[Editor’s note: This is the first in a two-part series by guest contributor Zoe. It was originally written for the author’s Queer/Feminist Application to Art class. Check the blog next week for Part 2!]
Video games are one of the most widespread media in popular culture to date. The depth with which video games are currently embedded within our culture can come as surprising to some, especially since they can be considered the youngest form of media. In addition to the wide variety of age groups and platforms, video games are best known for their range in genre. Despite all of this, there is a pervasive attitude outside of game culture, and sometimes within it, that still does not see video games as a legitimate source of professional work or consumption. Aside from a few exceptions, video games have been widely viewed as childish, or even detrimental to one’s health. Yet there are several different types of work that are needed to create video games, including concept artists, level designers, and game directors; these are titles that inherently sound like they incorporate several principles of artistry. Even programmers are expected to innovate and find new ways to encode information as the hardware and software used to contain that information constantly shifts.
For these reasons should the idea of reading video games as queer art be explored; they are queer in the traditional sense, in that they stay true to queer’s definition of strange or other by incorporating new brands of innovative storytelling and expression that constantly changes in unexpected ways. In more modern times, video games also directly incorporate queer themes into their storylines with the intention of being made by and for queer audiences. Video games also represent a very clear connection between gender lines and an inherent question of the gender binary.
Before starting to look at video games as queer art, it’s important to understand their origins as well as the developmental phases they went through to become what they are today. The first program that was designed to run a game on a computer was OXO – software created by AS Douglass in 1952 as a part of his dissertation at the University of Cambridge. Douglass’s creation inspired some other prototype video games, such as Tennis for Two and Spacewar. The first time video games began to resemble what we know them as today was in 1972 when Ralph Baer, often considered the “Father of Video Games” worked with the company Magnavox to create the Odyssey, the first ever video game console. This kicked off the true start of early video game development, with titles such as Pong (1972) by Atari and Space Invaders (1978) following shortly afterwards.
In 1983 the North American video game market experienced a crash, as it was oversaturated with both consoles and low-quality, poorly produced games. The Japanese game market played a huge role in the recovery of NA’s video game scene, securing Nintendo a market in NA, as the releases of the Nintendo Entertainment System and Game Boy were exceedingly popular. With video games on the rise again in America, big companies began developing new consoles to compete with Nintendo, as well as the rising trend in PC gaming (Video Game History). As of today, the biggest names in video games are Nintendo, Sony, and Microsoft; most third-party publishers endorse games that perform on these platforms.
After knowing all of this, we can start to ask questions. The first, and most significant to this thesis is: are video games art? There are few who could argue that video games include at least some aspect of design. Looking at the credits for any video game, you’ll often find several positions that call for several different kinds of artists. For example, the credits for Hollow Knight (2017) list positions for Sound & Music, Figurine Sculptor, Violin, and Vocals (Hollow Knight Credits (Windows)). There is also a main character designer and animator who is a part of the game’s development team, Team Cherry (teamcherry.com). After looking at this fairly wide range of talented artists, one might argue that they simply contributed art to the game and that the game is still not art itself.
But beyond this, there are more powerful voices who have recently come forward to assert that video games are on par with modern art. For starters, the Museum of Modern Art is currently housing an exhibit with several video games on display, including the colorful, explorative game Flow (2006) and the unique puzzle platformer Portal (2007) (Antonelli). The MoMA first started acquiring video games for its collection in 2012, the same year the Supreme Court ruled video games as an art form (Tucker). This obviously sparked some controversy from critics, some of whom insinuated that considering video games as artwork would devalue every other piece in the museum (Mulkerin). In an interview, curatorial assistant Michelle Millar Fisher insisted that this attitude towards seeing video games as art is a repetitive rhetoric that critics spew whenever something new catches the interest of museums, and that they are simply “repeating what had been said in the ‘60s and ‘70s about Minimalism and Conceptualism.” (Mulkerin)