“The middle ground between art and game is play.”
– Jim Andrews

On the sales bookshelf at Quimby’s quite some time ago I picked up Gamers: Writers, Artists & Programmers on the Pleasures of Pixels as edited by Shanna Compton. Today I decided to relax a bit and took it with me as I went to lunch, first searching through the titles and seeing if any caught my immediate attention based on the discussions that have been happening around the blogs.

The quotation you see above is from Jim Andrews’s Arteroids game, a pithy sentence that greeted me when I had to start a level anew. While you could buy this collection of essays (I’ve yet to read all of them, so I cannot tell you its worth), his essay is readily available on his site as well. I won’t rehash the entire article, but wish to get to the parts that particularly interested me, which are the later portions of his essay in the book, under the headings Game Mode & Play Mode and The Conflict of Art & Entertainment (his conclusion).

Game Mode & Play Mode

The game exists in two primary modes, that of the game and one of play. Game mode gives you a score and has you progressing in levels. In game mode you are given one life and asked to play the game. Play mode allows you to tweak the controls; you control the velocity (through level) and mortality of your avatar, a word. One cannot save one’s score in play mode, as there is no progression in terms of the game.

After all, as Andrews put it, “Arteroids is the battle of poetry against itself and the forces of dullness.” Literally. You will have the option, as the word poetry, to shoot your doppelgänger, the word poetry.

In my first play through of the game I was very cognizant of the words I was ‘shooting.’ As a sometimes dabbler in poetry (it paid itself in scholarships), I was mentally keeping track of the words that exploded on screen and seeing what manner of syntax was being formed. Alongside the noises that were made upon ‘shooting’ these words, I began to wonder how I would even bother reading this aloud if I could recall it for later writing.

This was during game mode. As I progressed through the levels, the velocity of the words meant I quickly paid more attention to my survivability and it became an impossible task to keep all the words in my head. Perhaps had I a watcher who could write down the words, it might have yielded results. However, this seems the design of the game.

The Conflict of Art and Entertainment

“I’m hoping my continuing ambivalence about the piece indicates that Arteroids does have an unresolvable dynamic that is a source of continuing energy: the conflict between game and art, entertainment and art, popular culture and art.” His use of the word ambivalence immediately caught my eye and I thought to myself that much like the artist, I hadn’t fully settled on my own definition of his title. The game seems to still be going through various versions, which offer different capabilities. As these capabilities, high scores are the latest addition with hopes for a future multiplayer component, become available it does seem our own awareness of this game will shift as well.

The game is very basically modeled after Asteroids but also implements a certain metagaming quality in the term of how we approach it. Most of us know Asteroids, whether or not we have played it. Poetry is something with which I would imagine all of us, who are reading this at the very least, are aware. Essentially, one is a game and one is a piece of art. The play I garnered from my interaction was changed during the course of my play. What started as art morphed into a game where I paid less attention to my former aspirations. Whenever I would be forced to start new, I would contemplate what had happened and seek to restructure my next play of the game.

I am a proponent of some games having the ability to be art, and this creates some interesting questions as to what that means and where it intersects. There exist art games, there exist games for gaming pleasure, and there does seem to be an intersection where the two can meet. Can an art game cross into losing its ‘art’ if the player refuses to interact with it as such? For all intents and purposes, one can ignore Andrews’s artistic goal of the game completely–he even suggests it is the goal in game mode. How do we decide when a game crosses over from one to the other and whether or not it lies in the middle, however?

Well, that’s a question that still puzzles students of art as well. Perhaps it’s time I went to see the Jeff Koons exhibit at the MCA.

About Denis Farr

Writer interested in intersectionality, games, comics, nerdy stuff in general, theater, and how it all mixes. Graduate of Wabash College, with studies in Theater, English, German, and Gender Studies.
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