On Games as Art

Turbine Hall by GaryMarshall@flickr

Turbine Hall by GaryMarshall@flickr

Its difficult to imagine the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern if you haven’t been there. The space is as vast as a cathedral, dwarfing visitors into insignificance. Great grey concrete wings of walls surround you, cool air vaulting the ceiling, sleek ramps leading down to the floor of the hall or up towards the different galleries.

And in this space, the Tate Modern invites notable modern artists to install something interesting. Something to entertain the masses, because the gallery has become very beloved of Londoners and visitors alike. It’s  free (you only pay to get into some of the special exhibitions) and also it’s not an intimidating museum, reserved only for the art literati. Londoners loved the gigantic metal spider, puzzled at the stacks of giant sugar cubes, and played nicely with the bodyspacemotionthings.

The most recent installation is a giant metal container with one end left open. A metal ramp leads up to it. The inside is so black that when you walk in you cannot see the end. It’s muffled so that sounds don’t echo. So far so good.

But a critic at the Guardian complained that people are interacting with the exhibit wrongly. “Why do we let the public in?,” he wondered. All they do is chatter and treat it like a fairground ride. And he was so sure that this container represented the experience of Jews being sent to concentration camp that the thought of people interacting with it in a WrongBad way really upset him.

“Is the Tate Modern audience ready for a chilling and serious work that invites contemplation of death and dereliction and the Holocaust? Apparently not, if the annoying atmosphere on the first public day of the exhibit was anything to go by.“

But the artist hadn’t said that was the meaning of the piece, even though he’s worked with holocaust imagery previously.

I was reminded of reading long rants in blogs or bboards, complaining that other people were playing MMOs in a WrongBad way. How dare those players roleplay? How dare they minmax? How dare they find things to do in the game that the devs hadn’t planned?

Usually, neither the devs nor the artists are the people making those complaints. Because as long as no one is griefing other players or cheating, they know that all interactions with the game/art are productive. There is no wrong way to play, unless you refuse to engage at all.

When I went to the Tate Modern I found walking into the container far more interesting to experience myself than it looked from the outside. You walk in through the entrance, the velvety darkness folding in around you. People you know turn into dim shadows. But the full impact of the piece only struck me after that when I turned around to leave. Light blazed in gloriously through the container’s entrance. The only reason I hadn’t seen it before was that … I’d been facing the wrong way. If you walked into the dark with a sense of gloom, you walked out with a sense of hope.

Or maybe I was just playing it wrong and having WrongBadFun.

9 thoughts on “On Games as Art

  1. Indeed – I mean, Check this video I did for example http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gMhmizWpn9E

    we were ready to go to a heroic, and then thought — no actaully, lets kite anachronos for a joke– till eventually we decided to go all the way to ogrimmar, it was hilarious.

    This is good fun, but then people could be like “whats the point in kiting something that fair just to die?”. Why not.

  2. There are three kinds of happiness:
    1) The kind that bothers no one.
    2) The kind that bothers people and should stop.
    3) The kind that bothers people who deserve to be bothered.

  3. I don’t have much to add, but I wanted to say that I appreciate the thoughtfulness of this post. Usually the “Games as Art” discussions aren’t this insightful; comparing an art exhibit to role-playing is inspired.

    A total aside, your link to bodyspacemotionthings doesn’t work for me.

  4. Eh, you say that there is no bad way to interact with it, but I would love to screw that “modern art” up by talking loudly and bringing a flashlight and boombox. I always thought installation and performance art is a joke, personally, and in that regard I very much would be a “griefer” which looks to destabilize the intended purpose of the art for personal reasons.

    Most art like that does have an intended purpose in the effect they try to evoke. If someone bought that piece, painted the inside in bright polka-dot colors and installed a huge disco ball, the artist probably would be pissed, because the intended effect would be destroyed. The guardian guy may not have guessed the thematic effect, but the intended one was probably lessened by people chattering or hearing their cellphones go off.

    MMOs are kind of similar in that there are intended effects often subverted. Add-ons for one are kind of like painting in polka-dots. They subvert intended effects of gameplay very easily.

    • I did say:

      “as long as no one is griefing other players or cheating, they know that all interactions with the game/art are productive.”

      So griefing is one of the things I count as a bad way to interact.

      Having said that, if the experience that the guy was trying to evoke was of being in there with a load of other people, then it might not matter what the other people were doing.

      • Game companies do support and encourage griefing, so they seam to have the impression that griefing is productive or fun.

        I can only add examples of WoW but you will undoubtedly be able to add examples of other games.

        * They changed treasure to be only lootable when out of combat, making it easy to grieve.
        * Same for mining nodes which are difficult to loot in combat because damage aborts the mining process.
        * Mob only drop the item for the group who tagged it, making it painful to quest in a crowded area and forcing you to camp named spawns. Some classes have better abilities to tag a mob (e.g. consecrate which tags the mob before it spawns on the client.)
        * Adding achievements/quests/zones which force you to turn on PvP, even on a PvE server. Allowing others to grieve you.

        That could all be “fixed” easy.

        * Allow everybody to mine a node once for 5 minutes after the first person mined it.
        * Named mobs could drop quest items on the floor or in a chest and not as drop loot. If a mob can drop up to 5 heads, he could also drop some more.
        * Don’t lull people into PvP for PvE rewards (items that are better in PvE or easier to obtain than via PvE, flying mounts which can only be used in PvE zones. 🙂

        So, I think that Blizzard thinks that grieving adds a valuable experience to game play.

  5. The problem with any interactive media is letting people do their own thinking.

    If you want to evoke a certain emotion or prompt a certain behavior, you can’t be obtuse and, well… “artsy” about it. You have to hammer the point home, and keep people on a very short leash. They cannot be allowed to be *different* or actually *think* about things.

    As an artist and audience member, I strongly disagree with such tightly reined experiences. I consider artists who don’t allow others to exhibit creativity to be the worst sort of egotistical train wreck, an impediment to the medium. And, well… I loathe being told what to think.

    • (So, to be clear, when I initially state that there’s a “problem”, it’s really just a problem for those who want to control the experience. In my mind, letting other people do their thing is the whole point of interactivity.)

  6. Pingback: A holiday, a holiday, the first one of the year! Best of 2009. « Welcome to Spinksville!

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