PBS recently launched the Idea Channel, a bi-weekly series that examines the evolving relationship between modern technology and art. In the episode “Super Mario Brothers as Surrealist Art?”, host Mike Rungetta advocated for the game’s place in the canon of great surrealists.
In reviewing the gameplay experience, Rungetta said “you eat a flower that lets you spit fire…and there’s this guy that throws armadillo-type things from a cloud. These sound like the ravings of a mad man.” Of the surrealist experience, he explained, when it commenced, non-sequitur art proved radical but today the absurd rarely fazes us. Given the episode’s short length (only two minutes), Rungetta’s simplified version of the movement loses an essential point. As a cultural movement, surrealism insisted on a higher reality. Artists typically underwent psychoanalysis to explore complex, often repressed, emotions. While visual elements of Super Mario Brothers might resemble a Dali or Kush canvas, surrealism is not about the absurd and the game is not either. In a 2009 interview with Wired, Mario’s creator Shigeru Miyamoto said, “My feeling is that with the Mario games, you don’t need to have such a complicated setting where you have these particular characters with complicated back stories that can weigh down the bright and fun feel of the game.” While I’m a little aggravated by Rungetta’s simplification of a complex movement, I do agree that video games are art. I especially appreciate something else he said, “video games constantly challenge our ideas about what is normal or even possible.” Games like Portal, The Sims, and Bioshock confront perceptions of free will and mortality. While the visuals of these games don’t look like a surrealist painting, the emotions they evoke might well fit into the movement. Playing Jason Rohrer’s 2007 memento mori game Passage feels much like a therapy session. On his website, Rohrer wrote, “your interpretation of the game is more important than my intentions. Please play the game before you read.” The game fits into the smallest, most irregular aspect ratio 256x256, lasts exactly five minutes, and presents an entire life from young adulthood to death. The game challenges a player’s perceptions about an individual’s life and death. What if the Idea Channel team had instead titled the episode, “Video Games as Surrealist Art”? Perhaps I’d be less resistant to the argument. And I’d certainly like to play a game modeled after a surrealist painting. Then I could finally understand what it would feel like to build a sand castle in a desert littered with melting clocks or cruise on a ship with enormous butterflies for sails.