Pippin Barr Brings Duchamp to Videogames

Last year, in an interview with the blog quote-un-quote, Pippin Barr was asked to speak about his thoughts on videogames as art. He said:

A huge part of what great art does and has done is challenge assumptions about what you could do with the various media the artists used. A urinal as a sculpture is a pretty glaring example, thanks to Duchamp. We need some Duchamping in game making.

In his most recent work, Art Game, Pippin Barr took matters into his own hands, and brought some “Duchamping” to game making.

Art Game 1

Pippin Barr, Art Game, 2013

In the above quotation, Barr is referring to Marcel Duchamp’s 1917 work Fountain, in which the artist turned a urinal upside down and exhibited it in a museum. The work asked viewers to see the urinal outside of its original context and to look for its aesthetic value. This radical repositioning of the urinal as a work of art challenged viewers’ perceptions of the artistic medium of sculpture. The influence of this single artwork is still felt in today’s contemporary art scene.

Reviewing Art Game for Rock Paper Shotgun, Alec Meer summarizes the gameplay:

You play as an artist, and an acclaimed one at that. You’re asked to contribute new work to an upcoming show, and you achieve this by playing Snake, Tetris or Asteroids. Losing the game sees the final frame captured as a painting or sculpture, at which point an art gallery representative comes [to] assess whether your creation is fit to show or not.

SnakeTetris and Asteroids originally functioned with a basic scoring mechanic, rewarding players for survival. This aspect of score is removed from Art Game, but otherwise the gameplay is preserved. After submitting his work to the exhibition, the player walks through the gallery and receives either positive or negative feedback from the other museum visitors. When the player leaves the gallery, he is presented with a copy of the popular art journal Art Forum, along with a quote either praising or deriding his artwork.

In this way, the player is evaluated on his gameplay, but the evaluation mechanic is obfuscated by seemingly random and subjective rules. This lack of transparency is rarely used in game design, but it forces the player to form his own opinion as to what constitutes “art” in the medium of TetrisSnake or Asteroids. Each of our final designs is judged by the curator, but we are never really told what she is looking for or what we should do differently. She may love our work, but can we really claim success when we have no idea what we did to make her love it?

Art Game 3

The viewers did not appreciate my artistic creation

Returning to Alec Meer’s review, he bemoans that the perfect square he made in Snake was rejected from the exhibition. He writes:

You are angry because ‘you’have been rejected. Because something you made, and because it was of you you are proud of it, has been rejected. You are proud even though it’s just semi-random pixel-scribbles made with a very basic recreation of an ancient, over-familiar videogame.

The important take away here is that the mechanics of Art Game led Alec Meer to find artistic value in his play through of Snake, and he became emotionally invested in what he made. We have all played Snake and Tetris hundreds of times, but we’ve only ever considered playing to stay alive and gain points. We’ve always evaluated our gameplay as a function of our final score. By removing these games from their original context, Barr has achieved a great persuasive accomplishment, leading players to reinvent how they play these seemingly familiar games.

While other games, like Minecraft or The Sims, have explored similar ideas in gameplay, no game has done so as succinctly (you can play through Art Game in about five minutes) or accessibly (it is free to play online and uses very simple controls). Barr is breaking ground here by treating the act of gameplay as artistic creation. Just as Duchamp’s Fountain asks us to consider the aesthetic value in all objects, Barr’s Art Game asks us to do so for gameplay. Using Art Game as a starting point, can you imagine playing Halo for aesthetic value rather than for accruing kills?

Art Game 2


5 thoughts on “Pippin Barr Brings Duchamp to Videogames

  1. Loved this article, saw it linked from Gamasutra. To be honest, the simplicity of Snake’s design is something that has me marvel outside of its arbitrary high scores (eg. by avoiding an increasingly longer version of yourself, you’re basically creating your own emergent level design).

    If you’re after an extension of what you’re saying as ‘gameplay as expression’, check out PN03. It’s an arcade structure like the ones you provide, but it’s third-person shoot ’em up that demands patterned choreography, like dance. It’ll makes you think how so many games induce a type of choreography. .

    • Thanks, yeah, what I think Art Game does so well is that it leads us to those original, personal discoveries, rather than just seeing snake/tetris/asteroids as mechanical devices to go after high scores. And we can think of all sorts of games that way, as more personal experiences rather than such manufactured ones.

      I’ll have to dig up a gamecube and check out PN03, it sounds cool.

  2. Pingback: Selected Games Criticism | Alex Goes to Grad School

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