While the question of whether videogames should be considered art has always been a contentious one, and the subject may have been hashed out within the gaming community in great and terrible detail, from outside that inner sanctum it remains pertinent. The medium has experienced an indie renaissance in the past few years, and as creators and developers are increasingly producing stranger, more diverse, and more artful games, the question is raised over and over again. It also seems a particularly relevant query considering a gaming event with over 700 confirmed guests is going to be taking place at the Art Gallery of Ontario.
To celebrate the fifth birthday of the Hand Eye Society, a local not-for-profit with a mandate of “supporting and showcasing videogames made primarily as a form of creative expression” (which sounds suspiciously like art to us), the AGO is hosting a Fancy Videogame Party. With the setting of a high society ball, the vibe of a nightclub, and the entertainment of a gaming party, the event seeks to set games and art on a collision course. Curated by the Hand Eye Society and world-renowned game party planners the Wild Rumpus, the games have all been chosen for their group gameplay potential, as well as for their sheer artfulness.
Jim Munroe, one of the founders of the Hand Eye Society, will be serving as the AGO’s artist-in-residence from January 27 until April 11, and though he’s been asked the question many times, he proudly announced that he has “always been drawn to the cultural gutter,” and happily tackles the issue of whether games can be considered art. “For me, it’s not a question of whether games should be taken seriously—but dude, you’re missing out if you’re not,” Munroe says. “Having worked in more traditional arts fields, it is clear to me that it is art. The range of creative expression was previously pretty narrow, and now it is broadening to the extent that we see today, with personal stories being told through the medium, issues being dissected and discussed—all those things are on some level part of the medium’s maturity. It has been happening for decades in fits and starts, and now it is hitting a critical mass, and there is a wealth of inspiring art being made in this medium.”
The partnership between the AGO and the Toronto gaming community will extend beyond this single event; in addition to the party, the AGO will be hosting a four-week Art & Ideas workshop, entitled Discovering Digital Games, from February 5 until February 28—Munroe and Dames Making Games co-founder Alex Leitch will be serving as instructors and mentors. Three arcade cabinets, known as the Torontrons, have been set up in the community gallery for the run of Munroe’s residency, and he’ll be featured in the March 26 edition of the AGO’s Meet the Artists series, in conversation wine zine maker and comic artist Mark Connery and game developer Jonathan Mak.
The games that will be featured at the Fancy Videogame Party are extremely diverse in terms of mechanics, style, and artistry, and all were chosen because of their cooperative potential. Games will include the Yawhg, an apocalyptic choose-your-own-adventure co-op game by Damian Sommer and Emily Carroll; the Interstellar Selfie Station by Love Conquers All Games and Nadine Lessio; and two-player fencing game Nidhogg. DJs Ryan Henwood, Dualryan, and Coins will be performing throughout the night, and local makerspace Site 3 coLaboratory has provided experimental Splintercade arcade machines. The event’s games, entertainment, and hacked hardware are listed here and here; each offering represents an attempt to make games more artful, and art more playful.