by Cindy Poremba

Click on images to access games

Perhaps a victim of its own rhetoric, the web itself has dematerialized. Browser functions and interoperability have infiltrated our software and our devices. "The net" has become ubiquitous in both material and conceptual ways. What does it mean to be a work of online game art in a time of network ubiquity?

To catalog art games on the web today could bring us through tiny narratives such as The Majesty of Colors (Gregory Weir) and the Samarost games (Amanita), hybrid physical, online and/or mobile works such as The Negative Motivation Project (Sylvère Armange) and Can You See Me Now? (Blast Theory); political webgames such as the work of Gonzalo Frasca or Molleindustria, and game-centred conceptual projects like Ruth Catlow's Rethinking Wargames and Skawennati Fragnito's TimeTraveller. Still others, though downloadable software applications, look like they could very well make their home on the web, such as Jason Rohrer's Passage. Given the sometimes mundane and arbitrary presence of games on the internet, finding games that address the web in some way, or even, to paraphrase Steven Dietz "for which the network is a necessary and sufficient condition" 1 remains a challenge.

There are a few ways we could approach the question. For one, it is interesting to examine the way in which the influence of early net art (arguably as much "about" the web as we could hope for) resonates in unique ways through the work of game artists such as Tale of Tales, Mark Essen (who creates games under the name Messhof), and Jason Nelson. Secondly, we can look closer at the way these artists work in relation to their online presence, in both ways that embrace and/or reject its various myths and capacities.

Ed Halter 2 has noted that Essen's work in particular is part of a growing trend of game art that does not just reference games in their materials, cultural aspect or tropes (as was the case with many first generation videogame artists such as Cory Arcangel or JODI), but uses games as an artistic medium. The same could be said for the games of Tale of Tales, and Jason Nelson - these are not artworks about games, necessarily, but artworks that are games. But as artists move from speaking about games to speaking through games, we can see a resurgence of certain thematic areas, such as exploring formal qualities of the medium, that seems requisite at the early exploration of any new form.

Some of the core ideals of the early net artists were a pastiche of modernist and postmodern concerns, including an interest in formalist and conceptual approaches, and as Rachel Greene has noted, an engagement with popular media, parody and appropriation, skepticism about media as commodity, and sense of interplay between art and life 3. Game art and independent game design has become dominated by many of the themes that characterized net art: specifically parody, self-reference, and formal experimentation.

Ironically, this places Tale of Tales (formally entropy8zuper!) in an odd position. In many ways, the focus Tale of Tales has placed on aesthetic experience, performance, and sensuous design that granted them outsider status as early net artists, has placed them in a similar position as independent game designers. Although as entropy8zuper! Auriea Harvey and Michael Samÿn created art and design work alongside "net.art" pioneers like Cosic and Bunting, they rejected the label and ideals that initially characterized the movement, and as such, serve as a counterpoint to a univocal vision of early web-based art. Comments Micheal Samÿn, "Both us and the typical "blinking pixel" net artists abuse this technology that was not made for us or our needs. But rather than exposing its inherent ugliness and absurdity, we try to use it to make something poetic and beautiful that is about human things rather than machines 4."

One of the pair's earlier games, The Endless Forest (2005- ) 5 is an atmospheric, self-directed persistent world game 6, where players communicate non-verbally as a Miyazaki-esque human-faced deer in an enchanted forest. Part of the motivation for the work, and one of its continuing aspects, is a response to (often heated) debate in both the art and games communities as to what is a game (and what is not). As a place with explicit rules or goals, The Endless Forest challenges the very definition of what it means to be a game. However, the experience of playing the game reveals the process of engaging the work's possibility space, and moreso doing so in an online environment, co-present with likeminded interactors, is the game. Baudrillard once observed that what gives a game intensity is not freedom or power, but this very commitment and obligation to the game we have accepted in order to instantiate its experience 7. The Endless Forest is not simply Second Life for deer, but a game in which the desire to experience, to breath life into an artistic vision and allow a collective fairytale to unfold, is the driving factor. Echoes of entropy8zuper! generative/performance works such as Wirefire (1999-2003) 8 (best described as "love translated into audiovisual poetry" 9) can further be seen in Tale of Tales' ABIOGENESIS performances within The Endless Forest itself. Here Tale of Tales enters the game as "gods," taking control of each player's deer-avatar in order to guide players through an audio/visual performance intervention in the world. A mix of freeform, yet highly constrained play, with moments of complete non-interaction, The Endless Forest demonstrates that crafting a rich co-creative player experience does not necessarily mean player authorship of the game itself, or continuous agency, or even one specific mode of narrative (as the game itself involves moments of very emergent and very linear narrative).

According to Graeme Kirkpatrick 10, contemporary videogames stand somewhere in between traditional play-structures (as one might find with folk games) and aesthetic/art works that stimulate aesthetic experience through cognitive and imaginative play. Tale of Tales' work is part of a growing trend away from formal and conceptual concerns (that while still present, are not a central focus), towards both aesthetic play and play within aesthetic worlds. One of the specific ways Tale of Tales games negotiate the challenge of storytelling within structured format of games is by addressing the aesthetics surrounding game mechanics. Specifically, Tale of Tales' work excels at what Doris Rusch has called fictional alignment, 11 enriching basic play structures by contextualizing them within evocative narrative and sumptuous multimedia environments. Much of their work is inspired by allegory, biblical and folk/fairytales; and places emphasis on figural, emotional and visceral aspects of the play experience. This self-described "cross-pollination of art and video games 12" submits traditional game dynamics and structures to the service of highly orchestrated, yet interpretively open, experiences - even in the case of multi-user environments like The Endless Forest.

While Tale of Tales draws its audience into baroque fantasies and romantic dreams, Mark Essen's works use a retro-game aesthetic as a point from which to highlight the visceral qualities of the play experience and experiment with the tonality of interaction. This approach draws from an applied knowledge of avant-garde cinema 13, including the epileptic violence and frenetic visuals of experimental films 14. At first glance, the games present a nostalgia for the public arcade, where videogames were designed around the free flow of quarters (games where you would inevitably lose, but were compelled to try again...and again). However games such as Flywrench (2007) appear part of a simulacral past, where games remain brutally unforgiving despite the liberal use of contemporary game conventions such as unlimited life, and soundtracks meld 8-bit and digital noise into modern electronic compositions. As such, what emerges is the "essence of old 2D arcade titles" 15 in games that go beyond their duplication. Although most of Messhof's games are software-based, some (like Party Boat (2009)) are playable on the web. However, Essen believes the true place of these games is the gallery, and is keenly aware of the ways in which the software-based and online manifestations of his work differ from gallery display contexts, which results in particular design decisions in the works (I will return to this point later).

Jason Nelson is a digital poet whose experimental games are created primarily for the web. His works most clearly embody the spirit of early net art, presenting a collage aesthetic (reminiscent of works such as Riot (1999) or life_sharing (2001)), and referencing the online experience both thematically (conspiracy theories, corporate domination, gamers) and the relationship between digital artists and game players. In a sense, this is retro-gaming for the net art set. Visually, his works are reminiscent of the binder scribblings of a disaffected teenager - combining image and text fragments seemingly ripped and paste together, unstable animation, and audio, image and video clips released through interaction. Although his interface style could be described as "user hostile," (and indeed this perception is continually referenced in the games themselves) in actuality, the familiar tropes of game playing (such as the adoption of the mechanics of platformers etc.) provide a point of invitation into Nelson's chaotic poetic work.

Nelson's best-known work, game, game, game and again game (2007), contests the design and adoption of belief systems, from formal ideologies to personal beliefs, to new media and (like Tale of Tales) game design ideals. As is characteristic of Nelson's work, gameplay is buffered by short video segments that present a companion narrative - in this case, childhood interactions that may or may not interrelate with the exchangeable belief systems. Notes Nelson, "game, game, game and again game is less a game about scoring and skill, and more an awkward and disjointed atmospheric, the self built into a jumping, rolling meander of life." 16 A later work, titled i made this. you play this. we are enemies 17. (2008) adopts a platform game engine similar to game, game, but presents levels inspired by (and lain atop) web portals and "supposedly collaborative web 2.0 sites." 18 As such, the game seems drawn from the very fabric of the internet, with a play experience in which the information overload is experienced through both the audio-visual noise of the game environment, and mirrored in the disorienting packaging of the gameplay. The game further problematizes the relationship between Nelson and the game player, explicitly addressing this relationship through game fragments that break the 4th wall (for example "stop trying to 'get it'"), and of course, the "we are enemies" of the game's title.

In general, it is interesting to read Nelson's work against the backdrop of the artist-gamer relationship, and the inherent tension in the mutual expectations of the interactive experience: in other words, the desire to have players experience what you have designed for them, in light of the expectations players have for their designed experiences. Nelson has stated his approach to creating the kinds of chaotic, non-deterministic games is to maintain at least one accessible 19 thread that can be recognized in the experience - thus his reliance on familiar game patterns such as platform and maze engines.

Where Tale of Tales presents us with a model for enveloping formal game elements such as rules and mechanics in the aesthetic, Essen and Nelson suggest a second approach is in the aesthetics of the mechanics and dynamics of the game itself. Chiel Kattenbelt and Joost Raessens have urged games to move away from rule-centric paradigms and focus on experience intensity (something they liken to a Kantian frame of feeling, or Peircean phenomenological firstness) 20. Mark Essen's "counter-intuitive physics, chaotic game mechanics and bursts of strobing color 21" can be understood as experiential play surrounding visceral impact and proprioception, heightened by the distillation and simplification of mechanics and forms. According to the online game magazine The Escapist 22, these games "subject players to a sensory assault, while at the same time forcing them to confront extremely difficult (though never unfair) challenges." Ed Halter describes Essen's approach to gameplay as functioning "the way a musician might use carefully orchestrated noise 23," from which emerges a second aesthetic consideration - the tonality and rhythm of the play itself. Such a focus on rhythmic pleasure in game art can be traced through Mizuguchi's Rez (2001) to Rauschenberg's Open Score (1966). You are propelled forward, not only by rule obligation or the constraints of the gameworld, but by viscerally compelling gesture. From Jason Nelson's work there also emerges a rhythm -  i made this has been described as aesthetic adventure that uncovers the "beautifully strange rhythm of grotesque drivel 24." However here it is not the gestural sense that the rhythm emerges, as much as the continual re-emergence of game fragments as the player works through the game.

By and large, net art, once seen as a reaction against the traditional art system, was almost immediately co-opted by that system (with major gallery displays of this work now commonplace). The conflict between the gallery (elite but specialized) and the web (democratized but devalued) continues to infuse game art. This echoes a tension between "games for artists" and "art games for everyone" that has persisted throughout the last century of game art, notably surrounding Fluxus games 25. Tale of Tales acknowledges the problem of not being seen, seeing art 26: private engagement removes social status and identity aspects of art engagement, affecting the social experience of art. Still they find games more successful in engaging a dialog than a lot of interactive art. Initially drawn to the promise of a less hierarchical web more open to communication and exchange, the artists have since found an even more open gaming audience 27. Jason Nelson's game, game was initially released in a haphazard, decentralized manner, and spread virally over the web. Says Nelson: "I'm expected to put my work up in competitions as art. But then these kids blogging it on car mod sites - they're finding it without realizing it's an art work. That lack of expectation is kind of a wonderful thing. 28" In contrast, Essen's works are designed with not the web, but the gallery experience in mind. Essen is acutely aware of the experience considerations of private versus public spaces: "If you're playing the game alone at home it's just masochistic, but if you go to a party and sit down with someone it becomes cooperative... Meanwhile, a crowd is watching you, they're coming and going, and you're on stage 29." To work within public play settings, Essen's design decisions reflect the social context of even single player games: "One person can play, another can play right after that. Maybe something happens if no one's playing 30." Essen's "new arcade" approach serves as a bridge into the gallery, redirecting attention and control to the context of play. The online presence for his web-based and downloadable works in this context take a secondary role to the live event - serving more as private experience "teasers" for public experience events.

This is made all the more valuable from a curatorial perspective, where problems persist in presenting and facilitating audience engagement with online art 31. One of the continuing challenges of web-based art (and game art in particular) is the lack of experimental support structures that motivate audiences and encourage engagement and dialog (despite continued attempts to supplement this with online communities) surrounding works. This is something I have tried to address in my own work, including Kokoromi's Gamma game art events, and a curatorial experiment called The Sustainable Forest 32, which explored the idea of an "art LAN party" using Tale of Tales' The Endless Forest.

While many of the originating ideals and principles of early net art have passed, others have taken mutated form in contemporary game art: in a reconsideration of the way formal qualities of the web support aesthetics, in the ways in which game art negotiates points of cultural and historic reference, and in the way game artworks can form a dialog between artists and players. In tracing these concerns in game art, we can observe the blurring of boundaries and fluidity of movement between online and offline spaces, and the ways in which game art continues to explore the expressive potential of the form, and the possibility space of the net.

1 : Dietz, Steven. "Beyond Interface: Net art and Art on the Net".

2 : Founder of Brooklyn's Light Industry gallery.  

3 : Internet Art. Thames & Hudson, 2004.  

4 : Galloway, Alex. "Immersive Art on the Web," ON OFF.

5 : Initially commissioned by the Musee d'Art Moderne Grand-Duc Jean, Luxemburg in 2003.  

6 : Or Massive Multiplayer Online Game (MMOG).  

7 : Baudrillard, Jean. "The Passion for Rules." Seduction. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1990 (132).  

8 : Wirefire presented a random remixing of personal elements representing not how love was, but how it feels, but maintained a weekly performance mode mixing files for live audiences.  

9 : Chatzichristodoulou, Maria. "From Entropy8Zuper! to Tale of Tales: Games and The Endless Forest." Furtherfield. July 07, 2007.

10 : Kirkpatrick, Graeme. "Between Art and Gameness: Critical Theory and Computer Game Aesthetics." Thesis Eleven. 89.1 (2007): 74-93 (75).  

11 : Rusch Doris C. "Mechanisms of the Soul Tackling the Human Condition in Videogames." Breaking New Ground: Innovation in Games, Play, Practice and Theory. London: Brunel University, September, 2009.  

12 : Furtherfield.  

13 : Curator Lauren Cornell, in "Graphic Violence".  

14 : Blythe Sheldon, "Graphic Violence," New York Magazine.

15 : Moss, Ceci. "Games by Mark Essen."

16 : Rhizome.  

17 : Both game, game and i made this, bundled as "countries of an uncomfortable ocean," were awarded the Biennale Internationale des poètes en Val de Marne for Media Poetry in 2009.  

18 : www.secrettechnology.com  

19 : Nina Simon. "The Wildness in the Corner: A Discussion with Jason Nelson".

20 : Kattenbelt, C., and J. Raessens. "Computer games and the complexity of experience." Level Up. Digital Dames Research Conference. Ed. M. Copier & J. Raessens. Utrecht, NL: Digital Games Research Association, 2003 (451).  

21 : Rhizome.  

22 : Adkins, John. "mEssen With Your Head" The Escapist, 23 June 2009.

23 : Graphic Violence.  

24 : jayisgames.com  

25 : As Claudia Mesch notes, Fluxus performance generally involved Fluxus artists, however more public participation ended up emerging with the Fluxus "multiples," particularly in (plans for) the open production and distribution of Fluxus games and fluxchess. Mass distribution (a promise later made technically and financially feasible by the web) would be key to breaking the games out of their see-be-seen context of Fluxus members and artists.  

26 : Furtherfield.  

27 : Furtherfield.  

28 : Wildness.  

29 : Loudis, Jessica. "Talking with Mark Essen," Art Cat, April 9, 2009.

30 : ArtCat.  

31 : Paul, Christiane. "Challenges for a Ubiquitous Museum. From the White Cube to the Black Box and Beyond", in: Paul, Christiane (ed.): New Media in the White Cube and Beyond, University of California Press, Berkeley/Los Angeles, 2008 (53-75).  

32 : The Sustainable Forest: A LAN Soirée 01 occurred at the Banff New Media Institute's Interactive Screen (August 2008) was a curatorial experiment that uses the idea of a LAN party as a starting point to explore means of engaging art audiences with online games. In The Sustainable Forest, I attempted to stabilize various expressive, experiential and contextual qualities of Tale of Tales' The Endless Forest within broader cultural discourse (specifically social and environmental sustainability). The intention was to craft an experience around multiple vectors (relating to the initial question of what makes an artgamer), borrowing the concept of a "LAN party" as a model.