Review: Game Masters

“Game Masters”, Melbourne Winter Masterpieces, ACMI, Federation Square, until 28 October

“Game Masters” is a rich and busy show of video games at ACMI.  A worthy successor to 'Game on"from 2008, it contains a history of electronic authors, as well as a wonderful array of arcade machines, consoles, concept art, screens of every dimension, furniture and sound environments.

Exhibiting games is a challenge.  They don’t cohere like a room full of paintings.  Meanwhile, the interactivity means that the audience creates another demonstrative layer.  People acquire a strange presence, both activated and disengaged, directed to the gear and away from you.

ACMI has nevertheless wrought an artful blend of histories and themes, beginning with early arcade games (digital pin-ball style), to adventure and multiplayer shooter games and ending with hygienic family fun in dance and song tutors.

Alas, the evolution of games is easier to narrate in words than by exhibition.  As a display of past gaming inventions, *Game Masters* is illuminating and impressive.  But one of the most significant shifts in gaming cannot be exhibited.

With the onset of Web 2.0, gaming ceased to be a contest between an individual and an algorithm and instead became a platform for remote users to relate to one another.  Gaming would shift from a linear quest or a fight to a metaphorically-enhanced conversation.  The game has a meta-game within it: the discussion of the game itself and the value of its assets and opportunities.

In an eloquent catalogue essay, Helen Stuckey acknowledges that in multiplayer games, the online experience is conditioned not just by the game-design but by your companions.  Relations can be supportive or competitive, chivalrous or angry, just as behaviour can be cool or dog.  The game is no longer just what the engineers have devised; it’s influenced by how the challenges are communicated by fellow users.  If you have rewarding friends, you have a good game.

Ironically, contemporary art has evolved to a similar point.  Through relational aesthetics, many artists no longer have faith in the art-object as a reflection of interactions around the studio.  The artwork, or the gallery that contains it, is more like a shell.  It has to be populated with parallel content, no matter how well the object is made.

Maybe Titian is different; but we even tend to see grand masterpieces as only coming to life because we want to say something in company, to talk to other people who also take an interest in the noble visions on the wall.  Without a community of talkers, the works themselves often fall flat: their intrinsic virtues slip from our experience.

We used to think of master artworks as self-contained; but now the autonomy of the artwork is felt to be either fragile or false.

But here’s the rub in this uncanny alignment of art and gaming: the new socialized energy is impossible to exhibit.  In both, there’s no visual account of the new talkative dynamic.

Unless you’re in the game, you’ll miss the excited genius of teamwork, the constant evaluation of another player’s adroitness, luck or ineptitude.  You’ll miss the canon of cool, the dudish charm, the charisma that certain players acquire, perhaps posting commentary on YouTube with gracious assurance, while revealing dazzling moves in a game.

Many multiplayer games have social-media functions, accommodating chat, posts and profile.  They’re highly conversational, extending to voice chat.  One does not simply play the game to win but to extend friendships and jointly fathom systems and philosophies around them.

It would be difficult for *Game Masters* to explore these cultural dimensions, because they’re visually and spatially immaterial.  The beauty of gaming is cryptic and has no presence relative to the real-space routines of dance tutors, healthy fun for a family sharing a room and home entertainment system.

The hidden beauty of gaming is the strategy and etiquette, which are only contacted in the witty intimacy of the online encounter.  In comparison, pressing buttons so that you hit the jackpot or dancing or singing competitively in a party-simulation dies in the pixel.

ACMI provides wifi access; but the next step is to offer downloadable notes (say via QR codes) to bring interpretations onto our mobile devices.

By Robert Nelson

Robert Nelson

Associate Professor Robert Nelson is Associate Director, Student Learning Experience at Monash University and Art Critic for The Age. Robert’s most recent book, Instruments of contentment: furniture and poetic sustainability, was published by Craft Victoria, 2014, available freely online.