SFMOMA Curator (@SFMOMA_Curator) April 05, 2012
I am not a gamer. But I’ve always liked video games and watching people play them. I’ve also been following, with interest, the long-running discussion/disagreement about whether video games are, or can ever be, art.
The general art-or-not discussion misses the point that what makes games great is the performance aspect. It’s not about how the game looks, how the game plays, or even what story the game tells. It’s about how the game makes the players behave and think.
Chainworld is a great example of this. It managed to influence behavior without even having to be played and the whole story about what happened after it was let loose on the world is too bizarre to have been made up. I don’t want or need to play it, just watching what happened to those who did is enough.
Race Warriors is another example. Playing it makes us aware of the role-play required to play any video game. That the role play in this game is uncomfortable forces the gamer to confront unexpected things about himself—especially since the gameplay will* be more or less uncomfortable depending on which race war combination you get.
*It shouldn’t but it will.
Similarly, Gone From an Age: A Fitting proposes to make the gamers aware of the roleplay and contortions women* put themselves through for public acceptance and approval.
In all these cases, what we end up with is unexpected interactive performance art. Which means that where we’ve been looking at whether not the games are art, we really need to start thinking about whether the performance of the gamer is art.
Video games belong in a museum because both games and museums are intended to be safe places to be mentally stimulated in ways which we aren’t usually stimulated. Especially if the stimulation involves complicated emotions which go beyond mere “liking” of an object.
I now know why I enjoy watching people play video games. It’s the same impulse which causes me to watch other museum goers. I enjoy watching the interaction and transformation which the gamers undergo—especially since many of them only do this when playing games. People reveal unexpected sides of themselves when gaming just like they open themselves up to new things when viewing art.
The best games take people on a journey into behaviors or emotions they weren’t expecting. You shouldn’t be playing a game just to finish it now. Otherwise, what’s the point of playing it again? A good game should elicit a different performance from you each time you play it in the same way that great art reveals more each time you experience it.
Yes, most video games are kitsch. But then so is most art—or what passes as art. That doesn’t mean they all are or all have to be.