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ThemesGenerative ToolsGame Art
On a Number of Aspects of Artistic Computer Games
Tilman Baumgärtel

I. Introduction: «There’s no turning back now!»

This opening scene is etched into the minds of an entire generation of computer players: a hall with grey walls, from which several passageways branch off; and in the background, dark mountain scenery. There are no humans around. We have landed at the Union Aerospace Corporation, a research laboratory on Phobos, a moon of Mars. We—or, more correctly, our avatars in the ‹first person Shooter› game «Doom»—are part of a unit of Space Marines who have been deployed to find out what happened to the people who had been working at the laboratory. After secret experiments, during the course of which matter had been sent through ominous gateways on an inter-dimensional journey through the universe, radio contact with the station had broken off. «Securing your helmet, you exit the landing pod. You hope to find more substantial firepower somewhere within the station. As you walk through the main entrance of the base, you hear animal-like growls echoing throughout the distant corridors. They know you're here. There's no turning back now.»[1] Thus begins the famous and notorious ‹first person Shooter› «Doom», which rangin a new era in the development of computer games when it was released in December 1993. The game comes from Texas computer game manufacturer id Software, which at the time was known for producing games with an extremely high level of violence. But the company also enhanced the technical possibilities of computer games. The genre of ‹first person Shooters› for the PC—games that are seen through the eyes of a fighting protagonist—was basically id‘s creation. But the most important of the developments that came from id was not the new perspective from which it allows its users to view computer games. In fact, id converted the principles of a hacker ethic[2] into a functioning business model. It has released the code for its games and has sold them over the Internet as shareware. In this business model, which is only possible in a digital economy, the program is available free of charge and only those who like it pay for it, but they can then also use additional functions. This sales technique was the basis for the breath-taking success of a business that made its founders multimillionaires. And when they discovered that their fans had hacked their games and had developed several versions of their first successful game «Wolfenstein 3D»—do you think they called the prosecuting attorney? No, they did not. In fact, as a feature in the next releases, they provided users with the possibility of creating their own ‹user-edited versions› of the game! David Kushner describes the consequences in his book Masters of «Doom,» a biography of sorts of id Software. The protagonists on the scene are John Carmack and John Romero, the founders of id Software and a kind of Lennon/McCartney of computer games: «Hey,» Romero told Carmack one day at the office, «Here is something you have to see.» He booted up «Doom»—or at least what was supposed to be «Doom»—on his computer. Instead, the trumpeting theme of the Star Wars movie began to play. The screen was filled, not with «Doom»’s familiar opening chamber, but instead a small, steelcoloured room. Romero hit the space bar, and a door slid open. «Stop that ship!» a voice commended from within the game. Carmack watched as Romero jolted down the hall past bleeping droids, white storm troopers, laser guns, the deep bellows of Darth Vader. Some hacker had completely altered «Doom» into a version of Star Wars. «Wow,» Carmack thought. «This is gonna be great. We did the Right Thing after all.»[3]If a defining scene were sought for artists that deal with computer games, then this might be it. And if a defining scene were sought for the considerably larger community of gamers who, day after day, spend their free time modifying their favourite games according to their own taste and generating their own versions—then this is also probably the one. «Doing the right thing»—in this connection, meant not taking his own creation «Doom» too seriously, but instead offering other hackers the opportunity to modify the game as they see fit; or rather paradoxically, taking his own cultural product «Doom» just seriously enough so that hackers were offered an opportunity to modify the game as they pleased. With «Doom,» a medium developed out of a game, an opportunity to create one's own worlds. With «Doom,» id Software put a potent piece of software for creating three-dimensional spaces into the hands of its customers. Of course, in 1994, there might have been methods by which better 3D simulations could be generated on PCs than «Doom.» But as easily as this? This was a Shooter game, which, because of its violence, immediately found a place of honour on a German government list being scrutinized for literature harmful to young people, was programmed in such a way that users could even write themselves into a game. Experience with computers was needed, to be sure, but the ability to program was not necessary. According to David Kushner, «[this] was a radical idea not only for games but for any medium. It was like having a Nirvana CD with tools to let listeners dub their own voices over Kurt Cobain’s, or a Rocky video that let viewers excise every cranny of Philadelphia for ancient Rome.» [4] On January 25, somewhat more than a month after the Internet release of «Doom,» Brendon Wyber, a student at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand, published the «Doom» Editor Utility (DEU) on the Internet. This program, which has been improved upon again and again, and which came about with the help of amateur programmers around the world, made it even easier to hack «Doom» and construct personal versions. «Doom» crossed with «Star Wars»? Why not a version of «Doom» in which the Simpsons fight Ronald McDonald? In the following years, articles appeared again and again in the press describing how students had changed their high schools into models of a Shooter game—most ofthem using «Doom» as a model, or the follow-up game «Quake», for which there was a mature ‹level editor› already available—followed by sheer indignation that the young people had made their school into a venue for virtual Shooter orgies. The critics certainly overlooked the fact that in doing so, the students had learned to work with a program that allowed 3D modelling and whose use a few years earlier had still been the privilege of industry and well-equipped research laboratories. Other games followed suit and also put tools for game creation in the hands of their users, turning consumers into producers of virtual fantasy worlds. In the case of the action game «Half-Life,» the modifications were so extensive that a complete new game came into being: «Counterstrike» was to become one of the most successful computer games of all time. Now, the possibility of modifying games to a greater or lesser degree from their standard versions is basically a standard feature. The action figures, maps and levels created by gamers—that is, the ‹playing fields› of computer players—were often offered as downloads on the Internet and brought their creators prestige on the gaming scene. The depiction of space, which characterized this level, had been the Holy Grail of academic computer visualization at the beginning of the nineties. Because of «Doom» and «Quake,» this technology came into children’s playrooms—and into artists' workshops. The possibilities that computer games offered their creators did not remain hidden for long, especially from artists who worked with new media or the Internet. The first attempt by an artist to use a computer game[5] as an artistic medium appears to have been «ars Doom» by Orhan Kipcak and Reinhard Urban. Their game, which was shown at ars electronica in 1995, was a crude satire on the art business, obviously in the tradition of context art of the early 1990s. Verena Kuni writes about the game in Blitzreview[6]. «No one helps anyone,» growls the player’s alter ego as it stumbles through catacombs as Nitsch, Baselitz or Beuys, armed with either a shotgun, paint brush or another tool. These catacombs are easily identifiable as being a digital model of the Bruckner House (the location where the ars electronica took place—see footnote) whose somewhat stiff 1970s' charm rather unwillingly couples with the characteristic SS prison aesthetictypical of «Doom.» A report for ORFOnline describes the work as follows: «After getting on board via the Internet, a user receives a character mask, perhaps that of Georg Baselitz, Nam June Paik or Arnulf Rainer. Then, with their tools—Baselitz' thumbs, Paik’s remote control or Rainer’s paint brush—works of art and artists can be destroyed.»[7] The article in the catalogue of the ars electronica names, among others, Ecke Bonk, Heimo Zobernig, Jörg Schlick and Peter Kogler as belonging to the opponents, among whom were other artists and critics as «involved inner circle artists.»[8] The favourite victim of «ars Doom» players was said to have been exhibition director Peter Weibel.[9] The work started a certain tradition. Afterwards, artists like Tobias Bernstrup and Palle Torsson (see below) as well as Florian Muser and Imre Osswald (with a level that was created after the example of the Hamburger Galerie für Gegenwart[10]) strived to introduce computer games as a commentary on the art business and its institutions. Among the first artists to deal with games as a medium was the artist-duo Jodi, who, however, blazed a completely different aesthetic trail. In 1999, as guests of the Budapest Media Art laboratory C3, they made a first modification of ‹first person Shooter› «Quake,»[11] which has since been followed by many more new variations under the name «Untitled Game.» [12] These depart in ever stronger, alarming and exciting ways from the appearance and rules of the original game. About the same time, Margarete Jahrmann and Max Moswitzer, with their work entitled «LinX3D» (1999), brought the game called «Unreal» into an abstract debate with the ‹materiality› of code. The works of Jodi and Moswitzer/Jahrmann, therefore, led to several themes which would soon interest other artists. While simple modifications of existing architectures into computer game architectures quickly turned into a blind alley, these artists concentrated on the special graphic qualities of the games. These were subjected to merciless deconstruction in a manner similar to that done earlier on the Websites of Jodi’s Internet projects. For Jodi, the manipulation of the graphical interface was not enough—they also began to be interested in the non-visual aspects of software. This included, for example, the user’s guide and the ‹game physics› which Jodi changed to the point of being almost completelyunusable for the game. This is the approach that artists like Tom Betts and Joan Leandre used as a starting point in their work. In this text, we will concern ourselves with art that has come about through interchange with games. Therefore, works that utilize codes of computer games as the foundations for their own works will be in the focus of attention. I will not, however, limit myself to this area alone. It seems to be in the nature of this topic that artists have not limited themselves to ‹exclusively› re-working codes but have dealt with all facets of the many levelled themes of computer games. This specifically also includes excursions into ‹traditional› areas of art production—like painting, installations or video. This multi-facetted nature had a pleasant side effect for the exhibition called «games. Computerspiele von KünstlerInnen» which could be seen in 2003 at the hARTware medien kunst verein[13]. The presentation, which I conceived and for which I acted as a curator, together with hARTware founders Iris Dressler and Hans D. Christ, could not limit itself to showing computer programs running on computers but also had to include installations, paintings and video. The following ideas developed from working on this exhibition.[14] I have divided the following overview into three loose categories: abstraction, modification and socialization. Although the first category deals with works that directly follow the historical methods of graphical abstraction, the second focuses on works that deal with direct, artistic intervention into software. Works that will be considered under the category of ‹socialization› leave the narrow realm of direct interaction with computer programs and concern themselves with the surrounding socio-cultural environment of games—their playing, their reception and their position in the ‹real world,› in which they are components of complex connections between technology, economic interests and a highly developed fan culture.

II. Modification

The point of departure for artistic work with computer games was the possibility of modifying the games themselves by using level editors. All approaches that start with changing the game interface were first established after artists from the media and Internet art scene had begun to discover the possibilities of modifying computer games. These modifications result in the premises of theoriginal game leading to either partial or complete absurdity, or they contradict those premises explicitly. In this way, they also differ from most of the modifications that had been introduced by fans. As a rule, fans contented themselves with ‹new decorations› of existing structures, whereas artists carried out very many far-reaching changes, some of which led to the games becoming completely unplayable. Meanwhile, even the notorious ‹Shooter games,› that is, the so-called ‹first person Shooters,› put programs capable of developing three-dimensional spaces—the so-called ‹level editors›—at the disposal of their users. Using these programs, the players could create their own ‹levels;› this was a method of keeping gamers tied longer to a particular game. In the meantime, these programs were, to a certain extent, even being used by architects to visualize their blueprints. The ‹first person Shooter,› which presents a game from the perspective of the person doing the action, also always deals with the depiction of perspective and space. Even the illusionary character of the spaces, which were developed in this way, made artists become interested in these programs from the very beginning. The software versions that the artists came up with use commercial game software in ways for which it was not intended. These modifications penetrate like parasites into the existing program which they alter and—going from partial to complete unrecognizability—alienate, and therefore exploit their own artistic goals. With respect to these works, artist Annemarie Schleiner writes: «Like the sampling rap MC, game hacker artists operate as culture hackers who manipulate existing techno-semiotic structures towards different ends or, as described by artist Brett Stalbaum, ‹who endeavor to get inside cultural systems and make them do things they were never intended to do›.»[15] The art history of the 20th century is full of examples of these types of appropriations and redesignations, including: the «Ostranenie» of Wladimir Shklovsky[16], Bertolt Brecht’s «Verfremdungseffekt» (alienation effect), the recontextualization of Pop Art or the détournement of the Situationists [LI Debord]. The distortion of aesthetically complete pieces can be regarded as one of the most effective and workable ideas of modern art. Media scholar Claus Pias pointed out the parallels between the artistic modifications ofgames and the ‹Appropriation Art› of the 1980s. At the same time however, he states that he was not out to «discredit the ideology of originality, authenticity or expertise from which the [computer art] undertook its critical mission within the institution of art… If there is… an ‹ideology of computer games› that could be deconstructed by appropriation, then perhaps it is in the nature of humanistic arrogance to wrongly believe that the game is in the possession of the subject.»[17] Tobias Bernstrup / Palle Torsson: «Museum Meltdown» (1996-1999) Tobias Bernstrup, a Swede, would be one of the first artists to personally attempt his own game modifications. In 1996, together with Palle Torsson, he modified the game called «Duke Nukem» so that it depicted the museum in which he was exhibiting.[18] With regard to the first version, which the Arken Museum in Copenhagen displayed, the artists say the following on their web site: «Since the museum was recently built and had a somewhat superficial architecture, we thought it would be interesting to do something that dealt with the idea of the entire exhibition space. The interior had a lot of fake details, like big metal panels and doors. This fake hi-tech style corresponded well to computer game aesthetics. When we found the game «Duke Nukem3D,» which had a level editor, we decided to transform the actual space into a game environment.» Since then, he has frequently re-arranged this work, under the title «Museum Meltdown,» for other exhibition venues, including, among others, the Moderna Museet in Stockholm and the Center for Contemporary Art in Vilnius which were designed with the «Warcraft» level editor for the game «Doom.» The artists have emphatically pointed out that they also view their project as a commentary on the «art world operating system» (Thomas Wulffen): «The range of human interactions in our game is very limited, the rewriteable program code of the game contains the basic lab for understanding the art world through game theory.»[19]

Jodi: «SOD» (1999)

Jodi has subjected the game «Quake» to a radical treatment, resulting in all objective details and all textures being removed, with only abstract symbols remaining. This precursor of «Quake,» which was also developed by id Software, is now reduced to just a mysterious black and white landscape in which only rarely can be seen what is being hunted or what is blocking the way. The castlewith the intertwined passageways, through which the player has to find his way, looks like a gallery in which only copies of Kasimir Malevitch's «Black Square» are hanging on the walls; Nazis have become black triangles—they are recognizable because they occasionally yell «Achtung!» Of all the game modifications that Jodi has produced, it is the graphical aspects that are the most reduced. At the same time however, the mechanics of play of the original game are respected. «SOD» is quite playable and is really «fun to play,» as the reviews in the computer game magazines have so often noted. In addition, the game is Jodi's hommage to the programmers at id Software for technical breakthroughs that they have achieved by creating threedimensional spaces on PCs.

Joan Leandre: «retroYou r/c» (2000)

In «retroYou r/c» Joan Leandre has reprogrammed a race in several levels, and changed the rules by which space, movement, gravity etc. are simulated. The game, in the original form of which, small, remote-controlled cars had to be steered through an American suburb, is only recognizable as such in the first few versions. Later modifications become increasingly more abstract and the game becomes less and less navigable in the usual sense: cars fly though the air instead of driving on the road and if attempts are made to control them, they hurl themselves more and more uncontrollably through space. Joan Leandre continued this approach with «retroYou nostalG,» which subjected a flight simulator to similar treatment.

Tom Betts: «QQQ» (2002)

In Tom Betts' «QQQ,» initially, we see images that look like they were formed in a broken kaleidoscope—sometimes in icy blue and white, sometimes in warm shades of brown. In addition, there is roaring and droning to be heard. A human silhouette suddenly appears to be seen running through the confusion. Seasoned gamers recognize the figures: they are martial arts fighters from the ‹first person Shooter› «Doom» rushing through the game to ‹frag› one another; that is, to shoot each other down. Upon closer inspection, parts of the passageways, staircases and halls that form the background and the playing field for «Doom» can be seen in the image fragments. Tom Betts has taken apart the individual elements of the game, the task of which is actually to simulate an apparently realistic, three-dimensional space. What used to be rooms now looklike nonrepresentational images in constant motion, so the work could also be viewed as if it had abstract characteristics of computer games—that is, if the source from which these images arise were not available. Tom Betts runs his own server through which fans of the Shooter game can play against each other on the Internet. Without the players knowing it, data traces left behind on the server are gathered together and become part of the work. So «QQQ» is actually a hidden Internet work of art which extends itself by receiving input from unsuspecting players via the White Cube in the exhibition room. Data control the images that the observer sees in the exhibition room: a shimmering confusion of colours and shapes on which the observer, however, has almost no influence. The perspective can be changed, but «QQQ» offers no further ‹interaction'. With «QQQ,» Betts not only modified the interface of the game but also the entire complex, technical infrastructure of an online game. In addition, he drew the players› milieu into his work. When the work is installed, it is sometimes completely quiet. But at night or at the weekend, it can suddenly spring to life and start droning if online players match up against each other in industrialized nations. If players occasionally leave the game without warning, then the image that was seen from the perspective of a fighter is suddenly left behind, and it becomes very, very quiet.

Lonnie Flickinger: «Pencil-Whipped» (2001)

If «QQQ» by Tom Betts appears to be the ultimate in visual sophistication, then »Pencil-Whipped« by Lonnie Flickinger appears to be the exact opposite. The game shows a peculiar black and white universe. The walls, floors and roofs look like they were scrawled by a three-year-old. There are also little scribbled figures that dance around the player and annoy him. If one of these figures is struck, a muffled thud is heard, and the figure falls over like a piece of cardboard. While normal ‹first person Shooter› games put all their efforts into looking as realistic as possible on the computer monitor, Flickinger does the exact opposite. His game landscape looks like a three-dimensional version of a picture scribbled by a child. In contrast to other computer games, Flickinger does not try to imitate reality as faithfully as possible. Instead, he creates a very idiosyncratic universe which calls into question the status quo of game design.

Cory Arcangel: «Super Mario Cloud» (2002)

Like Arcangel Constantini, Cory Arcangel hacked and modified, not a piece of software but of hardware—the cartridge on which the game «Super Mario» is stored, or rather, was stored—to produce «Super-Mario Cloud».[20] This is because, by disconnecting some contacts on the circuit board and putting in a chip for which Arcangel wrote his own program, superhero Super Mario disappears, together with all the obstacles over which he has to jump. Only a few comical, white clouds remain in a blue sky. Arcangel took away all the narrative elements of the game and everything that made it dynamic.

III. Abstraction

Many works that deal with computer games from an artistic perspective have concentrated on the genuinely graphical nature of computer games and have sought the types of images that actually can only be produced with this medium. In addition, the representational conventions and, above all, the visual limitations of games have become important subjects for artists. In such works, computer games often appear as a kind of further development or a curious variant of abstract painting. This theme is inherent in the development of computer games, which in the beginning could show little more than geometrical shapes. The ‹building-block look› of the first games for video arcades or early play consoles like the Atari 2600 actually recall historical techniques of picture-making in stunning ways. Ancient Greek and Roman mosaics or the Moorish «alicatado» (tile covering) of the Alhambra in Granada are only two examples of historical production methods that show a clear connection to the pixels from which computer images are constructed. In the meantime, the fact that early games of the seventies have an obvious connection to abstract art of past eras has almost become a commonplace in academic discussions. Mark J.P. Wolf, an American media scholar writes: «The video game began with perhaps the harshest restrictions encountered by any nascent visual medium in regard to graphic representation. So limited were the graphic capabilities of the early games that the medium was forced to remain relatively abstract for over a decade.»[21] Like many computer players who had been socialized through games during the seventies and early eighties, Wolf is also of the opinion that the further graphical development of computer games, which nowpermit the creation of almost deceptively accurate photorealistic fantasy worlds, is not just a step forward aesthetically: «This great, untapped potential will only be mined by deliberate steps back into abstract design that take into consideration the unique properties of the video game medium.»[22] Many of the artists who modify computer games have done him this favour and stress exactly those abstract, non-object bound aspects of computer game graphics. It is not necessary to be preoccupied with dates, which is popular in German media theory, in order to notice that the visually poor early days of computer games fall into a period in which creative minimalism was also considered a virtue in the arts. During the period in which computer games like «Spacewar» (1962), «Pong» (1972) or «Asteroids» (1973) only consisted of two-dimensional elements on a black background, a radical reductionism was en vogue in the fine arts as a result of minimalist and concept art. [23] The parallels do not stop with the scanty visuals: artists like John F. Simon Jr. (who in the nineties became one of the first software artists) have repeatedly pointed out similarities between concept-based and software-based art. «I see parallels between my work and works by those like Lawrence Weiner and Sol LeWitt at the end of the sixties,» says Simon. «Their wall sketches especially were nothing more than a set of instructions…I believe that software and programming are a natural continuation of this concept because software is basically nothing more than a set of instructions… The ideas of some concept artists could be written as programs and could then be implemented by a computer. The art works would then simply produce themselves. Or, more simply: art does what it says. That’s the way I look at my programs.»[24] Florian Cramer has also taken up this argument, but emphasizes that, compared to its historical predecessors, software art today is, «no longer a laboratory construct and paradigm of conceptualistic purification but rather, since the spread of errorridden code from PCs and the Internet, a cause of crashes, incompatibilities and viruses; a symbol of contingency instead of stringency.» [25] The defect paradigm has also played a role in artistic modifications of computer games although, interestingly enough, a considerably smaller one than in Internet and software art. Above all,destruction—or should we say creative modification?—is the focus of works that specifically concentrate on using the true graphic qualities of games as ‹visual raw materials› like, for example, in Arcangel Constantini's «Atari Noise» or Jodi’s «JET SET WILLY ©1984». [WB und http,//] By way of example in what follows, I will present some of these works that deal explicitly with abstract representational forms of computer games.

Arcangel Constantini: «Atari Noise» (1999)

Arcangel Constantini is a hardware hacker. In the scene, these are hackers whose efforts are not directed towards breaking into software but rather into the equipment on which software runs. His work called «Atari Noise»[WB und http,//], which has been shown at international festivals and exhibitions, is a rather crude modification of the well-known Atari 2600 console. This piece of equipment, which came on the market in 1977, is a predecessor of today’s popular console types like Playstation or Gamecube. In contrast to the leading consoles, which were generally delivered only with preinstalled games, the 2600 could be fed with cartridges on which games were stored. The apparatus was connected to a television set. Constantini, a Mexican, modified the console—which today can be bought cheaply at flea markets or on Ebay—into an «audiovisual noise pattern generator keyboard,» as he calls it. This means that crossed some of the elements of the play console with each other so that it was no longer the ‹correct› images that were shown but rather a chaotic muddle of distorted picture elements. For example, a tennis game became a row of greenish and bluish lines where a serious effort was required to recognize any pattern. Constantini added a row of buttons to the console chassis with which the image could be modified continually. This deconstruction of visual raw materials is not just part of a long, modern tradition of alienation, which we will see in the next chapter on modifications. «Atari Noise» refers to one of the most important works of media art: the «Videosynthesizer» (1969/1992) by Nam June Paik, but in a low-tech version. While at that time Paik had to bring in Shuya Abe, a technician, in developing a machine where moving images could be manipulated in real time, «Atari Noise» reflects a media culture in which the required hardware is available as scrapelectrical parts. The perpetually new images that the machine generates stress the special properties of these ‹game screens› by creating abstract distortions, and make it clear that there is simply no other medium that can produce such images.

Jodi: «Jet Set Willy © 1984» (2002)

«Jet Set Willy © 1984» by Jodi, which was created for a travelling exhibition in Basel, Berlin and New York, is an alienated version of a game for the Sinclair Spectrum, one of the first affordable home computers at the beginning of the 1980s.[26] Since it is a ‹modification›, it could be included in that category as well. However, since Jodi has been showing the work not only with the possibility of interactive ‹self-service› but also as a linear video projection, I have decided for a different category in this case. Without the usual possibilities of intervention, the viewer sees the images go by like a combination of abstract cartoons in the Oskar Fischinger tradition and an animated work of concrete poetry. At first, apparently meaningless chains of letters from code segments appear on screen, which at best make sense only as images put together with letters. Then multi-coloured quadrilaterals move through a room built out of thick beams, immediately reminiscent of Mondrian paintings. Later versions of «Jet Set Willy © 1984» develop this aesthetic further in another direction where, for example, all the colours are removed from the game or the playing scenarios are replaced with nothing but text. Of course, this makes the work a modification of an existing game that is reminiscent of the work of Tom Betts or Jodi’s own modifications of «Quake» and «Quake.» Yet while Jodi show a pre-enacted version as a video, they use their work—as «Machinima» filmmakers do—as software in order to produce their own films and to give their work another conceptual direction. Instead of deconstructing the ‹contents› of the program, only its re-designation as a tool for generating animations is in the foreground.

Norbert Bayer («Mr. Ministeck»): «Touchscreenss» (1998–2001)

Norbert Bayer uses computer games to generate picture motifs for his plastic mosaics. This Berlin artist, who operates under the pseudonym «Mr. Ministeck»[27], turned the toy of the same name from the seventies into his medium. His series, called «Touchscreens,» is based on screen shots from games on the C 64 home computer. Bayer re-materializes these immaterialimages that represented an initial contact with digital images for an entire generation of computer users. His works are reminiscent of Pop Art in their emphasis on technical composition, like the use of rasters, which Roy Lichtenstein or Sigmar Polke stress in their paintings, or the blurring and fuzziness of photographs that Andy Warhol and Gerhard Richter produce.

IV. Socialisation

As should be clear by now, computer games are not only a fascinating aesthetic development but also a social movement. This is shown by different phenomena like, for example, LAN parties, in which as many as several thousand players face off against each other in a kind of tournament. Then there are online players, who in games like «Ultima-Online,» have created their own economies, whose ‹products› are traded for real money in ‹real life'. There are also amateur graphic artists who, using the ‹photo album› function from «The Sims,» build entire photo novels. J.C. Hertz speaks of «a decentralized culture that rapidly learns, adapts and selects for best practices. This culture and its processes are perhaps the Industry’s greatest assets.» [28] The works that will be described in the following section deal with the social culture that has been built up around computer games. They also take a quick look at their targets ‹from the outside,› as it were. Instead of dealing with the inner life of the games—the code—and instead of making the superficial into a major theme, they deal with how computer games in the ‹real world› are relocated—whether it be via the elements through which we interact with them, or via the forms used in their construction. They check their interfaces with reality and make us aware how limited our hold on the virtual worlds always is, despite all the technical progress that has been made.

Olaf Val: «swingUp Games» (2001)

Olav Val developed a computer game at minimal expense. He made a simple game using transparent plastic film, bicycle lamps, a small circuit board and a few electrical parts. Val describes his work as follows: «The games are conceived so that they can be easily transported and installed… ‹swingUp Games› is oriented towards acting as a point of communication with a wide audience.»[29] Apart from this, they also function as a pedagogical media project: Val holds workshops where young people can build and program their own games and de-mystify how video gamesoriginate.

Volker Morawe/Tilman Reiff: «Painstation» (2001)

Creators Volker Morawe and Tilman Reiff have even shown their Painstation on the «Harald Schmidt Show» (a popular evening program on German TV until 2003). Their game is a version of the classic game of «Pong.» Unlike in the original game, if one of the players misses a ball, that player is not punished by having a point being given to his opponent. Instead, punishment comes in the form of direct, physical pain: his hand is tormented by heat, electric shocks or blows from a small whip. Such painful reality comes from a completely abstract, immaterial game, a reality that, for once, confronts the players with real consequences for their actions in virtual space.

SF Invader: «Space Invader» (since 1999)

The French artist hiding behind the pseudonym SF Invader took the computer game title with its entire double meaning literally, and unleashed an invasion of digital art figures into real space. Using tile mosaics, he leaves his mark in public spaces with figures from the classical computer game Space Invaders (1978): he sticks the little attackers from the cosmos on the façades of houses, street signs, and bridges—even the Brooklyn Bridge and the Hollywood sign are not safe from attack from outer space. His campaigns, which, in the meantime, have taken place around the globe, are meticulous and have been documented in maps, photos and videos on an opulent web site In case anyone has any doubts, he has the proof: They are among us!

Beate Geissler/Oliver Sann: «Shooter»(2000-2001)

Within the space of a year and a half, the artist duo Sann/Geissler organized a series of LAN parties at their studio to which they invited players who were passionate about games. The results of this collaboration are documented in the two-part «Shooter.» Using a front-mounted camera on a monitor, they photographed players, always from the same perspective, and put them on video while they were playing against each other on a LAN. Through body language, gestures and facial expressions, they mirrored the drama of the conflict. Just like «Painstation,» this work deals with the rematerialisation of immaterial processes, and with the human relationship to unreal, virtual spaces. Above all, however, «Shooter»is a portrait of a generation—the gamer generation—that otherwise received hardly anyattention from the public or the media; whatever attention it did receive was negative.


The origin of artistic computer game modifications is at the end of a detour for arts that deal with new media. Artists have been using the Internet since the middle of the nineties. Hype about the Internet had come out, but actually, it was a comparatively exotic medium at that time, and Net Art profited from this. Likewise, at the end of the nineties, artists increasingly turned to the difficult-tounderstand area of desktop software before they finally discovered the mass phenomenon of computer games for themselves. The discovery of this secular theme in secular art also needed time, although computer games at this point would have already been available as objects of artistic modification for nearly forty years. Artistic experiments should therefore not immediately be elevated to the position of a new art movement á la or Software art. Their methods are too divergent for that. Many of the artists who work with computer games have of course been active in the areas of Internet and software art. Yet it would be a simplification if the works this essay focuses on were looked upon as a subcategory of Software art. To be sure, they are to a large degree actually based on code, and are actual software. Yet in contrast to most software works that do not come out with internal commentaries on programs and computer functions, many of these works take up definite positions on a multi-level social, economic and political network of themes that go far beyond simply re-designating or recontextualising software. Whoever works as an artist with computer games is dealing with a subject that has now become an integral part of Pop culture, even if it is socially marginalized, at least in Germany. This marginalization certainly stands in no relation to the cultural and financial importance of computer games. In the USA alone, computer games represent a 2.5 billion dollar business annually. They are part of the media socialization for most young people in western industrialized countries and, at the same time, one of the most important motivations for building faster and faster, higher performance computers. Artistic experiments with computer games apply not only to code but also, along with this entire cultural and economic complex, to a mature social culture that hasbeen built around computer games. Art that deals with computer games therefore has quickly moved beyond the boundaries within which most Internet art and software art is situated. At the same time, in games, art has found a subject with which it had much in common structurally. In his famous essay «Homo Ludens,» Dutch historian John Huizinga convincingly demonstrated that the apparently so regressive game is in reality the origin of human culture, and therefore of the fine arts as well. To be sure, Huizinga’s remarks on contemporary art of his time remain rather superficial, [30] yet many of the elements that he describes as being fundamental to games are also valid for art: their apparent meaninglessness and pointlessness, their position outside of the everyday world, their «being forever childish.» Even if many artists of the 20th century have integrated elements of games into their own work, it is in works like those described above where art and games first came together in mutually complementing forms.

© Media Art Net 2004