Into the fray of the rekindled "art game" discussion kicked off by the likes of Proteus and Dear Esther comes designer Pippin Barr's newest little exercise -- titled Art Game, of course.
Game maker and critic Barr frequently uses games to comment on games as well as cultural phenomena digital and otherwise. Among the best-known of his Sierra-style pixel titles is a game recreation of Marina Abramovic's piquant and perplexing The Artist Is Present -- a Museum of Modern Art exhibit where attendees lined up simply to sit across from Abramovic at a table.
Now, as audiences analyze (yet again) those popular games that exist in merry indifference to the supposed "rules" of design, Barr is bringing us back to his digital museum with Art Game, where players are invited to reimagine classic game forms as art pieces.
The Flixel-driven, Commodore 64-inspired browser game offers a choice between two single-player characters, sculptor Alexandra Tetranov and painter Cicero Sassoon, and one two-player option: Enigmatic video art pair William Edge and Susan Needle.
In the charmingly grayscale, haute art world of Art Game, Tetranov sculpts with Tetris, Sassoon paints with Snake and the video artists create as a pair through games of Spacewar. Beyond a cute conceit, this has the effect of repurposing game designs we've long taken for granted.
For example, as Tetranov you can play Tetris "correctly" for as long as you like, but you've been tasked with creating sculptures for an upcoming gallery show. You don't complete an artwork until you "lose" a game of Tetris, and the skeletal shapes and negative spaces of a poorly-played game look a lot more interesting as a pretend objet d'art than the tidiest effort to "win."
The task of using recognizable gameplay to create instead of to triumph is thought provoking, but Barr tells Gamasutra he didn't necessarily intend to respond to the recent dialogue.
"The idea of going out of my way to make a self-proclaimed 'art game' seemed a funny approach to the idea," he says. "I don't know how many of the 'real' art game makers are sitting there thinking 'this is an art game', or 'I am making an art game,' so I kind of wanted to go right at it."
The intention wasn't to mock art games or to define them ("that conversation is kind of played out by now, hopefully") -- but to explore what an art game might be.
"Being literal-minded, that means a game in which you make art, rather than the game itself being art in some magical way," he adds. "...Though maybe it is anyway. Who's to say?"
The "are games art" conversation doesn't interest Barr much, and nor does he see it as particularly contentious: "Games are obviously a medium in which big-A art can be created - it's absurd to think otherwise," he says. "That obviously doesn't mean that all games a fine art -- but that's a whole other thing, whether or not current games are 'good' art. And that stuff is decided in bizarre ways that no one can really control. Best not to worry."
In a way, Barr's Art Game is a way of being lighthearted about the issue -- "not to say that I take it lightly, but I don't want to engage with it in some head-on and earnest way," he clarifies.
"The game is about making art (with games, in a game), which is the most interesting thing about art in the first place, to me," he says.
His main goal was not to show off a message, but to let others experience the feeling of making art of their own with a game. After creating several Snake paintings, or Tetris sculptures or Spacewar video artworks, the player can call up the museum curator, who may select one for a gallery show. Eventually, the players can walk amid the installments of their own exhibits.
Encouraging players to be creative with games "is maybe a more productive direction than worrying about whether this or that game is an exemplar of art."
"Some people felt like it was snarky commentary on the meaninglessness of curatorial decisions, or the arbitrary nature of contemporary art, but that wasn't really it," he adds. "I made the game's curator arbitrary because it seemed like the most honest way to build it - if I'd had some underlying system that judged good and bad art, that would have felt wrong to me (not to mention that people would have gamed that underlying system)."
It was most important to Barr for people to experience "that feeling of making something, giving it a name, and putting it in front of other people to see what they think," he explains.
The "other people" in Art Game's gallery scenes are just digital, of course, but Barr says he placed them there to help enforce the player's satisfaction in owning the exhibit. "The original vision for the game was that player standing in a gallery, looking at someone else looking at something they had made," he says.
And giving players a chance to shake ideas about what game interfaces are "supposed" to be for and letting them be expressive offers a new way for the game to be meaningful. Many games are about performance and personal demonstration by design, so it's revealing to look that way at games like Snake that weren't specifically intended for that. What kind of Snake game would make a good painting?
"You're engaging with the rules of these games for other purposes, and hopefully seeing the games and your agency in them in quite a different light," Barr says.
"There's so much going on when we make things and show them to other people, it's such a weird and emotional ride," he adds. "I want the game to feel a bit like that."