PRINT May 1996


Art of the Game

AS YOU CLIMB through the Guggenheim’s current “Abstraction in the Twentieth Century” show, your mood may sink: by the top of the spiral, the nonrepresentational strategies deployed toward Modernist ends—as varied as they are many—begin to feel as exhausted as your legs. Of course, this is the old "death of abstraction’ story, in which (like its death-of-painting counterpart) the medium’s inability to engage anything but its own history, whether in the form of gestural quotation or emptied-out monochromes, is read as a sign of art’s general obsolescence. But if the show had continued to wind up through the ceiling into imaginary bays in the sky, tracking abstraction beyond art’s putative demise, what would we expect to see? One strong candidate would be the domain of computer interface design, where the language of abstraction remains alive and kicking—from Microsoft Windows to the ever-popular computer game.

Among computer games that we could reasonably call abstract, we would have to include the austere Asteroids, with its etched polygons and mind-bending torus screen; Atari’s legendary early-’80s Tempest (now out in a long-awaited CD version), an ominously beautiful crystalline structure with a cursor/avatar that perfectly translates the player’s spin of the control knob into a rolling dance around the rim of the “cosmic tunnel”; Tetris (of course); and more recent puzzle-like, spatial-perceptual spawn such as Icebreaker, Zoop, Trytrist, and Endorfun. It’s hardly necessary to relate how Alexey Pajitnov’s Tetris, a new edition of which, Tetris Gold, has recently been released by Spectrum HoloByte, hit a collective nerve in the late ’80s—how it was compelling enough to be banned from thousands of offices, and so had to be combined with phony spreadsheet programs that popped up if the boss came by. The game so effectively generated a dozy fugue state in players that it was investigated by brain-chemistry researchers as a drug-free tranquilizer. All this tended to make you forget how much of an achievement its simple design really was. On a rectangular grid, clusters of four squares, in their seven possible permutations, fall like serial snow from top to bottom. The player has to guide their descent, aiming the clusters so that they “fit” in the gaps below. When a row of squares is completely filled in, it disappears. The score depends on how long the player can keep the game going before the grid fills up with incomplete rows.

Enumerating the possible combinations of a limited number of basic shapes, setting a few parameters and then playing out their permutations, Tetris might seem to pose either an exploratory or perceptual undertaking. More dynamic and sportlike (if less deep) than chess or go, the game combines both tasks with a time imperative or “twitch element”—the dimension of the game that tests the dexterity of your fingers—that makes it better suited to a quick work break than to deep thought. But part of what has made Tetris such a spectacular success is its paradoxical nature: construction is inextricably linked to destruction. Like go, Tetris can be seen as a metaphor for war, architecture, social relations, whatever. As a wall that the player builds only to demolish, many have suggested that the game calls to mind the liberation of Eastern Europe and the destruction of the Berlin Wall (events roughly contemporaneous with Tetris’ invention in the former Soviet Union).

Tetris has found its place in the pantheon, but its progeny await judgment. Games including Minesweeper, Breakthru!, and Trytrist provide enough “thumb candy” to feed on our presumably endless stock of modern tension. It’s Endorfun, however, from Onesong Partners/Time Warner Interactive, that’s stolen the show, but for factors largely unrelated to its alleged virtues as a stress reliever: Endorfun has been roundly trashed by PTA types for what its designers call its “subliminal affirmative messages.” After (and sometimes during) each play, voices or flashes of text feed you questionable lines, like “Money is flowing abundantly into my life,” or “There is enough of everything for everybody.” Perhaps the concerned parents would be a bit more at ease with Holzerisms like “Abuse of interactive media comes as no surprise,” or “Games don’t entertain you anymore,” but they’d probably still be bugged by Endorfun’s psychedelic backdrops and throbbing “energy cubes,” which, combined with driving African-rhythm soundtracks and level names like “XTC” and “Zoooooom,” must look scary in the hinterlands.

Unfortunately, these bells and whistles are basically extrinsic to what is actually an original and relatively “deep” interface: the user guides a six-colored cube over various grids (bearing a frightening resemblance to Mel Bochner’s recent paintings; maybe the designers know more about art history than we realize?), positioning it to kill (or “merge with,” in Onesong Partners speak) an increasing number of color-filled squares. Aligning the cube isn’t always easy, and can demand concentrated thought. Like Tetris, Endorfun creates (in many people) a simultaneously alert and trancelike state—comparable to highway driving.

Of course, there’s a difference between an artist and a game programmer (I guess), though some might say that computer-game writers and their ilk are changing the world more decisively than painting ever did. Endorfun, Tetris, and other marketably addictive time-wasters at least let us feel as though we’re playing with abstraction—almost on the level of an interactive Bochner, rolling a cube like a ghost brush, exploring the grid in a state of attentiveness verging on trance. Few video-game designers may be more than passably familiar with the names of Malevich, Tatlin, and Léger (not to mention Eva Hesse); but as far as “total risk, discipline, and freedom” (Hesse’s words borrowed in the Guggenheim exhibition subtitle) go, what work carries abstraction’s torch further up the ramp? Video stress-relievers may be the best hope out there.

Brian D’Amato contributes regularly to Artforum.