Art imitates Halo

Artists are jumping into the worlds of video games

WAR GAMES<br> Video games like <i>Call of Duty</i> (above) and <i>Half-Life</i> (below) have crept onto canvasses, while gaming culture has hit novels (bottom).

Video games like Call of Duty (above) and Half-Life (below) have crept onto canvasses, while gaming culture has hit novels (bottom).

About the author
Clive Thompson is a contributing writer at The New York Times Magazine. In 2002, he was a Knight science- journalism fellow at MIT.

If you visit my apartment, you’ll see a large acrylic painting of a young woman’s face hanging on the wall. It’s gorgeous—a blizzard of gray and black daubs, done in impressionist style much like the Fauvists of the early 20th century. The woman’s face is angled upward, as if lit by a window. If you’re a gamer, you might find something naggingly familiar about her.

That’s because it’s the face of Alyx Vance, the heroine of Valve Software’s Half-Life games. It was painted by Jamie “El Rey” Barnett, an artist—and friend of mine—who’s also a regular gamer. When he first played Half-Life and the original Call of Duty he was struck by the uncanny realism of the sunlight in the games. After spending dozens of hours wandering and fighting inside the game—and thousands more over his lifetime of gaming—these worlds were equally as “real” as the one around him. So why not paint them?

“I lived in the city, and was pretty much a shut-in, so traipsing the countryside to capture scenic vistas was not in the cards,” he said. “But I found that with god mode, I could fly around these 3-D landscapes, find a composition I liked, and take a screenshot and paint it.”

He wound up painting seven portraits and landscapes from the games, including one country scene from Call of Duty that looks freakily like an early Matisse.

Critics and gamers have long bickered over whether games are a form of art, on par with traditional genres like painting, poetry or novels. But now a new generation of artists are neatly inverting this debate—by making art about their experiences inside games.

I first noticed this trend about two years ago, when I saw visual artists like Jeremiah Palecek or 8-bit-Artist producing oil and acrylic paintings of retro ‘80s games. Then I discovered the mini-boom in gaming literature—such as D.B. Weiss’ “Lucky Wander Boy,” a story about a slacker obsessed with finding his life’s meaning in a mysterious arcade game from his youth, or Blue Wizard Is About to Die, a collection of gaming poems by Seth Flynn Barkan. (And last year, I blurbed a stellar novel called Joyland, a coming-of-age story that revolves around a grimy small-town arcade.)

One of the functions of good art, of course, is to take everyday experience and render it askew, so we re-encounter the familiar. This is one of things I particularly love about the paintings of Palecek or 8-bit-Artist—which often consist of ultra close-ups of scenes or characters from retro games. Each pixel becomes a broad cube of oil paint, and the effect is rather like pushing your face up against the cathode ray tube: You notice again how deeply expressive a few tiny pixels can be, how they look simultaneously mythic and medieval, like tapestry come to life.

More important, the paintings remind me of how deeply uncanny games are, how directly they seem to tap into our subconscious. Blown up to canvas size, the characters from Gradius or Contra or Ninja Gaiden stop looking like games and start looking like Jungian archetypes, snapshots of Cold War dread and the birth of the digital age. Dalí couldn’t have imagined a more regularly surreal cultural form. This is precisely why games make such potent metaphors for one’s internal life.

Writers from Chaucer to Shakespeare to Sylvia Plath have used extreme situations—the heat of battle, the arguments of the gods—as analogs for our more mundane, everyday struggles. Games plug neatly into this millennia-old tradition, because they contain both halves of the equation at once. You’re fighting ice-blooded dragons or piloting interstellar craft past exploding stars; simultaneously you are sitting in your underwear in your bedroom, surrounded by unpaid bills.

The persistent sense of having one foot in the banal and one foot in the surreal animates the best moments in gaming art. It’s particularly vivid in the literature. “I have a crowbar / And many problems,” begins Barkin’s poem “Half-Life,” a dry observation that radiates in every direction.

Is he writing about the game? Your torturous love life? My job as vice president of paperclip counting? All of them, of course. In “Defender,” he proclaims “I have no idea what I’m doing / but I am doing it very fast,” which is a beautifully terse summary not only of Defender but probably your entire life, as well.

Meanwhile, in Joyland, Schultz uses games as a foil for the terrifying morass of teenage-hood: The wary battles between friends, the vulnerability of your vessel, the muddled sensuality—the way you still feel the warmth of the last player’s hand on the arcade joystick. Life is a Pac-Man-like maze to be navigated, adulthood a set of invisible and perplexing rules—"the pattern that emerged only out of instinct and repeat errors.”

I grew up with video games, yet I often struggle to explain precisely what they mean to me—how they’ve affected my life. As the ranks of game artists grow, though, I suspect I’ll have fewer and fewer problems with this. There’ll be novels set amidst the Elizabethan intrigues of World of Warcraft, poems about the narcotic mental haze of Bejeweled, medieval triptychs of Halo‘s back story. Want to know why I love games? Just look on my wall.