Monday, May 21, 2012

On Video Games and Art

Over at Hyperallergic they recently did a summary of MoMA's "Critical Play" conference panel. I just wanted to post my own response (a bit cleaned up) here to get feedback. I replied to their summary there, but I wanted to move it over to my blog to get some feedback. 

Eron Rauch
"Sometimes it's hard to spot..."
from Arcana, or, Finding Context
Arhival Inkjet Print, 2009

To me, so many of the questions raised in the art world about video games are the type of sexy-social-theoretical questions that make for good exhibition titles and juicy quotes. But the theoretical dialogs very often miss some of the more material-realistic aspects of the medium's inclusion in the art world. That is, they don't want to talk about the nuts-and-bolts nor blue-collar aspects of making and experiencing games. 

For my first instance, I want to call attention to coding and digital animation as professions These two basic cornerstones of video game production still remains the domaine of highly technically skilled labor. Labor so hyper-technical that it usually makes something like film editing pale by comparison. Doubly so that most university art programs and art colleges don't even have a video game program so as to make the basic skill-set available for artists (USC being the main exception). 

Video game design has historically always the domaine of group-based production. Even the most esoteric of games like Dwarf Fortress have two people working non-stop. (I know Dwarf Fortress is like the Henry Darger of the video game world, but it's still interesting to note even DF isn't a solitary person.) Usually even an indie game has minimum of 3-4 people working just on the code and design with the need for addieventional people doing music, asset design, concept art, scripts, voicing etc. Usually a producer or director is needed to make things function smoothly and coherently. Modern art training has historically been very individualistic in the last 100 years and so is the story we tell our youth about the western art history narrative. To be blunt, you don't get drunk in your studio at 3AM and "knock out a video game for crit the next day (or week; or month; or...)."

Which leads me to a third physical point about games — they usually take massive time to develop.  Dwarf Fortress will be in production for decades. Something cool like Flower or Journey takes years to make. That's a huge commitment in the world of pop-goth-surrealism, post-conceptualism, performance, witch house, etc. I mean, in really practical terms it would suck like hell if your game had been deving for 5 years and was running two months behind schedule and missed your one shot at Documenta. 

Additionally, the user-expirience of video games is longer than what might be the average visual art experience. This leads to many pragmatic questions such as: How do you display something that might take 2-100 hours to fully (or even partially) experience in a gallery or a massive biennial?[We have the retro-arcade as a model perhaps? But do people want to plunk down quarters to play classic works?] It's apocryphally said the average museum patron spends like an average of 15 seconds at each work. By that calculation, completing even a short game would amount to wandering around the Getty and looking at about 500 paintings! 

My ultimate question might be summed up as: In an increasingly hyperactive global art market is it realistic to expect that legions of artists with sophisticated (and commercially relevant) software & programing skills will band together for years at a time to produce a singular object, which will then be put out in an "art world" where there are virtually no monetary possibilities nor strong institutional avenues for people to see their work? 

To put it in the least artistic language, why would people who had the skill and vision to make a cool art-game-thinger, including find a crew on on indie game forum, putting together a Kickstarter and distributing the project on Steam even worry about getting their work in to an "art world" context? What would it get them to help them make the project?  

Don't get me wrong, I would love to see more interconnectedness with art and video games, but I see this being being a diffuse merging of a venn diagram, rather than a one-way street wether it be gatekeeper or populism from either side. 

[As an aside: We're just now seeing the rise of "indie" video games, and more interestingly, micro-funded indie games, and so many of these assumptions won't be relevant in a handful of years. As such, I don't think these questions are that dissimilar to the questions that faced cinema. After all, even thought art museums show movies and occasionally mount shows on a specific director, we still don't really have "cinema" as a wing of a museum like we do with painting or photography, so maybe this notion of full integration in to a painting-oriented museum space is just unrealistic.]

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