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A Brief History of Video Game Art

February 16, 2011, 9:50pm

Here’s a quick reference guide that will seek to explain the trends, terms, and movements of the brave new media world of art and technology. So you can skim, digest, and be a pseudo-expert next time you’re cornered at a Speed Show exhibition in your local cybercafe. Because, hey, life is short and art is long. This week: Video game art.

So, what is video game art? The use and practice of video games as a medium to produce art. The video games can be modified, turned into machinima (animations generated from game engines), used for in-game virtual performance art, as part of an installation, as a generative system, and can also include art games: games created to produce art rather than to be played purely for entertainment.


Where did it come from? The first art game to be produced, as in one that was made with the distinct purpose of being a piece of art rather than a video game, is virtual reality whiz Jaron Lanier’s Moondust in 1983. Released on Commodore 64, it was a generative music game. Throughout the 1990s game modification, along with machinima, became popular. Jodi created a black and white scrambled version of Wolfenstein 3D in 1992. Games artist Julian Oliver was using first-person shooters like Quake and Half-Life to create pieces like Quilted Thought Organ (‘QTHOTH’), a game-based performance environment. And in 2002 Cory Arcangel hacked a Super Mario Bros. cartridge to erase everything but the clouds, while in the art game world Flash point and click puzzler Samorost was winning artistic plaudits a year later. Turning multiplayer online gaming into artistic protest, Velvet Strike modifies Counter Strike’s violent gameplay so player’s fire graffiti instead of bullets. In 2004 a real-life version of Pac-Man was created in a large-scale performance piece called Pac-Manhattan, using the urban grid of New York as the maze, with mobile phones used to guide people.

This week you're really digging… Alison Mealey’s generative art, Unrealart, created using Unreal Tournament and based on photographic portraits where 30 minutes of game data is used to make complex drawings (detail of Oubliette above). Riley Harmon’s Counter Strike kinetic sculpture What It Is Without the Hand That Wields It, where every time a gamer dies in a modified version of the game on a public server, the sculpture leaks fake blood onto the floor.


Cory Arcangel’s Super Mario Clouds

Nano talk Dealing with the same representational aesthetics as other audiovisual arts, game art appropriates the digital realm and virtual spaces of gaming much like Andy Warhol used the iconography of pop culture to create pop art. Because after all, games are just another cultural artifact that can be manipulated.

Describe yourself as… Roger Ebert through the looking glass.

Keywords Modify, video, games, hack, render, graphics, patch, gamer.

Riley Harmon’s What It Is Without the Hand That Wields It

Difficulty level Game Over.

Age range From handheld to PC.

Tagline Bad artists copy. Great artists steal. Video game artists modify.

To recap: Disrupting the jumps, races, slashes, power-ups, and deathmatches of gaming to repurpose it for art.

Next week: Pixel art.

Mark Essen on The Creators Project

h/t The Creators Project