How can games be art, interact with art, and encourage us to make our own art through play?
I recently had the pleasure of attending the Contours exhibition in Melbourne, Australia. The annual exhibition was curated by Chad Toprak, and co-produced by Pritika Sachdev and Ben Turner, and reminded me of the power of this medium.
The games we hear about the most are the big titles that can afford marketing budgets and time on-stage at huge industry events. Sometimes we hear about these games so often that we forget other games exist. Weird and wacky titles might grace our screens during a Steam sale, or an occasional browse on itch.io, but often we don’t find them unless we’re looking for them.
Contours came to Melbourne in two parts this year: ‘Not Quite Games’ and ‘Personal Games’. Games at the ‘fringes’ of the industry, that are pushing boundaries, experimenting, and telling intimate stories. It highlighted the importance of innovation and the magic of works that are created outside the world of AAA game design. It pulled these games out into the open, and showed people what they could be.
Full disclosure - I had a game featured as part of ‘Side B: Personal Games’, which is one of the reasons I flew to Melbourne to visit. It was a good excuse to surround myself with art. At Contours, games co-existed alongside more traditional art forms, like photos, illustrations, and sculptures. This was a pleasant change, because when games are considered worthy of being shown in galleries, they are often relegated to their own rooms or sections. Sometimes this is due to technical requirements - games need different things in terms of hardware, lighting, and access to power or internet than other mediums, so they rarely occupy the same spaces.
But there’s something magical about seeing different art forms - games included - sharing space, curated so that together they take you on a journey. The personal art featured in the second half of the Contours exhibition included many autobiographical experiences that told the stories of their creators or encouraged players or observers to reflect on their own lives; these were each incredibly powerful on their own, but the story they told together was even more valuable.
While I was in Melbourne, I also had the pleasure of visiting Bar SK, a bar and gallery space focused on showcasing games that similarly exist on the fringes of big-budget titles. They were showing an exhibition called ‘Art Attack’ while I was there, and in doing so, were exploring a different way that traditional art intersects with games than Contours: drawings and paintings being displayed within game spaces, as well as alongside them.
Thomas Bowker’s Draw is an MMO that is currently unavailable to the public, where players can draw on the walls and floors of a space, with their creations existing alongside other people’s art. It was exhibited in Bar SK next to a table covered in butcher’s paper and markers, so that the scribbles of the digital world could mingle with those in the physical space. The difference between games and traditional art - between designer and player, between artist and observer - is not as large as we might initially think.
Alongside Draw, Bar SK was exhibiting Brendan Keogh’s Paint Kart and Ian Maclarty’s Action Painting, where players create artworks within games in less deliberate ways. In Paint Kart you drive around a track, drawing a mess of lines in your path, while in Action Painting you jump between platforms and paint a coloured background with various brushes. Each of these games allows players to see the shapes we create when we play, and the art that can come from engaging with game mechanics.
We often hear debates around whether games are art, and it drowns out nuanced discussion about games as art. There is value in exploring the ways games can be displayed and curated, the ways games can interact with other mediums, and the ways playing games can be its own art form. Exhibitions like Contours and spaces like Bar SK deserve our attention—as do the games shown within them—so we might expand our understanding of this medium we love.