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.

6 Comments