State of the Arts: 'Open World' Frames Video Games as Fine Art

Nov 15, 2019

From Atari to Xbox, the world of video games has grown from arcade subculture into a multi-billion dollar industry. An exhibition of video game artwork—both inspired by and created in virtual worlds—is now on display at the Akron Art Museum. On this week's State of the Arts, we delve into the landscape of "Open World: Video Games and Contemporary Art."

78-year old Thomas Reke has never played a video game in his life, until now. He holds up a gray, vintage Nintendo controller shaped like a pistol to shoot barrels on screen. 

And after maybe a minute, it's game over. 

"I just hope I never get addicted to computer games," he said with a laugh. 

The game Reke is playing is one of four interactive works of art in the exhibit. There are also prints, paintings, video installations and even crocheted sculptures.

Curator Theresa Bembnister spent three years putting together 'Open World.'

"It’s an exhibition that shows the ways that video games influence artists," Bembnister said. 

She thinks video games often don't get their due. 

"Everything in here is fine art."

Building 'Open World'
The galleries are full of the big, bold and colorful work, just like you’d expect from an industry that thrives on making the impossible playable.

I meet Denise Williams near an almost life size painting of a pixelated vault door inspired by the early '90s game "Duke Nukem."

Artist Krista Hoefle channels an early-text based video game 'Colossal Cave Adventure' in her cotton quilt in the exhibition.
Credit Courtesy Akron Art Museum

"Video gaming and art imitate each other all the time," Williams said. She's been playing video games for about 30 years. 

Along the walls you'll find custom quilts depicting scenes from classics like "Space Invaders," "Pitfall" and the early text based video game "Colossal Cave Adventure."

Williams said most people are gamers already. Even if they don't own a PlayStation, they probably have a smartphone or a fitness tracker.

"Gamification is everywhere. Whether you think you play a video game or not, some of the things you do, whether you’re a health enthusiast that keeps track of points. That’s still a way of gaming," Williams said.    

Real issues in a virtual world
Some of the artwork is simply an ode to video games, but curator Theresa Bembnister said many of the artists are using video games as a platform to talk about deep societal issues.

"Several of the artists are using video games as a way to draw in new audiences and to get them to think differently about these important topics that we talk about in the news every single day, such as gun violence."

There might not be a better platform to address gun violence than in the game "Grand Theft Auto V." It's set in a gritty, satirical world where the player tries to navigate a vast criminal network.

Bembnister points me to a video installation by artist Joseph DeLappe.

"He modified 'Grand Theft Auto V' so the game would play itself every day, from July 4, 2018 through July 4, 2019."

Day after day you see people die within the game, corresponding with the number of gun homicides across the United States.

Joseph DeLappe uses 'Grand Theft Auto' to talk about gun homicides across the United States.
Credit Courtesy Akron Art Museum

"So it’s an incredibly violent video to watch, but I think it’s really important. Because whenever we have a mass shooting here in the United States, usually video games are what everyone calls out as kind of the scapegoat and the reason for this violence."

Another piece in the exhibition also uses "Grand Theft Auto" to create art. Alan Butler takes advantage of the game's freedom of movement for portrait photography.

"It's what’s called an open world, so like the title of this exhibition. An open world game is a game where you don’t have to follow the narrative. You can actually go anywhere and do anything," Butler said. 

In the game, your character has a smartphone they can use just like a phone in the real world, even to take photos.

"And I started documenting the poverty in the game. So homeless people. There was anti-capitalist communes, evidence of drug abuse and tent cities, things like that," Butler said. 

Artist Alan Butler uses the game 'Grand Theft Auto V' for his portrait photography.
Credit Mark Arehart / WKSU

Real Cities, Virtual Landscapes

Artist Tim Portlock spends years recreating real cities that have seen economic decline using video game building software. 

"The buildings that you see in each of the images are based on actual buildings in the real world," he said standing in front of a beautiful sun setting over a few blocks of buildings in virtual Philadelphia. 

"I wanted to visualize the scale of empty and derelict buildings in the city," he said. The exhibition also features digital landscapes modeled after Las Vegas and Camden, NJ.

With a background as a painter, Portlock said he builds these digital worlds in the style of the classic American landscape. 

"The tools that are used to make computer games enabled me to talk about that genre and the ideas that it was meant to communicate from a contemporary perspective."

Artist Tim Portlock poses in front of his digital landscape of Camden, NJ.
Credit Mark Arehart

Fine Art, Pixelated

Whether it's using "The Sims" to talk about gender roles or a loop of "World of Warcraft" to depict how female gamers are treated differently, Bembnister said video games are inspiring artists to use these virtual spaces to talk about what it’s like to live in the real world.

"Yes, they’re making work about video games, but they’re also making work about hot button topics that affect all of us," Bembnister said. 

She admits she didn’t have a background playing video games before curating this exhibition. But when it comes to skeptics who question their place in a museum, she said "Open World" shows all of us video games are shaping not just popular culture, but also fine art.