Pixels Put on a Par With Paintings

"Eregion Orc" from "Lord of the Rings: The Third Age" is one of the works of video-game art on view at E3 in Los Angeles. (By David Mcnew -- Getty Images)
By Jose Antonio Vargas
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 12, 2006

LOS ANGELES -- May 11 Are video games art? Dare to ask the question at E3, the mother of all video-game conventions, and you'll get an icy stare followed by a decisive, if not downright nasty, "Well, duh!"

Inside the halls of the Los Angeles Convention Center, where the week-long E3 comes to an end on Friday, the jury has long decided its verdict: Games are art. E3 is the Louvre. Get with the program, bro.

And an art exhibit called "Into the Pixel," now in its third year at E3, is proof of that.

Sponsored by E3, the Academy of Interactive Arts and Sciences, and the Prints and Drawings Council of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, "Into the Pixel" is a juried exhibit that showcases 16 works of video-game art chosen from more than 150 submissions worldwide. The panel of seven judges, headed by Kevin Salatino, curator of prints and drawings at the L.A. museum, includes folks from the interactive, fine art and contemporary art worlds.

"Call it life influencing art, or games influencing art, or games influencing life, or art influencing games. Or better yet, why not just call it art?" said Salatino, a former curator of graphic arts at the Getty Research Institute in L.A.

A piece from the game "Evidence: The Last Ritual" looks like an inspired digitalized rendering of Salvador Dali's "Architecture of the Eyes." Another piece, from the game "Metal Gear Solid 3," would fit in an exhibit on Japanese prints with its bold, dark brushwork and use of empty space.

Now, apparently, video games are old enough to have a mature wine-and-cheese outing, with several game and game-inspired exhibits being held across the country in the last few years. San Francisco's Yerba Buena Center for the Arts hosted a show called "Bang the Machine: Computer Gaming Art" in 2004. The traveling exhibit "Game On" made a stop at the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago last year. And aside from "Into the Pixel," there's also the nostalgic "I Am 8-Bit" at Gallery Nineteen Eighty Eight on Melrose Avenue that features a piece called "No One Wants to Play Sega With Harrison Ford."

In this game world, the epic "Final Fantasy" series is akin to "The Godfather" saga; Rob Pardo, the mastermind behind "World of Warcraft," is another Steven Spielberg; and Super Mario, who is the star in a new game this fall, is as big as Mickey Mouse.

"Pac-Man and Mario are Brad Pitt and Tom Cruise to me," said Jon M. Gibson, an "I Am 8-Bit" curator and a self-proclaimed Mario-head. ("You sympathize with this hapless guy who's out to save the girl. He never backed down. It's as simple as that," explained the 23-year-old.) In this month's issue of Game Informer, a popular magazine, Gibson penned an essay titled "Are Video Games Art?" -- "a conversation as cumbersome as Darwin vs. the Bible," he said.

Still, it's a conversation that can get very heated, especially on the Web.

Film critic Roger Ebert, writing on Rogerebert.com, recently said that games are "inherently inferior to film and literature," which are "better uses of my time." He drew a barrage of response from gamers, who are nothing if not quick on e-mail, and game blogs such as Kotaku.com, Joystiq.com and Gameology.org had a field day with it. For years gamers, online and off, have been on the defensive about whether games are art.

In what industry insiders consider the definitive essay on the topic, Henry Jenkins, head of the comparative media studies program at MIT, wrote that games are indeed art. He titled the essay "Games, the New Lively Art," in reference to Gilbert Seldes's 1924 book "The Seven Lively Arts," which lists jazz, films, musicals and comic strips, among others, as some of America's greatest contributions to art.

"Are video games art? I'm not going to answer that question. I don't know. But, frankly, I don't care," said Louis Marchesano, one of "Into the Pixel's" jurors and an art historian whose expertise is 17th- and 18th-century art. He is not at all a gamer. "But you can't look at these pieces and not be moved by them, intrigued by them."

Wednesday morning, as E3 opened its doors to thousands of conventioneers, most everyone headed over to the main show floor, where the latest games -- among them the racing spectacle "Gran Turismo" and the sci-fi adventure "Prey" -- were waiting to be played on the soon-to-be-released Nintendo Wii and PlayStation 3. It's a sensory overload. Away from all that bustle, in a relatively small hall, the 16 pieces of video-game art were on display.

Jonathan Kelly, 20, and Ryan Lee, 21, both game designers and hard-core gamers, stood in front of "In the Garden of Eva," the title of the piece from the game "Metal Gear Solid 3."

"There's this man standing in the jungle, and it's very clearly man against nature," said Kelly, pointing to a man surrounded by intense reds and blacks.

"You get a feeling that it's every man for himself," Lee added.

Or, in the case of E3, it's video-game art for itself.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company