Magical Wasteland is written by Matthew S. Burns.

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Pixels at an Exhibition

They always choose Space Invaders, don’t they? Maybe sometimes Pac-Man, or the occasional dalliance with Donkey Kong. But no game has ever represented “video games” in the consciousness of the larger culture like Space Invaders has. The space invaders have invaded art galleries, music videos, public spaces, magazine pages, and book covers. The invaders are, to borrow an overused term, iconic.

At some point, there’s frustration with their near-total dominance over people’s assumptions about the medium. There is more to video games than this, you want to shout. We can make them look like anything we want to now: like hyperreal fantasy matte paintings or spare sumi-e brushtrokes or totally abstract fields of light and color.
But then think: what major new aesthetic has games actually brought us? Even the most beautifully pioneering ones have clear points of inspiration, still the result of a non-gaming lineage. They are all imitative in one sense or another. The only broad category of imagery actually brought into the world by games so far is retro: that blocky pixel on black, the bleeps and bloops of yesteryear.

And Space Invaders embodies not just the look but the whole feeling of gaminess. It’s right there in its name– almost naïve in how totally descriptive it is, as if the idea of coming up with something that sounded more clever wouldn’t have occurred to its creators in a million years. You could hear the title for the first time and already know what must be done to the invaders from space: the same thing you do to them in every video game.

Visual and cognitive shorthand persists. The Chinese restaurant still has bamboo stalks crawling up the sides of its menus. Maybe in time something will come along that better embodies games, or what people imagine games to be. But right now I can’t think of anything more emblematic.

Reader Comments (6)

No mention of Tetris? What is the one of the most popular selling videogames of all time? I've sure seen a massive amount of falling block parodies, art installations and real-life implementations of it! :)

Iconic...well, games haven't exactly been readily available for ages. Having at it's core an iconic gameplay-led game rather then something like having Master Chief or Lara Croft embody them, since that screams of "being knock off films" or not really lending themselves to portraying the game (rules, structure, interaction), and are much less known. Even Mario or Sonic just screams just mascot, not iconography to me.

I think there have been some exciting visual and gameplay styles though, but for a static display of art? what does work better then pixels? They don't move very fast, so no need to portray urgency or movement that so many games have at their core. Tetris, Pac Man and Space Invaders all speed up, of course, but initially are very slow, almost static games.

Tough gig, eh?
July 20, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterAndrew Armstrong
"But then think: what major new aesthetic has games actually brought us?"

Besides pixel art, both in low-resolution "mosaic" style and high-resolution carefully detailed style? Low-poly. Voxel art. Demoscene. The brown-sepia gritty urbanism of Quake and every FPS from then on.
July 20, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterZaratustra
I had a small insight into this question a while back, when looking around for something gamey to put in a craft project: Space Invaders is monochrome, which makes it easy to work with. By comparison, Mario in a single color is a pair of overalls with a disembodied moustache.

But you're right, there's not much else out there. The isometric view predates video games, but I guess you could say games turned it into an aesthetic.
July 20, 2010 | Unregistered Commentermike
I dream in the physics of bad Nintendo 64-era games. Not exactly an "aesthetic" or an "icon," obviously, but that slide-y, jerky style of motion is a visual art that I had never seen until it appeared in video games, and it's permeated my own sub-conscious to a startling degree.
July 20, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterJake
Emblems are inherently simple because they have to be easy to replicate and easy to identify. Games, however, aim only to get more complex as the technlogy progresses. I can't see pixels being replaced as the quintessential game emblem because no "revolution to come" in game graphics will be as simple and unique as our characteristic pixels.

Besides, an emblematic "image" of games betrays the their dynamic nature. An image captures only graphics and that is why it only conjures familiarity in people who have already played the game (or genre of game) in question. The magic of the game, to a complete outsider, is nowhere to be found in any screenshot.
July 26, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterAriez
First off, I was just involved and largely responsible for bamboo stalks climbing up the sides of a mass produced Asian-themed product...and in my own defense, I'll say that more descriptive and nuanced approaches failed to pass muster with various marketing departments, where shorthand is recognized as a language as good as any (and usually better) for achieving a lot of obvious resonance in a very small space. Like the spine of a video game label, for instance. Really, the fault is on the consumer; if they only bought really fat boxes containing video games, "Space Invaders" could have been called something much more original. But would it have had the same punch?

Secondly, and separately, one of the things that was most drilled into us unfortunate artists who ended up in design school was the idea that everything you do visually should seek to clarify, not obscure, the message of the brand. This goes for laying out text in a book (e.g. don't lay War and Peace in sixteen different alternating retro fonts; you'd be surprised how many freshman design students would be inclined to do that) and Get to the Point.

To me, it's arguable whether 1p video games have a point at all. At most, the player is proving his mastery over a system set up by coders (who control everything he sees and ultimately is able to do). So what pyrrhic victory is it, really, to escape from this multi-million-dollar maze they've set up? I've never seen the draw. Testing your wits against another human being is the only real game in town, and it's done very simply. Checkers. Chess. Go. Texas Hold'em. Games you can play in your kitchen with a pile of small stones or a pack of cards.

I think the real question is, where's the glory in beating Space Invaders? What does a reiterative, non-intelligent game like Space Invaders say about our culture? Can beating someone's score ever be as palpably excellent as mating their King, or bluffing them off a hand?

Maybe the reason those old "classic" games have such appeal to the retro set, beyond reminding us of when we used to spend entire days getting high without consequence, is that they're like a photograph where everyone besides us, the subject, is too out of focus to recognize. This was before multiplayer games. These games are a solitary occupation in a world that's increasingly got no time or patience for the perfection of solitary skills.

But in the end, a solitary skill like playing piano is a lot more rewarding (and a lot less obnoxious) than bragging about a high score you got once, in 1985, on a Space Invaders console.
August 8, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterJosh Strike
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