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Avant-Garde Videogames: Playing with Technoculture

by Brian Schrank.

MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 2014.

240 pp., illus. 88 b&w. Trade, $32.00

ISBN: 9780262027144

Reviewed by Michael Straeubig. Plymouth University, Plymouth England. michael.straeubig@plymouth.ac.uk


“Are videogames art?” is one of those loaded questions one might mischievously drop into a conversation between videogame enthusiasts and representatives of the art establishment. Once the dust from the dispute has settled, the participants might finally agree that games can be construed as media and therefore this question can be put aside as a category mistake. Ironically, Brian Schrank’s book, based on his 2010 PhD thesis, begins with the statement “videogames are art”. Yet the readers of “Avant-Garde Videogames. Playing with Technoculture” will be reassured that the public discourse about games and art has advanced beyond trivial positions.


In his book, Schrank presents a selection of avant-garde games and media artworks, classifying them along dimensions popularised by art critics like Clement Greenberg, Johanna Drucker and Peter Bürger: works of avant-garde are either “complicit” or “radical” in their approach and either “formal” or “political” with respect to their referentiality. Reminiscent of the perpetual “ludology vs. narratology” debate in the game studies, two “narrative” categories are introduced as well. Each category is discussed in a chapter of the book and linked to an art historical context, represented by various avant-garde artists and movements.


Hallmark of a “radical formal” game is the denial of the flow experience, a psychological concept introduced by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi which is regarded as essential in mainstream game design. Games like Jeff Minter’s Space Giraffe, Jodi’s ctrl-F6 or Farbs’ ROM CHECK FAIL deconstruct flow in the same way Manet deconstructed the then prevalent experience of viewing a painting.

In contrast to the formalists’ self-referential “games for games’ sake” stance, “radical political” artists are concerned with integrating art into the praxis of life. Here Schrank discusses the phenomenon of “griefing”, a wide range of disrupting interventions towards other players in virtual environments, tying the phenomenon - as well as other instances of political games - to avant-garde movements like Futurists, Dadaists and the Black Panthers.

The opposite corner in Schrank’s taxonomy is inhabited by artists that are “complicit formal”, according to Johanna Drucker’s notion about contemporary art practice in the 90s. The book draws from a wide range of examples, like Wafaa Bilal’s performance “Domestic Tension”, Mary Flanagan’s interactive installation “[giantJoystick]” and the nifty trans-media piece “The 8-bit Construction Set”. While resembling Fluxus artists in their playful approach, complicit formal artists are close to the mainstream of video game production, an area that commonly resorts to “formulaic Kitsch”.

“Complicit political” games, exemplified by Alternate Reality Games and reminiscent of Situationist interventions, are calling into question Huizinga’s concept of the “magic circle” by blending play with everyday life without exhibiting the outspoken political agenda of their “radical political” cousins.

The last two conceptual groups are “narrative formal” games, represented by the Interactive Fiction genre and “narrative political” games, e.g. Cow Clicker by Ian Bogost. In Schrank’s framework, the former are related to Russian formalism, and the latter to the political theatre of Bertolt Brecht and Augusto Boal. The book ends with a plea for a diverse game culture but reminds us at the same time that “not all that’s ‘good’ is avant-garde”.


One does not have to follow Schrank in his particular approach, or agree in detail with the classificatory framework to profit from reading “Avant-Garde Videogames”. An  issue that might raise questions is his wilful (ref. Chapter 1 and Footnote 5.1) indifference towards defining his object of study. This results in a quite generous inclusion of various pieces of (media) art up to a point where the label “videogame” becomes arbitrary. This could be seen as a matter of definitory nitpicking, yet it can be argued that our understanding of contemporary avant-gardes would indeed benefit from the identification of already established genres and emerging movements like pervasive games or “Notgames”. As usual in the context of art, the decision to include/exclude certain works can be debated in some instances.

However, these points do not harm the value of the book. Quite the opposite, as our cultural discourse depends on sufficient headroom for debate, and - not only in this respect - the book has a lot to offer. “Avant-Garde Videogames” can be read by anyone interested in the role of (video-)games in contemporary culture. Moreover, Brian Schrank demonstrates that we are entering the era of serious examination of games, not only within the game studies but in the realm of art theory as well.

Last Updated 29th August 2014

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