But as I learned from Jason Rohrer, the game designer-cum-artist currently exhibiting his work in a retrospective at Massachusetts’s Davis Museum, it’s actually the game itself that should be considered both the medium of and ultimately the art in video games. In a sense, Jones is on to something (and, incidentally, Rohrer’s work is in MoMA’s collection), but his argument is out of focus. It’s not the player we should be thinking of as the artist, it’s the game designer. And that makes the game—its actual mechanics, not so much what it looks like—the art we should be evaluating. At least, I think so. Rohrer definitely thinks so, and he’s convincing if only because you want to see what he’ll do when motivated by a desire to make games with mechanics no one has seen before.
In this endeavor, Rohrer is grappling with questions of medium-specificity that much of the fine art world buried with Clement Greenberg. Luckily, medium-specificity feels fresh and interesting in the digital realm, especially when you’re actually playing it. “I ask myself, what’s unique to a game?” he told me of his design process, which can take days or months, all while I furiously switched between scribbling notes and trying not to die playing Inside a Star-filled Sky (2011). “Is the experience of the game antithetical to a sublime experience?”
That game touches on the idea of infinity as you shoot 8-bit bad-guys, moving up levels and then down when you die, controlling different characters as you progress and regress. You cannot win (playing time: 30 seconds to 2000 years, the wall text notes). A trippy feature of the game lets you “enter” bad guys, and then they become the level and you become them. You can also “enter” yourself, and then you become the level. After about 15 minutes of playing, going up and down, I suddenly realized I was back in my first body, right where I started. “Hey,” I said, happily, “I’m myself!” This is what Rohrer is looking for. And it’s a moment that’s stuck with me for a while. Yes, yes, I know Inside a Star-filled Sky isn’t the Mona Lisa—but it made me smile.