Video Games: a medium for diverse intentions

Mitch Posada

The National Endowment of the Arts has recently made digital games an eligible candidate for grant money. This would mean game developers could alternatively get government funding (up to $200,000) instead of relying on traditional publishers who, consequently, are concerned and limited to marketing on the basis of profit and popularity. The validation alone of Video Games as Art from a government organization is a radical decision being received both critically and optimistically.

On one hand, you have the great movie critic Roger Ebert, who claims, “Video games can never be art.” His statement comes as a response to a TED talk delivered by game developer Kellee Santiago titled, Video Games are art, so what’s next? Ebert is concerned on traditional definitions and manifestations of art and Santiago is optimistic about the evolution and potential of video games as art. (Ebert himself admits to only playing a couple video games his whole life and Santiago actually creates them.) Whether or not video games can be defined as art, it is clear that video games are evolving and with that comes an expansion of its definition to include more than just an entertainment aspect.

When you think of video games as a medium, just as film, poetry, dance, painting, and sculpture are, it’s easy to imagine varies types of intentions coming down the pipe from developer to gamer in the same way a poets intentions are channeled through the medium of writing. With the NEA’s encouragement of video games as art, we will see the mediums potential for manifesting various types of intentions.

In the past forty years, however, developers have been using video games as a way to be expressive and in some cases subversive.

In 1997, Jacque Servin, a content developer for the game SimCopter is famous for inserting shirtless “himbos” (male bimbos) in Speedo trunks who hugged and kissed each other. His intentions may have been because of the severe working conditions at Maxis, the company who produced SimCopter, and/or a $5,000 incentive from RTMark to create subversive material. Whetehr or not the insertion of “Gay Sims” acted as Servin’s commentary on the popular ideology that only heterosexual characters could be part of the gaming landscape, one thing is clear, it shows how video games as a medium can be charged with political initiative and unconventional intentions.

In 2009, That Game Company developed a precarious game called Flower (trailer). It explores environmental issues through the subconscious mind of a potted plant. The game begins with a single potted flower sitting on the windowsill of a grungy, worn down, desiccated apartment building in some random city. The camera zooms in on the flower and you enter the flowers dream. You play as the wind, moving through patches of flowers and grass to bring life to anything that looks dead or dried out. When you complete a level the apartment/city becomes a little bit more imbued with life. The game uses modern technology to communicate a concept that modern technology has put us out of touch with.

My final example comes from two artists I use to go to school with at the Pacific Northwest College of Art, Michael and Mark Martinez. They developed an interactive game called the Assimilator (2010). As Mark puts it, “…the player embodies the epitome of the “American” male. This piece dealt with the issues of racial stereotypes, gentrification and the American idea of the “Melting Pot.” Aesthetically, the Assimilator, takes the form of an 8-bit era videogame which (depending on the player) harkens feelings of nostalgia and gives the player a sense of “the good old days,” but as we can see from the content these are not those “good old days.”

Now imagine if these guys received a $200,000 grant from the NEA.

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