers the power to incorporate further developments to the videogame itself, thereby stimulating collective participation. The phenomenon has become so significant that the debate on its nature (material, aesthetic, philosophical, etc.) and its use value has been transferred to the field of academia and museums. This paper will focus on and analyse some of the theoretical and practical experiences that have been carried out in these fields, including, for example, exhibitions and/ or activities as well as theoretical considerations of an academic nature.
Nowadays, videogames attract the attention of the academic world, in much the same way as other previous cultural manifestations. In a manner analogue to the generalised incorporation of cinematographic practice and theory to the academic sphere in the 1960s and 1970s, which brought about a shift in the critical discourse on movies, it is to be expected that something similar will occur with the current introduction of video games into the lecture rooms.
Museums have been studying the cultural and technical relevance of video games since the end of the 1980s. In 1989, the Museum of the Moving Image in New York organised a groundbreaking exhibition on Arcade games, entitled “Hot Circuits: A Video Arcade”. According to Carl Goodman, the current Deputy Director and Director of Digital Media of the aforementioned museum, “the exhibition was inspired by the then radical notion that videogames are an increasingly vital part of the entertainment industry, alongside movies, television and music. It also drew attention to the contribution of video games to computation technologies, in part because they are often the public’s first exposure to edge technologies. Today these notions are well accepted”.
Moreover, the academic world is also gradually assimilating these phenomena to employ them as subjects for debate and analysis among the community, thereby reproducing new methods of study and analysis regarding visual culture. Given the genre’s rising popularity, it is not surprising that an increasingly large number of psychologists, sociologists, economists, historians and anthropologists study the immersive experience of players of such games. From their research, we can extract ideas regarding the different realities of video games, be they creative, economic and industrial or social and anthropological, mainly.
Edward Castronova is an expert in the analysis of virtual worlds -Multi User Dungeons (MUDs), Massively Multiplayer Online Games (MMOGs) and similar concepts- and is the author of Virtual Worlds: A First-Hand Account of Market and Society on the Cyberian Frontier (2001) where he examines the links between the real economy and the synthetic economies of virtual worlds, such as in video games. From a slightly different angle, Fernando Trias de Bes, professor at the ESADE Business School has written an article on virtual reality entitled La aniquilación de la realidad (The Annihilation of Reality). Professor Trias de Bes states that the problem that emerges from these universes inhabited by young people who carry out and perform all kinds of tasks and activities through them, is that they become unable to differentiate virtual reality from real reality. Although in this case he refers to the experience in virtual worlds such as Second Life, we can extrapolate his analysis to activities carried out within video games. The project created by the author and analyst Nicholas Yee, Ariadne: Understanding MMORPG Addiction, known as The Daedalus Project is also of great interest. As part of it, Yee analyses the pathologies of players who are addicted to video games. Finally, we can also highlight the paper written by the theorist Henry Jenkins “Games, the New Lively Art”, in which he explores the concept of games as a form of art.
Let us now consider certain publications and research carried out in this field over the last few years by the artistic community:
- Gonzalo Frasca is a researcher and video game creator of French and Uruguayan origin who works at the Centre for Computer Games Research of the University of Copenhagen. Frasca has created Water Cooler Games, a forum devoted to “persuasive games”. He is also the co-editor of Ludology, an on-line publication geared at video game researchers, or as he says, the “next generation of media philosophers.”
- Game Studies is an international periodical publication on computer game research, focused mainly on the aesthetic, cultural and communicative aspects of computer games.
- Anne-Marie Schleiner, artist and art theorist, has created the Opensorcery Web page, which compiles a significant number of links to her practical and theoretical work on computer game modification. Her thoughts revolve (from a feminist and critical perspective) around gender and identity studies, criticism against military practices and the consideration of game modification techniques as a new form of hacker art.
- MolleIndustria is a group of Italian activists and designers devoted to the practical theory of subversion in games. Their Web page includes texts and a blog that contains different perspectives on the links between video games and politics.
- Political Games Archives is an archive of politically motivated games created by artists. This archive is a part of Selectparks, a blog specialising in international experiments and artistic pieces based on computer game technologies. Julian Oliver, who is also the co-author of Escape from Woomera, directs the blog. The theory section includes his texts together with others by Mary-Anne Breeze, Fuchs & Eckermann, Richens & Trinder and Melster & Díaz & Groth.
- Persuasive Games is a firm of designers, creators and distributors of persuasive, instructive and activist computer games. It is co-directed by the designer, researcher and theorist Ian Bogost together with Gerard LaFond, an expert in business and strategic marketing.
- Critical Art Ensemble and Carbon Defense League are two artistic collectives that joined forces to draft the critical essay Child as Audience (where technology and anarchy fuck) published in March 2001. This text documents the reconstruction of the Nintendo Game Boy and suggests that children should be the main targets of activist media tactics. They have published a book and a CD-ROM that includes all the instructions, schematics and programming that is necessary to carry out such practices.
- Milton Manetas is an artist of Greek origins whose artistic and theoretical work is founded on video game aesthetics. Manetas works with painting, photography, impressions, videos as well as subversive and ironic installations, focused on the characters and subject matter of video games (from Super Mario and Pokemon to Tomb Raider or Indiana Jones). His text, Art Alter Video Games, is worth mentioning.
- Tilman Baumgärtel is responsible for a hyper-essay entitled Game Art that ponders on the possibilities of modifying on and off-line games through the analysis of the leading works of game art artists. This kind of hypermedia essay is a part of an excellent project, Medien Kunst Netz that encompasses other generative art and software art initiatives.
- Henry Lowood curator of the History of Science and Technology Collections; Germanic Collections; and Film and Media Collections at Stanford University initiated THE DIGITAL GAME CANON project. Lowood invited four renown videogame specialists: Warren Spector, Christopher Graft, Matteo Bittanti and Steve Meretzky to join a panel that would establish a rigorous collection of those games considered to be the most relevant and to make them available to future computer game designers, creators and other professionals of the video game industry. The list of ten game titles was presented and debated on the 8th of March 2007 in the Games Developers Conference in San Francisco.
On the other hand, videogames are also very visible in the main international centres of contemporary art. Let us now consider what exhibitions have been most significant in the last few years according to specialists in the field:
- Playware. An exhibition on the world of videogames held at the LABoral Centro de Arte in Gijón (Asturias, Spain) from September 2007 to the 24th of March 2008. Playware presents the work of artists, designers and engineers who are probing the limits and expanding the possibilities of digitally-mediated computer games. The game art projects and the multiplayer interactive art installations were created by artists such as: Peter Stock, Toshio Iwai, Boštjan Cadež, Boštjan Cadež, Jeff Minter, United Game Artists, Assocreation, Tetsuaki Baba, Bill Keays, Hiroshi Ishii & Members of the Tangible Media Group, Sergi Jordà & Grupo de Tecnología Musical de la Universitat Pompeu Fabra, Ars Electronica FutureLab, etc.
- Gameworld. Games on the edge of art, technology and culture. Exhibition held at the LABoral Centro de Arte in Gijón (Asturias, Spain) from March to July 2007. In the words of the exhibition’s curator, Carl Goodman, Deputy Director and Director of Digital Media at the Museum of the Moving Image in New York, “the exhibition considers games as a form artistic creation and as a matter for artistic transformation”. The artists that presented pieces were: Douglas Edric Stanley, Aram Bartholl, Cory Arcangel/Paper Rad, Milton Manetas, La Fiambrera Obrera, Eva/Franco Mattes, Mary Flanagan, etc.
- Metanarrative(s)? The 5th Symposium on Art & Multimedia/ Metanarrative(s) was held at the Caixa-Forum in Barcelona (Spain) in 2006. This forum for thought and debate presented some texts related to the issue such as, Storylines vs. gameworlds: Landscaping as narrative device? written by Espen Aarseth.
- Game as Critic as Art. This seminar on net-art was held at the Caixa-Forum in Barcelona (Spain) in 2005. The authors and specialists that were present debated on the meaning and direction of computer games created by artists, their goals as well as the socialising and educational power of such proposals. The participating authors were: Laura Baigorri, Gonzalo Frasca, Anne-Marie Schleiner, Radwan Kasmiya, Rafael Fajardo, Flavio Escribano and Katharine Neil.
- Breaking and Entering. A digital art exhibition that was held between the 10th of December 2005 and the 28th of January 2006 at the PaceWildenstein in New York. The exhibition displayed the work of seven artists: Cory Arcangel, Brody Condon, Jon Haddock, JODI, Paper Rad, RSG and Eddo Stern who aimed at transforming the exhibition room, through their installations and projections, into an inhabitable gamespace, similarly transforming the observers into players.
- Art i Joc. A series of works of netart games wherein digital artists explore computer game culture and generate their own creative versions of the themes and technological structures. This electronic dossier was created by the Mediateca of the Caixa-Forum in Barcelona (Spain).
- World of Games: reloaded. A permanent exhibition that focuses on the links between video games and art, held at the ZKM Centre for Art and Media in Karlsruhe (Germany) in 2004. The German theorist and director of the centre Peter Weibel drafted the text included in the catalogue.
- [Re:Play]. An exhibition of critical video games by six artists: Andy Deck, Mongrel, Natalie Bookchin, Johs On, Max Barry and the Escape from Woomera collective. Organised by radioqualia, the exhibition was held in October 2003 in Cape Town and Johannesburg (South Africa) and included, as an annex, an educational programme including conferences and workshops.
- Games. Computer Games by artists. This exhibition took place between October and November 2003, at the Reserveteillager Phoenix West in Dortmund (Germany). The German theorist Tilman Baumgärtel curated the exhibition. The goal was to display a varied range of artistic approaches to the phenomenon of computer games with nearly thirty exhibited works of art. Among the artists were: Julien Alma/Laurent Hart, Cory Arcangel, Tom Betts, Arcangel Constantini, Vuk Cosic, Mongrel, JODI, Joan Leandro, Anne-Marie Schleiner, etc. Several artists also presented their pieces in person. Additionally the artist Olaf Val ran a workshop, and various films and lectures were presented.
- SHIFT-CTRL. This exhibition on computers, games and art set out to clarify the existing relationship between games and the new technologies, as well as the interpretation that artists make of this relationship. The exhibition was curated by Antoinette LaFarge and Robert Nideffer and was held at the Beall Centre for Art and Technology in Irvine (California, USA) from October to December 2000. The exhibition included installations and net games classified into three areas: role games and shared social spaces, emerging/developable systems and re-writing of existing worlds and computer piracy worldwide. Participating in the exhibition were artists such as: Rebecca Allen, Natalie Bookchin, Ken Feingold, Perry Hoberman, Worldwide group, Lev Manovich/Norman Klein, negativland, ®TMark, Eddo Stern, WORD.com/Eric Zimmerman, etc.
- SYNWORLD. Exhibition and symposium on “synthetic worlds” related to the theory of computer games organised by Public Netbase in Vienna (Austria) in May 1999. The exhibition invited the public to discover and explore electronic simulations of all kinds from the world of leisure, industry, art and science. The exhibition included pieces by artists and collectives like: Ulrike Gabriel, Knowbotic Research, Mark Amerika, Calin Dan, Anne-Marie Schleiner, Mongrel, JODI, VNS Matrix, Vuk Cosic, Carbon Defense League, etc, working with the narrative structures of hypermedia, the design of participatory virtual environments and digital game technology
Among the features that define virtual worlds we can mention the fact that they are founded on the ethics/ aesthetics of excess (of their components: speed, décor, power, sensitivity, agility, etc.) Omar Calabrese, in his book Neo-Baroque: A Sign of the Times, describes this trend as a flight towards excess, which he defines as labyrinth, chaos and distortion. Similarly, Federico López Silvestre and Román Gubern share this vision of virtual landscapes characterised by excess, which, especially López Silvestre, identifies as a landscape-spectacles.
As we have seen, video game artists share an interest in the critical value acquired by games when they go through an artistic reorientation of their structure, a modification of their engine, or even an amplification of the spatial and sensorial museum experience by the spectator/ player. Clearly, these artistic games are not governed by the orthodox requirements of the video game industry. As Laura Baigorri, the multimedia theorist and critic pointed out in her presentation at the Game as Critic as Art 2.0, “it is not about getting hooked as many game addicts for as much time as possible; it is not about captivating with an aesthetics that is as realistic as possible or with the most original design; it is not about attaining as much identification with the character as possible; it is not about being the most competitive in the market, [...],…the aim is not to win. The aim is to subvert and parody preconceived ethics and aesthetics; to socialise while generating thought”.
The considerations of game art are rooted in a critical/ political perspective, which is at times anti-corporate, that researches the modification of videogames for artistic purposes, focusing on the concept of no fun. The actions carried out include the reprogramming of classic games (Invaders!, Douglas Edric Stanley, 2001), the introduction of iconic visual elements taken from the world of video games into real public spaces (Video Program: Extrusions, Aram Bartholl, 2007), forays into the obsolescence of the media’s art (Super Mario Movie, Cory Arcangel and Paper Rad, 2005; Super Mario Sleeping, Miltos Manetas, 1997; Super Mario Clouds, Cory Arcangel, 2002), as well as including intervention and performance in massively multiplayer games (Dead in Iraq, Joseph Delappe, 2006; Velvet-Strike, Anne-Marie Schleiner, Joan Leandro and Brody Condon, 2002) or questioning the nature of the morphic relationships between identity and public representation within virtual worlds (Portraits, Eva and Franco Mattes, 2006).
To sum up we can say that video games constitute a phenomenon that give rise to numerous critical speculations, artistic experimentations and theoretical debates regarding their nature, as well as other uses and results that can be obtained by intervening or modifying its predetermined structures.
*Text published in: VV.AA. – Arte y Arquitectura Digital, Net.Art y Universos Virtuales. Ed. Universitat de Barcelona / Universitat Internacional de Catalunya. Barcelona, 2008.
 Goodman, Carl. Bienvenido a Gameworld: Juegos en la frontera entre arte, tecnología y cultura en Gameworld. Videojuegos en la frontera entre Arte, Tecnología y Cultura, catalogue of the exhibition held at the Centro de Arte y Creación Industrial LABoral, Gijón, 2007, p. 12.
 Gameworld. Videojuegos en la frontera entre Arte, Tecnología y Cultura, catalogue of the exhibition held at the Centro de Arte y Creación Industrial LABoral, Gijón, 2007, p. 9.
 LÓPEZ SILVESTRE, Federico. El Paisaje Virtual. El cine de Hollywood y el neobarroco digital. Biblioteca Nueva, Madrid, 2004.
 GUBERN, Román. Del bisonte a la realidad virtual. La escena y el laberinto. Anagrama, Barcelona, 2003, p.151.
 BAIGORRI, Laura. Game as Critic as Art 2.0, text that accompanied the cycle of conferences grouped under this same title and held at the Caixa-Forum, Barcelona, 2006, p. 1.