Life imitates art: Communicating and discovering the world IRL via video games

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Shing Yin Khor’s Spiral Jetty (2020). An Animal Crossing performance after Marina Abramovic’s The Artist is Present (2010). Courtesy of Shing Yin Khor.

When the COVID-19 pandemic began and it became clear that our new reality would include social distancing and going into quarantine, anxiety set in. Groceries, toilet paper and hand sanitizer quickly vanished off store shelves, as consumers exhibited a frenzy of panic buying. These items remain scarce and highly coveted, but so does another item, the Nintendo Switch™ video game console. A few weeks after many cities, towns, states and countries announced shelter-in-place regulations, Animal Crossing: New Horizons was released on Nintendo’s highly regarded gaming platform.

The premise of Animal Crossing is very simple. It is a social simulation (see: Mondo Museum: A Sim that encourages decolonization and experiential learning), which means that its format is open-ended and the gameplay represents real-time events and situations. You control a human avatar living in an environment populated by anthropomorphic animals, and fill your days performing work, leisure and social activities. You can choose to forage for food, shop for groceries, work odd jobs, go to the beach, collect fossils, send mail and visit friends that live near and far away (you can play the game online with other players). You can do all of this without worrying about getting yourself and others sick. It seems like an ideal antidote to the feelings of isolation, stress and anxiety brought on by the global pandemic. In the world of Animal Crossing, there are no such health concerns, and the disparaging feelings brought on by socioeconomic realities are also largely non-existent. There is an overall communal spirit in Animal Crossing that transcends our current social, medical and economic crisis.

Tom Nook, a racoon-like merchant and realtor, is the only true capitalist in the Animal Crossing‘s universe. He is the first character that players encounter, and you have to purchase property from him and spend a great deal of time paying back the extraordinarily large loan he makes you take out. It isn’t at all dissimilar from the predatory behavior of late stage capitalism (see: Hennelly, 2020), which includes student loan corporations and private medical insurers whose inequitable practices account for individuals becoming indebted to them for years on end. All the other merchants and characters in the game tend to embrace an alternative economy where you can barter for goods and services. When you do sell the fruits of your labor to a merchant, you receive the full value for that item. Outside of Nook who is trapped in his laissez-faire individualism, neighbors are very supportive of each other and embrace a collectivist societal mindset.

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Shing Yin Khor’s Spiral Jetty (2020). An Animal Crossing interpretation of Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty (1970). Courtesy of Shing Yin Khor.

In addition to players being captivated by the quotidian gameplay, Animal Crossing‘s open-ended format has inspired a great deal of creative interactions from devoted players who have expanded the gameplay to suit their own interests. Realizing the parallels the game has to real life, artist Shing Yin Khor, has been filling the void of not being able to visit cultural sites by recreating iconic works of art within the game. So far, she has reproduced Christo and Jean Claude’s installation artwork Umbrellas, Robert Smithson’s land artwork Spiral Jetty, Barbara Kruger’s text-artwork Untitled and Marina Abramovic’s performance art piece The Artist is Present. Khor’s innovative re-imaginings of these seminal contemporary artworks has given many gamers a chance to experience art and perhaps might also inspire them to create their own virtual art forms within the digital environment. Khor’s process involves utilizing artistic habits of mind (see: Educating Through Art) such as flexible thinking, making connections and noticing patterns. She states “Animal Crossing only has very limited customization and interaction options, so there are significant restrictions on which art pieces can actually be replicated within the game. It is more of a conceptual exercise than a technical design one” (Cascone, 2020).

Khor’s conceptual artmaking within Animal Crossing makes it evident that video games have the potential to benefit our social, emotional and cognitive well being, as well as our ability to think critically and creatively. Video games and other forms of visual and material culture (i.e. T.V., the internet and social media), are a key conceptual part of our experiential learning process. Using digital media and playing games has revolutionized the way diverse groups of people communicate and make insightful discoveries about their place in the world (Parks, 2008). Professor Kerry Freedman (1997) has been advocating for the incorporation of visual and material culture within the art education curriculum for decades, asking us to consider “are we not, as art educators, responsible for teaching all aspects of technology?”

With an exponentially large number of individuals between the ages of 8 and 18 utilizing more than one media device or console, and spending at least 6 and 1/2 hours per day with media (see: Roberts, Foehr and Rideout, 2005), the answer to Freedman’s question is yes. Video games can teach us to be well rounded thinkers and communicators, and keep us connected to the culture at large. They should certainly be considered and analyzed as an art form and an educational resource.

Art encourages us to appreciate and scrutinize the aesthetic and conceptual nature of everyday life. Philosopher John Dewey’s influential treatise, Art as Experience (1934), states that we learn when we take notice of sensory information (qualities) that are present in our environment and are able to attach language and meaning to these experiences. Oscar Wilde, wrote that art helps us to do this because our sensory and communicative ability “results not merely from Life’s imitative instinct, but from the fact that the self-conscious aim of Life is to find expression, and that Art offers it certain beautiful forms through which it may realize that energy” (Wilde, 1891).

Our faculty and desire to express and communicate aesthetic and social experiences drives us to create and expand upon the natural and synthetic environments we occupy. This is a reason why games like Animal Crossing and game design programs like Scratch (see: We all scream for STEAM! Lifelong Learning Through Creative Activities and Mindful Technological Pursuits) have such a seminal influence on how we use technology to narrate our discoveries and exchange ideas and insights with others.

Video games are replete with elements of art and design (see: Hasio, 2015), as well as pedagogical models like constructivism (student-centered, inquiry-based learning – see: Piaget), social constructivism (student centered collaborative learning with coaching from the teacher – see: Vygotsky) and liberationism (students’ voices express their knowledge and experiences in a manner that gives them agency. The teacher co-learns along with the students. The role of teacher/student is interchangeable – see: Freire).

Video games prompt us to test theories, cooperate with other players, reflect on useful strategies and find ways to explore freely within the confines of a game’s structure. Many contemporary video games operate in both a sequential and non-linear format, which teaches us to employ inductive and deductive thinking and to consider solving problems from more than one perspective.

Learning through video games rewards play, creativity and socialization. When we enter into the world of a game, we bring our real life knowledge, experience and desires along with us. The aesthetic and conceptual nature of the virtual environment becomes an extension of our contemporary lives and we apply and connect narratives and experiences within the games we play to current events and issues we face in society. Games like Animal Crossing help us to contemplate and address humanist questions such as what we hold valuable and how these values impact our moral judgement and behavior. The attention that Khor’s reproductions of artworks are receiving from her fellow gamers is evidence of art bringing us together and having a positive influence on our lives and our thirst for learning and experiencing visual culture. By providing both a respite from the stresses of contemporary life and a creative outlet for individual and group expression, video games can be a potent social, emotional and cognitive power-up.

References, Notes, Suggested Reading:

Cascone, Sarah. “A Witty Installation Artist Is Recreating Famous Artworks Inside the Wildly Popular ‘Animal Crossing’ Video Game and It’s Kind of Amazing.” artnet, 6 Apr. 2020.

Dewey, John. 1934. Art as Experience. New York : Minton, Balch & Company.

Freedman, Kerry. “Visual art/virtual art: Teaching technology for meaning.” Art Education, 50(4), 1997. pps 612.

Jackson, Gita. “Tom Nook Needs to Get with the Times.” Kotaku, 18 Sept. 2018.

Hasio, Cindy. “Action Packed Art Education: Shooting for Higher Learning through Material Culture and Video Games.” Journal of Art for Life, 7(1), 2015. Accessed 20 Apr. 2020

Hennelly, Bob. “Late-stage capitalism primed us for this pandemic.” Salon, 15 Mar. 2020.

Parks, Nancy S. “Video Games as Reconstructionist Sites of Learning in Art Education.” Studies in Art Education, vol. 49, no. 3, 2008, pp. 235–250. JSTOR, Accessed 19 Apr. 2020.

Roberts, Donald F., Foehr, Ulla G. and Rideout, Victoria J. (2005). “Generation M: Media in the lives of 8-18year olds.” Kaiser Foundation. Menlo Park, CA.

Wilde, Oscar. The Decay of Lying in Intentions, 1891.

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