CLICKISTAN, Consciousness, and the Implications of Video Games as High Art
by Frances Corry
It’s quarter past three on a Tuesday morning, and I’m in the library playing a computer game. Hunched over my laptop, I frantically click again and again – but then, suddenly, I pause. A new level has popped up on the game, and the screen asks a question:
Should you be actually working right now?
As it questions me, I am questioning it. As its queries are trying, in some semblance, to determine my components, I am trying, in some manner, to discern its patterns. I normally would not spend so much time deciphering a video game - yet there’s more context than usual for my consideration. After all, this computer game is art. Known as CLICKISTAN, and created by the digital art duo UBERMORGEN.COM, the game was unveiled by the Whitney Museum of American Art as a fundraising tool for their 2010 Annual Fund. Proceeds from this fund support broad operations of the institution. CLICKISTAN is accessed through the Whitney’s homepage; after playing through several levels, one is prompted to donate to the Annual Fund.
While the notion of bringing interactive computer and video games into an institutional art context is not entirely unprecedented, as contemporary art often includes new media as its medium, the relationship is entirely complex. A multilayered paradox is created: video games, often thought of as “mindless” entertainment, are offered as high art, as objects for deepest contemplation. This combination of “high” and “low” sounds familiar – all it took was a scrawled name on a urinal to establish this paradigm– but these games offer more. Duchamp’s piece was instantly problematic in its institutional context; but these video games are widely accepted and largely heralded in the same parameters. Thus interactive games in institutional art contexts may be problematic not for the questions they do raise, but for the questions they don’t. By relating this new art to larger theoretical frameworks of gaming, entertainment, and cultural production, games like CLICKISTAN will emerge as entities with a complicated ability to create new consciousness.
What kinds of games are being incorporated into high art? They are largely classified as lo-fi, feature 8-bit music and emphasize pixels or other attributes of seemingly rudimentary computer design. They embody an aesthetical return to the advent of popular video gaming in the 1980s. One can look to the work of gaming artist Mark Essen, particularly his video game Flywrench. The piece, featuring simple lines and simple premises, was featured in a major 2009 exhibition at The New Museum entitled “Younger than Jesus.” It is CLICKISTAN, however, that epitomizes the type of game being incorporated by art institutions, and therefore, a brief explanation of it will be helpful. (Screenshots follow the text, and can be referred to by their assigned number.) CLICKISTAN is a one-person game. Its levels are non-hierarchical. One does not advance based on an ability to “pass” them using traditional video game skill. One can freely exit a level at any time by clicking the “ >>> SKIP_LEVEL” text. A player accumulates points, though there appears to be no reason to collect them; at one level, the point meter automatically drops back down to zero.
Levels consist of variations on several themes. The first level is a series of open circles mimicking ones seen on computer interfaces. The player clicks to see a black dot appear within, and thus accumulates points with every click (1). The framework of the second level appears in several other levels. Simple, digital figures move across a screen; one clicks on them and they disappear or change to another image (2). The third level’s theme also repeats: the player is asked a question and is often given strange or snarky options with which to reply. The player passes the level and receives the same response from the game regardless of their selected answer; one can even change this selection after the game has stated that the level is “extremely completed” (3). Others rely solely on a change in aesthetics via clicking or moving the pointer (4)(5). A further level has the player move a pixilated monster to avoid falling sparkles, as this takes away a “life;” yet one only completes the level by losing all of these lives (6). Where, then, does the game end? How does one exit? Not surprisingly, through the gift shop – though this last level is still the aesthetical “pot of gold,” featuring stacks of pixilated gold coins reminiscent of those in vintage arcade games (7). One can select an amount from $5 to $10000, and is then linked to a PayPal site from which to donate (8).
Thus CLICKISTAN and other art-world games incorporate seemingly new tropes on old gaming or computer symbols like pixels, gold coins, or simplistic click-and-shoot action. Are these games just the same as their predecessors, but with aesthetical rearrangements? And if they are, what are the implications of this similarity? For this discussion I will refer to the work of Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer in “The Culture Industry:”
Like its counterpart, avant-garde art, the entertainment industry determines its own language, down to its very syntax and vocabulary, by the use of anathema. The constant pressure to produce new effects (which must conform to the old pattern) serves merely as another rule to increase the power of the conventions when any single effect threatens to slip through the net. Every detail is so firmly stamped with sameness that nothing can appear which is not marked at birth, or does not meet with approval at first sight.
Certainly, CLICKISTAN incorporates the “old,” and its images are indeed “stamped with sameness.” Players recognize them instantly even if they were not of appropriate age in the era where these images were first employed. Therefore, according to Adorno and Horkheimer, these symbols are met “with approval at first sight,” an affinity due to the commodity construct of nostalgia, as nostalgia typically originates in the memory of a product, often one of entertainment. Thus the game functions as a relatively assured success for The Whitney, as the art does not offer anything outside the realm of the acceptable commodity to the casual player. Yet the piece maintains a paradoxical aura of “newness” due to its recent inclusion into the art institution context. Because the quality of newness is itself a desirable trait in the art economy, the game’s new context is an additional marketable quality. CLICKISTAN then manages to be both acceptable and pseudo-revolutionary, for all is subsumed into “the absolute power of capitalism” (Adorno and Horkheimer).
But perhaps something was overlooked in Adorno and Horkheimer’s statement. Maybe CLICKISTAN also emphasizes the inclusion of new patterns (the rules of the game itself) by using old effects (the discussed images). Points have no meaning. There are no hierarchical levels. The only response needed is participation via the click, as one still “succeeds” by skipping all the levels. The implications of this subtle reversal will be encountered later, but now it is important to examine how this change has been overlooked. The Whitney’s description of CLICKISTAN supports the first explanation of these art-games as an easily acceptable piece in the stream of commodities via nostalgia: “The retro feel of the games will inspire the inner gamer in many and for those visitors who are knowledgeable about the history of net art, the visit will be even more rewarding” (Whitney Museum). Player reactions to the art-game have been equally as entrenched in the piece’s attributes as commodity. Laura F. Hilliger, a blogger on the Big Fun Arts site, wrote:
Today I clicked into the Whitney Museum of Art's, uh...Clickistan game, and my eyes hurt immediately. I don't get it. I played a bunch of the levels and ultimately didn't feel like I was getting any sort of reward. The instructions are a mess, the game is just clicking. Is it sarcasm?
Greg J. Smith, a blogger from Serial Consign, commented on an article that described the game:
I do love Clickistan as a fundraising lure and although the game is baffling it does invite people into the (oblique) space of the campaign. More than anything though, I really dig the sound design/music. Some of the material sounds like Atom Heart – I really need to track this stuff down.
Player reaction and institution description celebrate game-art as nostalgic entertainment and as spectacle. Its reversal of pattern and image is “baffling,” “oblique,” or seen as “a mess.” And when Mark Essen’s Flywrench was in the New Museum, New York Times writer Carol Vogel described it as “reminiscent of the grid-based canvases that brought the painter Peter Halley to attention in the 1980s,” while New York Magazine profiled him as a soon-to-be “art star.”
What are art video games then related to? Celebrity, nostalgia, and other mediums of entertainment. People identify with these games, most commonly, as an explicit part of the spectacle, an explicit part of the constant stream of images and entertainment ruled by commodity culture. The reactions expose a passive relation that can solely exist within the framework of commodity. When video games are placed in the sacred space of the museum they still remain as stoic parts of the “monopoly of appearances,” as Guy Debord states in “Society of the Spectacle” (12). The stream of images is inescapable, and thus, the eternal question in art can be asked, and tentatively answered. What in this piece has agency? The artist, the museum, the player, the game? Based on general reaction, none of these things have true agency; rather, the spectacle determines all.
The debate as to whether computers think becomes arbitrary in its typical formation, at least in this context. The game acts like a dramatic character in theater, in which it provides a representation from which one can think (Laurel 567); but this ability for critical thought is turned into relation with commodity entertainment through the lens of the spectacle. The game’s artist loses agency as well in this relationship. Any assertion of individuation is lost in the sameness that Adorno, Horkheimer and Debord posit as inherent in commodity culture. Indeed, the classification of the artist as celebrity, or “art star,” does not increase their agency, but rather entrenches them deeper into this stream of spectacle.
Similar to the spectacle, the concept of gamespace holds major implications for games like CLICKISTAN. Gamespace, explained by McKenzie Wark in “Gamer Theory,” is just as inescapable as the stream of images and commodities of the spectacle; I would posit it as a digitized version of the theory, perhaps Spectacle 2.0. It incorporates all aspects of life into the semblance of an imperfect and inescapable virtual game. This appropriation relies largely on game and gamespace’s digital composure, causing all “material” to be infinitely interchangeable. As Wark states, cows, cars and cousins are the all same. Therefore games exist, and life exists as a game, and the formations of life follow the formations of a game. We see this in a digitized economy of accumulating symbolic “points,” or money, in morality instilled by being a “good sport,” and in numerous other examples. I would say this extends to our increasing compartmentalization of age as a series of advancing levels, from infant, toddler, child, tween, teen, and on; it is a classification that also mirrors consumer markets. Because life becomes a game, inclusions of games into art institutions beg another examination of the trope: Does art imitate life, or does life imitate art?
In gamespace, however, the examination can answer this question that usually goes unanswered. Neither games nor art nor life imitate one another, since they are all equally interchangeable and involved. In the spectacle and in gamespace, all entities exist within inescapable, self-perpetuating spheres of either commodity or digitalization where differentiation is arbitrary. Can one distinguish the real anymore? Is there a way to find it? In these proposed conceptions there seem to be no means by which to determine the real; it seems that we have arrived at GAME OVER and cannot realize it. Yet a statement posited by Guy Debord may hold some hope. He writes “the spectacle keeps people in a state of unconsciousness as they pass through practical changes in their conditions of existence” (14). If there was some semblance of consciousness, could one resist the spectacle?
Both the gamespace and the spectacle are founded on the inability to press escape, to leave their respective bounds. But consciousness could exist as a means to revise these conceptual frameworks – and video game art could offer a means by which to arrive at consciousness. Myron Krueger has thought on similar precepts, and has raised vital questions in the interception between technology and art. An introduction to his piece “Responsive Environments” offers a compelling summary to his technological intentions.
[…] A self reflexive view to technological production [can help] overcome development roadblocks that are created by invisible and potentially unhelpful assumptions about the nature of reality – as well as provide guidance for producing work that takes a desired place within the larger culture, or even provides specific means for intervention within the culture. (Wardrip-Fruin 378)
Krueger’s work is dialogical. Technological hardware engages participants in direct ways and vice versa. His piece METAPLAY (1970) involved a camera capturing a visitor; this video was then projected on a screen. The artist held a digital tablet, which allowed for them to write on the projected image. VIDEOPLACE (1975) was not unlike a modern videoconference. Participants were in analogically separate places, but digitally identical ones. Each entered a dark room where they were being recorded on video; surrounding screens projected their own face, as well as the faces of other participants. This gave the appearance that they were all in the same conceptual room. Like video games, experiencing Krueger’s work calls for direct participation in it. But his pieces make reflexivity a prominent part of the art – confronted with one’s own face or behavior, one realizes a literal “self” consciousness, and thus a consciousness of one’s own relation to the technological or digital aspects within and perhaps outside of the piece.
For true reflexivity to work, or for one to find a means of intervention outside a digital framework, Krueger posits that the medium must be response, or, as he so emphatically states: “Response is the medium!” (385). He would not find that response is the medium in art video games, particularly in CLICKISTAN. As one of his tenets for a successful responsive environment, he writes that the “participant should be aware of how the environment is responding to them” (380). But in CLICKISTAN there is no obvious concept as to how points are distributed, when one advances levels, or even, at times, how graphics react to clicking. Another tenet states, “in order to respond intelligently the computer should perceive as much as possible about the participant’s behavior” (379). But CLICKISTAN almost completely ignores player behavior, and the lo-fi aesthetic typically involves the least amount of interaction with the player’s actions. Most problematic is one positing “the visual responses should not be judged as art nor the sounds as music. The only aesthetic concern is the quality of interaction” (380). How can video games in art contexts gain reflexivity if they are first and foremost regarded as aesthetic products?
I would argue that these games could still find reflexivity even if they do not explicitly satisfy Krueger’s tenets, but rather adhere to similar general principles. After all, when a piece of art reflects one’s own face and behaviors, does one necessarily focus on them in a technologically critical manner? Just as people watch themselves in security televisions without a concept of themselves shoplifting, people can observe themselves in these pieces without having a critically reflexive experience about their digital interactions. But, as Krueger states, I agree that the main concern should be the “quality of the interaction,” that is, whether the interaction raises consciousness of the spectacle, and therefore pushes the inescapable boundaries of the spectacle. The above examples then would constitute a poor quality of interaction.
It would be easy to define the reactions to CLICKISTAN and Flywrench as an equally unsatisfactory interaction: blogger Hilfiger was confused (“Is it sarcasm?”) and Smith was “baff[led],” while all art critic Vogel could muster was a comparison to a painter and a jab about jaded youth. But seeds of consciousness are sown in this confusion, and these games’ reversals of old patterns cause a good deal of it. After all, the failure – and inherent confusion – in one of the first museum exhibitions dealing with technology caused it to be a conceptual success. When the Jewish Museum featured Software in 1970, it was deemed a disaster (Wardrip-Fruin, Montfort 247). The computers and technological systems broke down numerous times, causing a monetary catastrophe for the institution, one so extreme it prompted the dismissal of director Karl Katz. Thus in the face of commodity, Software’s confusing concepts about the technological and ideological problems of new media reverberated into the future; the artists’ ideas, and failures, were reflected and reacted to in works following the exhibition.
In this way the problematic nature of CLICKISTAN is not its downfall, but what makes it compelling. Like Krueger, I find that the real medium is in the reaction, though it is a reaction contained outside the bounds of the game. Jasper Johns once stated that to create art one must “Take an object, do something with it, and then do something else with it.” Video games are the object. They exist as commodities within entertainment culture. The artists then “do something with it,” that is, instilling it with problematic patterns; for example, points being arbitrary or the ability to skip levels and still advance to the “reward.” And what is this “something else?” This is the reaction, it is Hilliger’s question mark, and it is the medium by which one gains consciousness.
As Brenda Laurel explains in “The Six Elements and the Causal Relations Among Them,” when problems arise in technology, a person reacts by either blaming the machine or blaming themselves; the system has made a mistake or the user has (568). If one discovered CLICKISTAN as a random file on their computer and attempted to play it, they may have one or both of these reactions upon encountering the first level. But the museum context complicates the relationship, and, for better or for worse, one may instead approach the piece as having a concept to unravel, one to react to or examine. Video games in art institutions then broadly benefit from being regarded as conceptual works. CLICKISTAN, however, remains situated as an economic tool, and, despite subtle ironic statements within the game, the reactions to it remain equally entrenched in the economically based rhetoric of the commodity and the spectacle.
How could this consciousness be piqued? How could the game be seen as tactical media instead of simply problematic entertainment media? Video games in art contexts particularly work as tactical media because, unlike traditional art, they exist not as material products, but as digital ones. Tactical media works upon these digital mediums, for the digital functions in the realm of the symbolic. Therefore it has the power to modify the systems that rely on the symbolic, systems like the spectacle, the gamespace, and the mind. As Rita Raley explains in “Tactical Media,” it allows for the “temporary creation of a situation in which signs, messages, and narratives are set into play and critical thinking becomes possible” (6). In these video games associated signs and symbols are literally set into play – and the introduction of new patterns with these signs and symbols can create a tension between their usual depictions in the gamespace or spectacle and their newfound manifestations within the game. How one mediates this tension would be the means by which one comes to consciousness, a reflexive awareness of a concept that exists unnoticed within the spectacle or the gamespace.
Indeed, consciousness is the broadest of issues when encountering video games in the institutional art context and their implications are too numerous to completely address here. But consciousness is a means to begin grappling with these more specific questions. For instance, the semiotics of having rudimentary, monetarily cheap means of video game design as high art; or what value means when these games can be infinitely reproduced and taken into the home; or what the considerations are in defining winning and losing, and who wins and who loses; or even who can play the game in the first place. These diverging questions with perhaps infinite answers evoke the power of the hypertext, and the power of a raised consciousness. For when one lifts their head from the steady stream of images, of entertainment, of spectacles and of gameplay, one just may find a question to contemplate, a momentary breath of awareness.
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 Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain, 1917.
 For this analysis’ intents and purposes, I will say interactive video games in institutional art contexts are art. The argument as to their status as art objects is interesting, albeit inconsequential, to this examination.
 Online version, see Works Cited.