‘For(){};’ the love of video games: art installation brings gameplay to gallery

Cable Griffiths and Brent Watanabe/Courtesy

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When the late Roger Ebert said that “video games can never be art,” the gaming community boiled with anger (as it so often does). Gaming is an often misunderstood hobby, thanks to the stereotype of the overweight, lazy and socially awkward gamer who loves nothing more than to watch heads explode, and the notion that gaming is very much a non-intellectual pursuit was infuriating.

The debate rages on, and many cite games like “Mass Effect” and “BioShock Infinite” — games with brilliant narratives and dynamic characters — as being prime examples of “art.” Others agree that certain pieces of software (see “Proteus”) are “art,” but they reject such experimental indie experiences as “games” in the traditional sense. Gamers remain split; no one can agree on what a game is, what art is or whether games can be art while still being games. It’s exhausting.

And then there’s “For(){};.” If someone were to challenge you to make an artistic game that all gamers could accept — and if you were a very literal person — “For(){};” is probably what you’d come up with.

Exhbiting at the Kittredge Gallery in Tacoma, Wash., “For(){};” is a triptych of paintings by Cable Griffith onto which game software, programmed by Brent Watanabe, is projected and controlled by an NES controller. The paintings contain the game environment and basically any inanimate, non-moving thing that the player can interact with but not pick up. The player’s character sprite, all enemies and coins and power-ups comprise the software.

The game itself is pretty aimless. There are points, displayed prominently in the classic arcade style. There’s a lot of platforming, a la Super Mario Bros. — actually, “For(){};” uses Mario’s well-known jump sound — and the platforms are cleverly mapped to the paintings. But once the player reaches the top of the painting, he just has to fall down to the bottom again. Lather, rinse, repeat. Until he dies.

If you’ve ever played the iOS and Android game “Doodle Jump,” you’ll know how that feels. You jump. You keep jumping until you can’t jump anymore, all in the name of more points. It’s the kind of game that somehow sucks away all of your time, and you find yourself cursing it when that paper you were supposed to be writing is due in three hours and you can feel the carpal tunnel sinking into your wrist.

So, in that sense, “For(){};” qualifies as a game. You play it, you get points, you die. Check! Gamers can’t argue with that logic. Even though there isn’t really a “point,” is there a point to endless “Call of Duty” multiplayer matches or playing “Mario 64” for the hundredth time? Think about it. I’ll wait.

And then there’s the art part. No one can really argue that paintings aren’t art — it’s a well-established fact that they are art — but the way that the game and the paintings are combined might seem like a cop-out. Shove the game onto some paintings, and suddenly it’s art. If I wrote the “Twilight” saga in calligraphy on a canvas, would that make it art?

That’s essentially the crux of the ongoing debate. What the hell is art, you guys? How does anyone know? All I know is that “For(){};” is somehow hypnotic. I want to keep looking at it. I want to fly to Washington and try it out for myself. I want to have a real, working NES controller in my hands (it’s become something of a rarity). For me, that’s good enough.

You can watch a video of “For(){};” below.

for(){}; – projection mapped video game on canvas from Brent Watanabe on Vimeo.

Contact Kallie Plagge at [email protected]. Check her out on twitter at @kirbyoshi.