PRINT December 2003


video games in 2003

FORMS OF MEDIA that have originated in the past one hundred years have appeared to abide by a kind of “thirty-year rule” of development, starting with the invention of a medium and ending with its effective operation and widespread appearance in culture at large. Film, for instance, was born at the turn of the last century and blossomed into its classic form in the ’30s; the Internet, after a long period of relatively hidden growth during the ’70s and ’80s, erupted into popular use in the mid-’90s. Today, one can certainly say that video games have followed this arc: The primitive pastime of the ’70s, after acquiring a geek-boy stereotype in the ’80s, became fully mainstream in 2003. Even though no major new consoles were released, and only a dozen or so A-list games, one might go so far as to point to the past year as the beginning of a golden age for video games.

An infusion of creative developers is stretching the boundaries of gaming: Auteurs in the field, such as Hideo Kojima, creator of the Metal Gear series, and Civilization’s Sid Meier, have helped define new modes of expression within the medium. In Meier’s work, the gamer is not simply playing this or that historical simulation but is instead learning, internalizing, and becoming intimate with a massive, multipart algorithm. To play the game means to play the code of the machine. In the realm of narrative games, buzz surrounding the forthcoming Half-Life 2 indicates that it may be as groundbreakingly sophisticated as its predecessor, already winning Best of Show at this year’s E3 gaming conference. At the same time, games in 2003 mapped themselves onto real-world situations in unprecedented ways. For example, American shooter games were challenged on the world scene by foreign-made ones like Special Force, a first-person shooter published by the so-called Central Internet Bureau of Hizbullah and based on the armed Islamic movement in south Lebanon. This jihad game is a rather literal role reversal of the sort of military scenarios depicted in last year’s US government–issued game, America’s Army. When it comes to propaganda, it appears that turnabout is fair play.

Of course, gaming still resides in a distinctly lowbrow corner of contemporary culture, not yet deemed—or scrutinized as—an art form. The benefit of this neglect is that one may approach video games today as a type of beautifully undisturbed processing of contemporary life, as yet unmarred by overwrought analyses. That age of innocence may be ending, however, as more rigorous consideration emerges; this fall marked the full induction of video games into traditional academic discourse with three new weighty books on the subject: an unparalleled textbook on game design called Rules of Play (MIT Press), a collection of dialogues called Re:Play—Game Design and Game Culture (Peter Lang Publishing), and the helpful but perhaps too presumptively titled Video Game Theory Reader (Routledge). The critical attention is still fresh enough to yield insights instead of clichés, and one hopes these serious treatments will usher out the current dominant literary form: dot-com-era memoirs.

Due respect for gaming and its aesthetic potential is also burgeoning in exhibitions. If digital art in the late ’90s was concerned mostly with networks on the one hand and software applications on the other, then the past year signaled the ascent of games as an artist’s medium. This past spring, gaming got its second great New York show (the first being etoy’s game Toywar, which went up at Postmasters in 2000). “INSTALL.EXE,” the first American show from the Barcelona-based duo JODI, arrived at Eyebeam after stops in Basel and Berlin. JODI works with computers in the same way that Dan Sandin works with video or Raymond Queneau worked with words—irreverently manipulating a medium at its most fundamental level. The centerpiece of the Eyebeam show was % My Desktop, 2002, a large four-channel projection with a simple pretext: Screw with the icons on a typical computer desktop so violently that they become interesting to watch. The chaotic desktop-as-medium engendered half repulsion, half rapt fascination. JODI’s survey also featured a series of games from the last several years. With SOD, 1999, JODI established the standard for what is known today as the artist’s “game mod” (short for “modification,” but in JODI’s case, destruction is more like it). They continue to make their own games as well, crafting the ultraretro JET SET WILLY Variations © 1984, 2002, and the ultramodern UNTITLED GAME, 1996–2001. Topping off the year in gaming, this month the New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York presents “Killer Instinct,” which includes game artists Brody Condon and Paul Johnson, among others. The show aims to bring games to life, taking them off the screen and into more painterly and sculptural iterations.

The New Wave was new once, and so was new media, but as Jean-Luc Godard wrote in 1965, after having made a half dozen of his best films, “I await the end of Cinema with optimism.” Many of those artists who awaited the end of the Internet with optimism are now finding inspiration in the medium of the video game.

Alexander Galloway is assistant professor of media ecology at New York University.