The Art of Game and the Game of Art*

 

Philippe Codognet**

 

In our so-called post-modern society, the myths of novelty and tabula rasa are always trendy values, proof against economic recession and NASDAQ’s fluctuations … Therefore “new technologies” enjoy some eternal youth, although they are nearly 60 years old (invention of cybernetics, information theory and computers date back to the 40’s) and the “videogames revolution” is turning into some permanent revolution since over thirty years now : Pong, the ancestor of game consoles was released in 1972[1], the first computer game spacewar in 1962 and some authors even trace the genesis of electronic games back to 1958[2]. On the virtual battlefields of arcade games, battalions of brave humans are successfully defending the earth since more than twenty years against the hegemony of  Space Invaders and Aliens alike. Computers and videogames are now massively widespread in the contemporary society and are taking major part in our everyday life. They are certainly, in a subtle but nevertheless very concrete way, developing new cognitive abilities which open gamers to a different perspective on the world. Portable consoles (such as the new  Nintendo DS and Sony PSP) are becoming wireless and, together with GPS-enabled mobile phone games, let us foresee the so-called ubiquitous networking society that will soon be ours, surrounding us with a data-gas of information-filled radio waves, a new eco-system to be decoded and understood by digital machines only. Contemporary Art is not isolated from the society and therefore involved in its global changes, including technological ones. There is indeed a long tradition of interest in technological utopia by artistic avant-gardes, for instance the Italian futurists in the early 20th century or the Russian constructivism in the 1920’s. The current trend for digital technologies in Media art is certainly to be seen in this historical tradition But let us rewind history and look back at the deep roots of our digital world, before the system crashes and we need to find the reboot button …

 

In 1697, the German philosopher/mathematician G. W. Leibniz invented binary notation and considered his discovery to be imago creationis, that is, at the image of the Creation[3]. He used the motto unus ex nihilo omnia : from nothing, the One creates everything… Indeed, with the numbers zero and one only, all others could be constructed and therefore the whole universe of numbers, in the same way as, in Christian theology, God created the world from nothingness. This idea is perfectly at work in videogames, where complex virtual universes are built from simple (but long) strings of 0’s and 1’s. Therefore, digital computer technologies have been able to digest the whole world little by little, dimension after dimension, reifying indeed Leibniz’ dream. Binary notation thus became the Universal Language to describe non only the linearity of numbers and texts, but also the flatland of images and, moreover, virtual environments in 3D.  But this universal language makes it possible for dynamic computation in order to (re)create and animate in real-time the illusory and illusionary worlds inhabiting the mass memory of our dear electronic machineries. But those virtual worlds nevertheless engender, beyond the electroluminescence of CTR or plasma displays and the metallic shadows of microchips, real feelings for us all - gamers...

 

Both in the pioneering gaming spaces restricted to the actual limits of the screen such as Space Invaders and Pac-Man, or the huge, quasi-unbounded virtual worlds of current 3D games that could be explored, level by level, for entire weeks[4], the computer system swallows the player in his immaterial universe and help him to produce the adrenalin that the mass media spectacle cannot procure anymore. Nevertheless, videogames operate much more at the abstract and symbolic level rather than in the purely sensory sphere. The simple 2D drawings of Space Invaders and Pac-Man already worked as hybrid semiotic signs, more symbols than icons (in the sense of  C. S. Peirce) and make it possible for gamer’s empathy[5]; Technological progress in graphic engines and computing power certainly favor a shift towards iconic mimesis which would nevertheless not fully escape the non-figurative aspect of fiction. Is it possible that, during the last twenty years, videogames replayed in fast forward mode the history of Western art, from medieval symbolism to the conquest of the ideal and Euclidian space in the Renaissance ? But then, what about self-awareness and serpentine tricks of Manierism and Baroque, what about the mirrorical  returns of the medium on itself ? Maybe these concepts simply went out along some shortcut open by technological innovations, and technically impossible for classical painting or sculpture.

 

3D virtual worlds popularized in the computer and video games of the 90’s express an important paradigm shift, which is not without resonance with what was happening in contemporary art at the same time. Indeed, the first-person point of view and subjective camera have revolutioned the domain of videogames, in particular since the release of games like Wolfenstein 3D (1992) and the magnificient Doom (1993). Despite an incredibly simple scenario (« hunt-and-kill ») and rudimentary graphics, the immersive effect was totally operational, maybe even too much for certain people, as the gamer was totally engaged - mentally if not physically - in the virtual universe. More recently some innovative game design tricks appeared which would further enhance immersion, in particular the possibility to not only wander in the virtual space but also to interact and use objects. This was introduced by Half-Life (1998) through the use of the « E » key of the keyboard : by using this key and pointing on certain objects, the gamer could trigger some predefined action, such as calling an elevator, opening a valve, or even drive a railways bucket. This “manipulability” of the world, although extremely simple as each object contained its own teleology, induced nevertheless a deep feeling of immersion and of coherence in the virtual world. This was further achieved in games like  the superb Metal Gear Solid (1999) and moreover Deus Ex (2000) where clicking on an object could lead to some complex manipulation : virtual computers could connect to Internet and let you read your email (or hack someone else’s) and virtual cash could be drown from ATMs … Such interactivity has been vastly improved nowadays, for instance with the new Half-life 2 PC game which incorporates an impressive physics-based simulation engine making it possible to manipulate and use objects in a very realistic manner. With such digital tools ready to create virtual worlds and somehow play with reality, it was tempting for contemporary artists to use game engines turned aside from the normal course and appropriated for their own artistic purposes. An interesting example is given by two French artists known under the collective name of “Kolkoz” who have been reusing existing game engine technologies to create compelling and ironic virtual environments. In their installation work for the Biennale of Lyon in 2001, they created (with the 3D engine of the Half Life PC game) a multiplayer game in which four players can play through four different computers that were available in the Museum. However the virtual playground of the game was but an exact replica of the surrounding exhibition in the Museum, including the current exhibition. The whole Museum has been digitalized and put into the computer which was inside the Museum, etc … This was therefore a play between virtuality and reality, an ironic question asked to the visitor. What is reality ? What is virtuality ? What is possible in one world which is impossible in the other ? It was also a play with the classical exhibition scenography as visitors could see both the installation from the outside (a lounge room, framed with large glass windows, thus offering live portraits of gamers absorbed in their digital play) or from the inside, that is, not only when entering the lounge room but when entering the virtual environment in an active way in front of a computer. Those artists further developed these ideas in their following project, kolkoz.org, were they proposed art collectors to digitalize their own houses (with their art collection) and create a virtual 3D model of the house, with all furniture and art works, that could be used as a game playground. Moreover different owners of “digital houses” could connect and extend into a larger playground, and interact together … This is again a play between reality and virtuality, rendered in an immersive vivid way through computer technology and interactive game play.

 

Interestingly, immersive 3D games  - from the ancestor Battlezone (1980)[6] up to Doom an its current avatars in 2004 (Doom 3 and Half-life 2) – amount to a shift from the cartographic paradigm, found for instance in board games such as Go, Chess or so-called God-games  (Sim City, the Sims, Back and White, etc)  to enter the ichnographic paradigm, that is, based on the notion of path.  We move away from the metaphor of the map to the metaphor or the path, we move from the third person point of view (God’s eye) to the first-person point of view (avourive). This shift also happened in contemporary art. The notion of the « cartographic eye in art » appeared some years ago[7] as a theoretical tool to better understand certain trends of 20th century art and in particular American post modernism of the 60’s and 70’s, with artists such as Jasper Johns, Robert Morris ou Robert Smithson. However in the later decades of the 20th century and in particular since the 90’s, new artists adopted a different paradigm and rather favour an ichnographic process in their works (i.e. subjective vision). This is for instance the case with Swiss artist Pipilotti Rist, in her various videos and installations, e.g. Pickelporno (1995) or Ever is Over All (Venise Biennale, 1997), even more in her current installation work in Kanazawa Museum, (Japan, 2004). Some of the works of Douglas Gordon and Bill Viola, in particular the Nantes triptych (1992), also seem to witness the same approach. Maybe are those artists trying to express the feeling that in our current global world nobody could represent or organise any territory in a complete manner, even in an abstract way. These ideas have also been tackle by contemporary artists using traditional media, like for instance in the “global networks” of American artist Mark Lombardi, which are huge (several meters long) sheets of papers exhibiting the complex and hidden relationships between politics, economics and the underworld. Those works cannot be gazed at in a single vision, but need to be analysed little by little, the eyes following the complex structure node after node, building an incomplete but effective knowledge. The complexity of the structure (graph to follow Michel Serres, rhizome to follow Deleuze, or network in a computer-based terminology) can never be fully apprehended neither visually nor conceptually. Anyway, as said Morpheus to Neo in the blockbuster movie The Matrix (1999) : « There is a difference between knowing the path and walking the path ». Therefore, if “seeing is believing” then experimenting in first-person is something radically different and it opens to another cognitive dimension, far from the refried vertigo of global spectacle and a priori knowledge. This is indeed a key aspect present in the game culture. Other contemporary domains of collective imaginary are also contaminated by this concept, as the “frontline” images displayed in the media coverage of the wars in Koweit/Irak, Serbia or Kosovo, not to mention the idea of “embedded journalists” during the recent invasion of Irak. No more ordnance survey maps depicting army progress but subjective views from missiles dwelling on their preys as sole information. « This is not a Nintendo game » even declared in 1991 General Schwartzkopf, commander-in-chief for operation Desert Storm in Koweit  But this aesthetic tilt is also a semantic one, as in subjective vision there is always a part maudite (devil’s part, cf. Georges Bataille), which could not be seen nor apprehended and thus will always escape full understanding. There is no light without shadow, no life without death, as exemplified in the acme of the Baroque. But here again, videogames are heading a paradigm shift, echoes of which will soon reason in other domains. Because first-person point of view is sometime too immersive and self-involving. With later games such as Tomb Raider and its sequels, one could think that the gaming industry is getting away from (gamer’s) subjectivity, even so far back to the society of the spectacle and golden third-person heroes in creating one more Hollywood heroin. In TR, the player is put behind a camera which is following the game heroin, as in an anime. Anyhow, looking back at the history of film making, experiments with subjective camera are rather scarce, the only movie filmed exclusively with subjective camera to enter anthologies being  Lady in the lake by Robert Montgomery (1947). Consequence of the convergence between video games and cinema, the current trend in the game industry is indeed to put back the player in the passive spectator, as exemplified by the long scenes in Full Motion Video – that is, high definition pre-computed animations which show a deterministic narrative action, as in movies -  which are the more omnipresent in current games. There is thus some kind of conceptual battle between opposite forces : on the one hand the (original) game culture impulse towards “open”, social and  immersive game arenas where gamers are active and experimenting new sensations and on the other hand the entertainment industry which would like to put the gamer back to its seat in a passive way to consume some “closed”, second-hand feelings and germ-free vertigo. Certainly too subversive for the global infocom society is the development of an active cognition process in the gamer’s mind which would envision the knowledge of the world through the discovery of one’s possible actions in and on it. We should also remember, in the same line of thought, the words of the cybernetics pioneer Heinz von Foerster; one of the theoreticians who influenced the school of constructivist psychology: “If you desire to see, learn how to act”[8]. For von Foerster, “perceiving is making” and all perception is therefore created by the subject’s action upon his environment; perception is active. Experiments have shown that sensory organs (in animals and humans) can be trained to better perceive expected signals before the brain considers them. Therefore, by analogy, it would not be unreasonable to think that a key issue to understand experiences in virtual worlds would be to be able to perform actions and observe their consequences in order to learn the rules governing the artificial environment – maybe simply by trial and error. This is obviously easier to do in a virtual world than in the real one, and this cognitive process is therefore put to use in many computer games and thus now intuitively performed by videogame-educated kids. It might be possible that this ability to develop cognition by action is indeed gradually replacing the more classical humanist tradition of learning by books and letters …

 

A key point in game and interactive installations is the place of the spectator into the artwork. The ability of games to lead to deep integration of the player into the gameplay and to therefore amount to cognitive immersion, by letting him perform intuitive and meaningful actions, is certainly the main novelty of this sub-genre with respects to new media art. A simple way to achieve this is to physically engage the spectator into the artwork, as exemplified for instance in the installation SYS*016.JeX*02/SE-FX\ 360°  by French artist Mathieu Briand, which has been presented also at the Lyon Biennale in 2001.  A trampoline is set in the middle of a circular room,  on the wall of which are 76 cameras and 2 video projectors. Spectators can enjoy playing and jumping on the trampoline, watching their performance on the two video screens.  However from time to time (about every 20 or 30 seconds), the image freeze and a circular pan is done with the 76 cameras, freezing the spectator/player in the air, as if he was somehow in zero-gravity. This is a real-time version of the so-called “Bullet Time” special effect that has been used in the movie “The Matrix”.  But this work goes being a purely visual and ironic phenomenon and it refers to the illusionist value and lure of reality, a "reality" that could be observed by rotating it, as a tri-dimensional object in a 3D modeler or industrial design software. This camera panning up to 180° or even 360° also reminds the camera movements that could be found in video games such as Street Fighter, Mortal Kombat or Tekken, especially at the beginning or end of the fights. Hence it is clear that the characters on the stage (i.e. the spectators …) are simulacra that could be fully observed, in a virtual obscenity that allows for no dead angles nor shadows. There is no unseen, untold or un-thought in such a world. As a special effect in the movie "The Matrix", this device is at work in the virtual universe of the matrix, because this is a world of total surveillance but also because one can modify and recompose the "real" at will. It seems that Mathieu Briand's work displaces this interrogations towards a more intimate and inner place. Spectators are facing up with their own image, but an image from the outside, a serial, real-time and machine-based image. Each spectator is seen from an impossible point of view composed by 76 eyes .. At the opposite side of the incarnation of spectators in avatars found in classical virtual systems, Mathieu Briand proposes to de-compose, de-construct and  de-incarnate the spectator in the real world, through multiple synchronized viewpoints.  

 

In the field of digital arts, the concept of interaction has repeatedly been identified as a fundamental characteristic and this notion is one of the fundamental advances brought by the use of computers in art installations. In the paradigm of the interface, interaction has often been considered as a necessarily reduced and incomplete dialogue between the human and the machine, as a means of access that will always be frustrating since it is always limited and imperfect. In taking up this route, numerous artists have done their utmost to devise interfaces that are more or less natural to allow for an improved interaction with their digital works, as if the viewer’s immersion should necessarily go through a complex technological apparatus with computer or electronic elements facilitating the difficulty and ambiguity of interpretation that all artistic production offers. That approach, however, forgets that immersion is cognitive before being perceptive, the “reality” of a work clearly being invented and recreated by the viewer and not just perceived and undergone. Du Zhenjun, a Chinese media artist now established in Paris, clearly situates himself within this new conceptualization of interaction. The interactive technologies he uses are relatively simple, as the presence sensors (through floor pressure or infrared detection) merely record and send binary data: on/off, present or absent. Thus, far from technological artifice, he rather invents an epure of interaction, which, through its minimalism, makes light of any given technological implementation. A key installation for this is “I erase your trace”, first shown  in 2001 at the Exit festival, a yearly new media event held in Creteil in the suburb of Paris. The spectator walks down a 4-meter wide and 12-meter long corridor with a large gray carpet. When the viewer moves within the perimeter of the carpet, an image tags along his steps. Four figures stick to the viewer, bustling about to immediately clean, polish, scrub, scrape, wash, and erase all traces or stains that his steps could have left behind. The visitor cannot set foot on the floor without seeing them appear under his heels with rags, brooms, brushes, and vacuum cleaners in hand, preoccupied with erasing the viewer’s presence before he has even left. In I Erase Your Trace, the figures projected on the ground (virtual characters) take great care to clean the floor, closely following the viewer as if telling him that his presence has disrupted some pre-established order and that he is in fact undesirable since his literal presence can only soil the dark virtuality of this installation.

 

Borrowing from the formal vocabulary or tools of computer games, but with different aims, modalities and media devices, the artworks discussed above present a disrupted space between reality and virtuality, in which the viewer is engaged, sometimes in spite of himself, in an action that takes him as if by vertigo to a point he does not want to go, in a mental state he had nevertheless thought banished from his sterilized vocabulary of microwave-reheated emotions. The artworks somehow present themselves as concave signs, lying in wait for a human presence, which it will take on an uncertain journey toward the disturbed landscapes of his own consciousness—as if only a “thought from outside” (Foucault) could circumscribe the new modalities at stake in our contemporary society.

 

Therefore, let us be optimistic, there will always be some game designers and some artists to surprise us and get us out of our post-consumerist overdose …

 

 

 

Kolkoz

Installation work for the Lyon Biennale (Museum of Contemporary Art), 2001

Lounge room with 4 computers and multiplayer game

+ plastic replicas of game weapons in several rooms of the Museum

 

 

 

Kolkoz

Sketch of the 3D computer game for Lyon Biennale, 2001

 

 

 

 

 

Mathieu Briand, SYS*016.JeX*02/SE-FX\ 360°, 2001

Entrance of the installation at Lyon Biennale

 

 

Mathieu Briand, SYS*016.JeX*02/SE-FX\ 360°, 2001

installation room

Mathieu Briand, SYS*016.JeX*02/SE-FX\ 360°, 2001

Sketch of the installation : 1 trampoline, 76 cameras and 2 video projectors


 

 

Du Zhenjun, I erase your trace, 2001

Sketch : 4 video projector and 196 floor sensors

 

 

 

 

Du Zhenjun, I erase your trace

Installation view at Exit Festival, France, 2001

 

 

 

 

 

 



* Parts of this text are remixed from an essay which was published  in French in the catalogue of the Biennale of Lyon (2001), Réunion des Musées Nationaux  2001.

 

** Professor of computer science, University of Paris 6, LIP6, case 169, 4, Place Jussieu, 75005 Paris, France

currently position : Attache for Science and Technology, Embassy of France in Japan, Tokyo.

Email : Philippe.Codognet@lip6.fr

 

[1] For an history of video and computer games, see A. Le Diberder et F. Le Diderber, L’Univers des jeux vidéos, Editions La Découverte, Paris, 1998, (in French) and J-C. Herz, Joystick Nation, Brown and Compagny, Boston, 1996.

 

[2] Cf. Steven Poole, Trigger Happy : Videogames and the Entertainment Revolution, Arcade Publishing, New York, 2001.

 

[3] For some details on this, see my paper “Ancient Images and New Technologies : the Semiotics of the Web” in: Leonardo, MIT Press, vol. 35, no. 1, 2002.

 

[4] or even years, when considering massively multi-user online games such as Everquest and its clones.

 

[5] For a semiotic analysis à la Peirce of Pac-Man, see Steven Poole, op. cit., chapitre 9.

 

[6] Where the player was controlling an armored vehicle fighting tanks and helicopters represented by simple polygon structures.

 

[7] See Christine Buci-Glucksmann, l’œil cartographique de l’art, éditions Galilée, 1996, and the exhibition catalogue Mapping, Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1994.

 

[8] Heinz von Foerster, Observing Systems, Seaside, Calif.: Intersystems Publications, 1984.