Art

The art of video games: We're not just playing around anymore

by John L. Tran

Contributing Writer

Millions of people have happy memories of stealing cars in Miami, killing Nazi zombies on the moon, and metaphorically fighting the laissez-faire capitalism of Ayn Rand in the submarine city of Rapture. Nowadays they might be taking things a bit easier; spending more time twiddling their thumbs at the office, half-heartedly messing about with spreadsheets and only occasionally interrupting the meaninglessness of work to catch rare Pokemon at lunch time.

If you share any of these video game experiences, you have been moving in the same magic circles of play, or “temporary worlds within the ordinary world, dedicated to the performance of an act apart” that Johan Huizinga (1872-1945) wrote of in his 1938 treatise “Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play-Element in Culture.”

Huizinga famously suggested that rather than call ourselves homo sapiens — which foregrounds the faculty of reason or wisdom — we could just as well, or even more accurately, call ourselves “homo ludens” or “man the player.” In championing play as a non-trivial pursuit, Huizinga considered it to be one of the core aspects of human civilization; an opportunity for experimentation and freedom that, at the same time, is bounded by rules and permits the creation of perfection, albeit temporary and limited.

Huizinga’s view of play, even when it relates to war and mortality, is one of richness and fecundity. Play is ultimately a productive activity in which humanity expresses itself. What would he make of “In a Gamescape: Landscape, Reality, Storytelling and Identity in Video Games,” the current exhibition at the InterCommunication Center Gallery?

As commentary on the gaming industry, and by extrapolation, the human condition in general, the exhibition is at times pretty merciless. Joseph DeLappe’s 2018-19 “Elegy: GTA USA Gun Homicides” reintroduces seriousness to the tongue-in-cheek comedic violence of the “Grand Theft Auto” action-adventure video game series by linking in-game acts of shooting to the total number of actual gun-related deaths in the U.S. The soundtrack for the piece is a 1938 recording of “God Bless America.”

An earlier work by DeLappe, “Dead-in-Iraq” (2006-11) uses the first-person shooter “America’s Army,” created by the U.S. military as a recruitment and training tool, to commemorate the death of 4,484 U.S. soldiers killed in Iraq. The original piece was a performative intervention in which DeLappe would go online and in real-time post the name and death date of a U.S. casualty. As gallery pieces, DeLappe’s work may seem heavy-handed and preachy, but as real-time interventions, they are raw and uncompromising.

As well as addressing the callousness and absurdity of violence in video games, the late Harun Farocki’s video installation “Parallel I-IV,” produced between 2012 and 2014, scrutinizes how virtual worlds are constructed. By suspending our reading of digitally produced colors and shapes as figurative representations, Farocki exposes the game environments as radically unnatural, and the behavior of characters both ridiculously inhuman and inhumane. This is in part achieved by juxtaposing scenes from popular games with a detached but curiously poetic voiceover that describes the strange rules of in-game behavior. It challenges viewers to penetrate the veil of representation behind which Farocki hints that assumptions about social reality are being inculcated or reinforced.

“Parallel I-IV,” Farocki’s last work before his death in 2014, points out what seems to be obvious, but the work is not about showing us something new and clever, as so much media art attempts to do. It is more about pushing us to reconsider how we read images and what assumptions contribute to this.

There seems to be hope for substantive change in Farocki’s work; the possibility that if we think hard enough we can puzzle our way out of the darkness. For other works in the exhibition, however, the “meaningless” of play seems to be symbolic of meaninglessness in general.

In Akihiko Taniguchi’s 2017 “Nothing Happens,” computer-generated household objects are made into anthropomorphic figures that stroll around a neighborhood park. Taniguchi manages viewer’s expectations well with the title, and while there may be cultural depths to this work related to Japanese moe gijinka (anthropomorphized objects as cute characters), the Saitama-based artist professes, according to a 2018 interview viewable on the Us Blah + Me Blah art website (usblahmeblah.online), that his approach is to make first and ask questions later. It’s quirky and a bit funny, but it’s difficult to see why the viewer should spend more time thinking about the work than the artist did.

Even less happens in Miltos Manetas’ work “SuperMario Sleeping.” Here, viewers watch an 8-bit Mario character fall asleep under a tree, but the banality is provocative enough to prompt consideration of the history of arcadian landscape painting, the hyper-acquisitive or goal-oriented nature of most games and the failings of modernism.

The latter two issues, as well as a questioning of freewill, also hang over Lucas Pope’s 2013 video game “Papers, Please,” a role-playing game in which you are required to grant or deny entry visas to hopeful foreigners, and Abdullah Karam and Causa Creations’ “Path Out,” which tells the story of the game developer’s escape from Syria. “How topical,” I hear you say? A May 2018 article in Variety (bit.ly/karamvariety) reported that Karam was denied entry to the U.K. from his new home in Austria, when he tried to attend the Casual Connect Europe Indie Prize ceremony for which “Path Out” was shortlisted. Both games are fairly damning commentary on how much mainstream games are aimed at teasing our desire for power and control.

Michael Frei and Mario von Rickenbach’s “Playables” series of interactive games pare down play to a sometimes humorous, and other times savagely sardonic minimum. “Coin” (2017), for example, allows you to use a mouse to drop a coin in a slot, with a satisfying clunk. The 2015 work “Plug & Play” — a combination of interactive computer animation and 2D drawing — allows you to push a male plug character into a corresponding female socket. There are also playable scenes that reference the 2009 body horror movie “The Human Centipede,” and also the process of concentration camp “selektion,” which was used to decide who was sent into hard labor, and who went into the showers to be gassed.

If this causes an overload of cognitive dissonance, try the beautifully melancholic and existentially devastating “Mountain” (2014) by David OReilly, in which you can hover over a rotating planet littered with bric-a-brac that hangs in the vastness of a universe indifferent to human endeavor.

“In a Gamescape: Landscape, Reality, Storytelling and Identity in Video Games” at the NTT InterCommunication Center runs until March 10; ¥500. For more information, visit www.ntticc.or.jp/en.