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Thursday, November 27, 2008

Silas Reeves : Game Art

In the past few years there have been commercial Video Games published that are considered exemplary in their graphics and game play. These games are not featured in museums, but are they art? Artists such as Brody Condon, the group JODI, and Mathias Fuchs use Video Games as an artistic medium to generate new forms. Some art critics, namely Tilman Baumgartel, do not consider Game Art to be its own genre of Art for the methods of working by the Artists are too broad to be placed in a single category. I believe that this position does not do justice to the Artists or their artworks and belittles the value of the artwork; placing Game Art works into a bargain bin of Media Art. I will explore the working methods of Game Art practitioners and their works to expose what I see as similar themes and methodologies and examine the term “genre” by looking at different definitions and uses by academia and the game industry.

In an article on the Media Art Net website, art critic and curator Tilman Baumgärtel relates the history of game patching in his article On a Number of Aspects of Artistic Computer Games, starting with Doom and Wolfenstein 3D and early hacks of those games, including Ars Doom ( He states that Ars Doom is the first attempt to use computer games as an artistic medium, but I don’t believe this claim.

He then outlines what he sees as three categories of Game Art: Abstraction, Modification, and Sociological. Abstraction, as defined by him is based on the historical approach to graphical abstraction. Modification is defined as direct artistic intervention into the game code. Artists such as Fur, Cory Archangel, and JODI would fall under this category if I were to follow Baumgartel’s logic of organization. Baumgartel’s category of Sociological games deals with the socio-cultural environment around games and gaming cultures and how they relate to the outside world. Wikipedia defines Sociology as “the scientific study of individual behavior in society”( While most of the works that I encountered in my research were results of scientific efforts, many dealt with the social interaction between individuals in video games and in the real world.
Baumgärtel ends his essay by stating that Game Art is not yet a “genre” of art. Why not? Because the methods used by the artists are too divergent. I feel this claim is wrong. All of the works that he makes mention are connected in some way, whether in their theme or medium to video games and video gaming culture. The works cannot be simply placed under the banner of Media Art or Net Art, even though most are only available for viewing on the Internet.

Using his footnotes and google, I found an exhibition of Game Patch Art from 1999 titled Cracking the Maze: Game Plug-ins and Patches as Hacker Art. The curator was Anne-Marie Schleiner. She would later collaborate with Brody Condon on certain projects. The exhibition’s intent was to “expose game patches created by artists and game patch artifacts created by the original game hackers in an attempt to generate an open discourse on art, games, game hacking, and gaming culture on the internet.”

Some of the pieces were modifications of game code that resulted in abstracting the game’s original aesthetics to the point of confusion. The artist-duo JODI takes the existing game Wolfenstein 3D and deconstructs the game code to alter the way the game’s graphics appear in their patch titled SOD. Instead of displaying the correct textures for the walls, floors, and characters, the textures are flattened, re-patterned and ruptured ( All the colors are turned to black and white. The aesthetic changes create a game that is now unplayable. The game is no longer the three dimensional immersive shooter it once was. The only traces of the violent content that remain for the player to interact with are the sound clips of the gun shooting and the guards yelling.

Others were alterations that undermined traditional representations of females in male-oriented action games. The piece Patching Nude Raider by Robert Nideffer altered the pre-existing patch that made the pixels of the female character Lara Croft flesh-colored making her body look naked by giving Croft male genitals, a mustache, or a black trench coat ( The Lara Croft character avatar is no longer simply a sex object to be manipulated, but an actor in a critique of the portrayal of gender in video gaming, a participant in a gender switch. Schleiner relates that artistically patching a game (making a parasitic patch) is easier than a hardware hack because it doesn’t require knowledge of programming language and contributes to the culture of the re-configuration cultural systems.

After looking at the works in Cracking the Maze, I decided to search for more game patches that modified the game for sociological reasons and not those of abstraction or maybe even games that were original and had an artistic sociological or political intent. I found multiple websites devoted to game art that was more of what Baumgärtel termed as Sociological and political in content. The website hosts many links to a number of projects and articles related to game patches and original games constructed by artists to explore a wide variety of issues. Here I found a link to an article by Anne-Maire Schleiner about a game patch project she collaborated on with the artist Brody Condon titled Velvet Strike. The project’s intention was to inject the “other” into Counter Strike, a shooting game that is basically us (counter-terrorists) versus them (terrorists), by allowing players to spray protest posters and non-violent political calls to action into the game world. The artistic modification of the existing game works as a social commentary and a way to bring real world politics into a digital world.
I found mention of Velvet Strike in Ian Bogost’s book Persuasive Game: The Expressive Power of Video Games. Bogost states that, “While interesting as a “software intervention”, Velvet Strike is more a commentary on videogame genre conventions than a commentary on social conditions. The rich sensory environment of the videogame merely becomes a setting for protests against the fantasy of violence and power”(Bogost 2007, 125).

I think that Bogost is wrong in making this statement. Schleiner herself states in an essay titled Velvet Strike: War Times and Reality Games that games like Counter-Strike, and Kuma War, are continuations of militarism in videogames that began with Space War in 1977 and continue today with the jingoistic America’s Army. According to Schleiner, Counter Strike and games like it (military simulators) are part of a broader condition of the West’s Imperialist mindset post 9/11 (

While violent shooter games existed before the terrorist attacks on 9/11/2001, never before have they included dangerous racist stereotypes. The game modifications that Schleiner mentions, such as the Osama Bin Laden character that players can shoot at and an Arab store keeper that can also be assaulted, are indicative of the lust for violence that is associated with shooting games and Western Imperialism. The fantasy of violence and power is not just one that afflicts some video gamers; it also affects the certain world leaders, namely current American president, George Bush.

Another game falling in the category of Sociological that I found during my research is Darfur is Dying. This game deals with the political issues surrounding the war-torn country of Darfur in Africa and allows the player of the game to guide a Darfuri child through various levels while avoiding the roving militia. It was created to win a contest sponsored by MTV to create a Video Game that would increase awareness about the conflicts in Darfur in hopes of ending the conflicts. Ian Bosgost explains that the game inverts the traditional hero fantasy of most video games by making the player character a powerless individual in a struggle for survival rather than a powerful actor that faces an equal opponent (Bogost 2007, 96). This type of game not only allows awareness of the problems faced by Darfur to spread but also subverts the normative game structures to create a new form of gaming.

In the course of my research, I encounter many words that I lacked definitions for. There is a lot of discussion around the word genre within the articles I have read.
I found this definition in Studying Videogames by Julian McDougall and Wayne O’Brien, “The classification of any media text into a category or type. Whether this is an industry practice, an audience reaction, or critical/academic practice is a matter of debate”(McDougall and O’Brien 2008, 16). One fault I find with this description is that a video game is not wholly a media text. Video games are multi-media; they incorporate the aspects of different cinema conventions (such as camera angles, zooms, pans, voice-overs, special effects, and stock characters) and elements of theater. They cannot simply be read as one media, but as multi-modal texts and as events that engage and requires the participation of a player or user but not always an audience, similar to Allen Kaprow’s Happenings of the 1960s.

Artist Mathias Fuch in his article on states that most Game Artists work in Hybridization, mixing interactive media with digital gaming and occasionally analog technologies ( Fuch makes three very important claims in his article as well:
1) Artists did not invent computer games.
This is very true. But who did invent computer games? Ivan Sutherland didn’t, but his 1960s invention of Sketchpad helped propel ideas about interactive art into the mainstream (Wolf & Perron 2003, ix). In 1962, a group of students from MIT produced Spacewar!, a space combat simulation game that was played on a PDP-1 computer that was fed by data punched into paper tape. (! These students did not create the game for profit, but mostly for fun. The creation of this game started the era of video gaming.
2) Artists know better than commercial game makers what to do with developments in technology.
In the year 2007, commercial video game makers made over $18.8 billion in sales for games and hardware ( The commercial game developers create a product that is addictive and sold in unlimited editions. There is mostly never any major deviation from the traditional standards of game play in the best selling games because that would decrease profit. Occasionally innovation happens and the games are somewhat successful, but what works best for commercial games are the tired and true formulas. Artists on the other hand, do not have to worry about profiting from their game releases, and generally attempt to create innovative and challenging games. As refinements in game development technology are made available, they will be able to use them for their art practice. Artists like Brody Condon are already doing this. Condon uses existing 3D game engines as raw material to create animated paintings and short looping films (
3) That they know the future of computer games and of interactive media.
I believe that Fuch is right on this point. I found this great section of an article by Anne-Marie Schleiner on the Open website.
“Contrary to what might be supposed, unsanctioned and sanctioned game patching and modification do not conflict with the commercial interests of the game software industry. In effect, game-patching serves as inexpensive Research & Development for new trends in computer gaming that crystallize and evaporate in the accelerated, perpetually mutating laboratory of the Internet. Also, in the near future, the ability to customize game worlds may be one of the strong attractions to playing (and buying) PC games, a competitive advantage over games on closed source (unmodifyable) console platforms like Playstation and X-Box” (”. The network of game modifiers creates a community that is based on the exchange of ideas, software, and games. This network is something that commercial game companies often seek to build for themselves. Game patch makers and artists creating their own games do pose a risk to the profit of some companies but the companies could do well to learn from the methods deployed by the game hackers. Schleiner continues in her article to suggest that if game developers of Role Playing Games allowed their game code to be open and hackable, then game editors could be developed for their games, and the players could interface with the game environment and make changes to the it and the structure of the game, instead of simply playing inside of a pre-existing game( The new interfaces created by the game hackers could then be distributed as open source games or sold for profit by the original development companies.

Fuch mentions that the first exhibition to showcase artistic games was Re: Play in 1998 and Synreal, an exhibition that happened on a public net-base (online) in 1998.
Fuchs makes a distinction between commercial game developers and artists but admits there is a relationship. Many artists cannibalize existing commercial game technology to create their works. These works would fall under Baumgartel’s categorization of Modification.
The artists “/////////fur//// art entertainment interfaces”, creators of the interactive game Painstation are artists working under Baumgartel’s category of Modification, but have also crafted something of a hybrid ( Painstation is based on the existing game PONG but has been built into a 3D structure to allow it to better interface with the players of the game. The intent of the project was to make a more realistic and immersive videogame by allowing the players to feel pain by whipping and burning their hands if they lost a match in the game ( The game requires user interaction to make it work and while it doesn’t require an audience to make a presence felt on the user, the audience helps to make the player feel more competitive and adds excitement to the experience of playing.

Artist Cory Archangel has made many hacked video game works. His piece Super Mario Clouds from 2002 is a good example of an artist taking existing game technology, specifically the game hardware and modifying it to create a new work. In Super Mario Clouds, Archangel deconstructs the game graphics by removing all elements of the game environment but the blue sky and white clouds. He did this by hacking the Nintendo game cartridge. Sticking to the model of a open gaming/ hacker community, Archangel has posted instructions on how he did this on his website, Although Archangel explains that he is not a computer programmer, he works in code because it’s the way the world moves for him, and if he could order a pizza by painting, he would be a painter (
The work created by the hack is no longer a playable game. There is no interaction required by the player. The graphics from the original game were already very abstracted and by removing the rest of the game elements like the Mario character and his opponents, Archangel has pushed the piece to further abstraction. What was once an exciting platform game now functions mostly as a painting that can only be viewed by seeing a screen capture on the Internet, as I have to, or being projected on a wall by a LCD projector in a gallery. Another one of Archangel’s hacked or modified game pieces is I Shot Andy Warhol. Archangel himself admits that the work is a joke and is not to be taken seriously and will admit that most of his work is silly ( However, jokes aside, I feel that the way that Archangel encourages the sharing of information is a positive model of artistic engagement that is very different from most elitist communities.
Brody Condon, an artist I mentioned fairly early in my paper, is another person working with Game Art right now. His 1999 piece Adam Killer was a video of the killing of a digital avatar of his friend Adam that Condon created using a modification of the Half-Life game engine. Condon intended the piece to be a commentary on the Columbine High School Shootings and the amount of digital bloodshed in modern video games. ( Again the work is a non-interactive piece making a social commentary that is based on a pre-existing game engine, so it functions as a hybrid of Modification and Sociological.
Condon is currently working on a series of Live Action Role Playing events that will use his specially designed game rules as sets of ritualized performances. The LARP games will comment on the cultural convergence between gaming culture and mainstream cultures.
While the artists I have researched do share different methods of working, all of them start with the same materials of games or a game engine. The creation of a separate genre for the works that I have described in my paper as Game Art is needed so that the works in question can be properly displayed and archived. The placement of the works into the structure of genre is something that is already practiced by commercial game developers and retailers when they assign their games to the conventional genres of shooter, racing, action, adventure, etc… Even the video pieces by Brody Condon and the Painstation by ///////fur/////// should be placed in the same genre of Game Art because of similar underlying structure of a game engine. I understand that there is a difference because the Painstation is an interactive piece, that it is dimensional, but the space that the player/viewer exists in when they view Adam Killer is also dimensional. The experience of watching Adam Killer is less painful but perhaps no less unnerving than playing Painstation. I believe that it is not pointless to pursue the construction of Game Art as a genre and that the artists working within the area of Game Art create work that shares the same basic structure, that of code and of play and of culture.

Critique of Sources:
I found a lot of articles about my topic, but I had to choose the best ones to use for my paper. Most of them did not take a stance on the same issue that I did for my paper, which was helpful. Tilman Baumgartel’s article was crucial in my ideation for my position in my paper and in my beginning research. I found fault with some of his claims however, as is evident in this paper. In my opinion, Anne-Marie Schleiner’s articles were my best resource and very interesting to read. Reading Ian Bogost’s book Persuasive Games: The Expressive Power of Video Games gave me a lot of insight into game language and current discussion surrounding gaming culture. The works I researched I could not view in their original form, which was frustrating. Some of the game patches for the Cracking the Maze Exhibit are still online for download but will not work with my version of Mac.

List of Sources:
Bogost, Ian. Persuasive Games: The Expressive Power of Video Games. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2007.

Baumgartel, Tilman. On a Number of Aspects of Artistic Computer Games. Media Art Net
(accessed 11/2/08)

McDougall, Julian Wayne O’Brien. Studying Videogames. Leigthon Buzzard, Auteur Publishing, 2008.

Fuch, Mathias. From An Artist’s Perspective. 2005: (accessed 11/2/08)

Wolf, Mark J. P. Bernard Perron. The Video Game Theory Reader. New York,NY: Routledge, 2003.

Various authors: Spacewar!!
(access dates vary)

The NPD Group. 2007 U.S. Video Game And PC Game Sales Exceed $18.8 Billion Marking Third Consecutive Year Of Record-Breaking Sales (accessed 11/12/08

Schleiner, Ann-Marie. Cracking the Maze: Game Plug-ins and Patches as Hacker Art
(accessed 11/10/08)
Schleiner, Ann-Marie. Parasitic Interventions: Game Patches and Hacker Art
(accessed 11/10/08)
Schleiner, Ann-Marie. Velvet-Strike: War Times and Reality Games
(accessed 11/10/08)

Author Unknown. Brody Condon: The Youth of the Apocalypse (accessed 11/04/08)

Bruneau, John. John Bruneau Interviews Cory Arcangel
(accessed 11/04/08)

Archangel, Cory. Things I made in 2005
(accessed 11/20/08)

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