It’s not often that you get to see a small child dragged out of an art gallery. To be sure, it’s rare to see anyone without an art degree (or a date with someone with an art degree) so attached to an art exhibition they refuse to leave. But not all galleries are created equal.
This particular gallery – the Games Lab – is a component of the larger institution called the Australian Centre for the Moving Image (ACMI), itself situated within the jigsaw architecture of Melbourne’s Federation Square. I’ve come to the Centre to meet its curator, Helen Stuckey. “It’s a space,” she says, “that was conceived in recognition that as we enter the 21st century, computer and videogames are the most compelling form of screen culture.”
The square’s wedge-like buildings sit next to St. Paul’s Cathedral on one side and the sprawling yellow bulk of Flinders Street Station on another, much like uncomfortably matched strangers sharing the same seat of one of the city’s signature trams. Melbourne’s a young, strange city that can be somewhat scattered in its progressive attitude. The eight-hour workday was won here, when stonemasons walked off the job in 1856, but a scandal erupted when Jean Shrimpton wore a proto-miniskirt to the 1965 Derby Day.
In the Games Lab, too, the latest thing meets the oldest: videogames and art. A lot of debate goes on about whether or not games are art, but it’s rarely acknowledged in such engagements that both games and art present rather fast-moving targets. Film critic Roger Ebert, for example, opines that games can’t be art because they give players choices, whereas a film guides the audience through a story and toward meaning. But by this logic, cathedrals aren’t art either. Or anything with an architectural or sculptural element to the experience, an element you navigate. The facades of Federation Square are themselves eminently navigable, a crosshatch of patterns that mess with the familiar rules of linear perspective. It would make a great FPS level.
And indeed it has. Stuckey describes one of the Centre’s first exhibits: acmipark, a multiplayer game recreated the architecture of Federation Square. “acmipark was a game world with no competitive elements: a virtual ACMI, which can be accessed both locally and globally. Designed as a sound park, it was a musical instrument which can be played collectively, and, like Federation Square itself, it was envisaged as a kind of public space waiting for a community to define its meaning.” Forget cyberpunk – this is the real virtual thing. In most galleries, the space is made to exhibit the works. But with acmipark, the work exhibits the space.
Experiment and Exhibit
What does it mean, exactly, to exhibit a videogame? Most people encounter games in a domestic setting or, slightly archaically, the commercial space of an arcade. The Games Lab, in some ways, brings together the community-oriented space of a public institution with the urge to find a console of your own.
This merge was foremost in Games Lab’s design and origin. The space, which opened in early 2005 with a speech by Uruguayan videogame scholar and designer Gonzalo Frasca, responds to ACMI’s innovative brief. “ACMI sees its role as quite traditional in terms of promoting screen literacy,” says Stuckey. “Today, screen culture defines who we are, what we do and how we imagine our future. Videogames help develop skills necessary for living in the digital age.”
The Games Lab itself is bathed in dim lighting, regularly punctuated by the glowing screen of a workstation running a game. Squarish tables and cube-like seats focus attention on the games rather than the furnishings. Projectors loop game footage on the walls – either a Games Lab reel showing clips from Red vs. Blue and the upcoming Metal Gear Solid title, or gameplay from one of the visitors. People are either engrossed in a game, with headphones on, oblivious to the world around them, or they cluster in small groups around individual screens, happily backseat gaming. “The space is designed so the causal visitors can view all the playable games as game capture, and many of the games are projected so play is more performative and the scale more spectacular.”
The minimalist furniture does make it seem a bit like a laboratory, only instead of Bunsen burners and exotic glassware, there are computers running various games. And the players seem to be experimenting, bending their minds around different styles of virtual space. This variety is one of the gallery’s strengths. “The Games Lab offers visitors to ACMI a hands-on experience of gameplay. A changing series of exhibitions are designed to explore differing areas of game culture and the history of games. When visitors view games in the gallery we hope they will look beyond the fun and entertainment to appreciate the designed object and reflect on the impact of videogames as both an expressive medium and appreciate them as cultural artifacts.”
The uncomfortable-looking seats seemed designed to make sure people don’t get too attached to particular games. Like movies, games are a time-based medium. Unlike cinema, however, each player travels at his own pace. Stuckey sees this as a positive. “What is interesting is it has created new kinds of ways to visit a center like ACMI with some visitors returning multiple times to play through differing games. … Games Lab is very popular with families and children. It also attracts the famously elusive demographic of 13 – 25 males, who rarely attend museums. As it is a free exhibition, visitors to ACMI will walk through and look at the work on display, even if they don’t choose to play themselves.” Far from there being problems with people hogging the games, then, the lab seems to have given rise to some social dynamics not often observed in galleries and museums.
Playing for Posterity
Galleries are privileged spaces. The objects within them are the way a given generation or era chooses to represent itself and its culture to the future. No doubt, this is one reason why art institutions have been so reluctant to go near such a famously ephemeral media form, whose standards and benchmarks change quickly. Stuckey says, however, senior staff members at ACMI were supportive of the idea, perhaps realizing any treatment of screen culture would ring hollow without including videogames. With screen culture, at least, the idea is to represent our culture to ourselves as much as the future.
In this respect, the Games Lab doesn’t just give people a chance to experiment with games they may have not come across otherwise, it’s a cultural experiment itself, highlighting many of the issues surrounding videogames. Questions about privacy and the relation of public institutions to their clientele caused the AMCI to change acmipark‘s design so it didn’t store users’ avatars or their personal details.
Through its lifespan, the Games Lab has played to a number of eclectic themes. “In the program so far, we have looked at serious games that explore political ideology, character in games, mobile phone games using augmented reality, machinima and the pioneering Australian Game developers Beam Software [now called Krome Studios Melbourne].” One of the most important events is the annual exhibition of notable entries to the Independent Games Festival.
This support of the indie scene is perhaps where cultural institutions can make their greatest contribution. Showing independents enriches the industry as a whole. “Although,” Stuckey says, “it should be stated and celebrated that independent games and the game art scene have both developed outside the realm the conventional institutions, using online networks to avoid most traditional forms of gate keeping.” There is a valuable role for more traditional functions of the museum here, also. “The archiving and collecting the work of the Australian games development industry is also a traditional museum role that we are considering as a next stage.”
The Eberts of this world notwithstanding, the question is not so much whether or not games are art, but how they challenge hidebound notions of art. Through spaces like the Games Lab, it appears cultural institutions are taking stock of these challenges – and perhaps someday, avid kids will be dragging their parents into the Australian Centre for the Moved Image.
Darshana Jayemanne is a Melbourne-based writer and culture vulture.