Are games imitating art or is art imitating games?
Are video games art or are they merely childish, mindless fun with a tendency towards hyper-violence? Once again these old questions are being bandied about. May 16 saw the launch of Game On, the biggest computer game exhibition, since, well"ever. And I went along to see what it's all about.
Imagine a world where arcades don't smell of BO, aren't situated in run-down coastal towns that are well and truly past their glory days and feature all your favourite games from the past 20 years and beyond. And the best thing is they're all free, I tell you, free!! Step forward Game On, a gaming extravaganza of games past, games present and games future. It also covers games in the movies, Japanese culture, marketing of games and the music of games (soon, check out my interview with Richard Jacques, composer of the Headhunter score and more).
"Computer games hailed as Art" one supplement belonging to a national newspaper read. Over the past week, arts and games critics alike have been writing about Game On and the little black, grey and purple boxes housed within its hallowed doors. The Barbican Gallery, London is a highly respected venue for everything from art, opera and jazz to exhibitions and its decision to play host to a bunch of computer games has caused a stir.
Game On is a retrospective of 40 years of computer games, right from Space Wars in 1962, through to the latest titles to hit the small screen. There are over 150 games to play and loads of cool gaming stuff to see, and there are over 150 games to play. Oh, er"I said that already. But it's dead good!
Step through the doors and you're greeted by a 15 foot black screen featuring the familiar three white lines and one white bouncing pixel. "Aaaaah, Pong!" we cried, gazing up in awe. Then I came to my senses and we rushed to the controls. It takes great strength of spirit to leave Pong and move on – so be warned.
Once you do move on, all manner of delights await you. First it's a bit of old school cool, with the likes of Pac Man and Space Invaders, for that original arcade feeling. Then you are taken to the birth of home entertainment and immersed in childhood memories.
The whole exhibition is like regression therapy. Watching a room full of journos return to the gaming womb is an eerie experience. People gathered round us whilst we whooped and fought to the death on Garou Mark of the Wolf. Grown men wept with joy when they came across the game they'd always wanted, but never owned.
Make sure you visit the section that covers marketing. Here you get a sneaky peak at the secret world of developers. Mysterious post-it notes with actual developer's scrawl show how the minds behind GTA III mapped out the storyline and gameplay. The game also had some great marketing gimmicks, such as gold, branded knuckle-dusters and a baseball bat – heh, cool. Tomb Raider, Pokemon and Final Fantasy were also hailed as masterpieces of marketing. The original artwork for the FF series is as stunning as you'd expect and well worth your inspection.
Then, because it's the Barbican, I suppose, we had to have some proper art – you know, done by "artists." I think we could have done with less installations featuring rooms with blinking lights and bleeping music, personally. It was like "Oh, that kind of looks like Space Invaders, but it's got some socio-political message man, and oh, this movie looks like a really crappy FPS, cool." I mean, pah-lease. Did they look for gaming influences in the art world and couldn't find any, so they had some made specially, or is it just a sweeping generalisation that all digital art, no matter how poor, is influenced by games?
How about focusing on the art behind video games themselves? See credits of any games titles, get the name of the artist and give them a call, like duh! I wanted more of the fantastic artwork behind games like Metal Gear (I can't believe it was omitted) and less frigging art college nonsense.
For some decent art with gaming influences, check out Mariko Mori, a Japanese artist. I guess Game On hasn't heard of her.
They might have been better off focusing on the influences on mainstream media and culture in terms of fashion, advertising and the like. A prime example is the Chilli Peppers' music video for Californication, with its Crazy Taxi imagery.
I did actually enjoy Game On – no, really, I did. But I think they should have left the poncy London artists at home in their warehouse apartments, rearranging their Japanese jeans collections.
As an exhibition on gaming, for gaming's sake, Game On works really well. Even if you're not into games (and that's just weird, frankly) there's something to be gleaned from the experience and I highly recommend you going along.
Game On runs at the Barbican Gallery, London from May 16th to September 15th 2002 and then moves to the Royal Museum, Edinburgh from October 12th to February 2nd 2003. There are plans for the exhibition to move to Japan and the USA, with details to be confirmed later. For more information log on to www.gameonweb.co.uk.