Video games as art?
A USF class looks past the points and the violence to consider the deeper aspects of video games.
By DAVE GUSSOW, St Petersburg Times, FL
Published February 9, 2004

TAMPA - Da Vinci's Mona Lisa is a painting masterpiece. Casablanca is a flick for the ages. But what about Mario, the diminutive Italian plumber who's a pop culture icon and hero of video games? Is he a work of art, too?

No comparison? A cartoon figure in a mere game can't be considered art? Mike Salmond and his students at the University of South Florida aren't so sure.

In a first-time course at USF, and apparently one of the first of its kind anywhere, Salmond and a dozen students in the College of Visual and Performing Arts are critiquing video games as others would dissect film, music or painting.

"It's not an art form yet like film or theater," said Salmond, 36, an adjunct professor who proposed the class. "I think right now it's being exploited in a very corporate manner. (But) if we start trying to legitimize the medium of video games, then hopefully we can start creating games that are art-based."

It's corporate for a reason: Video game industry revenues reached $11.2-billion last year, according to the NPD Group research company, off about 4 percent from 2002. Games accounted for more than half of that, $5.8-billion, with most of the remainder from sales of video game consoles. By comparison, movie ticket sales last year were an estimated $9.17-billion, according to Nielsen EDI.

Raising the cachet of an entertainment genre that most would consider low brow - known mainly for its violence, sexual and racial stereotypes and mind-numbing mayhem - might seem to be a futile exercise, even in academia.

Officially, the class is Art 3222C Advanced Electronic Media. But the name of the class is the Art of the Videogame.

For students who may think they've just stumbled upon the easiest class on campus, it's more than sitting around playing games.

Course materials include a required textbook, The Video Game Theory Reader. Students have to write papers, and the main semester project is a promotional project involving various aspects of creating a video game. Game consoles are not required, but it's obvious these students were well-equipped electronically.

"A lot of video game designers will call themselves artists," Salmond said. "What they do aesthetically and designwise you can call art. We haven't had the validation of, say, a Mario game appearing in a gallery in New York or Tampa."

One thing Salmond and the students have in common: They all grew up playing games and share a passion for the medium. And the group is diverse, including three women, a Hispanic and an African-American. On a recent Thursday, Salmond and the student gathered in a computer lab at the Fine Arts building.

For three hours, they played parts of games, displayed by projectors on a screen, to analyze the types of games, characters and techniques.

They laughed at what their prof called the "ridiculously absurd and stupid" violence in the popular but widely criticized Grand Theft Auto: Vice City.

"From an artistic angle, what is it about society that first of all would make people want to create a game like that?" Salmond said. "It sells well, but what does that say about our culture?"

And there's a difference between violence in a movie, which is a passive experience of watching, and racking up points by killing characters in a video game, Salmond says.

Yet there are shooting games, such as Metroid Prime, which Salmond says have "so much of a deeper immersion. You forget where you are. You're kind of projected into it. . . . It's more of an artistic experience."

The students seemed more intrigued by the gentle Animal Crossing, a Sims City-like game in a virtual village of animals where players build a life through everyday actions such as buying and furnishing a house.

"For such a simple-looking game, it's incredibly deep," Salmond said. "It does take over our life."

In Rez, the player shoots objects, but not for a score. Instead, each hit adds to a music soundtrack the player creates in the futuristic-looking game. And Chris Grajales, a junior from Tampa, displayed fast footwork for Dormaxx 2 Dance Dance Revolution, using a floor mat controller to stay in step with the game.

Some students ranked Nintendo as their favorite system and games, despite its No. 3 market position behind Sony's PlayStation 2 and Microsoft's Xbox.

"Nintendo cares," said junior Jared Fager of Tampa. "Nintendo is an innovator. Nintendo pays attention to detail. Nintendo doesn't make Grand Theft Auto: Vice City."

A successful video game has qualities similar to a good film or TV show. It succeeds or fails on how well it works as entertainment. "Games could be a big part of my future," said Fager, 21, who hopes to one day create video games.

The class isn't just a love fest of game enthusiasts. While particular techniques were discussed, the downside of video games was apparent.

"They tend to use terrible stereotypes," Salmond said. "A lot of games are aimed at young white males. It's getting better as more girls start to play and more minorities have their voices heard. But it's a slow process."

For now, the class is a one-shot deal. Salmond, who earned his master's in fine arts from USF, is unsure where he'll be teaching next year. The class has won attention from other faculty members, a couple of whom dropped by to watch in the computer lab.

Salmond expects to continue his quest to study the video game as an art form wherever he ends up.

"When push comes to shove, an oil painting, a really good one, is just oil on canvas," he said. "It's the way the artist approaches that form, gives it physical presence. It speaks back to you. When you look at a painting or art film, it gives you a different experience than just looking at a print of pretty flowers."

Not many video games achieve that, he says. But one day, they might.