For the most part, the debate as to the merit and the extent of artistic expression that is contained within electronic entertainment (read: videogames) has grown long in the tooth by 2011. Droves of believers have wasted endless virtual breath crying foul at the well-documented and only recently pseudo-retracted blasphemy of Roger Ebert.
Because ultimately, and to paraphrase another tired argument, art is in the eye of the beholder. If you look upon Shadow of the Colossus, Flower, Braid, Catherine, or even Modern Warfare and see something that speaks to you with the same voice you hear when you gaze upon the canvases of Thomas Eakins, Keith Haring, or even Jim Lee, there is simply nothing a movie critic, or anyone, can do to tell you with any conviction that your feelings are wrong.
That said, it is worth noting, with an irrational yet smug sense of triumph, that New York City’s very own Museum of Modern Art agrees with you. On July 27th, the MoMA , one of the most preeminent modern art museums in the world, in cooperation with gaming mag Kill Screen hosted an evening called Arcade, as part of the MoMA’s July-November exhibit entitiled “Talk to Me: Design and the Communication between People and Objects. “
Games Abyss was on the scene in full force to experience this one-night only event. The line for entrance wrapped around the block and interestingly enough, seemed to be populated by equal parts gamers and New York’s art-connoisseur crowd alike. The exhibit itself was laid out in the evening’s “World Map” contained within the program. Three floors, the most substantial of which was the MoMA’s lobby and sculpture garden, with both prerecorded and fully interactive examples of some of the medium’s most independent and avant-garde work . Musical stylings for the evening were provided by a tireless DJ and an open bar of wine and beer facilitated leisurely exploration of the many displays.
Entry into the gallery was welcomed with a floor-to-ceiling projection of indy-darling Limbo, a game that most gamers already have an their short list as an example of art in interactive form. Also on display were interactive projections of Echochrome, the rhythm game/pong mash up of Bit.Trip Beat, a Kinect project by a duo of Harmonix programmers entitled Synapse, and even Little Big Planet. In the main gallery, the multiplayer B.U.T.T.O.N had happily tipsy museum goers set down their wine and commence in tripping over each other to be the first to follow on screen prompts.
On the second floor, embraced by wallpaper of 8-bit iconography was an exhibit dedicated to well known and future ipad/tablet games. Canabalt and Paper-Toss were familiar to many, but the Princeton developed Qwop in which the player must deliberately coordinate every single movement of an Olympic runner’s body in real time brought cries of frustration from player and bursts of laughter from onlookers. Around the corner, the game-meets-social media experiment of Sleep is Death was on display.
For me, the power of videogames as an artistic medium came later in the evening. With a few Brooklyn Brewery Summer Ales running warmly through my stomach and veins, I wandered back to observe the floor-to-ceiling projection of Limbo. In shades of blacks and grays, the game’s depiction of a young boy’s haunting journey through the afterlife had kept a consistently riveted crowd the entire evening. While this writer has played Limbo through to its completion on his own television, marveling at its monochromatic beauty and still haunted to this day by its controversially esoteric ending, I allowed myself to sit back and watch as others, non-gamers in particular, witnessed it for the first time. Onlookers stood in an appreciative semi-circle with Limbo at its center. Just as if it were a static canvas hanging from the great walls of the Museum of Modern Art, they nodded and cooed at its aesthetics. And yet what Limbo offered them was something that could not be offered by conventional ideas of art: interaction, and all of the joy and horror that accompanies it.
It was a truly compelling moment for me to watch as non-gamers gasped and awed at the images projected on the screen, controlled by one among them. They reacted with wine-stained smiles to the boy’s triumphs in sailing across dark waters, climbing through bleak forests. And when one player met her gruesome and shocking demise on the sharp end of a large and malevolent spider’s leg, the looks of emotion, horror, and exhilaration on the faces of the crowd were inspiring. Whether interactive or not, the narrative and stirring depiction of images painted by Limbo have the power to invoke the strongest of human emotions in those who perceive it. For that reason, such a collection of work could be called by no other name than art.