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The Gamification of Art

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We often mention the “art of gamification”, exploring how game mechanics, design, and dynamics can influence a viewer, motivating them intrinsically or extrinsically towards a desired goal. But determining the source of motivation is often difficult. By turning the phrase around and looking at the gamification of art, I hope to uncover how games, game mechanics, and dynamics have influenced art, and provide some insight into how gamification design in business, health and education can be done more effectively and artistically.

Speed by Aram Bartholl

Art and gamification are closely linked. At its core, gamification is the process of applying game design and game mechanics within a non-game context. This translates to gamification as the process of making media, campaigns, businesses, and industries more participatory and interactive. It might be contentious to say that art has a goal, but the aim is often to engage the viewer and evoke a response, and in this respect the goal of both art and gamification is to engage an audience and make them into participants.

Since the 1990′s, digital interactive art has risen in popularity, many times succeeding to make a passive viewer into an active player. Just as gamification can work to engage a customer or an employee in what was before a more stuffy business, interactive art expands upon what has been conventionally “static” art. I posed this comparison to Kent Sheely, an artist and web designer in New York who has had a long history of work with game based and interactive art.

“I think the emotional response doesn’t necessarily depend on the medium or the context of the art, but interactive pieces are, by definition, better at drawing the viewer into the piece; he/she becomes a living, working part of the art. Because of this direct involvement, interactive art is the best way to communicate certain ideas, especially those that talk about the way we function and experience the world.”

That is exactly the goal of education and health improvement: to communicate ideas “about the way we function and experience the world,” and at the risk of selling out, any marketer will tell you that is also the goal of an advertising campaign.

"Clouds" by Cory Arcangel

Business innovation, marketing, health, and education have only recently been mining the vast wealth of inspiration and design from games in order to engage an audience, but art has been drawing inspiration from games for well over a decade. In 2002, artist Cory Arcangel did a piece called Clouds where he hacked into a Super Nintendo cartridge and changed the circuitry to only display the background clouds from the game, Super Mario. In today’s world where the average 20-something has played over 10,000 hours of video games, this sort of imagery elicits a real sense of nostalgia. The image is one of a simpler time and a a much simpler game. Another example is “Speed” by Aram Bartholl in 2006. Aram draws inspiration from the game “Need for Speed” where players race cars around high speed tracks, directed by large, blinking red arrows that only seem to impact the player and not the rest of the computer-controlled characters. By taking these arrows and building them in the real world, Aram’s piece considers how game mechanics do and do not apply to the real world. Virtual barriers, gamified or not, often guide and restrict us in the day-to-day race.

These are just  a few of the light-weight pieces. Over the summer, the Guggenheim teamed up with BMW for Urbanology, an interactive art piece where viewers played to understand the complexities of city-life. Another example was the 24 Hour City Project where interactive pieces helped to explore new ways of connecting with and understanding urban issues.

What all of these pieces share with each other and with gamification more broadly is that they aim to not just provide information on a topic, but communicate with the viewer and create a more complete interaction. One where the viewer has agency and can rise to become a player. ”Most artists who work with interactive pieces are trying to craft a specific experience for the viewer,” says artist Kent Sheely, “With video game art, the theme is often about mixing reality with simulation, or exploring the parts of our consciousness that we take into, and out from, these constructed realities.”

Many of our largest and longest-lived institutions are bigger, more complex “constructed realities”. By drawing inspiration from games, gamification helps to consider these giant social structures in a new light. Art, gamification, and design thinking provides us the tools to conceptualize these complex interactions and bring them back to a human level where we are forced to consider an individual’s interaction and input. Perhaps with a little artistry, we can all learn to play that game and make reality more engaging and participatory.

Special thanks to Kent Sheely for his help and advice.

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