Games People Play

An exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art brings together the distant worlds of art and gaming, without subsuming one to the other.

Jesper Ejsing, Slippery Bogle, 2017, Acrylic on board ©Wizards of the Coast LLC. Photo: David Stjernholm

The art that’s made within and around the subcultures devoted to games (role-playing games, card games, video games) is often highly complex and imaginative, but it exists entirely separate from the art world. A painter or programmer who creates images for board games or video games might have thousands or even millions of fans, but such artists remain (potentially happily) unknown within art circles. 

Developed in collaboration with the local game store Fanatic and the Roskilde Role-Playing Guild, Games at Copenhagen’s Museum of Contemporary Art is not a heroic attempt to rectify this, but an acknowledgement that the worlds of art and gaming are heterogeneous, even though they share aesthetic and conceptual concerns. Both, for example, are interested in fantasy, participation, and the politics of representation. Both feature work that’s complexly allegorical. And both occupy somewhat paradoxical cultural positions, simultaneously slightly outside and slightly inside of the corporate entertainment complex.

Games is split into four “rounds,” or mini-exhibitions. The first, ‘Planeswalkers’, is dedicated to the popular card game Magic: The Gathering. The second, ‘Play It by Trust’, features games made by artists. The third, ‘Infinite Seats of Power’, is event-based (if pandemic restrictions ease by May, the museum will host a large gathering of live-action roleplaying). The fourth is a podcast featuring sound works and talks related to the exhibition. 

‘Planeswalkers’ (a term from Magic: The Gathering that denotes characters who can move from one plane of reality to another) most prominently features paintings by Danish artist Jesper Ejsing, who illustrates Magic cards. Ejsing renders goblins, magicians, monsters, and fantastical landscapes that help players to visualise the game’s characters and settings. The paintings are wonderful – full of lurid grotesquerie and excessive details. A dinosaur-like creature lumbers through a lush forest, chewing on a pink mountain. A spiky beast stands over a pit of lava, holding a club and seemingly throwing itself into battle. Mysterious diamond-shaped objects float in a shadowy swamp. 

MSJ Alters, Agent of Masks, 2019. Acrylic on playing card. Agent of Masks is unofficial Fan Content permitted under the Fan Content Policy. Not approved/endorsed by Wizards. Portions of the materials used are property of Wizards of the Coast. ©Wizards of the Coast LLC. Photo: David Stjernholm.

These paintings are not simply functionally illustrative, they are terrifically overstuffed; the extraneous details suggest an expansive world that players can project themselves into. They’re immersive. That’s why communities of fans not only collect and use these cards, but also participate in their re-making. For example, MTG Alters is an international network of artists who paint over existing Magic cards, creating new images. Games features contributions from MSJ Alters (the artist name of Maria Søndergaard Jensen), whose incredibly intricate overpaintings transform the symbolic universe of the original cards, overturning the characters’ gender roles and glossing over the dark fantasy of the originals with a poppy sheen.

Some of the other works are not explicitly related to Magic: The Gathering, but they extend the notion of world-building from the confines of gameplay out into social life. Two dresses by Mira Winding and Clara Bella Winding are based on the original illustrations in Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland (1865) and were created for cosplay. They are billowing and meticulously layered garments (one dress has fifteen parts) that revel in contemporary fantasies about the past. Cosplay, of course, is a form of role-playing, and these costumes also frame literature, sexuality, and gender performance as kinds of gaming.

The exhibition’s second part, ‘Play It by Trust’ focuses on games made by artists. Included are a few familiar Fluxus works, such as Yoko Ono’s Play It by Trust (1966), a completely white chess set that transforms a game about war into a metaphor for commonality (and unfortunately suggests a flattening sameness), and a number of scores for sound events by Eric Andersen. There are also more recent works, such as Francis Patrick Brady’s Universal Scenarios for Peace (2016), which invites participants to discuss the concept of peace, and Jingshi Wang’s amusing Game of Dud (2019), in which an aspiring artist navigates the competitive London art world, losing “confidence points” at every turn.

This part of the show is historically rich, connecting Fluxus’s scrappy happenings to recent artists’ more elaborate attempts to invite participation. But it also feels less immediate than ‘Planeswalkers’ because it’s frankly difficult to imagine many people actually playing these games: the works might be interesting to think about, but they don’t seem, well, fun. It’s abundantly clear that their aesthetic value doesn’t primarily consist in the experience of playing them, but in analysing their rules as a kind of social allegory. Magic: The Gathering and role-playing games function in exactly the opposite way. If there is an allegorical dimension to a role-playing game, it is invented by the participants in the act of playing: it is part of the game, as opposed to a meta-commentary.

But the distance between art and games is part of what’s interesting about Games. The show’s success lies in its acceptance that these worlds are far apart – and that they are each self-sufficient. In an art world that continually tries to absorb other discourses and subcultures, it’s refreshing to see an exhibition that treats subcultural aesthetics with respect and distance. Games is clearly aware that the meeting between these two worlds will be brief, and that’s okay. The exhibition modestly attempts to put them into conversation, without subsuming one to the other, and hopes that the encounter will be fruitful and playful. 

Mira Winding og Clara Bella Winding, Red Queen, 2020-21; Alice, 2020-21. Cosplay costumes. Photo: David Stjernholm.