Art Imitating Games

If there is one thing gamers and journalists are absolutely sick of hearing about it’s the “are games art?” discussion. Favored by the preachy and the vain, it’s an intellectual dead end as fruitless and tired as the “what is art?” debate. However, last month while scouring the internet for some blog-worthy morsels, I came upon something intriguing: A quirky news snippet that flippantly turned the debate on its head, shrugging off years of bombastic dialectic like a bad dream and reigniting my interest in the relationship between art and games in the process.

The snippet in question featured a photograph of a dilapidated building that had its grid windows vandalized to resemble Tetris blocks. Shortly after emerging on a well-known game site, a handful of smaller gaming blogs got whiff of the photo, and it spread virally throughout the tubes, reported whimsically as the exploits of a creative Tetris-obsessed vandal.

A glut of comments later the authenticity of the photograph was called into question. As it turned out, the photo was the work of a talented Photoshop prankster. Cue blog comments flaring with shouts of “I knew they were fakes” and “just someone trying to fool gamers.” It seems some of the gaming contingent missed the point. Even so, viral digital graffiti raises an interesting issue about the broader topic of game art.

Fake or not, the fact someone went to the trouble of creating the image is – for lack of a better phrase – a sign of the times. The recent trend of popular gaming icons in contemporary art is an indication of gaming’s gradual puncturing of popular mainstream culture. When approaching a topic as contentious as game art, distinguishing between what is intended as a form of artistic expression and what is merely the output of an obsessed fan is necessary, pointless and impossible all at once. LEGO statues of consoles and popular gaming characters may expose a certain artistic flair, and if I wanted to wax lyrical about the whole thing I could go as far as equating the LEGO blocks to pixels and come to some ostentatious conclusion about the meaningful nature of the medium’s relevance to the subject matter. But what is more likely is that the majority of LEGO sculptures or photoshopped images are fashioned as one-offs, tributes or pranks and not as measured attempts at expression or even the pursuit of creating something beautiful and intriguing.

But let’s give our photoshopped Tetris picture the benefit of the doubt for now. As a case in point, this sort of digital graffiti does brandish artistic virtue by the manner in which it finds an audience. As an art form, graffiti has an immediacy that sets it apart from the verbose foreplay favored by the cocktail academics and quick-fix lipstick dinner dates of the art world. The public nature of graffiti is a congenital aspect of its artistic message or expression, completely at odds with the sterility of a gallery. In this sense, digital graffiti is just as much a product of its environment as its real world counterpart.

It would be easy to overanalyze the tenets of photoshopped game art or digital graffiti, but there is a dualism inherent in the process, which is strikingly irrespective of the presence of artistic motivation. The digital world is a characterization of the real in both games and photoshopped pictures and in this sense there is a uniquely modern, profound relationship between medium and subject matter.

Of course, there are examples where artistic intentions are more clearly drawn. Fake screenshot artists such as Brody Condon leave no room for debate about the specific artistic motivation behind their works. There is often a thread of knowing references to the phenomenon of fanboy propaganda, and even quasi political dissent woven throughout the various entrants in fake screenshot competitions. But even in the face of such an obvious and deliberate ruse, faked screenshots can still be taken out of context by a daily gaming news source. What begins life as a statement about the war-hungry nature of gamers may end up editorialized as “look at these leaked images of how incredibly lifelike war games will look on next-gen PCs.”

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It is hard to know to what degree the artists responsible for game-themed art welcome this idea of independent dispersion. It can certainly have its benefits, and there are doubtless those that hinge an aspect of their work on that very dynamic. There are also sure to be others who don’t even consider themselves artists at all and react indifferently to their LEGO sculpture/Photoshop prank/pervy Mario drawing reaching an unintended audience. Still others use actual game visuals to make poignant statements. Sprites are a fantastic base subject matter; their retro appeal goes way beyond their aesthetic temperance. The uncomplicated blocky sprites from the Mario series offer a simple and congenial pluralism when utilized as an artistic subject matter. They are cute and elicit nostalgia, but when blown up as a painting or assembled as a collage they become poignant reminders of a simpler time in gaming’s past.

Turning this innocence on its head is an obvious source of artistic fascination, and the likes of Mario and other cutesy gaming characters have often been featured in an array of less than childlike misadventures. Paintings that incorporate real-life humanity into game art are mainstays of the medium’s biggest annual exhibition, “I am 8 Bit,” and it’s easy to understand why. There is a perverse joy to be had in taking a character like Mario and adding a moral or human dimension; what is his sex life like, what if Koopas could bleed, what if Princess Peach ran off with Luigi?

Distinguishing between the puerile daubing of a gifted teen bent on luridly sexualizing his world and the true thematic exploration of more dedicated artists is never easy, especially given the obsessions with sex and death many artists share with their lower brow brethren. Some game artists have side-stepped this issue by farming their creations from the ground up, giving birth to their own game characters specifically for the purpose of presenting them in a paradoxical reality. Revered “I am 8 Bit” regular Luke Chueh is famed for his anime inspired art, which features hordes of cutesy characters in an endless array of ill-fated predicaments, many of which pertain directly to the typical mechanics and glazed-over moral truisms of the world of videogames.

This is where game art has the scope and potential to be truly explorative, expressive and beautiful, but contemporary games are yet to surface as subject matter. And is it any wonder? As game developers pander more and more to the goal of achieving hyper- or photorealism, there is much less of the artistic to be extricated from the games themselves. Even those that have made concerted attempts at establishing the notion of the artistic (Okami, Killer 7, Shadow of the Colossus) were absent, and yet I found a bounty of creations that borrowed heavily from the 8-bit era.

The icons that define the industry are near inexhaustible, considering gaming’s short history. Add to that the emergent trend for convergence between game worlds and real life, and trying to squeeze game art under a single umbrella seems as absurd as placing all games under one genre. In this sense, gaming culture and history is fecund with opportunity for artistic interpretation. Yet as the game industry approaches an apex of visual realism, it seems that art about games looks much more likely to peak before games are ever truly considered to be art themselves. But then, who knows? Perhaps 10 years from now virtual photographers will exhibit their best snaps of the Crysis world, or maybe some sort of Henri Cartier-Bresson-alike will come along and immortalize the PS3’s Home with a series of cunningly observed images of digital social interactions. In an exponentially evolving digital world, anything’s possible.

Fraser MacInnes is a freelance game journalist for He is a Scotsman but currently lives in Munich, Germany, where he loves the weather but hates the queuing etiquette. His website is frasermacinnesbitsandblogs

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