The relationship between art and play is an ever-changing one, and the lines between what qualifies as either, are getting blurred with new media. For the most part, art and play exist in an interdependent world. Sometimes, however, there is friction. Such is the case with game-modifications, depending on how married you are to the idea of copyright protection and intellectual property rights. I recently read an article by Alex Galloway, titled “Countergaming”, from his book Gaming: Essays on Algorithmic Culture. The title conveys the emerging movement of subverting gaming technology to portray games in new light.
Most game-mods focus on changing one or more of three aspects of an original game – aesthetics, game mechanics or the underlying game technology, but mostly the first and the third. Game-mods are extending the realm of what is possible in the field of art and play in a creative way. Reading the Countergaming article, one of the things that stood out to me was the idea of “industry-sanctioned hacking” prevalent in the gaming industry, and it’s stark contrast to intellectual property and copyright issues in other media. Outsourcing the development of game mechanics, visualizations and technology to the fans is bound to produce some works that are not superior or that are creative infringements of the original game, but there is still is a lot of potential of finding new expressions within the art. To kill the idea of standing on the shoulders of giants to push the boundaries of creativity would be counterproductive for art and play in emerging new media.
Counterstrike is a great example of a game mod that was produced as a result of open source development of Half Life by the fans, for the fans. Although it is unique in the commercial success and endorsement it received from the original creators of Half Life, I don’t believe that playability is a necessity for a successful modification of an existing game.
Take, for example, another movement, Machinima, referring conveniently to a portmanteau of machine cinema – the use of 3D graphics engines from video games to generate new narratives, animations and experiences. While Machinima arose as a way to document speedruns in gameplay, today, it is closer to cinematography and filmmaking.
Considering the evolution of expression in the field of art and aesthetic as part of the game as well art and play as a commentary on each other, I think, with game-mods, it’s important to create a meaningful experience for the viewer. It may not be interactive or playable in a physical sense, but if it creates an interactive dialogue with the audience in a way that the original work did not, I would consider that successful art.