Video Game Art 1970-2005
Show #32 explores the history of experiments in art video games. Today, there is a booming indie game industry, and experimental video game courses are taught at universities; but these fields largely emerged in the last decade. Before 2005, instances of experimental or art video games are limited, and before the 1990s, they are quite rare. Whether created by artists, programmers, or hobbyists, what often separates these games from their commercial counterparts is their departure from the typical goal-and-reward model of gameplay, and many of the games presented in Show #32 are anticlimactic, unwinnable, un-fun, or all of the above. Some works presented in Show #32 subvert conventional video game mechanics and aesthetics by being outright modifications of popular commercial works like Quake or Super Mario Bros.
One of the earliest experimental video games is Conway's Game of Life, which is a game-as-thought-experiment conceived of by mathematician John Horton Conway in 1970 to produce two-dimensional cellular automata. Conway's game can be envisioned as an infinite checkerboard with only one color of checkers. The game begins by placing as many checkers as desired anywhere on the board. After the player makes an initial move, there is no more interaction, and the game plays itself. Each round, checkers are automatically added and removed to the board according to four simple rules, which simulate life, death, and evolution. From this simple system, many complex forms are created, and it is even possible in the game to construct the building blocks of computers (it is Turing-complete). Show #32 includes running examples of Conway's Game of Life structures on two screens, printed spacetime visualizations from game sessions, and a working copy of Video Life (1981), a rare commercial release of Conway's Game of Life for the Atari 2600 game console. Also on display is Worms? (1983) by David Maynard, which is a home computer game based on another cellular automata system. Worms? was one of the five original launch releases of Electronic Arts and is somewhere between a game, an interactive artwork, and a generative music tool. These types of games could be considered distant predecessors of Minecraft, which is notably unique for being an experimental game that is also one of the biggest commercial successes of all time.
Also created in 1983, Mike Builds a Shelter was a one-off arcade video game produced by artist Michael Smith with computer graphics designer Dov Jacobsen and set designer Alan Herman for an exhibition at Leo Castelli Gallery in New York. The game was part of a larger installation inspired by a Cold War government-issued civil defense document on how to build a fallout shelter in your basement that doubles as a rec room. When you insert a quarter and start the Mike Builds a Shelter game, an air raid siren goes off, and you have to carry cinder blocks to the basement to complete your bomb shelter before the "big one" drops; except, the game is designed to be excruciatingly slow and is programmed so that a player never has enough time to finish construction before the nuclear apocalypse. Mike Builds a Shelter is arguably the first example of a video game created by a visual artist, and it predates its contemporaries by more than a decade.
Exhibited alongside Mike Builds a Shelter are four ultra-rare commercial arcade games from the same era. On loan from the Los Angeles-based Supercade collection, these games include: The Glob (1983), NATO Defense (1982), Slither (1982), and Boxing Bugs (1981). Although not art video games per se, these unusual games from small companies represent early iterations of "indie games" to some degree.
By the second half of the 80s, the rise of dial-up modem bulletin board networks made it possible to distribute pirated software via phone lines, and it became popular for programmers to add "crack intros" to pirated games. Displayed before the game started and created by hobbyists, these intros consisted of visuals, animated text, and sometimes music. Removing copy protection ("cracking") and packing a commercial game for distribution often required a substantial amount of difficult programming work, and the crack intro music and graphics would be added during this process. In 2003, Beige Records and Radical Software Group curated a set of Commodore 64 crack intros called Low Level All Stars, which is included in Show #32.
The influence of these early experiments in game hacking can be seen in the art video games later produced in the 1990s and into the 2000s by artists like JODI and Cory Arcangel. The artist-duo JODI created modified versions of popular games like Doom, Quake, and Jet Set Willy, which strip the games down to basic elements while leaving them technically fully playable. Retroyou (Joan Leandre) produced glitch hacks of popular PC games that turn them into a very different interactive experience using the same graphics assets and engine. Cory Arcangel produced a variety of Nintendo cartridge modifications, some of which remove interactivity completely like Super Mario Clouds (2002) and the included Mig 29 Soviet Fighter Plane and Clouds (2005). Myfanwy Ashmore made similar works in her Super Mario Trilogy (2000-2004), which leave the Super Mario Bros. game playable, but remove all the enemies and objects so that you can only walk around until time runs out. Even the magician duo Penn and Teller produced an unreleased experimental Sega CD game called Desert Bus (1995) that has no notable scenery or obstacles and requires you to drive a bus from Tucson to Las Vegas for eight hours in real time to score one point. Unlike the other experimental or art games in this exhibition, Desert Bus is relatively well-known in the gaming community and might be called their definitive example of this kind of work. Gamers regularly stream the eight-hour drive in real time online, and visitors to And/Or will have the opportunity to experience this eight-hour trek as well.