Feelings about expressive games and museums

I remember the first time I saw my game in a museum. It was one of the few times I visited the south since I moved to the bay area, remembering how breathing is so laborious. It was the second time I went to Atlanta, the first during the 1996 Olympics when I was a child. Most of my memories of then are fuzzy, except for the distinct use of the color orange, from signs to the glorification of peaches to the clay in the earth. Everything feels like it moves slower, more paced that feels pretty emblematic of the south. This time, I was visiting an exhibit that had my first game in it, getting texts from my best friend pleading with me to consider moving there. It was in the back, on its own table and computer, and a plaque above with my name and bio. Surreal, as being in a gallery of any sort was never in my life plan. Finding my novel in Barnes & Noble maybe, but something I made being in a place for Art? This means something, right?

Besides writers, the artists I spent most of my life around up until a couple years ago were visual artists, and getting into a gallery, much less a museum, was a big deal to them. It’s how they would make their money, gain professional clout, and further their career as artists. After this show, my game went to other exhibits and galleries, sometimes with and sometimes without my knowledge. In the end, I don’t think I saw anything from my work being shown in those contexts; for one, like many other games, it didn’t suit traditional exhibition very well, as people would leave the game in the middle and there wouldn’t be an attendant to restart it, so visitors were approaching the game in ways I didn’t anticipate; as well, since you can download my game for free, it is approached as already owned by the public, and therefore that I didn’t need to get any benefit from the use of my game despite being celebrated as an artist and, last time I checked, artists needed money to live.

With the little funding there is for all arts, the amount dedicated for games more often goes to commercial digital ones and not to someone like me. It’s hard to feel like my work and experience isn’t exploited by arts and games institutions. The DIY spring centered around queer artists and the tools they used provided work for many events and spaces, and continues to be the example that games use to gain more cultural legitimacy in the arts and society overall. Yet we are not seeing particular success go to these artists, rather the use of their work for free with little benefits, with the ‘for exposure’ or ‘for the good of games’ excuses. What is going on here?

I think overall, work like mine straddles between worlds, and to be recognized, you need to be fully in one: either explicitly the old school art world, or in commercial game development. There are kinds of games that are legible to museums and art galleries, that get commissions and art world cachet that artists like me could really use to continue creating important work, but don’t and are largely disposed of in video game contexts. The work I’ll be citing is work I like and that excites me, and I’m not assuming that all of my art deserves a place in MoMA right meow. I’m more curious about how artists are partitioned from art and games worlds, and that there is a possibility that all the cultural clout radical artists have been doing for games might be contributing to their suppression.

Besides video games being put into an exhibit either on a console or computer or as video footage of them played on repeat (and often not in art wings but design ones), games take more digital art or conceptual performance art appearances that, overall, are more familiar to people who go to museums. These are games made pretty specifically for gallery use, like Eddo Stern’s Waco Resurrection and Mary Flanagan’s [giantJoystick], which have video games in them but also some other more approachable construction, mainly the absurd, to legitimize their existence in an art space. Or there are extremely high-production physical installations with gamey elements such as Nathalie Pozzi and Eric Zimmerman’s Interference or Heather Kelly, Lynn Hughes, and Cindy Poremba’s Joue le jeu/Play along, that are palatable in the other direction, unique non-video objects and experiences arranged by game design. There’s a more general heavy-handed trend to see play and video games as ways to attract young people and entertain them throughout the museum, much in line with all the efforts gamification has made to bluntly use game mechanics to make people do things. Very little credit is given to games and play on its own terms unless you are going through high-brow sensibilities and funding. These works don’t look like what video games are trying to celebrate as their art sector, yet these are the ones that are commissioned. So, what does this mean?

Leaning deep into my airchair, and knowing that arts funding isn’t going to reach people like me continuing on this trajectory of making small, weird digital games, it means there are two main directions for us to go in: embrace the museum and art world, and try to make games and experiences for those spaces so we are commissioned to create more games and sustain ourselves like other museum-/patron-dependent artists (not that this is some quick fix or The Answer, as all arts have problems) or to create another context for which people want to patron digital games as widely available experiences or as high-value objects that can easily sustain creators. There’s an argument that platforms like Patreon somewhat do this, however it is swept up in crowdfunding habits popularized by Kickstarter, where the most successful people funded are those who were doing already established conventional practices and now want to have money come from fans instead of companies. Or maybe itch.io, since it allows people to play games for free and to pay for them, however it is a free-for-all platform based around commercial distribution and, like Patreon, doesn’t have meaningful curation to have players approaching games as anything but commercial products. If we’re not to shoot for museums and to play into the art world as it is established, there has to be some other method of non-commercial support that isn’t completely reliant on government assistance that also curates and presents games in a purposeful way for visitors to engage with in a new context. I’m not pretending to have answers, just that a lot feels hollow about how games as a whole, the industry, fans, and art institutions interested in games, are treating game developers who strive for expression. Maybe the answer is leaving video games to be a forever commercial engine and moving to the art world proper, or finding someone in the position to a fund more spaces free of commercial pressures. One such space might be Babycastles and we might just need to see more like it and get them better funded. Either way, I find the lack of discussion and following action on supporting the arts hypocritical, since games relies so much on them to feel a sense of cultural legitimacy.

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