Are video games art?
That question is both a common art history position paper subject and a bong hit conversation – and it probably doesn’t need to be rehashed in those terms. But since the coronavirus pandemic turned staying indoors into a moral virtue, video games are less stigmatized than ever. Lapsed gamers are playing Nintendo again, musicians are throwing festivals in virtual space and professional athletes are pivoting to esports.
Enter the Art Gallery of Ontario, which is launching the event series AGO Let’s Play. In it, different experts will play through a specific game – a classic or a new favourite – while exploring its ideas and aesthetics while connecting it to other works in the museum’s collection.
The series starts Wednesday, July 15 at 4 pm on Facebook Live and Twitch with an exploration of the city building simulation classic SimCity.
“Games have taken on a different life [during the pandemic] says co-curator Aden Solway. “Similar things are happening within the context of art and culture. More traditional or conventional modes of exhibition have been superseded by digital programming or remote art. It’s a good moment to reevaluate games within the context of an art museum.”
Urbanism in video games
SimCity is a city-building and urban planning simulator that launched in 1989. It’s a foundational game for modern simulation and sandbox games, from The Sims to Animal Crossing to Stardew Valley. The game puts players into the role of mayor of a new city, building it from the ground up. So it’s a way into conversations about urbanism and what makes a good city – questions that have intensified during the pandemic.
“We’re thinking a lot right now about cities and how they’re shaped,” says the series’ other co-curator Nathan Huisman, who will lead today’s talk. “We’re thinking about the effect of city has on the environment. We’re thinking about the services of our cities: the fire department, the police force. Those conversations are very prevalent right now.”
Game developer and educator Paolo Pedercini will be the guest in the talk. A scholar of SimCity, he has also created alternate simulations. Solway argues that capitalistic gain and settler colonialism are the main principles of SimCity and, to an extent, games like Animal Crossing and Stardew Valley. But Pedercini’s games examine city-building from a different angle.
“In one of his games you actually have activists in your city that will stop you from developing a certain area of your city if they protest how you’re developing it,” says Huisman. “Whereas in SimCity you’re the master and have all of the controls. But it’s interesting to look at what you have control over and what you don’t.”
The series will explore the game’s aesthetics, specifically comparing it to Agnes Martin’s painting The Rose, which represents a rose with a grid of pencil markings. Similarly to SimCity’s bird’s eye-view of a city, there is subtlety and complexity in what might seem simple. With technology limited in the late-80s, the game uses abstraction to represent real ideas.
AGO Let’s Play’s future events
Future editions of the series include a playthrough of Toronto developer Adam Robinson-Yu’s game A Short Hike on July 22 and its connection to Group of Seven painter J.E.H. MacDonald.
The August 5 event connects the first-person “shooter” photography game Umarangi Generation to the AGO’s photography collection. An especially meta August 12 edition examines Animal Crossing: New Horizon’s own in-game museum.