From Parasitism to Institutionalism: Risks and tactics for game-based art

published in Artists Re:thinking Games
edited by Ruth Catlow, Marc Garett and Corrado Morgana
Fact 2010

(Cory Arcangel, Super Mario Movie)

Game-based art kicked off back in the nineties, in the era of the rising of net culture and hacktivism. The releasing of codes of popular games such as Doom and Quake offered the opportunity to users to intervene in the gaming environments, to appropriate and modify their structures and elements, providing a new terrain for creativity. This first game-based scene was characterized a “parasitic” one as it was dependent on the commercial game platforms of the period while it was trying to transgress and subvert them at the same time (Schleiner 1999).Blurring the boundaries between producer and consumer, artist and viewer, game fan and game developer, programmer and hacker, the parasitic game culture of the late nineties opened up a new horizon for the emergence of creative and critical approaches on the digital gaming platforms.

Game-based art is no longer “a new thing”.A decade later, the field has evolved and changed; it has actually matured and it has become established and respected. One needs only to realize the transition from the first game projects’ presentations to today’s game art shows. While for example, Schleiner’s “Cracking the Maze”, and Dietz’s and Marketou’s “Open Source Lounge” in Mediaterra festival at the turn of the decade focused on parasitic interventions and modifications on game environments, the exhibitions organized by Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, Laboral Center in Gijon or Itaú Cultural in Sao Paolo the last few years have showed that game-based art is becoming a field that art institutions now wish to invest in[1]. This impression is strengthened by the fact that games now constitute a “category” for media art festivals and are becoming an axis for centers’ and museums’ programs and activities. The field of artistic creativity has greatly expanded. The game patches and modifications of the past opened the way to a vast array of techniques and practices that now take the form of game applications, interventions, performances and installations that offer the unique opportunities for participation and interaction the contemporary institutions seek for.

But, have we already reached the time for another institutionalization of an art form? Although the passage from a marginal, parasitic act to one embraced by institutions is not so uncommon for art, in the case of game-based art, a new oxymoron is being formed, this time based on play. Can games be presented in institutions? Do they become “objets d’ art”? What kinds of relationships are being formed between games, artists, visitors and institutions? Even if the opposition between artists and institutions is old in art, new encounters and questions emerge when playfulness is involved.

A case of detournement

Discussing game art in the context of art history brings movements of an anti-art and anti-conformist character back to the foreground. Dada, Surrealism, Situationism and the Fluxus, “movements” of the 20th century–although some of their practitioners and believers would disclaim the term movement – seem to be the closest predecessors. Having social and political ideological positions and statements, aiming to challenge society’s and art’s stereotypes, the artists of these movements had used play as a means to provoke, to reverse and reveal structures and to offer new readings and ways of understanding. Their manifestations, works, performances and events were taken to the cafés and to the streets, away from galleries and institutions, opposing hierarchies, truths and systems. Play was called to take on a “revolutionary” role following their tactics and positions. Dada’s playful spirit, the Surrealists’ emphasis on the imaginary, Fluxus’s impossible-to-play games and the Situationists’ call of a burst of play into life were contributing to acts of resistance that artists and writers were then trying to shape.

Using play as a practice to transcend rigid forms and to break constraints is a distinctive feature of today’s game-based art. The projects of the artists working in the field seem to share the same ground with their predecessors. Playing with the rules, rather than playing by rules, they modify or negate instructions, structures, aesthetics and norms, seeing the contemporary gameworlds as a reflection of the contemporary digital realm.

This merging of creativity with playfulness has been connected todétournement, a situationist term describing appropriation and subversion, an act of “an all embracing reinsertion of things into play whereby play grasps and reunites beings and things” as Vaneigem described it (Vaneigem 1967). The use of the term for the art practices being developed in game contexts, implies processes of appropriation not of only game features assigning to them new properties, but also of concepts and ideas assigning to them new meanings. In this context, for example, the animated re-makings of the late medieval paintings of Brody Condon, the hacked cartridges of Cory Arcangel & Paper Rad for Super Mario Movie, Joseph DeLappe’s interventions in multiplayer games and virtual worlds, or Personal Cinema’s transformations of social media platforms into gamespaces, all are processes of appropriation and subversion that alter the standard norms and common uses, aesthetics and behaviors of the gaming environments.[2]

Détournement expresses the old battle between play and game and reasserts games’ playfulness through art. Opposing the disciplined, structured, antagonistic and rule-based form the western European thought assigned to games simulating the real world itself, artists’ acts stand out as playful tactics of resistance that aim to break systems and strategies. Reclaiming play as a disposition and an instinct that aims to reverse imposed systems of thought and order, the practices of artists working on games constitute a continuation to forms of art embracing critique and resistance. The approaches and tactics of subversion bring especially to mind the practitioners of institutional critique of the 60’s, the 80’s and 90’s; that is artists whose work challenged the institutions criticizing their functioning, their value system, their hierarchies, mechanisms and strategies. Observing the rules, the impositions and the structures of the institutions, those artists were aiming to subvert the institutions with practices similar to those of the artists working on games. Looking back to Christo’s Wrapped Museum of Modern Art, Claes Oldenburg’s Mouse Museum or Krzysztof Wodiczko’s large outdoors political projections on institutions, one can recognize the role playfulness, irony and profanity had in the process and realization of their work.

A form of anti-integration (?)

If game art follows such a tradition of anti-conformist and anti-institutional art practices embracing playfulness, transcendence and subversion, what could its possible role in an institution be? And what does integration in an institution mean? A deprivation of its inherent characters or an outburst of play’s features to the institution itself?

There is already a rather long list of game art exhibitions, many of them organized by museums or centers where game projects have been exhibited as contemporary artworks, “properly positioned”, distanced from each other, sometimes even in showcases, discouraging interaction. Processes of archiving, documenting, exhibiting and collecting games are neither surprising nor unusual. After all, games compared to the other forms and movements of art discussed above are easy-to-perceive-and-collect items, as they are in fact “cultural objects bound by history and materiality” (Galloway, 2006: 1). Moreover, if we look back, the movements of art mentioned above did not succeed in escaping institutionalization and commodification at the end. Despite their manifestations and positions, their works sooner or later became parts of glorifying retrospective exhibitions that attracted thousands of people. Celia Pearce, a game artist and educator, has interestingly noted that “there is deep and tragic irony in going to an exhibition of Fluxus artifacts…. Objects whose entire purpose was to elicit play exist now only as the corpses of their former selves, trapped in a “Mausoleum” within the object-centric commodity-based world of Art with a capital A…” (Pearce 2006: 70). Similarly, art based on institutional critique also became a form of art presented at the end by institutions themselves, with the exhibition entitled The “Museum as a Muse” being possibly the best example of a retrospective group show on institutional critique (McShine 1999). What would therefore accordingly be the case for game art?Are we talking about new contemporary art commodities in the form of games or new forces, actions, tactics driven by playthat could escape institutionalization and reverse the mechanisms of commodification?

Surprisingly games and institutions seem to have a lot in common. They are both well structured systems, forming hierarchies, based on rules, time and space constraints. In exhibitions, worlds are being created and stories are being told, forming environments separated from the everyday life, just like it happens with the “magic circles” the games form. The microcosms being built in both cases, either based on fantasy or on any historical, social or theme context, invite users/visitors to find a place in them, to empower their identity and to often associate with certain elements of a social or societal status that are being represented (Caillois 1958/2001: 13, 43, Huizinga 1955: 13, Sutton Smith 2001/1997: 91 – 95, Duncan 1995: 7 – 20).

The detachment from everyday life, the imposition of rules, the formation of a specific space needed are all elements that favor idealisation and sacralisation of ideas and items. Although a side of play has been associated with rituals in the past as Huizinga noted, a sacralisation of contemporary forms of play can only lead to a sterilization of its inherent features (Huizinga 1955: 20, 21). As Raoul Vaneigem wrote in his Revolution for Everyday Life “ The game dies as soon as an authority crystallises it… In the realm of the sacred…, rituals cannot be played with, they can only be broken, can only be transgressed. Only play can deconsecrate, open up the possibilities of total freedom. This is the principle of diversion, the freedom to change the sense of everything which serves Power; the freedom, for example, to turn the cathedral of Chartres into a fun-fair, into a labyrinth, into a shooting-range, into a dream landscape”. Vaneigem as well as Agamben later saw profanation and transgression as play’s most important features against any form of sacralisation imposed by any kind of authority (Vaneigem 1967, Agamben 2005/2006: 117). “Free subjective play”, already introduced by Schiller and Kant in the Enlightnement, was significant for its capacity to catalyze the different quality standards imposed (Schiller 1999, Guyer 1998, 2004).

On this ground, if play is to be understood as a force driven not only by imagination but also by critical thinking, subjectivity, diversity and freedom, then its placement in exhibition contexts becomes a form of subversion, innovation and transformation for the institutions themselves.

A different base for institutional critique

To situate the role play and games have or may have within an institution today, one needs to take into consideration the various parameters that have emerged in the last twenty years. Living in the Network Society as Castells framed it, in an era that has fragmented places but connected distances, identity is being formed by a continuous interaction with the diverse, multicultural elements one is confronted with (Castells 2000). In this frame, institutions necessarily need to pass from a material to a symbolic representation. They are called to play a new role within new societal conditions and art’s critique towards them needs to take into consideration also the new merging of life and work and the precarity people are confronted with.

Game art emerged in such times of interconnectivity, when the space of flows took over the space of places. Independent to whether the actual game projects are offline or online, within game spaces or inspired by them, artists today need to address to a multitude of players, to different subjectivities, whose time, disposability, sociality and playfulness constitute the latest expression of affective labour. At the same time, the merging of the virtual with the real, the fragmentation and chaos of the era of the networks have formed a new terrain for play that expands beyond screens or walls, surpassing space constraints.

Pat Kane, discussing the changes brought in the times of the network society and the passage to the flexibilisation and precarity of life and work, emphasizes that the function of art then within this connected but chaotic reality, can only be to provide unifying experiences that players enjoy despite their innate diversity and differences (Kane 2004 : 226).

The role of play within institutions can be a reflection of the role that play is called to take on in our social and political reality. Play might not need to frame a new kind of institutional critique but in a different direction, it is needeed to encourage the taking of a conscious stance within institutions and within society. What is expected from the art practices, is the force for a movement, a change and a transformation. As Lovink has pointed out we are in need of an art that rather assists, engages, appropriates knowledge; not an art that principally critisizes. (Lovink 2008: 51)Such a force could be provided by play joined by creativity and collaboration.Play’s openness, unpredictability and uncertainty can change the common norms and allow more room for communication, interaction and dialogue.

In a world that is disordered but shared, a disconnection from sacralisations and hierarchies seems to be possible by those who are ready to play, to improvise and risk for future possibilities. Allowing room for those players is what is expected from today’s institutions. There is a chance, then, that the shared playground that will be created, will connect not only audiences, artists and institutions but also experiences, realities and diversities.


Agamben, Giorgio. Profanations. Agra editions, Athens, 2005/2006

Caillois, Roger. Man, Play and Games. University of Illinois Press, Urbana and Chigago, 1958/2001

Castells, Manuel. The Rise of the Network Society: The Information Age: Economy, Society and Culture Vol 1 (The Information Age). Blackwell Publishers Ltd, Oxford, 2000

Duncan, Carol. Civilizing Rituals Inside Public Art Museums. Routledge, London, 1995

Galloway, Alexander R. Gaming: Essays on Algorithmic Culture. University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 2006

Guyer, Paul “Kant, Immanuel.” In E. Craig (Ed.), Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy (1998, 2004), Routledge, London. Retrieved July 08, 2009, from

Huizinga, Johan. Homo Ludens. The Beacon Press, Boston, 1955

Kane, Pat. The play ethic. Manifesto for a different way of living. Macmillan, London, 2004

Lovink, Geert. Zero Comments: Blogging and Critical Internet Culture, Routledge, New York, 2008

McShine, Kynaston, (ed.), The Museum as Muse. The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1999

Pearce, Celia. “Games as Art: The Aesthetics of Play,” Visible Language 40, no. 1 (2006): 70.

Schiller, Friedrich Von. Letters Upon The Aesthetic Education of Man, 1794 ,Retrieved June 10, 2009 from

Schleiner, Anne-Marie. Cracking the Maze, Game Plug-ins and Patces as Hacker Art, (1999)Retreived 15 July 2005 from

Sutton-Smith, Brian. The Ambiguity of Play. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts/ London, 1997/ 2001

Vaneigem, Raoul. The Revolution of Everyday Life, (1967) retrieved 20 February 2008 from

[1]Cracking the Maze was an online exhibition curated by Anne Marie Schleiner that hosted downloadable patches and games by artists, implying creativity outside some kind of institutional system and control.

The Open Source Lounge, an event organised by Steve Dietz and Jenny Marketou, took place in Athens in 2000, in the context of Medi@terra, International Art and Technology Festival. Its aim was to serve as a platform for people from the media arts field to express and exchange ideas on open source, hacking, and parasitic interventions.

Several exhibitions on games have been organized by institutions. As examples, here the ones mentioned are Next Level: Art, Games & Reality in the Stedelijk Museum of Amsterdam in 2006, Gameworld, Playware and Homo Ludens Ludens in Laboral Center for Art and Industrial Creation of Gijon in 2007 and 2008, and Gameplay in Itaú Cultural of Sao Paolo in 2009.

[2] References are here made to the following works:

“Judgement” (2008), “Resurrection” (2007), “DefaultProperties();”(2006) by Brody Condon,

“Super Mario Movie” (2005) by Cory Arcangel and Paper Rad,

“Dead –in – iraq” in America’s Army and “The Salt Satyagraha Online: Gandhi’s March to Dandiin Second Life” (2008) by Joseph DeLappe ,

“Folded in” (2008) by Personal Cinema,

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